Friday, June 15, 2007

W. Blake Gray, A Chronicle Staff Writer in Need of an Education in Wine Scoring

It happens all too frequently, and I’m only too happy to point it out. Yet another journalist has written on the 100 point scoring system and given all the credit for its creation to Robert Parker, Jr. In his article titled “Are ratings pointless? The highs -- and lows -- of the 100-point scale.” W. Blake Gray, a Staff Writer for the San Francisco Chronicle, states “The 100-point rating scale, created by wine critic Robert M. Parker Jr. in the mid-1970s, was a great innovation that has done a world of good for wine lovers.”

I’m sure that Parker does wish he had created the 100 point scoring system. But, as has been noted on this blog before, all Parker did was develop his own version of a 100 point scoring system. The use of 100 points to score wines had been in use for a quarter of a century before Robert Parker, Jr. came on the scene.

When will we see an article by someone who actually knows what they are talking about?


Ken & Theresa Hoggins said...

In my opinion, no point system is perfect. I use one that averages the professional scores. (Including my score) I frequently tell people that if 4 wine professionals rate a wine Very Good to Excellent. Guess what? It is probably pretty good wine and worth the investment. Your own palate will be the judge of whether you deem it Very Good or Excellent. My system just tries to narrow the wines down to those that are most likely going to satisfy my readers. Cheers!

Michael Pollard said...

Hi Ken

To be as blunt about it as possible, no scoring system is perfect – points, stars, puffs, you name it. Still, many argue that it is easier for them to tune their palate to that of an individual rather than a group. But I doubt that these folks have given any serious thought to what would actually be involved in calibrating their palate to that of, say, Robert Parker, Jr. or James Halliday. At best the calibration can only be cursory; the critic likes this wine but not that because of a lack of balance or structure, or wines from one producer rather than another because the former expresses regionally better, and the consumer agrees and so a calibrated palate is born! No, palate calibration is not that simple. True palate calibration is much more complex, and very few, if any, critics would agree to the tests required to calibrate their palate so that Joe Public could see how he compares.

Assessment of wine by committee, or agreement between critics, certainly has merits because it does allow identification of wines that are generally judged to be of a particular standard. But even this type of assessment has it problems, especially in a world where new wineries are always appearing. Convincing individual critics of quality can sometimes be a difficult task for a new winery.

The biggest problem is the reliance on individual critics, or sources of criticism. Typically these are the Wine Advocate and the Wine Spectator here in the USA. Both carry an enormous amounts of power in the market place, and while this may be viewed as due to the 100 point scoring system, its really the result of the palates of the individuals involved. Whether one wants to rant against “Parkerized” wines, whether James Laube really knows what he is talking about, or should wine critics have formal training, the main problem is clear. Reliance on individual critics when there is no means of objective assessment that allows an evaluation of the critic’s assessment of an individual wine with technical standards is pretty much a gamble. Technical standards!! Even worse than the 100 points system to those who live in a wine world that is all subjective assessment.

In the end the best judge is always your own palate.


SteveinOakland said...

I can assure you that Mr. Gray is very well eductated on the history of wine and if you have followed his body or work you would know he offeres a valuable, fresh and thought provoking commentary on the world of wine. From what I see, he is one of the few people who offer an investigative journalism approach to wine writing; with an occasionally sharp lense on the industry. He has the courage to take some controversial views which I applaud.

Strong voices are sorely needed in a world of wine writers, most of whom are poorly trained as writers or journalists (and frankly are dull). We do not need another set of tasting notes, nor someone writing praise to get more free plonk. We need more stories like this.

Surely you know that an article written for the weekly section of a major paper is subject to tight editing, size constraints, and is in need of presenting information very concisely. No newspaper would print a story that included obscure, long-winded digressions about the history of wine scoring or who might or might not have used a point system first.

Also, the on-line version is often abbreviated from the original (which I read in the actual paper). The point of the story was about how Parker popularized the notion of the hundred point scale and how the ratings gained huge influence as a result. The scores are now ubiquitous and very influential for retail results.

Nit picking about whether Parker "truely" originated the idea as being a "myth" is silly. Eveyone knows 100pt scoring has been around for ages. Any grammar school child who came home with an 85 on a test knows this. Perhaps he should have been edited to say "popularized" instead of "invented" but this is such a minor point as to be trivial IMHO.

Thanks for reading my thoughts.

SteveinOakland said...

PS, I reread the article and no where do I see a mention that Parker was the first to create a 100pt scale for wine notes. It simple says he created one, which seems obviously true, even if not a unique one.

Michael Pollard said...


Thanks for your comments!

What part of “The 100-point rating scale, created by wine critic Robert M. Parker Jr. in the mid-1970s, was a great innovation that has done a world of good for wine lovers.” is unclear to you? "The 100-point rating scale", "created by wine critic Robert M. Parker Jr", "a great innovation", are very clear phrases to me. Mr Gray wrote the 100-point rating scale, not a 100-point scale. The Chronicle could have saved a character or two there if space was such a problem with his writing.

No, quite simply Mr Gray is under the mistaken belief that Robert Parker created THE 100-point rating scale, and this is simply not true. And, as I have noted before, I am only too happy to point out this error when it occurs.

As for any grammar school child knowing that the 100 point scoring has been around for ages. I presume you are not talkinig about wine but grading a school test - which has nothing to do with the rating of wine. Its true that Parker's excuse for using the 100 point scale is that it is popular in school grading, but this is irrelevent to the fact that Parker was 25 years too late with his "great innovation".

The accurate writing of history does have merit, but perhaps you prefer that not to be the case. And that is enough strong words for this day.