When Scores Rules
Today, critics have clustered around two main visions: integration and apocalypse. Some have, although reluctantly, embraced the 100-point scale while others simply loathe it and anticipate its death. What is the real weight of their judgments? What are the alternatives? Can we pull back from the wine score tyranny?
Nobody, or almost nobody, would dare question the deeply rooted idea that publicizing good scores is a highly effective marketing tool. receiving more than 90 points from a prestigious publication may result in soaring sales or, in the case of young and hitherto unknown wineries, an opportunity to brand their name on critics’ minds. But working towards a wine score may turn into a dangerous obsession. Some wineries have gone as far as studying the chemical composition of highly accoladed wines in hope to replicate them in their vineyards and cellars. Others have even evaluated the convenience of using a given appellation by quantifying the successes and failures of a certain region. For example, if you want your wine to be highly ranked, you should never include the name Central Valley or that of a rather obscure winegrowing area. If you do, your wine, the pride of your winery, will almost certainly go completely unnoticed.
The wine business has been divided into two eras: BP and AP (Before and After Parker). Ever since Robert Parker Jr. revolutionized the wine scene by introducing the 100- point scale in the Wine Advocate back in 1978, nothing has been the same. Prior to that, wines were evaluated by using either the universal star system much like the stars awarded by movie or theater critics, or the classic 20-point scale used by UC-Davis, which has remained the preferred standard of British wine writers who constitute the strongest counterpart to Parker Jr. and the Wine Spectator.
Many still remember the widely advertised confrontation between these two visions in relation to the Bordeaux 2003 vintage, a relentlessly hot season. Parker Jr. awarded 95 points to Château Pavie, one of the icons of Saint-Émilion, while Jancis Robinson gave it a mere 12 out of 20 possible points. “But, perhaps strangely for someone who studied mathematics at oxford, I’m not a great fan of the conjunction of numbers and wine. Once numbers are involved, it is all too easy to reduce wine to a financial commodity rather than keep its precious status as a uniquely stimulating source of sensual pleasure and conviviality,” Mrs Robinson said later.
These seemingly irreconcilable differences have prompted many a winery to adopt differentiated strategies for their us and uK exports. For the American market, they bottle more mature wines with enhanced toasted wood notes, while for the British market they produce lighter and fresher wines that are easier to drink. Put differently, they split the personality of their fruit to please both palates, generating a bipolar, almost schizophrenic offer.
But aside from these philosophical or cultural differences, advocates of the 100-point scale argue that the system is simple and easy to use, since 100% represents perfection, the undivided whole, the greatest measure of anything. Its detractors, on the other hand, insist there is absolutely no point in following this system, especially because it does not cover the scale in its entirety. The Wine Advocate and Wine Spectator only mention those samples rated 50 points and higher, making each point equivalent to a misleading 2%. Moreover, Wine Enthusiast and Wine & Spirits only reference their picks over 80 points.
Such paradox motivated the phlegmatic Hugh Johnson to write the following in his autobiography entitled A Life Uncorked: “If I missed the point of what Robert Parker was trying to do with his percentages of perfection, I made a mistake. To me his numbers game was simply irrelevant. He could score away as he liked, and I could enjoy my wine untroubled. It took years for the realization to dawn that his scoring was influencing the way wines were being made.”
As we all know, wine is not just one more ordinary product. The drinking experience is influenced by a multitude of factors. It is not the same to taste a wine in Paris, in the rooms of a luxury 5-star hotel equipped with AC units and sparkling Riedel glasses and to taste it in a modest adobe house somewhere near Cauquenes. Let alone if the wine in question is served with a hearty wild turkey soup. It is not the same to taste a wine alone or in the company of friends, during a romantic evening or relieving your sorrows in a bar, or even if outside the sun is shining or it is raining cats and dogs. Wine appreciation is necessarily coupled to a meaningful context, a situation, a given moment. Parker Jr. himself has said that the difference between 96, 97, 98, 99 or 100 points is nothing but the emotion of the moment.
A study designed by Robert Hodgson and published by the Wall Street Journal provides scientific proof that judgments about the same product are very variable. Hodgson summoned some of the most prominent California tasters and asked them to rate the same wine at least three times in different blind tasting rounds. In some cases, differences were as high as 4 points in the 100-point scale (the same sample obtained 92 points and then only 88). This can mean the difference between winning a gold or a silver medal in a competition. And this is under the experts’ perspective and under the same environmental conditions. Just imagine what results would be if conditions were completely different.
Michael Siegrist, a professor at the Institute for Environmental Decisions, and Marie-Ève cousin from ETH Zurich, published another interesting study in appetite. 163 individuals were asked to taste Clos de los Siete 2006, a Mendoza wine rated 92 points by Robert Parker Jr. Some were warned of this score beforehand. Others were told the wine had obtained only 72 points. And a third group was given
no information whatsoever. The results were conclusive: the wine was much more appreciated by those who knew the score given by Parker Jr. This experience shows that people’s judgments are influenced by elements that go beyond the intrinsic quality of the product. The wine experience is much more complex and clearly exceeds the limits of the bottle.
A PASSAGE TO HEAVEN
While many independent writers have predicted the death of the 100-point scale, or dream of its demise, the truth is this scale still enjoys perfect health across the Americas and very especially in emerging markets such as Asia. According
to a study conducted by the Aarhus School of Business called “Globalization, Superstars and Reputation: Theory & Evidence from the Wine Industry,” the ratings given by renowned critics like Parker Jr. not only influence the purchase decision but also, and quite substantially, wine prices. A label receiving more than 90 points in the Wine Advocate or Wine Spectator can instantly change from worker to new-rich status.
“For many Europeans, wine of variable types and from different regions has been an ever-present element through their entire life, and therefore they have a good basis for valuation. People from new markets, such as Asia, are less experienced in connection with wine than purchasers from the old market, and are consequently more susceptible towards various published ratings on wine. And, in this way, wine ratings such as those published by Robert Parker have great influence on the price of the wines”, says Frédèric Warzynski, one of the authors.
But not all experiences have the same results. “How does shelf information influence wine consumer’s wine choice?”, a study conducted by a group of researchers from the University of South Australia, University of Technology, Sydney, and the Australian Wine Research Institute, Adelaide, measured the effect of the information provided with the bottles while on store shelves and concluded that the star-system of rating has the greatest impact. A label with the top score (5 stars) increased its sales by 16.6%, maybe due to the more intuitive and simpler nature of this system. Medals (gold and trophies) increased sales by 7.6%, winemaker’s notes by 7.4% and points between 7% and 10%,
“Our results also present a snapshot in time, the effects of medals, stars and scores will be reduced if they are overused or wrongly used and lose their credibility. For quality signals to keep their value they must be used sparingly and consistently to signal high perceived quality. We expect that meaningful and understandable sensory descriptions do reduce purchase risk and if used wisely can induce consumers to trade up and try new unknown wines, thus helping unknown brands to gain market share. More research is necessary to verify this effect”, the study concludes.
Credibility plays a key role in all these marketing tools. buying a certain wine entails a risk for the consumer, especially when they are looking for a special bottle for an important dining event or as a gift. Therefore, a good correlation between the information supplied and the consumer’s experience is vital to maintain the prestige of a certain brand or opinion leader, be it a critic or a specialized publication.
Globalization has two opposing faces: on the one hand, electronic media have enabled the emergence of new, fresh voices from bloggers and twitters who exchange opinions and create a critical mass. On the other, it has given renewed strength to the voice of large publications that monopolize advertising and smother out other alternative, professional and independent media.
At the same time, the enthroned power of wine gurus has somehow homogenized the wine offer. Today, trying to distinguish between an American, Indian or Israeli Chardonnay is extremely difficult, especially for the casual taster. Instead
of representing the fruit from their diverse origins, the wines smell like raisins and are loaded with the notes of cooperages favored by producers and/or critics.
These desperate attempts at pleasing the palate of a certain guru may well result in more generous ratings, a winemaker’s contract extension or a breath of fresh air for an ailing winery, but they evidence a very shortsighted vision if the goal is to achieve long-term notoriety for a certain wine.
Is it worth waiting until well into the fall –a time when vines are exhausted and varietal aromas lose their identity– to achieve silky, harmless tannins? Is it worth masking varieties with intense vanilla, cinnamon and coconut aromas from a new barrel to denote an upscale wine that deserves a place of privilege? Is it worth betraying the grapes, the origin and a project’s overall identity for a couple of extra points in the hall of fame?
Now count until 100. Anxiety is a great wine’s worst enemy.
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