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Posted: Friday, 25 October 2019 15:21

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Blog: James Suckling and High Ratings

Oct 25: I am swamped with mails from producers around the world, who send me their commercial emails with prices and almost always ratings of wine critics-most of them from James Suckling who is riding high in the world of Ratings after Robert Parker cooled off and when I got to know of an Italian fine wine in India rated 99 points I decided to do a bit of research and share with the readers my findings, writes Subhash Arora

James Suckling was the European Bureau Chief for Wine Spectator since 1988 and retired in 2010 to set up his own office in Hong Kong from where he tastes and rates around 17,000 wines a year with his group. He is a powerful and respected critic but has also gained certain amount of notoriety in wine trade for being too liberal with his scores with range getting narrower to 5-8 points, from 91-99 points out of 100, making many professionals believe that he wants to be the next Robert Parker.

My view is that he is an excellent wine expert who is consistently too liberal and if someone does a personal calibration and reduced his score by 5-6 points, he can be consistently fair. In the meanwhile his name keeps on popping up more often than everyone else and he seems to be going in the northerly direction he has desires.

Dozens of Articles are written about him. An Article in Wall Street Journal is also the genesis of this Article. The journalist quotes Jeffrey Sapara, a New Jersey-based wholesale sales representative of an importer. ‘When Contino Gran Reserva Rioja docg 2010 was awarded 94 points by Robert Parker in Wine Advocate, Vinous and Wine & Spirits, a few retailers bought a case or two. But after wine critic James Suckling’s website awarded the same wine 98 points in January 2018, he was deluged with calls. The interest in the wine went up 4 times.’

Studies indicate that in this system of 100-point scale popularised by Robert Parker, one really starts at 50 and no wine with defect gets less than 80 points as a convention . The meaningful range is thus only 20 points (80-100). With the need to have wines receive over 90 points for them to be noticed, the range is further limited to 10 points (90-100). This was pointed out also by Lisa Perrotti Brown at the MUST Fermenting Ideas Summit in Cascais, Portugal in June this year.

Wine producers like to naturally sing about higher ratings of a wine for their audience and hence there are a few scribes who score as close to 95 as possible, making the possible range to only 5 points. There was a lot of talk about James Suckling getting more and more generous at this Conference. No doubt, over half the promotional mails I receive quote the score only by Suckling.

Reputation of the writer is also important to make an impact. After initially getting impressed by the high ratings and surprises in every other mail boasting of 93+/100 for his wines, I started ignoring the scores and the mails if the wines were rated by him even though he has been an excellent taster and a renowned critic since the days he used to be the European Bureau Chief of Wine Spectator and rate- especially Italian wines. But obviously, he has a firm standing in the industry, especially in Hong Kong where he organises wine events regularly.

On his part Suckling claims that there has been an incredible improvement in winemaking since he began rating wine in 1981, and overall quality was much better now. He rated around 10% of the 17,000+ wines he and his associates tasted last year as worthy of 95 points or more. He defines these wines as those he like to drink the entire bottle ( I wonder how could finish a bottle of Barolo or a Bordeaux First Growth!). Interestingly, Suckling’s percentage was double that of the team of reviewers at Vinous which rated only 5% of the roughly 23,000 wines tasted in the past year 96 points and higher. Vinous was founded by Antonio Galloni who used to review for Robert Parker from 2006-2013 and now reviews primarily for Italy, Bordeaux and Champagne.

At Wine Spectator, tasters are even more stingy than Vinous in giving high scores of 95+.  Only about 3% of the 16,000 wines tasted last year rated 95 points or more, according to the Report.

Lisa Perrotti Brown is well aware of the practice as she reviews wines for Wine Advocate, the official magazine of Robert Parker. She says she is often heckled by the producers who get lower scores, especially if they are much higher from some of the other critics (like James Suckling). She tells them firmly that the scores are for their own subscribers who must know the whole story accurately. She suggests Comments and Tasting Notes along with ratings, which are perhaps not elaborative enough from Suckling.

The internet is full of Comments and stories-some lauding him while others criticising him for his over-generous ratings and even hitting him below the belt with words like ‘sucks’ and ‘pig’. Their grievances may be genuine but the common thread is that he is known to be a liberal Reviewer. That gives him extra exposure since the producers love to show higher ratings from established reviewers. It stands to reason that he inflates the ratings consistently, hoping to find his name at more places and eventually hope to be crowned as the next Pope-oops, Robert Parker!

According to his website www.jamessuckling.com, they tasted 25,000 wines globally. The region that stood out was Italy’s famous Brunello di Montalcino. The 2015 is a historical vintage in which 11 labels got a rating of perfect 100.

Till then, please don’t send me his ratings. Actually, I stand corrected. If I knock 5-6 points off his ratings, it works for me. Therefore, in my book the wine that he rated 99 points is at least 93 points and I would still love to have a bottle of.

Subhash Arora

 

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