July 21: Wine writers started writing about wines, perhaps within a few years of introduction but the concept or ratings as we know, is relatively new and 100-point system was started by Robert Parker who made it popular and important globally but ratings alone are not sufficient to assess a wine, said Lisa-Perrotti Brown MW, Editor-in-Chief for Robert Parker Wine Advocate andRobertParker.com, who was a Speaker at MUST Fermenting Ideas in Cascais Portugal last month. Subhash Arora, a third time visitor to the Conference, reflects
Today ratings by top critics are generally revered by their followers and the difference of a point can command a premium of even up to 100% when the score is high 90’s. 100/100 is a score looked with awe and admiration and commands a premium even for the lesser vintages. This is so especially so in case of Robert Parker whose ratings even changed the style o Bordeaux, Napa and top Australian producers. But this was not always the case, even though 20/20 ratings have existed for 60 years.
The modern day wine journalism can be attributed to André Simon (1877-1970), one of the forefathers of modern wine writing, but belonging to the pre-scoring era. He was a French wine merchant living in UK and a wine and gastronomy writer, an artist and a poet when it came to describing the personality of wines.
According to her, the credit for the start of scoring wine goes to UC Davies which had 11 variables including aromas (4) and general (2) and totalling up to 20 points. Wines of outstanding characteristics that exhibited no flaws merited 17-20 while the completely spoilt wines managed only 1-5 points within 5 levels-the mid level 9-12 was allocated to commercial wines with noticeable defect. Harry Waugh (1904-2001) who worked in the wine trade from 1934-1968 and wrote 10 volumes of Wine Diaries popularised the system of 20 points though he was more focussed on assessing and describing the wine quality.
To the 92- year old Michel Broadbent MW we owe the modern description. He did MW in 1960 after entering the UK trade in 1952. He is an avid write of Tasting Notes, who takes out his diary every time he tastes or drinks wine to record his tasting notes. He uses a 5-star system of rating which he also uses in his book- Great Vintage Wine Book. His excellent prose in describing wine has become very popular and a benchmark.
While she did not mention, Jancis Robinson who has written thousands of Tasting Notes diligently, also follows the 20/20 system till date, in conjunction with description.
The 100-point System
The credit to establish and popularise 100-point system goes to Robert Parker in 1978, ostensibly because the Americans are more comfortable with the 100-points in their system. Born in 1947, the 72 year old lawyer was perhaps the first person who was not from the wine trade but was a connoisseur with no formal training. A follower of Ralph Nader, the crusader for customer in the 1960’s, he wanted to have an independent reporting for wines and achieved success of immense proportion. He wove a compelling argument for his assessment of quality in his tasting notes into the final rating.
According to Lisa-Perrotti, it is a simpler to understand the system, based on the US scholastic grading system. It also allows comparison of wines in a group more easily. This is especially true in international wine competitions where different wines are graded to select the top ones. It also allows easy Value-for-Money comparison.
Studies indicate that in this system of 100-point scale, one really starts at 50 and no wine with any defect gets less than 80 points. The meaningful range is 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)- not much to play with, really.
The producers like to sing about higher ratings and so there are a few scribes who jump the gun and like to score as close to 95 as possible, within a range of 5 points. There was a lot of talk about James Suckling being getting more and more generous. No doubt, over half the promotional mails I receive these days quote the score by Suckling. But then the reputation of the writer is important to make an impact. After initial surprises of every mail talking about 90+/100 for his wines, I totally ignore reading any further the moment I read his name in the credits.
Lisa was categorical in stressing that she is often heckled by the producers who get low scores, especially if they are much higher from some of the other critics. She handles such whiners patiently but firmly as she says the scores are for their subscribers who must know the whole story accurately. Therefore, the comments and Tasting Notes are indispensable. Similar argument holds for 20 point scale as well. She said each taster has his own style he likes. Therefore, it is important for the consumer to calibrate these scores to his or her own palate.
In a nutshell, the scores are important depending upon the credibility of the critic but Tasting Notes, crisp or fat, are also important to know the whole story she concluded.
In 2008, Lisa moved to Singapore and began writing a column for Robert Parker's website, eRobertParker.com. Later that year she achieved her Master of Wine (MW). In 2013, she became the Editor-in-Chief for Robert Parker Wine Advocate and RobertParker.com. She is also the publication's critic for the wines of Bordeaux, Napa Valley and Sonoma County. In 2015, Lisa's first book, Taste Like a Wine Critic: A Guide to Understanding Wine Quality, was published. She also relocated to Napa to set up the new USA office for Robert Parker Wine Advocate.
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