89, 90, even 100...what's the point?

89, 90, even 100…what’s the point?

I’d like to think that with one more concerted shove we could kill off the 100-point system. Its reputation is in tatters. In August the New York Times published an article by Gary Rivlin that should have sent it to its grave, calling it ‘useless, other than as an index of how a mystical high-end product for the elite has become embroidered with the same marketing high jinks as other products peddled to the masses’.

I have friends who argue that in Britain it scarcely matters; we have our own ways of rating wine quality (which include, of course, Decanter’s admirable 5-star system). Let the Americans play with what their Wine and Spirits magazine describes as ‘a set of training wheels that should have been removed years ago’; it does no harm.

No harm? If it propagates an idea that is false in the first place, that wine quality is measurable on an absolute scale, and that there are people who can read it to within one percentage point, is that innocent?

It affects us, in any case, whether we like it or not, and whether we use it or not. The wine trade is global. Berry Bros & Rudd and Farr Vintners, to name but two, are not turning away orders from the USA, nor indeed from ‘collectors’ in Russia, Japan, South America, China or anywhere else word has reached that blue chip wine appreciates, whether it is appreciated or not. And those orders would not arrive if, in addition to their own judgement, they did not include a 100-point score.

There is no need to argue with the driven-snow image cultivated by Robert Parker, who initiated the idea almost 30 years ago. Whether he pays for the wines he tastes, or whether he tastes them blind, are almost academic questions beside the collateral damage he and his imitators have caused. They have been credited with raising standards of winemaking round the world. Can you believe that without 100 points in their heads the advance of wine science, international competition and more sophisticated consumers with more money would have left wine quality where it was 30 years ago?

On the contrary. If consumers surrender their judgement to the pseudo-precision of Parker points they are less able, not more, to find faults and distinguish virtues for themselves.

I say one shove; but where do we apply it? In the States, retailers and magazines are in it together. According to The New York Times, magazines, among them Wine Spectator, circulate ‘the advance’ of scores about to be published so wine stores can stock up on high scorers. And if no magazine has given them a 90, the unscrupulous, apparently, give themselves one.

Written by Hugh Johnson