This past weekend, Lettie Teague in the Wall Street Journal called attention to an increasingly openly-discussed topic among wine professionals. She referred to “points inflation” in comparison to grade inflation in public schools where, more and more, a B grade is considered undesirable. She talked with retailers who admitted they wouldn’t stock wines that scored fewer than 90 points in publications like the Wine Advocate and the Wine Spectator. One producer told her the only scores that really matter are 95 to 100.
Neither Lettie or any others of us who write about wine would suggest that raters deliberately inflate points. But like classroom teachers who grade essays and term papers, we have to admit that judging a wine worthy of 86 points or 89 points or 92 points is highly subjective. Of course there are those wines, just like those essays, that leap out at us and virtually shout 95 or 96, but most do not.
We in the wine profession are not alone. After a week of watching spring training baseball drills on practice fields around the Cactus League, I realized that deciding which young player should make the cut and which should not is indeed a difficult task. I wondered if the managers and coaches have a numerical system like Parker, the Spectator, and others. This shortstop, for example, is an 88, that one a 93.
Even in rural south central Indiana, retailers tell me that a nationally-scored 90-plus wine leaps off their shelves. Hoosiers, like consumers everywhere else in the country, like high scores, which makes me wonder more and more about whether we Americans are unique in that regard.
The late Jean Hugel said he appreciated high scores but he said his Alsace climate and ripening season can’t always allow his grapes to reach the same heights every year. “That doesn’t seem to matter,” he said, “to my French and German customers. They want Hugel wines. But when the Americans come, they always have a copy of Parker’s latest list and if the scores aren’t high enough, they don’t buy.”
Though not always, high scores do tend to mean higher prices. For daily consumption, I seldom use a 90-plus wine, or even an 85-plus. To be truthful, I tend to ignore points when doing my personal shopping. I gravitate to the producers I know, the wines I most enjoy. It’s impossible not to know who is giving the most points to which wines because of media attention to wine scores and retailer hype to sell them, but I find a lot of delicious wines without any ratings whatsoever.
Which reminds me. The restaurant inspectors who accord stars to the Michelin Guides also have a category where they point out “Good Food at Moderate Prices.” Maybe the wine business should consider a similar ploy: “Good Wine at Moderate Prices.”