Do Parker points matter any more?

Do Parker points matter any more? This was the question that started a big thread on facebook today, and it got me thinking.

Points, points, points. It’s such a complicated and polarized discussion. I can see a good reason for not using points to score wine (how can a score even pretend to be a useful summary of the properties of a wine?), but I also understand that wine is very complex and variable, and quite expensive, so it’s a useful shortcut for consumers who don’t get to try before they buy. In many segments of the market, practical guidance is really needed because there are just so many wines out there, and everything changes every vintage.

Points can have a positive effect, too. If you are a young winery starting out and a critic gives your wines high scores, it can really help establish your brand. If you know and trust a critic’s palate, then a good score from them shows you which wines you should be trying first. It’s a really useful shortcut.

But there are real problems with points, and they aren’t as important as they once were.

When Robert Parker started out they really mattered. He used to score with quite a spread, and the range of scoring he used meant that anything 90 or above was really worth seeking out. Look at one of his old books: even at famous domains, there were lots of scores in the 80s. Then, scores sold wine.

This has changed. Many more critics are operating in this space, and it has led to substantial score inflation. The Australian and (some of the) New Zealand critics are the worst, with lots of scores in the high 90s for good but not world class wines. For the very top wines, scores are pretty meaningless because there’s just no differentiative power left. The ability of scores to separate the very good from the great has vanished.

Look at the first growths in a good vintage: they are all scored sighted, and how many critics will not give a score of 97-100? And plucky the Australian judge who doesn’t give new release Penfolds Grange less than 97. I was recently at Charles Fox, a very good sparkling wine producer in South Africa’s Elgin Valley. His top wine was recently awarded 96/100 by a well known critic. 96? It’s good, but 96 is a stellar score – what happens when that critic hits Champagne and starts tasting the good stuff? There’s no room on the scale left. It’s bonkers. Getting a good score from a critic makes you feel valued and special, until you realise that you are just one of very many! It’s like the teenager going home from the disco pumped that a pretty girl has snogged him, only to find out she snogged his mates too. It kind of takes the gloss off it.

So do Parker points matter? Less than they did, and in some segments of the market, in some countries, not at all. In the USA, scores are still important in retail across all segments. But in the UK they have never been used in supermarkets, where normal consumers buy most of their wine. Partly that’s because a lot of the market is for private label or soft brands, which critics never get to try. But even at the higher end of the UK market, points are less important than they are in the USA. Some independent wine shops might have points on a shelf talker, but this is relatively rare. Where points might matter is with Bordeaux en primeur, and for private customer sales to wine collectors. My experience in New Zealand and Australia is that points and medals are used to sell wines quite widely, but these tend to be from local judges and competitions, not Parker.

Among the set of wine trade people and wine geeks that I hang out with, you’d be laughed at if you quoted a critic score. And if you brought a Parker 100 point wine to dinner, it might well remain undrunk. No one cares because they know that most of the critic business is a bit silly. When you are dealing with really interesting, authentic/natural wines, scores don’t seem to work.

I’m guilty of using scores, but I hope I qualify them enough: it’s a shorthand for how much I liked the wine at that moment. It’s a universal measure (I think it’s patronising to make a score relative to other wines from that country or region). And it’s not a property of the bottle. I wish I could use a wider range of scores than I do, but I have to score along the lines of the accepted norms, trying to avoid some of the silly score inflation. There’s no clear answer here. As scores creep ever higher, they’ll just begin meaning even less than they do now.

11 comments to Do Parker points matter any more?

  • an additional way in which such scores seem strange derives from their scalar nature. collapsing all relevant dimensions down to a scalar not only necessarily involves a loss of information (it is, as you say, a “shorthand”), but also some method of comparing and combining values across dimensions. it’s unobvious that there is any motivated way of making that kind of cross-dimensional comparison and combination, and even less obvious that different perceivers would/do make the same (at least largely unmotivated) choices. to the extent there’s any doubt about this — which there certainly is, in practice, reported scalar values will be basically uninterpretable.

    one respect in which tasting notes can be useful, it seems to me, is that they can go at least some distance toward overcoming these problems. likewise for talking about wines together, preferably over many occasions.

    perhaps needless to say, none of this is special to wine; it seems to apply equally to comparative evaluation of anything that has multiple dimensions of evaluation, which is to say more or less any interesting category of experience.

  • Points are still important in the German market but, thanks to points inflation, have to be 90+. Interestingly, most German tastings I have been to yield very low scores – much lower than would happen elsewhere.

  • Stephen Rash

    I think that consumers need to find a critic that has the same taste as they do. Then I think that scores mean something.

  • Damien

    It’s a question that occurred to me the other day when yet another Slurp email popped up proudly giving the Parker points for a wine (and ‘so what?’ was the internal response).
    Other UK retailers like Wine Direct have centred their entire sites around point scores, even Wine Searcher does to an extent.
    Maybe the consumers are moving faster than the retailers when it comes to points (and even awards)?

  • Alessandro Marchesan

    An old mentor once told me: awards and high scores mean nothing, until you get them…. Then they become very important. In my new role exploring many markets around the world I learnt that Parker points are still very important, possibly the most important scores. And I think they are becoming more important than ever now that the tasting team behind the scores is one of the best in the world.

  • Pascal

    As an importer of wines to the USA, this is a topic I have been toying with since I started my business. I do not and never have sent wines systematically to publications for scoring because I fear it will influence the way I select and buy wine… If a publication seeks to or asks me for wine for a specific reason or a specific topic they are reasearching, I’m happy to oblige, because there is intent to delve deeper, but over and above that I could care less if the wines we import get a score listed in the back of a publication. As you rightly mention Jamie, there is more to a wine than just one moment of tasting it in one context (people’s energy, philosophy and passion rarely form part of a score unless the author knows the winegrower personally) Does this have an impact on my business and sales? Yes, most certainly!

  • Alastair Green

    What is saddest of all is that wines are being made to please the Parker palate and so one now tastes very much like another.

  • Sean

    Perhaps score wines out of ten, the reader will know how much you enjoyed the wine without the slightly ridiculous current situation of giving a wine a very specific score, 97 out 100, for example, seems a bit meaningless at times.

  • philip quick

    Sorry Jamie, but your scores seem meaningless to me. I much prefer it when you say something about price and quality. Then as a consumer I begin to understand something.

  • Parker points don’t mean anything to me, but saying that I was surprised at your assertion that a 100 pointer might well be left undrunk at a dinner.

    I think Parker’s influence started to wane as he started delegating regions to underlings. No doubt excellent tasters themselves but not-Parker so therefore hard to distinguish from all the other scorers who’d cropped up in the mean time. Then grade-inflation as you mention is rendering things ever more meaningless.

    If you despise points so much, time to stop maybe? If you rate something 93 or 94 this “difference” means absolutely nothing to me and as it seems you can’t give as high as 98, despite the huge number of wines you try, you too are in part guilty of pepetuating the distortions in this absurd “scale”.

    As an aside, at work we use A, B and C. A is excellent. B is very good. C is normal. It’s a handy snapshot for blending etc.

  • I’m a winery publicist and find that scores matter less to consumers than they have in the past, and depending on the publication. Winery stories and direct marketing are more important. Sadly wine distributors still rely on them as a short hand sales tool.

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