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.