Back in 1984, I sat my ‘O’ level exams at the Royal Grammar School in High Wycombe. I was a quiet, geeky pupil – a classic in-betweener, friends with some of the cool set but not part of it, and an ally of the square, loser kids. And lazy with my homework (it used to bore me). It’s perhaps for this reason that my teachers were surprised when I came away with 10 ‘A’ grades and a solitary ‘B’ (in French…). Those were exceptional results because they were rare, even in a good school like this. I surprised myself. Step forward 30 years, and the ‘O’ levels have been replaced by GCSEs, and suddenly every smart 16-year-old kid is getting straight ‘A’s to the point that these exams have lost their power to differentiate at the top end, and the elite universities can no longer use them to separate out the very smartest pupils. With government pressure to improve standards, their use of exam results as a metric, and a desire to make education more inclusive, there was a subtle pressure that ended up leading to a gradual score creep: each year, exam results improved slightly, and this creep compounded year on year.
There’s a parallel with wine criticsm.
Whatever you think about the merits of scoring, it is fundamental to the practice of rating wines. But it is being undermined by a gradual creep upwards in the scores being given by wine critics.
When Robert Parker began dishing out 100 point scores, he definitely used a wider range than is currently practised by the Wine Advocate. Back in the early 90s, the 89/90 boundary used to be a big deal. (See this analysis by Blake Gray.) And as a novice wine lover, the 86As (inexpensive wines, designated by A, that scored 86/100 points) used to be a happy hunting ground for me
Now, 90 is a very normal score, and 86 is a fail. No one wants to see an 89
Why have scores gone up? Has wine quality got better? To a degree, average wine quality has improved. But I don’t think this explains the creep at the top end.
This score inflation is caused by competition among critics, big egos, and the fact that these critics like being liked.
Competitive scoring began when Parker had competition from the Wine Spectator. And then a new generation of critics emerged, all doing the same sort of thing. There are a whole range of critical voices now, whose business model is based around attracting subscribers, selling reports, selling stickers, selling certificates, and putting on events paid for both by consumers and wineries.
What the point-scorers realised was that if they gave higher scores, the wineries were delighted. And they started quoting them in their marketing materials. And buying their stickers, and paying to be included in events, and displaying certificates they’d purchased in their tasting rooms. And retailers used the point scores at point of sale.
Basically, if you scored more generously than the competition, you would be the one quoted, and the wineries and retail stores would give you free publicity. And so the critics became addicted to this frenzy of dishing out high scores and being celebrated and loved
But there’s also the effect of affirmation from producers. If, as a critic, you have some personal insecurities, then it can feel great to be loved. If you give a high score, then you make producers very happy, and they like you and affirm you. You feel like you’ve made a bit of a difference. And when you see your scores being quoted, it makes you feel a bit more significant. There’s a psychological pressure right there to err on the side of generosity.
Even very good people have become sucked into this silly game. 95 is the new 90. There’s very little room left at the top end. People who should know better have found themselves unable to show some restraint. Their competitive spirit has sucked them in. They can’t kick the habit.
Look at the Australian situation: it’s probably the worst. Honest but ordinary table wines with 95 points. An Aussie said to me last week that you need 98 points, or else a score just isn’t any use in marketing these days.
Ultimately, the act of dishing out elevated scores to get attention, be quoted more, and make more money from wine producers themselves, is essentially a selfish act. It muddies the water for the rest of us, who are trying not to allow our scores to creep upwards. It’s greedy and destructive.
95 and above should be reserved for truly exceptional, world class wines.
I’m not sure whether the 100 point scale can be saved. These critics show no signs of slowing down, and the score creep continues. The only hope? The absurd situation of score extension beyond 100! Be it symbols or extra points, just wait and see…