The Robert Parker Paradox
What makes a great wine?
Too often we over complicate that question by judging wines against some ephemeral benchmark, forgetting that wine is an experiential medium. I try to remind myself of that every time I get snooty about an overly oaked chardonnay that earned 95 points from Wine Spectator. 89, 92, 96… these benchmarks are so subjective, you have to question their utility. This is not to say we shouldn’t try to judge a wine’s quality and it’s certainly not to say that there aren’t objective methods to do that. There is an entire cottage industry that has grown around helping consumers identify the “highest quality” wines available, but is a universal scoring system really reliable enough to connect wine enthusiasts with vintages that they’ll love?
Robert Parker is possibly the most famous of the wine scoring advocates and he has no doubt made it much easier for wineries to attract new customers through the popularization of his rating system. His “California palate” has had a significant impact on American consumers by propagandizing the idea that the “best” wine should be high in alcohol, oaky, full-bodied, and come from Northern California. He has done a lot to help the novice wine consumer feel more comfortable in purchasing wine, and his rating system has certainly helped drive wine sales across the country - BUT - that comes at a cost.
Geena and I laugh about the scoring-related exchanges we have had with people over the years. Recently we were searching for new and exciting bottles at one of our favorite wine shops, Hi Times Wine Cellars (go there if you haven’t been, your mind will be blown), when a customer we had been chatting with scoffed at her for recommending an un-scored and lesser known producer that was similar to the bottle he had in his hand. Their conversation went like this:
Geena: Hey! If you’re looking for a badass Cab that is a lot like the one you have you should try (insert delicious wine here). It’s not as well known but I have been to the vineyard, met the winemaker, tried many of her other wines, and in my opinion it’s even better than the one you’re holding! It’s even a couple dollars cheaper than the other wine, what’s not to love?
Old Dude (who is now looking at her like she just opened the bottle and started pouring it over her head): But it hasn’t been scored, so it’s your word vs my “friends” Robert Parker, and Wine Enthusiast.
Geena (who has now realized that she started this conversation with the wrong person): That’s true, but not all of these amazing small producers choose to have their wine scored even though they make a wine that could be even better than the ones that are scored. It’s just my opinion though and they are both great wines. You should get both and taste them side by side!
Old Dude (curtly asks): Why on earth would I want your recommendation? Is your name Robert Parker?
And then he walked away, mass-produced, 92 point wine in hand, shaking his head, wondering why this silly nobody would even waste her time when he so clearly was the more knowledgeable person in that exchange.
I find this hilarious on multiple levels, but it serves to illustrate my point: consumers are shackled by this rating system. Credit to the crotchety gentleman for his wit, but had he taken Geena’s recommendation, he might have gone home with one of the most beautiful Cabernet Sauvignons produced on the central coast rather than his overly familiar California Wild Whatever. Oh well...
My real gripe with the wine scoring mafia is not that they can’t identify enjoyable wines. They’re talented people with developed palates and they certainly drink enough wine to have an opinion. My real issue is that the current system of wine scoring steals something from wine drinkers without them even recognizing the theft has occurred. These wine drinkers lose the opportunity to truly and deeply experience wine as it was intended. Wine was meant to be approached with a bit of exploration and whimsy. By falling into the trap of using a score as the primary guide for their wine selection,the consumer risks becoming enslaved by the number.
Fortunately, there is an alternative path. It begins by engaging your curiosity. Next time you go to purchase a wine, don’t look at the score. Instead, ask yourself, “Where did this wine come from? What is the primary varietal and what is the blend? How old is the wine and how long did it sit in barrel?”
If you don’t know the answers, ask questions of someone who does (except for the Old Dude, Geena had the pleasure of talking to). Any wine shop worth their salt will be able to help guide you, and they will enjoy sharing with you their favorites.
I promise, making a connection with a wine expert who gets an idea of what you like, and who then helps you select something, that may not be available at your local market, will do more to ensure your enjoyment of every bottle, than a score ever could. Having said that, I give this blog post an 82… elegant and full bodied, but it’s still just sour grapes.
If you agree (or disagree) with us we would love to hear your thoughts! Comment below to tell us all about the wine you plan to drink tonight (yes, we know it’s a Tuesday), if it’s scored or not, and how you discovered the label! If you love what we have to say sign up for our newsletter (see the signup form in our website’s footer), or JOIN OUR CLUB to get access to the cool wines we ship out every month. You know you want to join the cult.
Cheers and happy sipping,