The LCBO’s use of ‘scores’ to move premium wines has prompted the CBC to run a news feature on the subject. They asked for my take but it was not aired, so here it is.
Wine scores were popularized around the end of the last decade by Robert Parker, an American critic who specializes in big name wines from around the world. Before Parker, purchasers of fancy wine relied on the traditional wine experts of England who often ranked wines with a star system, or with a score out of ten or twenty. Parker used a 100 point score, and as he was only tasting fancy wines, his scores were mainly in the high 80s to mid 90s. Because he reviewed more wines than anyone else in the world, and was exclusive in charging a lot of money for his recommendations, he became the top guy in the business. His readers liked the ease of noting which wines got the best scores and retailers loved how easy it was to sell those wines. Wineries also took note and several hired consultants to help improve their scores. Often resulting in a change of style – such as Tuscan wine tasting like a Californian Cabernet.
While there is no denying Parker’s industry and efforts to simplify wines, there is a major flaw in his system, or in how it’s interpreted by shoppers. Parker is a male American with American sensibilities. What I call Vegas taste – big and flash is best. The richer and fuller tasting the wine, the higher the Parker score. So it is slanted in favour of that style of wine. Which is how a lot of people would rank wines. Cadillac is better than VW! If we’re just talking size that is true, but if we introduce some contexts, the Volkswagen may be a better buy. Such as headed for the beach on a hot day, a spiffy Beetle convertible might be more fun than a big sedan. It’s context that give something merit, not size. Parker does not include context.
Wine is something we enjoy in different settings and moods. It is always just an addition to something more engaging, and therefore rich, high scores wines can be as intruding as a loud, celebrity guest. Wine is a social exercise and therefore needs a variety of ‘attributes’ to fit the needs of different situations. Sometimes a high score, hefty wine will be perfect, but other situations may be better served by wines that deliver refreshment, or charm, or adventure. It’s the Parker celebration of heft over other attributes that makes his scores misleading. But maybe they are not – if you’re into subtlety, Parker scores will tell you what NOT to buy.