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Complaints about the 100-pt. rating system for wine are ubiquitous in the blogosphere and I’ve commented on it myself. But beating a dead horse is a vastly under-rated activity. Beating a live horse after all would be cruel; and if there were no dead horses around to beat, there would not be much to write about.

So the topic for today is whether score inflation is ruining the 100-pt. wine scoring system. As reported by Wine Searcher

The number of wines given a perfect 100 points by Robert Parker and his fellow Wine Advocate critics stands at more than 500, and the list is growing with exponential speed.

Wine Searcher features a list of the 511 commercially available wines that have been awarded 100 “Parker points” and it makes interesting reading.

So far this year, 69 wines have been elevated to perfect status, following on from 102 last year and the end of the year tends to see a bumper crop. Yet only five years ago, the number of wines awarded 100 points was 38 and even that more than doubled the number from 2004, which was just 17.

Red-to-Brown Wine Reviews reports a similar phenomenon with Australian wine critic James Halliday.

Does this grade inflation render wine scores meaningless? By themselves, these numbers don’t tell us much. If the total number of reviews is increasing then it is not surprising that there are more high-scoring wines. I have no access to information regarding whether Parker’s or Halliday’s publications are simply publishing more reviews.

Parker for his part has responded to these criticisms of score inflation by claiming the general quality of wine is increasing thus leading to higher scores. But critics claim that even if this is true wine critics should tighten their criteria for 95+ wines.

As Red To Brown writes:

Wine criticism is a profession riven with conflicts of interest (a topic for another day). However, I used to be of the belief that these conflicts could largely be managed. However, it seems I was wrong. The plethora of overrated wine about the place would appear to be evidence of this. Ultimately I believe it’s incumbent on people who are scoring things in their professional fields to show a level of restraint and integrity in the way they rate things. Giving everyone a guernsey does no one any good in the long term.
In my day job I’m involved in reviewing and rating investment opportunities for clients. I know that if I were to adopt the Parker or Halliday approach to my scoring I might make some fund managers happy in the short-term, but my credibility would ultimately come under question, and in the end I would be out of a job. Admittedly overrating a wine won’t have the same consequences as putting someone’s life savings in a dud investment, but I’ve got no doubt that if this points inflation trend continues, critics might ultimately find themselves out of a gig. There are only so many times a consumer will buy what they are told is a 96 point wine before it starts to become shorthand for just a solid bottle of wine, at which point how relevant is a wine critic?

I’m rather ambivalent about this. Surely the integrity of wine criticism must be protected. If mediocre wines are given high scores then there is no reason to take scores seriously. But the problem with insisting on tighter standards is that beyond a certain point judgments about wine quality are not tracking objective features of the wine but are dependent on personal preferences of the reviewer. It is relatively easy to assign numerical scores to sub-90 point wines because they will lack features that wine experts largely agree are the mark of excellence in a wine—complexity, intensity, balance, structure, etc. But wines nearer the top of the scale will not be lacking in these features. Thus the score reflects little more than the impression left on the reviewer on that day and how she assesses that impression relative to other wines she has tasted. There is no precisely measured quality that distinguishes a wine scored 96 and one scored 97. That is not to say such scores are meaningless—if you admire Robert Parker’s palate then such distinctions should matter. But they are measuring Parker’s sense of deliciousness, not something more objective.

So what does it mean to tighten standards? It really is a matter of personal integrity and trying to maintain a precise taste memory over time. There is no inherent problem in having more 95+ wines just like there is no inherent problem in have more great artists or great books. There are lots of different ways to be delicious and at some point, ranking them just doesn’t matter.

What does matter is that mediocrity not be granted admission to the pantheon. The issue is not high scores themselves but rather the rewarding of what is unworthy. Score inflation by itself is not necessarily evidence of that.

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