Photo: Jonathan Kantor
Remaking the Grade
What do those ratings you see at the wine store really mean? The A+ bottles get all the attention, but it’s the B students that provide some of the best values out there.
By Lettie Teague
ONE OF THE BIGGEST problems in education today is grade inflation and the devaluation of the B grade, according to education expert Wendy Mogel (“The Blessing of a B Minus”). “I travel around the country and hear high-school students say ‘I feel like my future is doomed’ if they get a B,” she said.
Winemakers today might be excused for feeling the same way. The wine-rating equivalent of a B grade (85-89 points) can mean a wine might be hard to sell or might not show up on certain store shelves, especially when the competition scores 90 points or more. For example, when I asked Chad Watkins, assistant manager of Gary’s Wines in Wayne, N.J., to recommend “a few good 88-point wines,” he couldn’t help me since “90 is the lowest number on our rating filter.”
Wine scores have come a long way since critic Robert M. Parker Jr., their most famous proponent, first popularized them decades ago in his Wine Advocate newsletter. Mr. Parker, inspired by Ralph Nader, wanted to empower consumers against the insular, elitist world of wine. As he says on the front of his newsletters today, “Scoring wines is simply taking a professional’s opinion and applying some sort of numerical system to it on a consistent basis. Scoring permits rapid communication to expert and novice alike.” (The 100-point system is really a 50-point system, as all wines earn 50 points simply for showing up.)
Although the difference between an 88-point wine and a 90-point wine may seem like a fine distinction, “it’s the job of a critic to make fine distinctions,” said Thomas Matthews, executive editor of the Wine Advocate’s chief competitor, the Wine Spectator. “A wine with some distinctiveness and concentration is very good, in the 85-89 range. And if it’s a little better than that—if it has personality and some ageability—it’s outstanding. That’s a 90-94 point wine.” And what earns 95 and above? “If tasting the wine gives you an emotion—surprises you and teaches you something—then it’s an A-plus, over 95 points,” Mr. Matthews said.
Distinctiveness and concentration are all well and good, but at K&L Wines in California, Burgundy buyer Keith Wollenberg says that if a wine received an 87, he isn’t likely to publicize the score. If it got a good review as well, Mr. Wollenberg might post the review without revealing the score. “The wine will sell better without the number,” Mr. Wollenberg said.
It isn’t that Messrs. Matthews, Watkins and Wollenberg eschew the sub-90-pointers—in fact, Mr. Wollenberg said he drinks “a lot more 89-point wines” than he does 98-point wines. Wines at that lower number offer solid value and wide appeal, according to Mr. Wollenberg. And yet, it’s getting harder and harder for wine drinkers to find them. As Mr. Watkins observed, “It’s becoming rare to find a wine under 90 points.”
Have wines actually gotten that much better, or has grade inflation become as common among wine critics as it has among high-school personnel? Consider the praise that Mr. Parker gives to wines that score in the 80s, in his newsletter: “...Such a wine, particularly in the 85-89 range, is very, very good; many of the wines that fall into this range often are great values as well. I have many of these wines in my personal collection.”
Yet you’d be hard-pressed to believe that the high-scoring wine critic owns a stash of B’s. After all, Mr. Parker is far more famous for his 100-point scores than for his 88-point finds. By my count, he and his deputy critics awarded 78 wines perfect 100-point scores in his newsletter last year alone (most were awarded by Mr. Parker himself). By contrast, the Wine Spectator didn’t award a single 100-point score in 2012.
The Wine Spectator has actually awarded fewer than a hundred perfect scores since the publication began using the point system, in 1985, Mr. Matthews said in a recent email. (Like the Wine Advocate, the Wine Spectator has individual critics who cover specific countries and regions—although almost every wine drinker and retailer refers to Wine Advocate numbers as “Parker” scores.)
The Wine Spectator and the Wine Advocate are the two most powerful point sources in the wine industry, but there are many, many reviewers who use the 100-point system. A shortlist includes Stephen Tanzer (International Wine Cellar); Allen Meadows aka the Burghound; Claude Kolm (Fine Wine Review); the Wine Enthusiast; James Suckling; and Antonio Galloni, who recently announced his departure from the Wine Advocate to start his own website.
Critics who score wines are more visible than critics who do not; and the bigger the number, the more likely it will be repeated somewhere. As Daniel Posner, owner of Grapes the Wine Shop in White Plains, N.Y., said, “If you slap 100-point scores on wines, retailers will start using your name.” Mr. Posner sells wines without scores via his email offerings to a devoted clientele but acknowledged than an email featuring a 100-point wine will guarantee much a greater response. Mr. Posner said he’s not a point advocate but simply a pragmatist. “I’m a businessman,” he said. “I have a family, and at the end of the day I have bills to pay.”
Clearly, points are a boon for critics and retailers, but what of the winemakers? I contacted a famous Napa Cabernet producer whose wines have always scored very well. This vintner (who requested anonymity, fearing numerical retaliation) has turned out wines that have earned scores in the mid-90s for years. But it wasn’t until a wine garnered 97 points from the Wine Advocate that there was “a mad rush,” said the vintner, noting that nothing of the sort had happened with wines that scored 93, 94 or even 95 points. “It’s really a four-point scale—97, 98, 99, 100—that moves the market,” said the vintner.
If collectors of high-price Cabernet require near-perfection before they will buy, what about regular drinkers purchasing less-fancy wine? Is there a number that moves them to action? I conducted a short, highly unscientific poll, and the answer came back over and over again: 90. “I’ll take a chance on a 90-point wine,” said one friend. “Even if I don’t what it is.” And if it was just a few points shy of that number? Probably not.
The grading system offers the reassurance of a seemingly objective truth—but it also provides clarity of another sort. The language of wine can be arcane, and some descriptions may further bewilder. Take, for example, this Wine Advocate tasting note for the 2010 Bodegas Breca “Breca”: “Black raspberry, truffle, kirsch, lavender and liquid-rock-like characteristics. Astonishing.” You may not know what liquid rock tastes like or why it’s astonishing, but the wine costs only $16 and got 94 points.
In exploring the validity of the grading system, I was tempted to seek out wines that scored 90 points or higher, but decided that would be too easy. I would go a few points lower and look for the B’s—the wines that offered value and were, in the words of Mr. Parker, very good. I decided to look for wines that had been rated 88 points.
I bought some 20 bottles, ranging in price from $13 to $45, made from regions all over the world. They had one thing in common: Some critic somewhere had awarded each one 88 points. I asked a few wine-drinking (though not wine-collecting) friends to join me, including a former teacher turned administrator who usually only drank wines that scored “at least” 90 points.
The tasting revealed some quite solid wines. None was astonishing, but a few were very good and most were priced very well. The A to Z Pinot Gris from Oregon, for example, was an excellent deal at $13.50. Ditto the Nebbiolo-Cabernet blend from Pio Cesare, as well as a lively red from Pic St. Loup that was a good buy at $16. (The former schoolteacher liked the Pio Cesare Oltre so much he awarded it a few extra points—thereby committing a small, private act of grade inflation.) The list of pleasing bottles went on and on, including a Washington-state Merlot, a Chianti Classico, a couple of Riojas and an Austrian Riesling.
A few days later, I called Dr. Mogel. I told her about the B tasting—and my fear that some very good wines were being overlooked by drinkers chasing higher scores. I wondered if Dr. Mogel thought the value of the B grade would ever be restored. She said she’s pessimistic—there’s so much negative emotion attached to the grade. For her part, however, she’s a big fan of B students: “They’re more varied, more colorful and often more interesting.”
If only wine drinkers could be convinced.
March 2, 2013