My interest and passion for wine began in the late 1970s, about the same time Robert Parker came to fame with his Wine Advocate introducing the 100-point scoring system. Also at that time, Wine Spectator was an eight-page newsprint tabloid published in San Diego by Bob Morrisey. Subsequently, Marvin Shanken purchased Wine Spectator and elevated the publication to its current status.
There were several other newsletters written by knowledgeable individuals and groups, including Robert Finigan, Les Amis du Vin, Connoisseurs’ Guide, California Grapevine and Frank Prial as a dominant voice from the New York Times. Michael Broadbent, Hugh Johnson, Len Evans and others also graciously shared their knowledge, taste preferences and experiences from an international perspective.
Reviews were far more subjective in those days with the critic evaluating each component from the visual appearance through the nose, palate and finish. Numeric scores were not necessarily the norm, but when they were awarded the UC Davis 20-point scale was the common denominator. Using that scale, the overall rating was a compilation of the points earned by each of those individual components. It was not a subjective evaluation based on an arbitrary 100-point scale, voiced as a specific (supposedly objective) number reflecting the critic’s personal preferences. Unfortunately, personal preferences alone often ignore the inherent or well accepted attributes of the wine itself.
I make no apologies for never being a fan of the 100-point scale and the effect it had on a stylistic interpretation adopted by winemakers and producers in both the New and Old worlds in order to please the critics and garner higher scores. The high point “winners” became the product of ultimate ripeness often producing similarly-styled wines of high alcohol, low acidity, abundant oak, soft tannins and flabby structure resulting in limited (though seldom acknowledged) ageability. This became the sure route to high ratings, immediate gratification and rapid sales.
While the 100-point trend (and its consequent overripe instantly “enjoyable” wines) got off to a slow start for both white and red wines, it gathered steam through the 1980s, was in full force as the early to mid-1990s unfolded and became the norm as the century turned. Alcohol levels appearing on labels of chardonnay, cabernet and other varietals gradually climbed from the normal 12 to 13.5 percent upward to 14, 15 percent plus and higher as the standard.
And keep in mind when wines contain more than 14 percent alcohol (the level when federal tax dramatically increases) there is a 1 percent allowance. So that 14.5 percent alcohol (abv) appearing on the label may in fact be 15.5 percent legally or even higher as levels are seldom and inefficiently checked by the federal authorities.
But, has the pendulum begun swinging back and does the market remain beholden to high scoring wines alone? Perhaps the responses are yes and yes, but let’s look a little deeper into the questions and how the answers effect consumers looking for something different at various price levels.
There’s no question that the perennial 95 to 100-point winners include the very expensive ($200, $300, $400 plus plus plus) California “Cult” wines that continue on the path to their exalted scores often displaying excessive structural, aromatic and flavor profiles that made the system successful in the first place. Yet on the other hand, there are bright and pleasingly structured whites, rosés and reds often from unheralded varietals or blends. They do not necessarily receive the higher scores but have found devoted followings of wine fans (especially among millennials) looking for something different at reasonable prices while communicating their findings through social media making their voices heard.
- Blake Gray, after analyzing the current Wine Spectator’s Top 10 wines from their annual Top 100 list recently reported in his very informative blog, The Gray Report, that a “backlash” may be on its way. Gray observed that while alcohol levels of this group continue a bit on the high side, they have for the most part been declining somewhat over recent years.
I appreciate Gray’s analysis and approach in applauding, to some extent, the alcohol reduction in the Spectator’s Top 10. But does the same hold true throughout the year in their Buying Guide section and articles appearing in the magazine? A quick look at the criteria – “quality, value, availability and excitement” – for the Top 100 list (let alone the Top 10) automatically eliminates many of the high alcohol excessive oak, over-the-top peak scorers from inclusion. Certainly value and availability would count them out while quality and excitement remain open questions determined individually by the consumer and others in the trade and press.
The issue of high alcohol and heavy oak to gain entry into the kingdom of 95 to 100 points (the now gold standard in the ratings game) is not exclusively seen in the Spectator. In fact, Wine Spectator also does an admirable job in exploring new and historic winegrowing regions and lesser known wines even if they rarely break 90 points.
The Wine Advocate may be an even greater proponent of the style they religiously supported for the past three decades. Gray sums this up by saying, “I find the [Spectator] ratings more restrained and useful than the Wine Advocate, which probably can’t do a Top 10 because it would have to sort through all its 100-point scores to announce that some wines are less perfect than other perfect wines.”
The ultimate decision on what to choose is always up to the customer despite all we hear about ratings. And those venturing beyond the scores are actually the winners when it comes to enjoying a special wine on its own or with the meal.
Allen Balik, a Napa resident, has been a wine collector, consultant, author, fundraiser and enthusiast for more than 35 years.