Robert Parker and the Nature of “90”
The nature of "90" isn't an easy thing to nail down. On its face, a wine ranked 90 points or higher should suggest that it falls into the top 10% of all wines of its type. But we know that's not what a 90 means because we know there is no such thing as a 20 or 30 point wine. Perhaps it is enough to say that a wine ranked 90 points or more is a wine the critic liked more than most others.
A Robert Parker 90 Point or better is a different beast, however, because of the man who ranked it.
Over the past few days I've been taking a close look at Robert Parker's rating of wines going back 20 vintages; California wines in particular. I have some observations to make about those rankings but in advance of those observations it must be pointed out that Parker's huge archive of wine review is nothing less than a record of one man's life long and most amazing commitment to appreciating and understanding the work of other people.
That isn't meant to be a back handed compliment. There is in the West a long tradition of evaluating and commenting on the work of others that goes back to the Apostles. The work of The Critic is, as I've always argued, noble and necessary. Robert Parker is a critic in the best sense of the word. You might be able to count the number of people who have tasted and evaluated as many wines as Mr. Parker with the fingers on one hand. Furthermore, Parker may be without peer when it comes to the promiscuous nature of his evaluations with his expertise in French, California, Australian and Italian and other regions' wines.
And yet, it is not Robert Parker's prolific tasting history that makes his "90" so important. It is the trust that so many have in his opinion. That trust is so great that legions of consumers have been and remain willing to rush out and buy wines they never tasted, but have been ranked 90 points or more by Parker. They believe his endorsement of the wine are a near guarantee the cost of the "Parker 90" will be money well spent.
This embrace of Parker's palate has real world meaning. A study in 2001 of Bordelais wine demonstrated that a one point increase in a Parker score results on average in a 7% increase in the price of the wine. Those of us in the wine business who have lived with the "Parker Effect" most of our careers could have told you about the correlation of price to score without doing any study.
In looking at Robert Parker's ratings of California wines over the past few days, I've not been interested in how they effect the marketplace. I've been interested in what these 20 years of ratings mean; what they communicate about the wines and the man. In this little investigation, the 90 point score has been an important marker for me.
By all accounts, including Mr. Parker's, a wine he rates as 90 points or higher is an outstanding bottling. To quote Mr. Parker, a 90 point or higher rated wine is "an outstanding wine of exceptional complexity and character. In short, these are terrific wines."
So, given all this, it strikes me that the number of wines in a category that are rated 90 or higher might serve well as an indication of what Mr. Parker believes about that category of wines. For example, if upon tasting 100 Pinot Noirs from the 2011 vintage in California he gave 90 points to only one wine, could we conclude he did not think that category of wines were very good? Maybe. In fact, probably. But that assessment would depend upon knowing if only one wine out of 100 being ranked 90 points or more is part for the course.
This is what I've been looking at over the last few days and what I want to explore over the next few posts. There is some interesting to note about Robert Parker's wine ratings:
It is extraordinarily rare that he will publish a rating in the Wine Advocate below 85 points.
In choosing to primarily publish ratings above 85 points, he is deliberately highlighting the better wines he tastes. It isn't conceivable that so few wines he tastes would rate below 85 points. This also means that despite his prolific tasting schedule, Mr. Parker tastes only a fraction of the wines in nearly every category he has chosen to focus on throughout his career. He has, after all, only so much time. But this also means that has he returns to evaluate a new vintage from a particular wine, the limited number of wines he can taste are already chosen as he often will return to taste new vintages of wines he has found quite good in the past. This does not mean he does not venture into new territory. Rather, it means he doesn't often back track to wines that previously did not impress him. This too can be confirmed by numerous vintners who have been disappointed by not finding their way back in front of Mr. Parker's palate.
Over the course of a few future posts, I'll be looking at what Mr. Parker's ratings have to say about certain California varietals. I'll be focusing in part on the frequency of 90 point scores as an indication of something that Mr. Parker considers to be among the best in their category and with this information, try to understand what Mr. Parker's scores, rather than words, say about a category of wines.
If it isn't clear yet, I'm one of those people who don't believe that the 100 point rating system is reductive. Nor do I think it meaningless. Rather, I believe that the 100 point rating system is a method of ranking wines every bit as legitimate and useful as the 5 point system or the 20 point system. While a number is not the whole story, it does have real meaning.