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In defence of wine scores

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Between 1935 and 1978, various authors, professors and critics proposed scorecards and scales for grading wine. These scales varied in composition, ranging from rigid formulas attributing set points to fixed variables like aroma and colour, to William Cruess’ efforts to identify wines free from faults. Most of these efforts were inconsequential, and it wasn’t until 1978 that wine scoring went mainstream. Law student Robert Parker developed a great interest in wine following a study trip to France. After returning home, Parker recognised a lack of independent criticism in the wine industry. Soon after, he released the first edition of The Baltimore-Washington Wine Advocate—complete with his 100-point scoring system—and by 1984, after controversially asserting the superiority of 1982 Bordeaux, the Wine Advocate became so successful that Parker quit practising law and became a full-time wine critic. 

Between 1978 and his retirement forty years later, Parker set the stage for wine scores as an influential factor in buying and selling wine. Publications and peers quickly adopted their own scoring methodologies; merchants, sommeliers and retailers began attaching favourable scores to sell wines; and winegrowers grew sensitive to which styles of wines scored highly—some went as far as to change style entirely to suit the palate of a given critic or market. In Parker’s case, commentators still hysterically bemoan ‘Parkerisation’, as well the supposed ‘tyranny of homogenisation’ imposed by wine scores. Whilst there’s some truth to this claim, the criticism doesn’t stand up to scrutiny in contemporary wine journalism, where today’s most influential critic attributes the greatest scores to gloriously singular, characterful and distinct wines, many largely unknown beforehand.

Four decades later, the established and alternative wine press is replete with criticism of wine scoring. Scores are denounced as ‘blunt instruments’ ill-suited to capturing wine’s profound beauty; biased mechanisms wielded by journalists influenced by career and corporate incentives; unreliable, unrepeatable, exaggerated, and increasingly less useful as a universal measure—that James Suckling scores Roberto Voerzio’s Barolo La Serra higher than William Kelley scores 2021 Romanée-Conti indeed beggars belief; and even colonialist relics of white, western hegemony. All this is compounded by the pervasive Postmodern rejection of objectivity so popular in modern thought, making judging wines inherently problematic. 

Despite all its sins, wine scoring deserves defending. In an industry shackled by hierarchy, where winemakers’ fortunes are constrained by region, tradition and history, a wine score is a liberating tool capable of changing lives—don’t believe me, ask those growers in Polisy and Congy the difference 100pts makes. Wielded by competent, principled critics, wine scoring is a force for good, promoting quality, crafted wines wherever one finds them, be it in the Mâcon, Sierra de Gredos, Surrey, or some emerging region previously unassociated with fine wine production. Combined with concise, informative notes, the score also offers a sense of scale, undergirding commentary and making comparisons of even the greatest wines possible. 

Wine scoring is out of fashion, muddied and scarred from decades of abuse. But we needn’t throw the score out with the bath water. Instead, drinkers should reward considerate and thoughtful application, and condemn levity, creep and irresponsibility. Demand better from careless, idle critics and frivolous, mundane publications. For if wine scoring dies, we’ll all be worse off for it.”

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