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Published:  23 July, 2008

Last month, Harpers invited a host of wine trade luminaries to debate the merits of the 100-point rating system and the role of appellations. Tim Atkin joined the fray over scores and scales, while Neil Beckett observed the appellation spat

The role of the wine critic and the 100 point scale

Speakers: Tim Atkin MW, editorial director, Harpers Jeff Morgan, contributing editor, Wine Enthusiast Moderator: Peter MF Sichel, president, Sichel Wines, US

Once upon a time, people used to read wine reviews. These days, especially in the United States, they seem to prefer scores. Is this a passing fashion or a long-term phenomenon? Are scores a good thing for the consumer and/or the wine trade? Are they a credible way of rating wine? Or are they too random for comfort? Do they give too much power and credence to the views of a handful of highly influential critics? Will the 100 point scale catch on in the UK? This debate was moderated by Peter MF Sichel, who, being a European wine merchant who lives and works in the US, was ideally placed to see both sides of the argument. Morgan spoke from an unashamedly American perspective. I am an unreformed, unrepentant supporter of the 100 point scale,' he began. It is the greatest thing that has happened to wine in the last hundred years - it's not perfect, but it sure sells a lot of wine.' Morgan argued that the 100 point scale has been very, very helpful' in introducing people to the pleasures of the grape in a country where there is no tradition of wine drinking. Coca-Cola was the norm in the US until 20 years ago,' he said. Morgan outlined the origins of the 100 point scale. It was introduced by Robert Parker in 1980 and picked up, soon after, by Marvin Shanken, owner and publisher of Wine Spectator. It was given added prominence by the 1982 vintage in Bordeaux, but the reason Americans took to it so easily was that the 100 point scale is used in our schools'. It also appeals, according to Morgan, to Americans' need for rapid judgements. We like things fast in America,' he said. We like a snapshot. America suffers from a mass attention deficit disorder.' The system is not scientific, Morgan conceded, but does a good job of conveying a baseline to the consumer. It's done more good than harm.' Such a baseline is vital in a country where less than 10% of the population buys fine wine' and there is a need to convert the rest of the adult population. There is a different reality in the United States. Wine writers cannot afford to indulge in romance.' What critics write reflects what the public wants, Morgan continued. Scores mean that wineries can't hide behind style.' For all that, scores need to be seen in context: they are not absolute. The press gets things wrong on occasion. Scores are not competing with the description of a wine. As I write I describe first and then assign a score. They are not the be all and end all, but they provide a point of entry.' Morgan also argued that scores should not make good wine merchants redundant. There is nothing like a hand sell,' he said. Peter MF Sichel then raised the issue of the relationship between prices and scores. A $6 wine that scores 88 points might be better value than a $150 wine that scores 90 points. He also said that points give no indication of whether or not a wine works well with food. He also drew attention to the views of Leo McCluskey of Flora Springs Winery, who has criticised the 100 point system in the US. Tim Atkin picked up on Morgan's point about the Americans' partiality for snapshots. It reminded him of a tourist he once overheard at the entrance to the Louvre in Paris. Where's the Mona Lisa?' he asked a guide, I'm double parked.' Still reminiscing about Paris, he told a story about David Ridgway, the English sommelier at La Tour d'Argent in Paris. Ridgway selected a wine from his list and served it to a satisfied customer. Five minutes later, the same customer called him back to the table. He'd looked up the wine in his personal organiser and discovered that Robert Parker had only given it 88 points. Take the wine away,' he told Ridgway. What do you think I am?' Atkin said that he saw nothing wrong with rating a wine. It's a useful tool for separating the good from the bad from the mediocre.' For all that, he said that scores were presented as an ex cathedra pronouncement, when they are nothing of the sort. They confer certainty and a sense of scientific precision where no such thing is possible. They turn wine into a game of basketball, where there has to be a winner.' The problem with scores, according to Atkin, is that they are assigned by human beings and human beings are not calibrated scientific instruments'. Atkin challenged Morgan to take half a dozen wines from the line-up of Cabernets he'd tasted that morning and give them exactly the same scores under blind tasting conditions. No one could do that,' he said, not even Robert Parker.' Scores, Atkin continued, are for insecure people who need to be told what to drink, who do not wish to take the time to learn, who want to be instant experts'. What is wrong, he asked, with developing your own, independent sense of taste? The answer, in his view, is insecurity. He paraphrased Patrick Campbell of California producer Laurel Glen: Why risk being wrong when, with scores, it's so easy to be right?' Atkin also argued that wines, as well as people, change over time and that scores don't reflect that'. How much you like wine depends on various factors: on mood, on atmospheric pressure and on how Chelsea got on yesterday. Am I drinking this bottle with a beautiful woman or man? And if so, who's paying?' Scores are not good for consumers, according to Atkin. Scores, especially high scores, inflate wine prices unnecessarily. Everybody wants what they perceive to be the best. It's supply and demand, but scores overheat demand unnecessarily.' Atkin attacked the way Bordeaux chteaux wait for American critics' scores to be published before they release their wines en primeur. Scores encourage speculation, not wine drinking. A 95-pointer is too sacred, rare and expensive; and anything else is second best, so why bother with it?' He also blamed scores for promoting homogeneity. Look at Bordeaux. People are making softer, more deeply-coloured wines, earlier-maturing wines, seduction wines.' He said that it was getting harder and harder to tell the top properties apart. Scores discourage regional character and diversity.' Where is the enjoyment in all this, Atkin asked? Scores don't tell you if a wine is delicious or great with a certain dish. They tell you if the wine is impressive - dark, rich, tannic and invariably over-oaked - at a given moment in time.' He argued that there is a place for lesser scoring wines, too. Would you want to spend the rest of your life only drinking wines that have garnered 95 points or more?' As an alternative to scores, Atkin proposed a system of five stars, used by - among others - Decanter magazine. Stars are less hyperbolic and make it easier for the critic to be consistent.' He also said that descriptions - of places and people, as well as the wine itself - were the essence of good wine writing. Some people may dismiss this as romantic wine writing, but it's the only kind of wine writing as far as I'm concerned. Scores? Who needs them?' There were a number of interventions from the floor. Joseph Berkmann of Berkmann Wine Cellars wondered whether the 100 point system was selling Wine Spectator and The Wine Advocate as opposed to wine'? Neville Blech said that, unlike the scores given by Wine Spectator, Robert Parker's scores are the views of one man' and consumers are free to agree or disagree with him. Richard Harvey MW of Richard Harvey Wines questioned the commercial importance of scores in the UK. At the top level, less than 1% of my customers read Robert Parker or Wine Spectator.' His worry was that we are in danger of becoming introspective and totally obsessed with scores. As wine merchants we are buying 90 point-plus wines for the security of knowing we can sell the wines on.' Jasper Morris MW of Morris & Verdin recommended a variation on the 100 point scale, as used by Allen Meadows in his newsletter, Burghound. Meadows uses a system of arrows to indicate whether wines have over- or under-performed for their price, appellation and status. At this point, Roger Voss said that the debate was in danger of becoming too introspective. Consumers need guidance and that is best provided by some form of rating.' Tom Stevenson agreed. If you've got a book with a thousand descriptions in it, then the consumer deserves to know which wine you prefer and by how much. Scores are a qualification of the description.' If the room generally seemed critical of the 100 point scale - or at the very least sceptical about its accuracy and objective worth - there was also a recognition that, as Jeff Morgan put it, scores sell wine', particularly in the United States. In the end, perhaps, it is not scores that are to blame but the slavish way in which people follow them. A famous cartoon of a man tasting in a wine shop makes this point rather neatly. Jeez, this wine is repulsive,' he says, turning up his nose. Parker gave it a 96,' the sales assistant replies. Okay, I'll take a case,' says the punter.


Appellations contrles. Denominazione. American Viticultural Areas. Geographic Indications - or GIs. The diversity of names itself suggests a many-headed monster. Whatever we call them, appellations' continue to be one of the most controversial issues in the industry. As soon as one head is lopped off, two more sprout in its stead, in the New World as well as in the Old. The Coonawarra war (still not over, after all) is only the most recent sign of the conflicting interests involved. This is no airy-fairy debate or experiment. Lines are drawn not only on maps, but in the sand. Fame and fortune are at stake. So, are appellations - as the viticulturist Dr Richard Smart has suggested - merely something designed by the French to make New World wine producers fall out with one another'? What do appellations mean in different countries? And how will they evolve? What are the relationships between authenticity, identity and quality? Where do tradition, technology and grape varieties fit in? Do appellations better serve producers or consumers? Will more producers opt in or out? Are appellations, on balance, a help or a hindrance? These were among the many questions raised at a Harpers seminar on the subject in London in October. The seminar was chaired by Jasper Morris MW, founder and managing director of Morris & Verdin, who introduced four speakers from around the world, ideally qualified to comment. In the order in which they spoke, they were: Paul Pontallier, chief winemaker, Chteau Margaux, Bordeaux; Chris Hatcher, chief winemaker, Beringer Blass Wine Estates; Warren Winiarski, chief executive officer, Stag's Leap Wine Cellars, California; and Carlos Falc, president, Dominio de Valdepusa, Spain. Jasper Morris MW began by giving an historical perspective, saying that in both the Old and the New World, appellation systems have been created by producers for producers'. Paul Pontallier agreed that it was important to understand how and why appellations had been established. He emphasised that it is not a question of believing in them or not: they are historical facts'. Back in the 1920s and '30s in France, when the first steps were taken towards the formation of ACs, producers were struggling to preserve their land and wealth. But the legislation from 1935 onwards has also benefited consumers in terms of wine quality. If the appellation contrle hadn't forbidden hybrids, much of the Mdoc might have been planted with them in the 50s, the effects of which would have lasted 20, 30 or 40 years.' Although an AC entails a few' production regulations, Pontallier stressed that everybody is entitled not to use it. You can plant Pinot Noir in Bordeaux or Cabernet Sauvignon in Burgundy if you want to. My father planted Chardonnay in Bordeaux for table wine.' Given this freedom to opt in or out, he suggested that appellation system' was not really a suitable term. Developing the theme, Pontallier insisted that it had never been a question of being stuck in tradition. The quality we enjoy is due to our predecessors' efforts. But the system will evolve with technology to be less rigid.' He concluded that while the need for producers had been to protect authenticity', the need for consumers was now the same. The appellation system gives valuable information to the consumer. The consumer who buys Gevrey-Chambertin rather than Pinot Noir from Burgundy has more information to go on.' He was confident that consumers could be educated to understand more fully what different appellations mean. Chris Hatcher argued that in Australia, unlike the Old World, appellations had been consumer-driven from the start. From the 1980s, producers and regulators had been aware of the need to reassure the public over provenance'. The Label Integrity Programme', established in 1990, is a modern version, adopting what is best in other countries' systems. In essence, it's simple: you have to be able to prove, through records, that what's on the label is in the bottle.' The system is flexible' to the extent that an 85% minimum applies to the stated region, variety and vintage. He emphasised that there is no link between the authenticity of the label and quality', which he maintained was a more sensible' system than those in the Old World. Hatcher accepted that terroir was absolutely pivotal in the production of quality wine, in terms of fruit characteristics, structure and style', but insisted that terroir is not a guarantee of quality. Village wines from the best producers in Burgundy are better than premiers crus from lesser producers. So the system is confusing. Australia has a much more open system - it's quite clear and simple. The challenge for the winemaker is to express the terroir in the wine; the consumer determines quality.' Warren Winiarski argued that the appellation system in the US was different again, in inspiration and origin: It grew up to differentiate varieties - they were the important factor.' When he went to California in the 1960s, there were fewer than 600 acres/242 hectares of Cabernet Sauvignon in the State. Growers were interested in quality, and Cabernet Sauvignon was thought to provide it. All the young Turks (among whom I then counted myself) were looking for something distinctive about a common variety.' He described his first tasting of fruit from the Fay Vineyard, the source of the wine which triumphed at the 1976 Paris Tasting organised by Steven Spurrier, as an epiphanal moment'. Even now,' however, Winiarski couldn't say which is the most important component'. He identified the three Gs, all of which contribute, all of which are significant: you need the right grape, the right ground (or terroir), and you need the right guy'. He stressed that in the US, It's not a question of relying on terroir or tradition. It's a question of invoking the beauty of the fruit.' He celebrated the fact that the AVA regulations do not prescribe any specific techniques or varieties. With regard to any stated variety, vineyard or vintage, the minimum required is 75%, 85% and 100% respectively. He concluded that, The US is still a land of free enterprise. If you make beautiful wines, the market will perceive them. When you have the right grapes in the right ground, the wines have a self-compelling force.' Carlos Falc affirmed that appellations are a great concept', but regretted that even great ideas often get perverted over time'. He suggested that appellations had been perverted in at least four ways. First, they had become too political: Wherever politics is involved, there are an ever increasing number of appellations. Every local politician likes to promise them.' As a result, there are now some 700 appellations in the EU alone. Few in the trade could name even 10% of them. Consumers could count them on one hand.' Secondly, many adopt too academic an approach. They always allege that the best wines have already been made, and so stifle innovation. Instead, they create complications for their own sake. Just as Rioja's Tempranillo was beginning to be better recognised, officials in Ribera del Duero insisted on giving the grape another name. Thirdly, appellations are a form of protectionism'. The labelling regulations are unfair to table wines, which should also be allowed to state a region and variety. This is a basic consumer right, he said. Finally, appellations are often championed in false opposition to brands, while as the recent success of the New World has shown, it is the latter which are performing more strongly.

Questions and answers Jeff Morgan, contributing editor of Wine Enthusiast magazine, asked: If the appellation contrle system was abandoned in Bordeaux, wouldn't the style change?' Pontallier answered that, An appellation isn't the cause, it's the consequence of the terroir. It doesn't force people to do things.' The Bordelais would not plant other varieties, because these had already been tried and failed. Although terroir works through winemakers', the basic differences due to terroir should still show through, unless masked by excessive oak. He had experimented with different clones and yeasts, and these had helped rather than hindered the expression of terroir. Toni Paterson, PR-technical liaison, Southcorp Wines (Europe), asked whether some of the cynicism surrounding appellations might not stem from a suspicion that the rules were not being followed to the letter. Pontallier answered: I agree and disagree. We have the most terrible administration in the world - it really is a pain in the neck sometimes. But we also have the most efficient administration in the world - so it's difficult to cheat. They are far more rigorous than other authorities.' Dan Jago, joint managing director of Bibendum Wine, asked: Doesn't the appellation system protect bad wines which may be selling under what's almost a brand name? Rather than protecting excellence, doesn't it protect the opposite?' Winiarski answered: 'Appellations can certainly be used as brands. But the sanction for excellence is self-enforcing. You can be abysmally authentic.' Falc added: Small estates make 99.9% of the world's great wines. But the big companies in Spain would benefit from blending more. So I support appellations for the top wines, but not at the bottom end, where we're losing the war.' Pontallier added: The appellation system has nothing to do with the market: if the wine is not good, it doesn't sell.' Jago countered: I disagree. A lot of Bordeaux sells because it's Bordeaux.' Neville Blech, chairman and managing director of The Wine Treasury, said: I agree and disagree. The appellation system does have a lot to do with the market - people pay higher prices for certain appellations. But Bordeaux is much maligned. Some young producers are making wine well above the general appellation level.' Morris asked whether appellations should guarantee quality as well as authenticity. Pontallier replied: We can only regulate what's objective - the density of planting and so on. Quality is subjective: even professional people's tastes change. Consumers have the last word.' Hatcher agreed: Regulating quality is almost impossible. But I admit I would hate to see the Barossa name on really bad wine. Growers should control quality among themselves, by going and speaking to those who don't match up.' Winiarski added: Wine critics have taken it upon themselves to evaluate quality.' Falc explained that applicants for new private' appellations in Spain needed to provide external validation in the form of positive press comment over ten years. After all the cases had been heard, Jasper Morris asked the audience for a show of hands on whether appellation systems should be changed. About half of the audience were in favour of change, only a few preferring the status quo. With more agnostics and atheists than believers among this sample of the UK trade, it seems as though the appellation religion will continue to be a contentious and divisive issue. It remains to be seen how the high priests will respond.