Thursday, May 10, 2007

Reasons and Wine Scores

Simon posts below on a particular facet of the perverse dominance of Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate on the market for red Bordeaux. Not only do we experience the general ill effects—commercialization, homogenization to his preferences, etc.—of Parker’s power to impose market-driving, numerical scores on the wines he reviews, but also the particular opportunity for malfeasance when retailers get the numbers before consumers do.

The usual explanation of why all this has come about focuses on the supposed deficiencies of the American wine consumer: his desire for quick, straightforward, and simple metrics of quality and success and his preference for Parker’s favored styles of wine. While that’s part of the story, I don’t think that fully captures what’s going on. As everyone knows, the prices of fine wines have been going into the stratosphere over the past several decades. When first growth Bordeaux went for ten dollars a bottle or less, people could afford to experiment or to buy wines based on reputation. If a bottle turned out not to be good, it was a small loss. But with prices now in the hundreds (and even thousands for the most desirable wines) of dollars a bottle, the vast majority of wine consumers, even those who are willing to spend $300 here and there, can’t afford to buy Pavie Macquin or similar wines and just hope that they happen to be good in a particular year. The consumer needs some basis to justify shelling out three-figure sums. Thus the power of the score. It’s a terrible situation, with all sorts of negative externalities, but it’s also the natural result of the price of wine in today’s world.

That said, the other problem here is Parker’s deplorable set of criteria for handing out high scores. If he awarded good scores to relatively austere, elegant, complex, and varied wines rather than to hedonistic fruit bombs, things wouldn’t be so bad. But the rise of point scores is, I think, the unfortunate but inevitable result of increased demand for wines.

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