Is Wine Score Inflation Really A Thing? (How To Cause A Row Between Two Wine Loving Friends)
This one really splits the wine community, some are convinced wines are receiving more generous scores than they did years ago, some disagree, but are they, and if so why?
When we get asked if there are more wines scored ‘92 Or More’ available now than there were 10/20 years ago we answer “yes”, “Ah Ha” gets joyously exclaimed “so wine score inflation is true” and a smug expression takes hold of the askers face, “Not so fast” we reply “you haven’t really thought it through have you?” to which the expression of smugness changes to something quizzical.
There are a number of logical reasons why there are more highly scored wines available today than there were historically, including:
i) As wine consumption continues to grow there are more and more getting made to meet demand, some of which are worthy of high scores.
ii) As interest in wine grows the number of professional critics has also grown so more examples than ever are getting scored.
iii) Wine makers are constantly learning and improving their craft so their product rightfully gets a higher rating.
iv) With more wines deservedly getting high points, those who achieve 89 or less are now less likely to advertise that achievement meaning those lower scores have become less visible to consumers.
All of these factors, especially when experienced together can make it very easy, from a consumers perspective, to perceive that there’s some sort of ratings inflation going on when the reality includes a wider variety of wines and improved production.
If the ‘grade inflation’ argument sounds familiar it’s probably because a very similar argument perpetually rages within education. Perhaps that’s not surprising as Robert Parker modelled his 100 point system on the American High School grading system of the time (we have no idea if High School grading still follows the same system). As teaching methods advance and improve students achieve higher grades, not because the exams get easier but because because students are better skilled. Similarly a greater and greater proportion of new cars get top ratings in NCAP crash testing, not because the tests are getting easier but because cars are getting safer. Advancement and progression are generally good for us.
But what about the wine critics we hear you cry, don’t they just compete with each other to give the highest score so they’re the one quoted? An interesting argument we’ve seen raised many times but have never seen backed up by more than anecdotal soundbites. Perhaps various critics can be perceived to favour some regions/countries/grapes over others, however look more closely at their score vs the quality of the vintage over a number of years and you’ll find them rise and fall consistent to the vintage conditions and success (or not) of the individual wine that year.
Concise thoughts on the subject:
Is there points inflation going on? – No
Is there an ever increasing variety of well scored wines available? – Yes
Should wine drinkers be happy with this? – Yes
Are they? – No!
Does A Good Critic Score Really Affect A Wine’s Price?
The Short Answer Is Yes And No!
It seems logical enough, if a wine gets scored well then of course the price will be hiked, right??? Well perhaps not, its not always that simple. When it gets scored can play a big part. So do points scores really affect prices?
If a wine receives it’s score after it has been released to the market then its going to be rather awkward to change the already set price, retailers could change their price but nobody wants to be accused of profiteering as that would be reputational suicide. Some have tried this in the past and suffered long term by upsetting their loyal customers. So, while smiling through gritted teeth they’re likely to sell at the original price, wine drinkers get a bargain while retailers desperately seek more stock.
If however the wine gets scored before release to market that’s a different matter, there is no set price. In a few months we’ll see the biggest annual display of this when the 2022 vintage Bordeaux’s get released to market. Before release châteaux and negociants will gather in darkened rooms to discuss not only the scores awarded by the critics but also the state of the economy and anticipated customer appetite. Next they’ll decide how much of the wine to release en primeur and how much to hold back for future ‘ex château’ releases before eventually settling on the highest price they feel the market can stand (rumour has it they also advise estate agents in their spare time!).
So the long answer is also yes and no, good critics scores both can and can’t affect prices.
Why Do Critic Points Matter To A Wine Drinker?
We in the wine industry love declaring X wine has been scored Y points by Z critic but ultimately what’s the point of those points? What do they tell you?
It all used to be so easy, before numerical ratings a few smug estates in the Medoc relied on a price list drawn up in 1855 to show their superiority, everyone else, knowing their place just carried on making the tradition wine of their area. Then in the late 1970’s an upstart named Robert Parker came along and started scoring out of 100, and not just once, he came back year after year and gave different scores, worse still the wine buying public were listening to him, suddenly 1855 felt so last century. Those with a few hallowed acres of Garonne riverside grape plantation could no longer scoff at Italy’s finest and even some Napa valley estates were challenging them in the price stakes. Something had to be done.
It took a few years but some of those in the 1855 club (and many other winemakers around the world) worked out that Mr Parker liked heavy full reds that you could stand a spoon up in so some decided to change their style to suit Mr Parker. Just leave the grapes on the vine a bit longer and up the alcohol a bit and you’d get a few extra precious points, after all it was time to move on from 1855 and now points made prices. A new normality was settled into and apart from a British lady called Jancis Robinson MW upsetting the apple cart by occasionally disagreeing with Mr Parker everyone settled down, well they did just as long as the nice Mr Parker scored their wine 90 or above.
All hell broke loose again in the late noughties, new critics had emerged, some gathering quite a following, many of whom had different tastes to Mr Parker, suddenly winemakers again didn’t know where to look or who to please. Some stayed true to Mr Parker’s taste while others returned to the wines they’d historically made with the great 2010 Bordeaux vintage probably being the last to have been influenced by Mr Parker. By the end of 2012 Mr Parker had sold a controlling stake in his ‘Wine Advocate’ to investors and stood down as editor in chief, by 2015 he’d also passed on reviewing Bordeaux En Primeur before retiring completely in 2019.
While the above is overtly subjective and overblown for effect the real question is, where does it leave us now? For all the controversy, a famous nip by the dog of Château Cheval Blanc, a few court cases, and recently some wines awarded the coveted 100 points by Mr Parker being rated well below that by todays varied band of critics his legacy to the wine industry, slightly ironically, is that they all do so using a numerical score.
Today we have a wide range of critics with differing tastes who rate wines with a score reflecting how close to the perfectly harmonious sensory experience the wine achieves against what it has set out to achieve. It would be folly to try to compare a Pauillac with a Champagne so no critic sets out to do that, each wine gets rated against the perfect version of itself. Nor are scores there to be ‘invest ability’ points, although widely adopted by investors they are always aimed at the wine drinker, almost always matched with a tasting note also aimed at the drinker. (We’ll talk about wine investment equally controversially at a later date). Simply put a well scored wine is a good example of its type, it doesn’t guarantee you’ll like it but when experimenting with different wines you’ll know its a good representation of its kind.
This leaves us with two main problems, critics not being consistent with each other and a perceived points inflation. Critics are human and not every scale used overlays perfectly with another. Is there some unconscious bias related to grape varieties, styles or places each individual loves? Sure but remember not many years ago winemakers were widely accused of adjusting their style to accommodate the tastes of Mr Parker. Today there are too many critics for one to have such influence so there are no longer accusations of styles being adjusted which just leaves us with perceived points inflation.
Some blame the critics of points inflation to seek attention but the real reason for points inflation is that wines are being made better than they used to be. The pleasant reality for the wine drinker is that while the adopted scale of each critic has remained the same, winemaking gets better all the time so the only thing difficult to deny is that ‘average’ has been pulled up a few points over the years.
We at 92 Or More recognised this and while it would have been so much easier to use the old standard of 90 points to be a great example of a wine type we narrow our range to 92 points or more so you can shop quickly and with confidence.