It has been pointed out before today that awarding quality points to wines may well be a straightforward way to express a critical opinion about those wines, but it does nothing to inspire people about the wines themselves.2 Indeed, points seem to be more useful for wine collectors, investors and status seekers than for wine drinkers — high-scoring wines increase in value through time and can be endlessly talked about.3
Therefore, there has clearly been a feed-back loop between the scores and the investors, where the points have crept upwards in response to collectors investing only in high-scoring wines. No-where has this issue been more obvious than in the scores from the wine-advice newsletter The Wine Advocate (started in 1978), particularly those scores coming directly from the man who invented the 100-point scale: Robert M. Parker Jr.4
This issue was briefly discussed by Blake Gray back in 2013 (Grade inflation at a glance: a look at Robert Parker's 1987 Wine Buyer's Guide). He quoted some of the scores and comments from the very first edition of The Wine Buyer's Guide (as it was then called), published in 1987; and he emphasized that the scores are much lower than they became in later editions of that book.
I thought that it might be interesting to do a more thorough job of this comparison, if only for the record. So, let’s compare “Early Parker” with “Late Parker”.
One part of the comparison can be taken from Alex Hunt’s 2013 article What's in a number? Part the Second (on JancisRobinson.com) There, he provided a frequency histogram of 43,094 of Parker’s wine-quality scores from the online edition of The Wine Advocate, spanning the previous four years. We can use these data to represent the scoring paradigm of “Late Parker” wine assessment.
Here is that histogram. The quality scores are along the horizontal axis, with the vertical axis showing us what percentage each score is of the total number of scores. I have discussed this graph before (Biases in wine quality scores), and noted two biases: a score of 89 is less than we might expect while a score of 90 is greater; and similarly for scores of 99 and 100.
It now remains to provide a comparable sample of the scoring paradigm of “Early Parker” wine assessment. I have done this by going through the first (1987) edition of Parker's The Wine Buyer's Guide, manually transcribing the 3,310 scores recorded therein.5 I then produced my own frequency histogram of these data.
Here is the histogram. In this case, the vertical axis shows the counts for each score, rather than the percentage, while the horizontal axis goes all the way from 50–100. Comparing the two graphs, it is clear that “Parkerization” has involved a shift from an average quality score of 83–84 points to one of 89–90. That 6-point shift is hardly insignificant.
In this case we cannot necessarily determine cause and effect. Is the shift caused by allocating higher scores to the later wines? Or is it caused by progressively selecting better wines through time, while ignoring lower-scoring wines? Or did the winemakers progressively make wines that better suited Parker's palate? In truth, it is probably all three.
What is obvious, though, is that Parker’s original plan was abandoned somewhere along the line. In a 1989 interview with the Wine Times he noted:
Mine from the very beginning is a 50-point system. If you start at 50 and go to 100, it is clear it's a 50-point system, and it has always been clear. Mine is basically two 20-point systems with a 10-point cushion on top for wines that have the ability to age.The second 20-point system (70–90 points) can be seen in both histograms, but the first 20-point system (50–70 points) is completely absent from “Late Parker”. Actually, the first histogram shows that “Late Parker” ended up as a single 20-point system (80–100 points).
Moving on, we can note quite a few other features of the “Early Parker” scores.
First, Parker described his 1987 book’s scoring system with these words:
|50-69||is a D [grade]; it is a sign of an imbalanced, flawed, terribly dull or diluted wine|
|70-79||represents a C [grade], or average mark|
|80-89||is equivalent to a B [grade] and such a wine, particularly in the 85–89 range, is very, very good|
|90-100||is equivalent to an A [grade] and is given for an outstanding or excellent special effort.|
Second, there is a distinct preference for even numbers, except for 55, 65 and 75. Indeed, the small values are mainly: 55, 60, 65, 70, 72, 75, 78 and 80. Put the other way around, some numbers are not used at all (51, 53, 54, 57, 61, 63, 64, 66) and some are hardly used (51, 61, 71, 81, 91). Clearly, there is no pretense of any precision in the scores for C and D grade wines.
Third, the preference for a score of 90 over 89 is even more marked in the “Early Parker” graph than for “Late Parker”. Indeed, there are 2.8 times as many scores of 90 as there are of 89! On the other hand, the excess of 100 over 99 is similar in both graphs.
Finally, we could also look at the scores for the different wine-making regions. The book provides scores for 12 different regions, 6 of them in France.
The final graph shows each of the 12 frequency histograms summarized as a separate box-and-whisker plot. The scores for each plot are shown horizontally, as expected, with several characteristic summaries illustrated above them. The boxed area shows the range for the middle 50% of the scores, with the vertical center-line indicating the median (50% of the scores are above the median and 50% below). The horizontal line (whisker) on each side of the box indicates the range of most of the rest of the scores. However, unusual (outlying) values are shown by individual symbols.
Comparing these 12 plots tells us several notable things. For example, most of the low scores come from the Rhône and California wines. At the other extreme, most of the top scores come from the Bordeaux wines (no surprise there!). The Provence wines all get pretty much the same score, as do the wines from Tuscany. On the other hand, the wines from Champagne and Spain cover the widest ranges of points. The Port wines do best on average, although this presumably comes from tasting only vintage wines, which have already been selected as best by the producers.
The “Parkerization” of the wine scores through time is definitely a real phenomenon (c. 6 points), not just a figment of people’s imagination (or anti-Parker sentiment).
1 David Shaw in 1987 (Wine writers: squeezing the grape for news): “Frank Prial of the New York Times is almost universally regarded as the best wine writer on any American newspaper. Indeed, many wine makers say Prial helped alter the course of California wine making when he wrote in 1981 that most California wines were "too aggressive, too alcoholic ... clumsy, overpowering" — too big and heavy to properly complement food.” A few years later, Robert Parker reversed this trend towards food wines.
2 David Shaw in 1987 (Wine critics influence of writers can be heady): “… others call Parker's 100-point scale a "gimmick" that inflates customers' expectations, exploits the insecure consumer’s desire for a simple buying guide and, worse, reduces the subjective, sensual experience of drinking wine to an objective, numerical standard far more rigid than any palate, even Parker’s, can justify.”
Elin McCoy in 2005 (The Emperor of Wine: The Rise of Robert Parker, Jr. and the Reign of American Taste): “I find scoring wine with numbers a joke in scientific terms and misleading in thinking about either the quality or pleasure of wine, something that turns wine into a contest instead of an experience.”
Eric Asimov in 2019 (It’s time to rethink wine criticism): “The post-Parker era actually began a decade ago, as more critical voices and points of view began to be heard and heeded. It’s time to re-examine the nature of American wine criticism today, a methodology that Mr. Parker helped both to popularize and to institutionalize. And it’s time to consider a better model that might be more useful to consumers, a system that would empower them to make their own choices rather than tether them endlessly to critics’ bottle-by-bottle reviews.”
3 David Shaw in 1999 (He sips and spits — and the world listens): “[Parker’s] detractors say he's played a significant role in skyrocketing wine prices and in what they see as the homogenization of many of the world’s wines into a single dense, overly concentrated "international style." These wines, they say, lack elegance and finesse, don’t age well and sacrifice the individual and indigenous character of many vineyards and winemakers.”
4 Parker from a 1989 interview with the Wine Times: “The newsletter was always meant to be a guide, one person’s opinion. The scoring system was always meant to be an accessory to the written reviews, tasting notes. That’s why I use sentences and try and make it interesting. Reading is a lost skill in America. There’s a certain segment of my readers who only look at numbers, but I think it is a much smaller segment than most wine writers would like to believe. The tasting notes are one thing, but in order to communicate effectively and quickly where a wine placed vis-à-vis its peer group, a numerical scale was necessary. If I didn't do that, it would have been a sort of cop-out.”
5 I did this in bits and pieces over a week. I cannot forget getting Repetitive Strain Injury back in the mid 1980s, when I spent months manually entering my field data (tens of thousands of numbers) into a computer for most of each weekday.