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Chasing the points 
Jamie Goode finds himself in a bit of dilemma about Robert Parker's ratings, and has a close encounter with insidious influence of the point-chasing mentality himself.

I'm in two minds about Robert Parker and his all-conquering 100 point scale for rating wines. One the one hand, kudos to him for spotting a need (the consumer's, for guidance), devising an easy-to-understand scale, and then implementing it so well. His palate is pretty self-consistent (though it may differ from yours or mine), and he has worked hard to rate a serious number of wines. No one other critic has come close to touching the influence he has on the wine world.

On the other hand, one of the ugliest facets of the modern wine world is the rise of the point chasers—people who buy wine solely on the basis of Parker's ratings. And they certainly exist. I remember the first time I encountered one of these individuals, an American scientist I was sitting next to at a dinner. He quite proudly announced that there wasn't a single wine in his cellar rated less than 90 by Parker. Hmmm. You can guarantee that any wine that gets a 95+ rating from the big man will sell out in hours, and that the next vintage will probably see a sizeable price hike.

It would be a bit unfair to blame Parker for the behaviour of his little disciples, but his influence on the market is huge. It didn't used to be quite as bad in the UK, but nowadays there are few merchants that don't use his scores in promoting their wines. Phoning up about some of the Bordeaux 2000 last week I had some merchants breathlessly quoting Parker scores to encourage me to bite. Worse still, some were quoting Wine Spectator scores—a similar 100 point scale (derivative), but with less consistency and authority than Parker. Uuugh!

However much we may dislike point scoring, the fact that everyone else seems to be doing means that there's a danger it will get to us all in the end. For a start, we have to live with the market distortions that high scores bring. If a region is written up in glowing terms, then American (and to be honest, also some European) collectors who may have previously ignored these wines are suddenly alerted to them. They then wade in and buy up all the top-rating wines, pushing up prices rapidly. Aside from this, scores have an insidious influence on how we view wine. I'm no fan of points, but I had a moment of temporary insanity these week when I found out Parker's score for the 1998 D'Arenberg Dead Arm Shiraz. He gave it 96/100, apparently, which is higher than his score for the current release of Penfolds Grange (the 1996 vintage, a stunner, which scored 'just' 92/100). Now the Dead Arm, a wine I've bought in the past, is positively cheap for a 96 Parker point wine, at just £18 a pop. It's likely the price will rise substantially as the point chasers buy up all the remaining stock. Should I get some now, while I still can? But sanity prevailed. I tasted the 98 Dead Arm a few months back and, while itís a good wine, I wasn't tempted at the current price. Parker's score has come out, but the wine hasn't changed at all. It is still the same wine that I didn't want to buy. And I trust my own palate, so I won't be buying any now.

Here's my plea. By all means take guidance from the well known critics. But don't blindly chase scores. It's ugly behaviour. They are, to a large degree, a bit of a nonsense (see Scoring wines: does it measure up?). Taste plenty of wines and learn to trust your own palate, and let the point chasers get on with their own altered view of reality in a parallel universe of scores out of 100.

 

 

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