the perfect score

Thursday, October 29, 2009

The December 1 issue of Wine Enthusiast, for whom I review wines, is now on the newsstands. For me, it marks an important milestone. In more than a decade of reviewing wines as a member of the magazine’s tasting panel, I have never given a wine a perfect score – 100 points.

In this issue, that (perhaps) lamentable track record has been broken. The 2006 Royal City syrah from Charles Smith received 100 points, awarded by me, verified by the magazine’s editors. A quick search of the magazine’s database pulls up just ten 100-pointers. 2005 Latour and Pétrus. Four dessert wines – a rare vintage Port, an even rarer Rutherglen muscat, an Avignonesi vin santo, and a Navarro Cluster Select riesling. Three reds from California – Williams Selyem 2007 Litton Estate pinot noir, Sloan 2002 red, Shafer 2004 Hillside Select. And now, the Royal City syrah.

It’s rare company for sure. And it has me thinking about what makes a perfect wine? Why this wine? What triggered that response in me?

I have tasted a few Parker 100-pointers over the years. Most memorably, I stumbled into a half case of the 1982 Mouton early in my wine-purchasing days. Bought as a future for $42 a bottle (a princely sum in the day), I watched in amazement as the stuff soared in value, at one time hitting close to $1000 a bottle.

That wine I’ve tasted repeatedly, and never once has it struck me as a perfect wine. So that was not a template in any way. Looking over the Wine Enthusiast list, I see that among the ten wines deemed perfect, the range of listed prices goes from $29 for the Navarro to $6000 for the Pétrus. And I’ll bet that the Navarro is far more rare. I have not tasted any of these listed wines, so none of them provided me a template either. I did recently enjoy a 2004 Pétrus which was quite good. I wasn’t scoring it, but I don’t recall that 100 POINTS!!! went ringing across my brain.

That’s exactly what happened the first time I tasted the Royal City. And the second time. And the third time. By the third time (all last spring) I was starting to pay attention to my inner Parker. It kept dogging me, like a dream you can’t shake, whispering to me “100 points, 100 points, 100 points...” Eventually, I began to pay attention.

Here are my complete notes from those tastings:

“In 2005 Charles Smith introduced three high-end Syrahs, all from the same vineyard, named Heart, Skull and Old Bones. They received Wine Advocate scores of 97, 98 and 99 respectively – a trifecta exceeded only by the three perfect scores awarded Quilceda Creek – and quickly sold out, despite their record-setting pricing, a down economy, and a consumer base generally uninterested in Washington Syrah. In 2006 Smith has made a wine better than each of these, by combining them into a single wine, now called Royal City Syrah. Rich scents of purple fruit, smoked meat, cedar, lead pencil, moist earth and so on proclaim a wine with genuine gravitas. Tasted on three separate occasions, it has repeatedly dazzled me. Though not due for release until this fall – hence shuttered and tight, when first opened – it is an immense and expressive wine, fully-realized and fully loaded. Decanted and tasted over the next 24 hours (!) it expanded in volume and opened into countless layers of flavors – a complete spectrum of berries and cassis, pepper and spices, wood smoke and toast, coffee and butterscotch. New World Syrah simply does not get any better from anywhere.

Re-taste (a month later): This is simply a perfect Syrah. There is nothing missing, nothing that could be better, nothing suggesting any shred of incompleteness. From the first sniff to the last sip, the wine delivers on all levels. Complex, beautifully balanced, powerful and detailed, it extends itself into a full throttle finish that continues to offer everything a Syrah lover could ask for – ripe and sweet fruit, bright acid, polished tannins, layer upon layer of earth and herb, and barrel accents that perfectly introduce the coffee, chocolate, soy and balsamic. This has the “It” factor.”

In retrospect, I can say that I neither sought to discover a perfect wine, nor did I have any particular aversion to awarding a perfect score. My feeling has always been that perfect is a highly subjective assessment, one that, like true love, cannot be hunted down. It must find you. When it does, you will know. It did, and I knew. That is as much of an explanation as I can provide.

7 comments:

SuburbanWineGuy said...

I purchased the 'Royal City' solely based on your review. I opened it the other day for no better reason than "it isn't going to get any better with age". I must say it was "perfectly balanced". My palate picked up Bing Cherry, deep purply plum on a gentle smooth finish.

Timinspokane said...

I had the Royal City syrah with Charles at Taste Washington Spokane. I was shooting pictures as a favor to Andy Perdue and Wine Press Northwest, and was fortunate enough to talk with him for awhile. He knew about the score for the wine at that time and poured us a full glass from a magnum he was chugging from (!). I must say, that was a mind blowing syrah, absolutely massive yet light on its feet. I don't know as much about scoring wines as Paul does, and probably never will, but that was a monster bottle of wine. I can totally understand that score. Certainly, high scores are subjective and can be influenced by ones own palate. I have had the 2002 Quilceda Creek 100 pount cab, and while it was really, really good, I personally have had wines I liked better. Were they technically "better"? Maybe not, but they were well made wines that rocked my little world. I am glad to see, though, that Wine Enthusiast doesn't hand out perfect scores like candy at Halloween. That cheapens the accomplishment. Oh - if you would like a picture of a slightly buzzed Charles hoisting a magnum of Royal City Syrah above his head while giving me the finger, let me know! I have a couple of them... classic stuff. Cheers!

Randy Pitts said...

Scores and the point system is debunked. Didn't you get the email? You're piece of the perfect score is outdated. People in my tasting room laugh about wineries tauting some silly score. Raher than regugitate some lame number, why not encourage clients to be their own judge?

Think about it. You walk into a bank with a list of 3 or 4 people who rated your wines and ask for a loan?! LOL!!! I'd walk their asses right out the door. Moreover, scores nor lists don't create brand loyalty, rather meeting the winemaker, walking the vineyards and talking passionately about wine is how one signs up for the club and stays loyal to that winery.

Get with the program! DTC and non-numeric wine reviews are the future;)

Cheers,
Randy

PaulG said...

Randy, You may thumb your nose at scores all you like – it's certainly your right to do so. But it is the wine trade that promotes scores relentlessly. I get several e-mails a day from retailers trumpeting scores. Every distributor catalog I receive in the mail does the same. I am also on record for many years as having serious concerns about this system. You might try reading my book, for example, to see some further thoughts. Final thought – the great majority of my wine writing is all about encouraging people to explore wine, learn about wine, make their own judgments. You are being a little harsh in the expression of your (no doubt) deeply felt convictions.

Tiny said...

100 P0INTS THE PERFECT SCORE! CAN'T WAIT TO TRY IT, I'VE HAD SKULL VERY,VERY GOOD. I'M WONDERING IF YOU GOT ANY HEAT FOR DROPPING THE PERFECT BOMB? IF IT'S IN THE HIGH 90s , IT WOULD BE HARD FOR ME TO KNOW WHAT'S PERFECT--I GUESS IT WOULD BE THE COMPANY I WAS KEEPING. I KNOW EVEYBODY HATES THE 100 POINT SYSTEM--SIMPLE FIX FOR THEM ,DROP THE FIRST 8O POINTS .SO ROYAL CITY GOT A 20! TRICK OR TREATER'S ARE STARTING TO SHOW I'M GOING TO HIDE IN WAITSBURG TILL IT'S ALL CLEAR! CARE TO JOIN ME?

GJ-captures said...

Paul, I'm with you people want some sort of qualification before setting down $100 a bottle or more. After reading some reviews I have no idea whether the reviewer loved or hated the wine. Also, you probably taste a 1000 more wines a year than I do, and I'm gonna throw it out there that you might have a slightly more advanced palette than me!! Scores do matter especially when the price goes above $50 a bottle, sorry Randy. I don't agree with every score that Paul, Harvey or Jay rates with wines from Washington BUT I do know who's palette I agree with. That's when the scores becomes useful. I'm a scientist so it is in my nature to quantify things!!

Mark Efron said...

What surprises me is the consistency you found from bottle to bottle. I remember one tasting, it was an Amon Ra tasting, where several bottles of the same vintage were brought by different people. The bottle variation was amazing... and stupefying. How could the same wine have so many different flavor profiles? I know, I know, storage, temp, light, blah blah... blah.This was different. Many vintages, many bottles. I think it's true: There are no good wines; just good bottles of wine.

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