it only got a 98 – what’s wrong with this wine?

Monday, August 13, 2012

My friend Christopher Chan, who runs the estimable Seattle Wine Awards and whose family owns a vineyard out here in Wallyworld, wrote the following query on my Facebong page:

“Paul - I read your latest reviews of QC & Figgins... curious as to what you think was missing from the two wines that you only gave them 98 pt reviews. What more could have made them ‘perfect’ scores / wines?”

My quick reply was this: “Christopher - That is an unanswerable question. Both were absolutely brilliant wines. Are you implying that anything lower than 100 means the wine is missing something? I can't agree with that.”

But upon further reflection, it’s a good and fair question, and it deserves a more thoughtful answer. So here goes...

In all my years of scoring and reviewing wines for Wine Enthusiast (I started in 1998) I have only awarded 17 wines scores of 98 or higher. Just three wines have received perfect 100s, three others 99s. The great majority of the 17 were syrahs made by either Christophe Baron or Charles Smith.

To the question then. What was “wrong” (or less than perfect) about the 99 and 98-ers? The honest, from the heart answer is, nothing was wrong. Nothing at all. These were all outstanding, exemplary, superlative wines. Why not give all 17 a perfect score then?

Well, for starters, they were tasted over a period of several years and vintages. Were I to line them all up today (what a grand tasting that would be!) I have no idea how I’d score them. Maybe they would all be 100s, and probably not. Wines dance and twirl, shimmy and shake; they glide and slide and wax and wane. They do not stand still!

What is more interesting to me is the fact that every one of these top scoring wines was reviewed in the past three years. In other words, I did not have a single 98+ wine until 2009, when the 2006 Royal City Syrah broke the 100 point barrier for the first time.

I have noticed a certain elevation in my scoring across the board in recent years, and I submit to you it is a reflection of the fact that wines from Washington and Oregon have improved substantially over the past decade. These regions are maturing, and they have decades of vintages behind them. Is it any wonder that with that extra experience, training and expertise, not to mention vine age, better vineyard locations and management, etc. etc., that the wines are genuinely better than ever?

I confess that the biggest surprise to me is that out of these 17 top-scoring wines, 10 are syrahs, 7 are either cabernets or Bordeaux blends. I don’t drink a lot of syrahs from Washington or anywhere else for that matter. I appreciate the wines immensely, but I don’t personally crave them. Am I over-compensating for my own lack of personal enthusiasm by scoring them higher? I doubt it, but you never know.

Back to Christopher’s question. What could have made these two 98s into perfect wines? On the given day (or days) that I tasted, reviewed and scored these wines, I would have known, deep in my gut, that they were 100 point wines. That they were not only the best examples of type and style that I had ever experienced, but that they could not in any way be more thrilling, deeper, longer, more ageworthy, balanced and expressive. A 98 means the wine is absolutely brilliant. A 99 means it has just an extra dollop of something. And 100 – well, that lightning has struck just 3 times in 14 years.


Chris Wallace said...

This illustrates the issue with "scoring" wines, by any scale. It attempts to reduce the tasters subjective impression to an objective score. And while doing that is very helpful to us consumers, it is neccesarily an imperfect process. And people who like to keep numerical tallies naturally gravitate to such questions as "what was missing to keep it from garnering the last two points?".

I think the obligation needs to be shifted away from the reviewer and on to the reader. The reviewer has done his/her job in providing the review and done their best at the near impossible job of translating their subjective sensory experience into a tasting note and a score. We as consumers have to accept that it is neccesarily an inexact evaluation represented by some pretty exact sounding numbers. We should not fuss about whether it was a 98 or 100; the increment of 2 points exists only for the reviewer at that moment in time. Consumers will only be disappointed if they attach too much significance to a numerical score. It is just the reviewers best effort at translating their sensory experience into words and numbers. I think consumers are better off reading reviews and interpreting them as "wow, 98 or 100, those wines blew that guy away. Better try some myself and see what I think".

Misha said...

Most people would kill for a 98. Sheesh. Ratings are subjective. That's okay. Gaming for that extra 2 points is like whining in reverse or something. I'd take a 98 with pride. Highest I've ever gotten is a 93 which were called excellent and given Gold medals. I'm okay with that.

Erik said...

I don't even know what to say about the "only 98 point" comment. wow

Anonymous said...

We are so honored you gave us kind words and not Numbers...for our Pinot Gris! So hard to get your arms around Numbers...Coeur de Terre Vineyard.

MagnumGourmet said...

As you noted, a wine's score can change over time. However, I would argue that it's unlikely to move more than a few points in any direction (other than holding it until it is past it's prime). So why not utilize the scoring description ranges?
70-79: Average
80-85: Good
86-89: Very Good
90-95: Outstanding
96-99: Extraordinary
100: Perfect
Some may say "why not just use a 6 point scale". Well, that just leaves you open to the why wasn't it a 5 vs. a 4. But I would argue that by being more broad, you'd get less of those type of questions.

PaulG said...

Interesting footnote - from an e-mail sent this morning by the folks at Wine Exchange. They are talking about the wines of Gerard Perse of Saint Emilion, whose Chateau Pavie earned its second 100-point Parker score recently. They write:
"That brings us to ask the question, "What price is perfection?" Well, in a vintage that saw a record 19 '100' point scores from Robert Parker, Pavie actually stands out as one of the best values on the market today. Other '100-pointers' like La Mission Haut Brion, Haut Brion, Petrus, and Le Pin can cost 3-5 times more, if you can find them at all. That makes Pavie kind of a deal as 'perfection' goes. In fact, the list of chateaux that have posted '100 point' scores and typically sells for under $500 is a rather short one."
So $300 is a deal for a 100 point wine. Guess that makes the 100 point wines from Washington a screaming deal, yes?

Anonymous said...

This first job of any reviewer is to be a good reporter. It doesn’t matter if you are reviewing movies, cars, appliances or wines. Detailed information helps the reader put a numerical rating into perspective. For example, perhaps a reviewer prefers an all-stainless Chardonnay, but the reader likes a little oak. By reporting details on the fermentation process, the reader with the oak preference might be interested in an oaky Chardonnay the reviewer didn’t like so much. Paul does a great job of reporting. It is our job as consumers to use our own experience to add value to any rating or review.

Nicolas said...

When will any white wine rise to the top of the scale? Red club only at 98 and above?

PaulG said...

Nicolas, you raise a good point. There is no intentional discrimination on my part, but the evidence is incontrovertible. I wonder how many 100 point, dry white wines have been scored by Parker or Wine Spectator? I cannot think of any at all.

Jim said...

The ratings of white wines versus red wines seems to be one of the biggest faults of the 100 point scale in my opinion. Let's say you have perfectly made Syrah, and a perfectly made Riesling. There is nothing wrong with either wine; they're varietally true, have perfect balance, hints of terroir and a bit of the winemakers touch on them. Nothing wrong with them at all, yet the Riesling will receive at most 94-95 points from any wine reviewer. The Syrah, however, while also a magnificient wine with the same great traits as the Riesling, gets 100 points for the same reasons. What's the difference? I'm not suggesting you can directly compare a Syrah to a Riesling, that's absurd. However when you're applying a numerical score to a perfectly made, perfectly satisfying Syrah and a perfectly made, perfectly satisfying Riesling, why does the Riesling get five points less? The same can be said for any white wine in Washington. To me, it makes little sense.

Perhaps this is just a result of what Parker has done to the industry. It does seem that reviewers who use the 100 point scale discriminate against certain varietals, and certainly moreso against white wines. Where are the 98+ point Merlots, Malbecs, Tempranillos, Cab Francs or Barberas? Why is it that it's mainly Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir and Syrah (and some blends) that get the 100 point ratings? The number itself obviously can't tell the whole story, but it's an unfortunate fact that many look at a score as an accurate indicator of a wines quality. The comments that go with the score tells you much more about the wine than the number at the beginning of the review. So my hat is off to you Paul, for taking the time to write great descriptions of the wines rather than just saying "Hints of blah blah blah. Long finish".

Here's my challenge to you, Paul: The next time you taste an absolutely wonderful dry or off-dry Riesling, Chenin Blanc, Pinot Gris, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Viognier, etc, and you find absolutely no faults in it whatsoever, AND you're not only satisfied but enamored by it, give it 100 points. It's time to turn the wine world upside down.

Anonymous said...

"Utterly perfect, the 2008 Chardonnay Marcassin Estate is a dead-ringer for the 2007, but slightly richer and longer, as hard as that may be to believe. This extraordinary effort is unquestionably the “Chardonnay of the Vintage.” In fact, it may be the “Chardonnay of the Decade.” Brioche, nectarine, citrus and orange blossom notes intermixed with a liqueur of rocks, great acid, phenomenal concentration and staggering length result in a sublime Chardonnay that should drink well for 15+ years". 100 Robert Parker

PaulG said...

OK, there's one perfect white wine. Although it would seem to beg the question, can a wine be perfect WITHOUT being so concentrated and unctuous as to be almost undrinkable?

Anonymous said...

15 years ago I had a 100 point wine -- a 1961 Chateau Latour. My friend intended to sell his one bottle because it became too valuable to consume. He purchased it while a graduate student in NYC in the late 1960s for $25. He called around and a wine merchant in Marin County said he'd pay $800 for the bottle, assuming it had been properly stored.

Just before getting in the car to drive from Davis to San Raphael he check the cork and in doing so pushed the cork down into the neck.

A wine emergency was declared. I arrived within minutes. I've never enjoyed a wine since that came within 5 points of it, yet alone 2. But then I've never paid $800 for a bottle of wine.

PaulG said...

Great story! Reminds me of a somewhat similar situation of my own. In the mid-1980s, just around the time that Parker was publishing his rave reviews of the '82 Bordeaux, I set out to begin a wine cellar. Feeling flush, I allocated some funds to buy a half case of the '82 Mouton - a 100 point wine. I paid about $40 a bottle (as a future) and stretched the six bottles out over the next 25 years. When it came time to move my cellar recently, I found the last of the Moutons. It too had become too valuable to drink, and I had already had 5 of them. So I cashed it in.

Joanna Breslin said...

Interesting stuff! I think the complaints about "only 98 points" are missing the point of the original question, which I think is a legitimate one, and is essentially "what makes a 100 point wine"?
Most of the highest scoring white wines are sweet. Parker did give 100 points to 1986 DRC Montrachet, though he ranked the vintage for whites at 82, and 100 points to 1988 Krug Clos du Mesnil, from a great Champagne vintage.I did not look any further, but dry Riesling? Savennieres? probably not.
And thank you, Paul, for pointing out that "phenomenal concentration" can indeed translate to "undrinkable"!

Bob Henry said...


Belatedly joining this conversation, here's how Robert Parker addressed the question:

Excerpts from Robert Parker on How He “Rates” Wines:

“The 1990 Le Pin [red Bordeaux, rated 98 points] is a point or two superior to the 1989 [Le Pin, rated 96 points], but at this level of quality comparisons are indeed tedious. Both are exceptional vintages, and the scores could easily be reversed at other tastings.”

Source: Robert Parker, The Wine Advocate (issue 109, dated 6-27-97)

“ . . . Readers often wonder what a 100-point score means, and the best answer is that it is pure emotion that makes me give a wine 100 instead of 96, 97, 98 or 99. ”

Source: Robert Parker, The Wine Advocate (unknown issue from 2002)

~~ Bob

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