I am saying that grade inflation is endemic to the wine industry. I think there’s no knowing exactly why, but being number one is a very powerful motivator, even subconsciously. You really have to ask yourself, after tasting all these high scoring wines, just what some of these critics were thinking.
That would lead me to critique the critics, which is easy. They seem to have an unnatural tendency to believe their own bullshit, think that rating wine is somehow closer to calculus than alchemy, often lack humility, and trust that they are the final arbiter of what a wine may, and may not be. If they never smelled rosemary in a malbec then it simply can not exist. Certain aspects of wine, such as tannins and acidity are empirically knowable, and they are perfectly tuned instruments that will tell you how acidic or tannic a wine is. Forget the outside influences that challenge mere mortals, wine reviewing is objective, they’ll tell you. I will laugh in their faces of course but that won’t stop them, won’t even slow them down because they too are in on the scam.
Wine ratings have become a scam my friends. People have spent the better part of three decades training their palates to align with those of the major critics. People go out and buy a 95 point and when they can’t find those 95 points they start making excuses. The wine’s too young, it hasn’t been allowed to breath enough, my palate’s not as good as the critic’s.
Bullshit. 95 points doesn’t mean 95 points, that’s the only broadly applicable answer.
And 95 points no longer means 95 points, not that it did for long, because wine reviews are subjective and personal, and scores are vomited in order to sell stuff. Issues of magazines, subscriptions, events, and yes wine as well. The entire industry is complicit; retailers and producers who excessively promote the scores, consumers who rely on the scores, reviewers who dole out the scores. We would need only one part of this puzzle to drop out for the whole house of cards to come tumbling down, but it’s not going to happen. We are humans, and that ladies and gentlemen makes us lazy.
It’s laziness that drives all of this. We want to know how good a wine is by reading a number. We want to sell more wines without having to taste them or even talk with the consumers, we want to sell more subscriptions but don’t necessarily have the resources or desire to put in the effort. Higher scores are the answer!
Yes, this is the several hundredth time this issue has been discussed, and it will be far from the last. The bottom line is that the importance assigned to point scores is out of whack with the utility they actually provide, maddening the situation. Well, that and the fact that simply assigning high scores, as opposed to accurately describing a wine’s attributes, seems to be the definition of being a successful wine critic these days.
It’s all a crazy system we’ve put in place, and we now have to live with it. It’s driving prices up on many wines, providing an easy shorthand for people with more money than wine knowledge. That is probably the worst of this scam’s effects, but in this case it’s not really a scam -- the highest scores are still reserved for the best wines in almost all cases, highest now being 96 and above while just a decade ago those wines might have been awarded 91 to 95 points. You see, it’s always a good idea to keep something in reserve. If in fact the wines are getting higher scores because they are getting better, is something imminent going to happen that will arrest that process? I think not, so the logical conclusion is that we are coming perilously close to running out of points. Our very own debt ceiling-style crisis, and I am afraid of the grand bargain we’ll devise to extricate ourselves for this pile.
I’m not sure how to end this rant, because honestly that is what it has become, though I like to think of it more as a rousing warning shot. Nothing is going to change en masse. People have to have faith in their own palates to a degree, but we all can’t taste everything we want to buy, so the lazy reliance on shorthand is in fact something of a necessity. People, smart people at that, believe that the proliferation of wine writers in this modern age will somehow have a tempering effect on the prevalence of the 100 point scale. Something tells me that that the greater the competition, the greater the effort to differentiate oneself. Everyone wants to come out on top, and we’ve seen where that path takes us.