It used to be that if you wanted to know if a bottle of wine was worthy of a space on your bar, you simply looked at its score. Today, it’s not so easy. We sat down with Ian Mendelsohn, owner of and sommelier at Atlanta wine bar Vine & Tap (Mendelsohn also used to run the wine department at Christie’s Auction House), to better understand wine scores and whether or not they’re still relevant.
Q: For the uninitiated, what exactly is the wine score and how does the system work?
A: The short version is that Robert Parker, a former Baltimore lawyer, created a 100-point scoring system in the early 80s with his publication The Wine Advocate. Before that, the U.S. wine industry was very young and the only rating system that existed was a British five-star system that nobody really understood.
Q: And how did the system take off?
A: The 100-point system was a great way to convey opaque knowledge in a way people could understand, and over the next 30 years, other wine trade publications followed suit. Retailers loved it because they could just plop a bottle on the shelf with the score and it would sell.
Q: So what’s the problem?
A: The inherent problem was first that you couldn’t really tell a difference between a 96 and a 95 point wine without reading lengthier descriptions. But ultimately, the biggest problem was that what developed was a “Parker-ized” wine, meaning wineries were making wines to please that one specific palette.
Q: How would you describe Parker’s palette?
A: Big, forceful, overripe wines, which lead to cult California wines. But people can’t spend $1,000 on a cult wine, especially after the recession hit, so sommeliers around the world were looking for other areas with great wines and values that weren’t from the benchmark areas, like California, Burgundy and Bordeaux. The problem was, wines from smaller regions didn’t get big scores because they weren’t made in that big fruit-forward style. Likewise, wineries using less oak weren’t getting great scores. It was all based on just this one person’s preference and so great wines were being left out.
Q: So what do you see happening today?
A: Over the last 10 years there’s been a backlash against that score, especially as blogs have made wine commentary much more democratic. So now the wine community has started plugging these wines from faraway places, and renowned sommes like Rajat Parr started pushing for wines that had more balance, more acidity, lower alcohol and less tannins. We started putting more emphasis on food pairings, and sometimes the biggest wine doesn’t go with every food. Plus, Parker sold The Wine Advocate in 2012 and semi-retired, which was a turning point.
Q: So, what can consumers rely on today to help them find the best wines?
A: Well, with scores mattering less, it definitely makes it harder, but it also makes wine more fun. Consumers now have more choice than ever and can try something from regions all over the world. Don’t be scared to try something new—a score is just a score. It’s just a single wine in a single place based on a single palette. But the truth is, a great wine is just a wine that’s great to you, not to somebody else. People need to learn to make their own decisions.
Q: So what’s your best advice for finding the best wines today?
A: I recommend finding a retail shop that has your kind of palette and simply trying lots of wine. If you don’t like it, try something else. Talk to your sommelier or try one of the new wine clubs. Give them a price range and get a mixed cased. Read some of the great wine blogs out there today, find people whose palette aligns with your own. Have fun with it!