Vol 3 No 16 The Judgment of Paris Tasting Revisited: and what it means for ratings

Steven Spurrier, a British graduate of the London School of Economics moved to Paris in 1964 with 14 years of experience at Christopher and purchased a wine shop of the Rue Royale from an elderly woman. The shop, Les Caves de la Madeleine, became widely respected and he pioneered allowing clients to taste before buying. In 1973, he founded L’Academie  du Vin, the first wine school in France. As California wines were becoming talked about and quality was improving he decided to hold a tasting comparing both French and American Cabernets and Chardonnays to see if the American wines could hold up to the French Bordeaux’s and Burgundies.

The competition was held on May 24, 1976 and were it not for a slow news days might have gone unnoticed had it not been for George M. Tabor it might have gone unnoticed for a long time, which the French would have likely preferred. Tabor heard of the tasting comparing wines of the two countries at the Intercontinental Hotel and as it turned out was the only reporter to cover it.

While the story is a remarkable one, the movie, Bottle Shock had nothing to do with the tasting and everything to do with Hollywood’s perception of it. Tabor had even threatened to sue and probably should have as its inconsistencies, as with the later film Sideways, made both irrelevant, although the former increased demand both at home and abroad for California wines, and the latter, uplifted Pinot Noir (driving prices to the moon, Alice, the moon!), and decimating demand for Merlot (this despite the fact that there were some excellent Merlot’s but much of it was plonk). Suddenly Pinot was at eye level and Merlot relegated to the bottom shelf.

Some misconceptions about the tasting: first, Spurrier, a lover of French wines, never intended it to be a competition but merely to see if California wines were similar in quality to the French. In order to lessen the competition over which was better, no official rating scale was used, merely 20 points per wine to awarded as the tasters chose. All the tasters came with strong credentials and were French, except for Spurrier, and an American, Patirica Gallagher, who was with Spurrier’s l’Acadamie du Vin. Neither of their scores were counted but that is a moot point because as a rule they were never the best or the worst scores but at least impartiality was achieved.

One French judge, Odette Kahn, editor of La Revue of France was so embarrassed by how she ranked two of the California Cabs above three top Bordeaux that she demanded her scores be removed and called the tasting a charade… nevertheless her scores were published and computed in the results.

Here are the combined results of the wines highlighting best and worst of each country (Individual ratings for white wines were not provided in the book or in the article:

Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars ’73 Cab 1 16.5//10 16.5//10
Ridge Vineyards Monte Bello ’71 Cab 5 17//7 17//7
Heitz Martha’s Vineyard Cab ’70 7 17//2 15//7
Clos Du Val Winery ’72 Cab 8 14//2 14//2
Mayacamas ’71 Cab 9 14//3 14//3
Freemark Abbey ’69 Cab 10 15×2//5 15//5
Ch. Mouton-Rothschild ’70 2nd Gr Pauillac* 2 16×2//11 16//11
Ch. Montrose ’70 2nd growth St. Estèphe 3 17//11×2 17//11×2
Ch. Haut-Brion ’70 1st Gr Pessac-Graves 4 17×2//8 17×2//14
Ch. Leoville-Las Cases ’71 1er Growth St. Julien 6 14//8 12×4//8

 

Ch. Montelena -’73 Chard (Grgich) Napa 1
Chalone ’74 Chard Pinnicales 3
Spring Mtn ’73 Chard Napa 4
Freemark Abbey ’72 Chard Napa 6
Veedercrest ’72 Chard Napa 9
David Bruce ’73 Chard Santa Cruz 10
Meursault Charmes Roulot ’73 2
Beaune Clos de Mouches J. Drouhin ’73 5
Batard-Montrachet Ramonet-Prudhon 7
Puligny-Montrachet Les Pucelles Dom Leflaive ’72 8
 

Individual ratings for white wines were not provided  in the book or in the article

 

Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Steven_Spurrier_(wine_merchant)

(Spurrier made every effort to keep the tasting unbiased by excusing himself and his employee Patricia Gallagher from the ranking but they would not have influenced the results as only  with one wine did they outscore the French and by only one position (1 vs 2), and in no case did they post the lowest.)

The French had complained that Bordeaux wines take longer to age than California and that is why the red wines from California are 1970 and the French, 1970, and excellent year and only one 1970 while the California wines were all 1970, also an excellent year. Oddly, subsequent tastings using the 20-point UC Davis scoring system, including the 30th Anniversary tasting in 2006, showed the California wines all improving in quality while the French either held but most deteriorated.

TB’s take: This is just one more example of why YOU, dear reader, are your own best wine taster. Imagine for a moment having one of those judges for dinner and trying to impress them with a wine that Parker or some other bloke gave a 90, and they didn’t like it! You just blew a lot of money and got embarrassed to boot. Why not serve a wine that YOU like and simply say “this is one of my favorite wines, I hope you enjoy it.” Hey, if they don’t like it they aren’t out any money…nor are you!

I will close with this:
“People spend too much time tasting wine; not enough time drinking it.” Andre Tschelistheff

Copyright© 2017 traderbillonwine.com

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Vol. 2 No. 26 – are 90+ ratings worth the price?

There is a popular website, Wine Till Sold Out (wtso.com), mentioned in post 24. I have used it and recommend it but with a caveat: every wine they offer has at least a 90 point rating. They are offered at deep discounts to the ‘retail price’. I am not challenging them on it being accurate, I am saying that when a wine gets a 90+ rating (and if you can’t get at least one from the dozens of raters out there – some with self-serving interests – you shouldn’t be in the business!), the winery ‘creates’ a suggested retail price that ‘they’ cannot sell below which is why you shouldn’t buy wine when visiting a winery unless it is hard to get. If you really like the wine then join their wine club. One reason I do like buying direct is that the haircut is huge due to our three-level marketing system which serves no one well, least of all the producer and the consumer.

A couple of years ago, a friend with a highly respected, but small winery, noted that when the high ratings, especially by Robert Parker, come out, the price of the wine is no longer surging. It may be at the winery which is trying to capitalize on the rating but not like before. Furthermore, just because it is priced at $50-100 doesn’t mean it will be bought there. That is a function of so many wines receiving ratings of 90 or above.

Just in the past year or so the fastest growing segment of the wine market in the U.S. finally moved up from the under $10 range, to the $10-20 range, which is good, although that isn’t hurting Two Buck Chuck much. In post 25, my Ten Commandments of Wine, I suggested moving up a notch and seeing if you can notice an appreciable difference. I also suggested that very few except true enophiles can find differences above the $30-40 range, and fewer still above $50.

This bring me back to WTSO: the savings are incredible – from the winery-set price – but most of the wines I see there I have never heard of before, meaning many are buyers of fruit, make the wine, using time-tested formulas for 90 point ratings (again, let me emphasize my dislike of the 100 point system, and preference for the UC Davis 20 point system). Most of those ratings are achieved by following Robert Parker’s taste buds.

Don’t misunderstand, prior to Parker, there was no quantification (except in tastings at fairs, etc. or the famous Judgment of Paris tasting which brought California wines to the fore. What he did was to set a standard of quality. Originally, many wines received ratings of 86-90, fewer 90-95, and only a handful above that with only a couple of 100 point ratings. Now, a winemaker who can’t expect a 90 rating wouldn’t think of submitting her wines for close scrutiny, because as one store owner quipped, “I can’t sell any wines with an 89 point rating, but I can sell all the wines with a 90 point rating, but I can’t get them.”

So, as TB has been fond of saying: globally, good wine is chasing out bad (TBC excepted). But it has now reached absurdity since most couldn’t discern the difference between an 87 point wine and a 90 pointer.

Think of a ’90’ as being the initiation fee at a club. Those achieving it either ‘jack up’ the price immediately, or in the case of a well-known brand like Lafite-Rothschild, the demand from the Chinese does it for them. Bordeaux producers making large volumes of wine set their price and sell all of it (albeit no longer in the U.S. and U.K., the former principal purchasers), but the ability for other producers to do that has dissipated due to the huge number of competitors. Remember too, that a rating is on the ‘type’ of wine or the varietal, which you may or may not like. A good friend, cannot stand and recognizes any Pinot Noir and won’t/can’t drink it. I know, we have tried repeatedly to fool him and it almost makes him sick…must be some chemical inherent in the wine (?).

So now you have millions of gallons of wine in warehouses (expensive), in the producers cellars (taking up valuable space), and on retailers shelves. What’s a winemaker to do? Enter WTSO, which from what I can determine is one of the few that is approved of by the producers (based on limited questions).

Imagine you are a producer with a big inventory overhang. You could offer them to a distributor at a low price (provided the wine is not being offered publicly, such as an older vintage), for a pallet (roughly 50 cases or 600 bottles), and get immediate cashflow – the mothers milk of a winery. WTSO, unlike Trader Joe’s or other retailers, will offer it on their site, but they are generally up for an hour or less before being ‘sold out’.

The offering looks like this:

93 Pt. La Mannella Brunello di Montalcino 2011
93 rating and 65% off!

Free Shipping on 3 or more


Comparable Price*: $85.00
Yesterday’s Best Web Price (With Shipping): $N/A
Our Price:

$29.99

Buy Now

wine bottle Description
Appellation Brunello di Montalcino
Unit Size 750 ml
Varietal/Grapes Sangiovese
Vintage 2011
Country Italy
Region Tuscany
Alcohol Content 14.50

Here are the key points:

1.Comparable Price – nebulous because most have no ‘comparable’. Do they mean what it would cost in a wine shop? Winery (they used to say ‘retail price’ which was the one set by the winery per law).

2.Yesterday’s Best Web Price – lately they are like this one with a strikeout through the price, so it is useless.

3. Their price and discount to the ‘comparable price’. Also the number of bottles you need to purchase to get free shipping – a very good deal! the number of bottles required for this is inversely proportional to the price (i.e. $100= 1 bottle; $20 = 3 bottles, etc.)

4. The point rating can come from any number of critics, WTSO members (?), Wine Spectator, Wine Advocate, etc., so you have to know which ones are reliable and which have their own interests at heart.

Before you think this is a scam consider, that it is an offering price, you have all the information you need (and some you don’t) to make an informed decision. That is all that business ethics require. I have purchased wine from them and found contacting customer service easy and responsive. I purchased some wine that was delivered in extremely hot weather. When I checked the bottle temp it was 90 degrees! They replaced it for me at no cost and held it until I felt it was safe to deliver and pointed out that they will hold the wine for you for up to a year (they ship quickly so if you are going to be away for a few days have them hold it, since a signature is required).

The point is that they try to serve their clients needs (both buyers and sellers), and judging from the volume of transactions, do both well. You, the buyer get the wine at a reasonable price, while the producer helps cashflow without damaging the value of future offerings.

But if they have a dozen or more offerings each and every day, what does this tell you about the retail price? It is too high…that’s Econ 101!

That translates to value for you, but note that ‘cult wines’ don’t face this problem: they have member lists, usually full and not taking names, small production, perhaps 250 cases, and if you want that, and can afford it, go for it. Personally, I would rather see the winery get 100% of the retail price, rather than distributors (some of whom are less than reputable and some downright lazy). The problem with wine club membership is this: shipping adds greatly to the cost, but in many areas like Minnesota, where TB lives, you ae not going to be able to get many of the best wines without joining.

As the popular phrase goes, “it’s complicated”.

Hope you found this useful and remember to support wineries you like, local wine shops that provide information and tastings, and keep trying new wines and ‘inching’ up your prices, that goes for restaurants where the biggest markup is on the cheapest wines.

Best,

Trader Bill ©traderbillonwine.com 2016

 

 

 

Vol. 2. No.24…TB’s new, improved rating system for wines!

In 1972, TB graduated from college and taken a job at Western Bancorp (later First Interstate Bancorp and now part of Well Fargo), in the Investment Department where he and his boss and mentor, F. Alden Damon, managed the bond portfolios of the 11 smaller banks. Those were largely comprised of municipal bonds, so he learned to distrust Moody’s and S&P bond ratings as they were higher for similar credits on the East Coast than west of the Mississippi.

Deciding to go back to school to work on a Master’s, at night, he had a finance class that required a term paper. He submitted one on “A New System for Rating Municipal Bonds”. The prof questioned him on it and said if you pursue it don’t expect a good grade, because Moody’s and S&P already do that. Really? Frustrated but determined to continue with the project he worked on it, drawing on some research of a predecessor at WBC. Focusing on New York City, TB showed how that rating should have been much lower than the ‘A’ it carried, for many reasons including demographics, amount of debt service, and several other factors. Figuring he would probably get a ‘B’ or even a ‘C+’, he didn’t put his heart into it. In other words an adequate job but not a stellar one, thanks Dr. Dunn!

When the papers were graded, mine had an ‘A1/A+’ on it…huh??? Furthermore, he told the class it was the best he had received and even read it to the class. What caused his change of mind? NYC’s problems were finally coming out and it was on its way towards the biggest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history! What had the rating agencies done? Lowered it to ‘Baa/BBB)’. In other words, using ‘my’ rating system would have predicted dire if not drastic possibilities, while the agencies glossed over it.

What is the point? Well, besides prof’s needing to encourage new thought, it is that all ratings are not created equal. Nothing is more true than subjective tasting of wine.

Consider the Judgment of Paris tasting the showed the quality of California wines was on a par with French wines. Quel horror! Even then on the second pass when they reversed the order there was some differentiation but generally close, except for the French judge who called it a travesty. They were using a system similar to the UC Davis 20-point system mentioned in the previous post. Imagine if they had been using the Parker (or similar) 100-point system, where 50 is the base and after all elements, 25 points are subjective – that’s 1/4 of the total and 50% of the scoring area! Gimme a break!

Parker defends his system but adds (as mentioned in that post):

“Scores, however, do not reveal the important facts about a wine. The written commentary that accompanies the ratings is a better source of information regarding the wine’s style and personality, its relative quality vis-à-vis its peers, and its value and aging potential than any score could ever indicate.”  Robert M. Parker

Got that? They are meaningless comparing one rating with another on the same time, even under the same variables but when they are at different times independently, they are absolutely worthless!

Now drag that across, not the current three bond rating agencies, but perhaps two or three dozen wine critics with varying palettes and desired flavors (not to mention potential conflicts of interest by who they may represent – TB is shocked at this! Shocked!)

As mentioned in the prior blog, we have rating escalation (where no one tries to get you to buy a wine with a rating less than 90! So we have a lot of 91-93 ratings, fewer but still many 94-95 ratings and fewer still with 95-98 and 99-100 ratings. But even Parker has increased the number of 98-100 ratings since 1982 when he rated just two bordeaux wines that high. Here is a link to  a list of his 100-point scoring wines…you decide:  http://www.wine-searcher.com/robertparker.lml

So TB got to thinking. IF there is compression, we need a bigger scale. Here is TB’s proposal of a 1,000 point rating system!!! Consider that there would them be 100 categories of wines – 100 times the number in the current system. Imagine telling your friend that you own a 1,000 point wine and his is only a 980. What plonk that must be!

Here is a comparison to all three scales:

20-point       100-point                                         1,000 point

Appearance                            0-2                    0-5                                                     0-50

Color                                        0-2                     <             included in Appearance        >

Aroma/Bouquet                    0-2                    0-15                                                    0-150

Volatile Acidity                     0-2                     n/a

Total Acidity                          0-2                     n/a

Sweetness (sugar)               0-1                      n/a

Flavor (!)                                 0-1                    0-20                                                 0-200

Astringency                           0-1                      n/a

General Quality*                  0-2                    0-10                                                    0-100

*Only subjective category in UCDavis system; In 100-point it also included potential for further evolution and improvement – aging.

TB’s system has the advantage of making broader distinctions between a 94-95 point wine…TEN whole points…wow! Hopefully, you see this charade for what it is, because IF that became the norm, it would be even more impressive to say “my wine is a 950, yours is just a 940…peon!” But here is the incredible thing: even more price escalation! Because those ten points might now mean $50 more cost to the consumer! Yet it still might not impress if your guests tastes weren’t aligned with the raters.

UC Davis

17-20  Wines of outstanding character having no defects

13-16   Standard wines with neither outstanding character or defect

9-12     Wines of commercial acceptability with noticeable defects

5-8       Wines below commercial acceptability

Since Robert Parker’s was the first, here is his rating meanings:

  • 96-100 — Extraordinary; a classic wine of its variety
  • 90-95 — Outstanding; exceptional complexity and character
  • 80-89 — Barely above average to very good; wine with various degrees of flavor
  • 70-79 — Average; little distinction beyond being soundly made
  • 60-69 — Below average; drinkable, but containing noticeable deficiencies
  • 50-59 — Poor; unacceptable, not recommended

Here is a link that show the minor differences in various 100-point systems. if the same person was using any of the systems they should not vary by more than a point or two.  http://www.wine.com/v6/aboutwine/wineratings.aspx?ArticleTypeId=2

Now to throw a monkey-wrench into the works, here is a personal story: in 1976, TB moved to Reno, Nevada on a job transfer. We met lots of people but they only liked beer (guys) and wine coolers (girls). One day, one of them asked if I could teach them about wine. Having brought dozens of bottles with me in the car and wondering how they held up TB said he would do it, with one caveat: they would have to work. How so? They would have to score the wines using the UCDavis system which was the only one at the time. At first they balked, but reluctantly agreed. There were eight wines in the tasting, and it was amazing how close their scores were when they had to evaluate the variables of the wine. As a ringer however, TB inserted a bottle of Gallo Hearty Burgundy at the end. Bingo! That one took best overall.

So what did we learn? That differences in preferences can be overcome by paying attention to everything that comprises a wine…to hell with the critics. This is especially true when a winemaker can take his wine to a lab in Napa, Bordeaux, or other places and be told what they need to do to get a 90 rating from Parker. That is the problem with ‘Parkerization’. Question: do you want to live in a world where all the wine tastes the same? Not TB!

As they were leaving, they asked TB to arrange a trip down to Napa Valley. It was agreed but as they were leaving one friend came up quietly and said that his uncle owned a small vineyard there and we could probably visit it. Oh sure, no problem the then-wine snob, TB said. Only when we got down there did we find out that his uncle was Joe Heitz! His wines were the most coveted in California at the time. We spent a lovely Sunday on their deck drinking Riesling with sausages from the Sonoma Cheese Factory (there was none in Napa at the time!). Then Joe and Alice took us on a tour of the winery culminating with a tasting of their wines, including the 1974 Martha’s Vineyard Cab. TB loved it so much he bought a case at $25 a bottle…most expensive wine I had bought at the time! It was so good, however that whenever we had someone over we had a bottle…until there was just one left. Never drank it and finally sold it at auction for $800, more than recovering my cost of the entire case (also sold a bottle of 1992 Screaming Eagle, it’s first vintage made by Heidi Peterson Barrett, for $1,200 – a Jeroboam sold at the Napa Valley Wine Auction for $500,000, the highest price ever for that auction – along with many 1982 Bordeaux I bought on Parker’s recommendation but didn’t personally care for as did some of my friends who also bought futures. That was the vintage that ‘established’ Parker as the reigning guru, Robert Finnegan, had panned it, and was over-ruled by Parker.

What does TB drink today? Mostly wines in the $20-$40 range except for wines that are bought from the winemakers who have the passion I want. Not big estates, not corporate owned entities. Wines that taste different from year to year and are produced for the pleasure of the owner/winemaker…not some critic.

Another lengthy one but hope you found it interesting…and useful.

TB