Skip to main contentSkip to main content
You have permission to edit this article.
Edit
In honor of Independence Day, Napa Valley Register is providing unlimited access to all of our content from June 28th-July 4th! Presented by Pearson's Appliance
Local Tastes

Tim Carl, Local Tastes: Are wine scores trustworthy?

  • Updated

Citing “shenanigans” and hinting at an industry rife with pay-to-play schemes, quid-pro-quo pressures and payment for pre-public release of information, Lisa Perrotti-Brown, former editor-in-chief at The Wine Advocate — one of the first publications to grade wine quality using a 100-point scale — has left the publication. Her claims bring into question the trustworthiness and usefulness of wine-score-based publications.

Speaking to Wine-Searcher, Perrotti-Brown said, “There are other models now where you get wineries to pay huge amounts of money — I mean thousands of dollars — for an event table or to do this or that. And that's happening behind the scenes, and everybody's like, ‘Oh, yeah, no, they don't do pay-to-play, you know, there's none of that going on.’ It's just hidden and nobody realizes it.”

In response, Perrotti-Brown and with her business partner, Johan Berglund, along with a handful of minority-share investors, have recently launched a new subscription-based wine-review publication they call The Wine Independent. According to the company’s press release, they “seek a return to the high ethical standards initially championed by Robert M. Parker Jr. back when he started The Wine Advocate in 1978…”

A brief history of wine scores

Parker hired Perrotti-Brown in 2008 and then made her editor-in-chief of The Wine Advocate in 2013. At his retirement in 2019 the company was sold to Michelin Guides.

The keys to Parker’s early success as a wine critic were his adoption of the 100-point scale to rate a wine’s quality, pithy tasting notes, nearly photographic memory, and his unflinching confidence. Whereas other wine reviewers at the time might call a wine “sublime,” Parker often went out on a limb and called a particular wine “perfect.”

His reputation as the leading voice of wine criticism was probably sealed when he gushed over the 1982 vintage of Bordeaux wines, giving many of them 100-point scores and writing such things as, “There is no doubt that the 1982 Cheval Blanc is pure perfection in wine. From the penetrating and fascinating bouquet that offers up gobs of rich berry fruit, subtle herbs, toasty, smoky oak, minerals, and perhaps even a flower or two, to its extraordinary depth, concentration, balance, and length, this is the quintessential Cheval Blanc of our generation.”

The American public ate it up. What they seemed to love about Parker was his authoritative voice and his fondness for big, voluptuous wines. That Parker was not a trained wine professional made no difference. (He was a practicing lawyer until 1984). What mattered was that the wines he preferred were generally in line with the American palate and that people could easily understand that 100 was “better” than 99. Wines that were considered “thin” or overly “herbaceous” or mouth-puckering “tart” wines were rarely given high scores and over time such wines lost broad public appeal.

Beyond wine drinkers’ embracing of Parker’s methods, retailers, restaurants and institutional investors began to see the value in the simplification and certainty of this type of new kind of wine criticism. Wines that received high scores became highly sought-after commodities, leading to higher prices.

Competition, dwindling subscriptions and conflicts of interest

About the same time that The Wine Advocate launched, so, too, did other wine-focused publications such as the Wine Spectator in the United States and Decanter in the United Kingdom. Soon after, even more entered the fray, including The Wine Enthusiast, Wine & Spirits, most newspapers and eventually website-based publications like Burghound.com and vinous.com, which were quickly followed by a deluge of wine-focused apps such as Delectable, Wine Searcher, Cellar Tracker, and many, many more.

Charismatic figureheads such as Stephen Tanzer, James Suckling, Jancis Robinson, Antiono Galloni, René Gabriel, Eric Asimov, wife and husband team Dorothy Gaiter and John Brecher, Karen MacNeil, Jon Bonné, Steve Heimoff, Robert Balzer and Esther Mobley led many of these new enterprises. And like Parker, many of these wine critics gained near-celebrity status, with many of them embracing the 100-point scale or creating their own type of wine “grading” systems with the intent of helping consumers wade through the ever-expanding sea of wines flooding the market.

As the number of critics and wine publications expanded, so did the confusion. By the 1990s no longer was there only one authoritative voice pontificating on a wine’s quality. Now there were dozens, each with a different and often contradictory point of view.

Today, getting information about wine has become even more complicated. Thanks to ubiquitous social media, various wine-specific search engines (such as Wine-Searcher or the recently launched Pix.wine) and investment companies wholly focused on recommending wines based on their market-growth potential (e.g., vinovest.co), the world of wine criticism has entered a completely new phase.

Back when Parker had his one-man-created popular newsletter in the early 1980s, he was able to thrive economically through a subscription-only-based business model. The benefit of this model for wine criticism was that conflicts of interest were relatively easy to avoid. But as the public turned away from subscriptions — there were twice as many newspaper subscribers in the United States in the 1940s when compared to 2020, according to Pew Research — publications looked for alternative sources of revenue.

As wine criticism exploded and expanded into multimillion-dollar businesses, the line between customers and clients blurred. For example, if wine publications included winery ads but also rated said winery’s products, then consumers were left wondering for whom exactly those reviews were written — the wine consumer or the wine producer.

If a winery paid to be included in a publication’s consumer wine event (such as those held by nearly every wine publication today), then any scores received by said winery that were higher than a winery that did not pay to be included were looked upon with suspicion. Consumers and producers alike wondered, “Did the payment for inclusion influence the ratings?”

And it has only gotten worse. Some wine criticism publications sell special “preview” subscriptions for thousands of dollars so that subscribers might get wine scores before the general public sees them.

For many, such previews border on a form of insider trading or collusion, which, according to Wikipedia, is a “deceitful agreement or secret cooperation between two or more parties to limit open competition by deceiving, misleading or defrauding others.”

For them, getting scores early means that they can purchase high-scoring wines before anyone else and then sell them at a higher price after the scores go public.

'Shenanigans'

After initially buying a 40% stake in The Wine Advocate in 2017, in 2019 Michelin Guides (owned by the French-owned Michelin tire company) purchased the remaining 60%.

In 2019 Forbes quoted Perrotti-Brown speaking about the transfer of ownership “… [a] code of ethics ‘was the cornerstone that Robert Parker established when he began building his publication. Each and every member of our team of critics are bound within their employee contracts to our strict independence policy to ensure their impartiality with regards to the reviews and tasting notes they produce.’

"The Wine Advocate does not accept advertisement nor any form of money/payment from wineries for any participation in events — it is 100% subscriber funded; the Michelin Guide is supported by those who buy their books and industries that are related to food and travel but do not include businesses they would review such as restaurants and hotels, as well as being subsidized by the Michelin tire company.”

Although not calling out the Michelin Guides or the Wine Advocate directly — Perrotti-Brown wrote in an email that the “selling of ‘previews’ is not done at The Wine Advocate” — in the 2022 press release for the newly launched Wine Independent, Perrotti-Brown highlights that the broader world of wine criticism has become fraught with conflicts of interest.

“… numerous conflicts of interest have come to light in recent years, such as selling event tables to wineries and score previews to retailers through ultra-premium subscriptions. Some supposedly reputable publications,” she said.

The Drinks Business, an online publication that reports on the beverage industry, quoted Perrotti-Brown as she lamented in an interview that such “'shenanigans’ were the source of ‘large amounts of money’ for wine-criticism titles, but [are] a potential revenue stream that she will eschew on ethical grounds.”

The future of wine criticism

Will the confidence in wine criticism ever rebound? Will wine consumers be able to sift through a sea of voices, each clamoring to be heard? Time will tell, and watching the public’s response to the launch of The Wine Independent will be a good indication.

“I would encourage her [Perrotti-Brown] to follow her instincts,” wrote Antiono Galloni in an email. “It's great to see her starting something new. I hope she is massively successful."

When I asked Perrotti-Brown how it felt to launch a new company into such a challenging marketplace, she was cautiously optimistic.

“After having been an employee working for a company where I had little control over important business decisions, I feel an immense sense of freedom now,” she wrote in an email. “I can now do things the way I feel they should be done. But of course, this does not come without trepidation. Every new venture carries risks.”

Pop the cork on Napa Valley wine!

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Related to this story

In a show of tenacity, perseverance and community, the Napa Valley Vintners, organizers of the annual Premiere Napa Valley (PNV) wine auction, brought in $2.7 million last weekend.

Get up-to-the-minute news sent straight to your device.

Topics

News Alerts

Breaking News