What is a 100-point wine?
There are two schools of thought.
The simple answer is that, in one person’s opinion, a wine has met a set of criteria in full — no deductions, a perfect score.
The other way of thinking is more conjecture than definition. To some, it’s a validation of years of hard work and a coalescence of time, place and people — and, as often as not, a shipload of money.
Others say scores define a standard of quality at a particular point in time.
Some declare it’s all a bunch of hooey; after all, it’s just one person’s opinion, and it should not sway one’s enjoyment of a wine.
To muddy the water even further, not all 100-point wines are created equal. When the judge doling out the perfect score is Robert Parker, easily the most influential wine critic ever, the score takes on a life of its own, making the wine in question almost irrelevant.
Careers are made. Investments are returned. Prices rise, sometimes dramatically. And it’s all because a 68-year-old former lawyer from Baltimore really, really liked a wine and said so in the Wine Advocate, a wine ratings guide first published by Parker in 1978.
“We were on cloud nine for about six weeks,” said Chris Tynan, winemaker for Cliff Lede Vineyards, after the Wine Advocate proclaimed his 2013 Cliff Lede “Poetry” cabernet sauvignon was perfect in the December 2015 edition. “We enjoyed the moment and then we moved on.”
Well, Tynan and the winery owners moved on, so they say, except the wine now has a RP-100 next to it on wholesalers’ price lists. Sales people sell the wine exuberantly, without tasting it. Restaurants and shops buy it at exuberant prices, without tasting it. Exuberant consumers buy it just for the thrill of experiencing someone else’s idea of perfection. A handful of less-than-exuberant speculators buy low, sell high without any intention whatsoever of tasting this wine.
Love it or hate it, it’s impossible to deny the influence of an RP-100 wine.
Yet, I believe there is a point to 100-point wines. In the same way that Oscar-winning movies are forever remembered and used as a gauge of quality in their time, wine scores — especially scores from influential opinion makers — act as a marker.
“How Green Was My Valley” (best picture winner for 1941) was a great drama, but I’m not sure it takes home the top prize in 2016, or 1966, for that matter. But, in 1941, a story about struggles in a 19th century British coal-mining town, starring Walter Pidgeon, Maureen O’Hara and Roddy McDowall and produced by 20th Century Fox, had everything going for it — a 100-point movie!
A 1961 Haut Brion Bordeaux wine, often considered one of the greatest wines of all time, made as it was in 1961, does not get a perfect score today. It barely crested 13 percent alcohol and, while thoroughly extracted, it would not hold a candle to the rich, dark, powerful, high-scoring cabernet sauvignon-based wines of today. A 90-point-plus wine? Sure. Perfect? Doubtful. (The 2013 Cliff Lede “Poetry” is more than 15 percent alcohol.)
Quality is a moving target. We may look back 50 years from now and point to the 2013 Cliff Lede “Poetry” cabernet as a perfect example of what a wine of the highest caliber meant in 2016. Or not. Time is the true arbiter of quality. After all, one of the other movies that didn’t win for 1941 was “Citizen Kane.”
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Gil Kulers is a sommelier and maitre d’ for an Atlanta country club. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.