Life After the Era of Scores

As critics’ voices diminish, there are new opportunities for winemakers

In the mid-1990s, when Robert Parker was the main wine critic to whom the industry paid attention, consumers, winemakers, and winery owners alike anxiously awaited the new issue of The Wine Advocate. The 100-point score back then was a way to distill the review to its very essence, in an age when limited print space and postal rates mattered a lot more. Several high-90s scores in the same vintage could herald a winemaker or brand as the next rising star, clogging email inboxes with requests to be added to a mailing list.

In fact, great scores from a handful of top critics made everyone’s job at the winery easier: Marketing, public relations, tasting room, and sales staff all had outside opinions to back them up. The winemaking team had a bit more job security and perhaps the leverage needed to get new equipment purchases approved. Winery owners could feel more comfortable investing new capital into their businesses and vineyards, more confident of their relative place in the market.

Furthermore, with top scores, wineries could sell more wine direct to consumers instead of relying on the wholesale market. American wineries, which typically sell their wines directly to customers at close to the retail price, had the chance to nearly double their margins by cutting out fees charged by the middle tier of distributors and brokers. With a great review, these wineries often found their fortunes changed overnight. And in many ways, Parker was a great champion not only of consumers, but also of the little-guy producers, and of emerging wine regions.

However, influential voices can also skew the market.  When one opinion holds enough commercial influence, it can drive tastes toward a certain style—and as a side effect, it can stunt the ability for winemakers, and even wine regions, to mature and improve.

In the case of California, some vintners bent to the temptation to chase scores that could give their businesses more security in a crowded market. On the Central Coast, for example, the dominant style became one that mirrored the era’s prevailing critical taste for larger, fuller-bodied wines. Higher alcohols and more extraction became the norm as wineries tried to catch attention. And some winemakers, praised early in their careers for this style of wine, found many reasons—brand consistency, their customers’ tastes, praise from that handful of top critics—to continue their current methods instead of exploring how their aesthetics might naturally evolve.

Should we lay the blame solely at the feet of critics? Of course not. Producers weren’t forced to opt into this style, and we can point to a few who bucked this trend—Au Bon Climat’s Jim Clendenen perhaps the most obvious example. But when expert voices carry that much weight, and are backed up by other expert voices, it is understandable that producers will mistake opinion for truth, and wine styles will shift to accommodate.

That was, perhaps, most damaging to young winemakers, at least during that 1990s stretch when our region was first gaining critical acclaim. In order to grow and evolve, any professional must take chances—and inevitably make mistakes. And we get just one chance per year to learn. But when a winemaker is anointed early on by a critic, it complicates that process, no different than an unknown musician suddenly catapulted into the limelight. A suddenly popular winemaker has strong pressure to follow a path of least resistance. The temptation is to keep performing, numerically, rather than to develop.

Actually, that effect can be cumulative. When a critical mass of winemakers is praised for similar-tasting wines, a newly emerging wine region runs the risk of having its identity defined too soon. In the Central Coast, for instance, we saw a merging, at least to much of the public, of the wine styles of Paso Robles and Santa Barbara County before we really understood the differences between the two. For a time, the beautiful natural acidity and savoriness possible from Santa Barbara vineyards became nearly impossible to detect in the region’s wines, as many of us chose to pick later and later in order to achieve sought-after ripeness. We too quickly, and falsely, defined the characteristics of a very diverse growing region—mistaking a culture of winemaking for terroir.

Wine is a complicated proposition for many customers. For a time, numerical scores made navigating the sea of appellations, producers, and vintages less treacherous. But today, there’s less need for criticism to root out truly inferior wines; wine quality has improved from all corners of the world, which is reflected in a giant bell curve in wine scoring.  

Plus, consumers today have far more information than in the past.  No longer is one critic’s voice overwhelmingly dominant. Countless wine writers, bloggers, and critics (professional or otherwise) can easily broadcast their opinions, convinced—at least in their minds—that those opinions are essential. If scores once were a way to communicate with a finite amount of space, the infinite space of digital media has diminished the importance of the 100-point score as a summary judgment. At the same time, social media and an expanding sommelier culture have made wine buying far more tribal, diminishing wine critics’ access to wide general audiences—especially to younger consumers. In an Internet-driven (and therefore visually oriented) market, wineries often have more direct access to these consumers than critics—which ultimately gives wineries much more power to define themselves.

And that makes me excited, mostly for the opportunity it provides to young and new winemakers. There seems to be so much more room today for a diversity of styles and aesthetics than there was 20 years ago. All of these changes bode very well for the future of our evolving wine culture, indeed.

Sashi Moorman has been making wine for more than 20 years. He is the managing partner at Domaine de la Côte and Sandhi Wines in California’s Sta. Rita Hills, and Evening Land Vineyards in Oregon. He and his wife, Melissa, also own and operate Piedrasassi, their family winery and bakery.