In a recent interview with the drinks business, Mr. Parker spoke to claims that his scores have driven wine prices to levels that are unattainable by many drinkers. I encourage you to read the whole article, but the basic gist is that to some degree, Mr. Parker admits culpability in causing prices and demand for certain wines to increase based on the scores he has given. Mr. Parker says, “I think this is a problem; it means a lot are shut out because basically we have a caste system of wine – at the really desirable high end, whether the wines are Burgundy or Bordeaux, or from California, they have become so expensive that people just can’t afford them, so they look elsewhere.” He is particularly concerned about the “younger generation” because it means that wine might be less attainable for them.
These comments have caused much debate among wine writers and professionals who are well aware of the effect a Parker score can have on a wine. (Read Tom Wark’s response on Fermentation and Steve Heimoff’s comments at steveheimoff.com for some good discussion.) As a member of the “younger generation,” I do lament the fact that in all likelihood I will never be able to buy a bottle of First Growth Bordeaux or Grand Cru Burgundy or “cult” wine from California. The best of these wines sell for no less than $500 a bottle on release, and often times much more at auction. I have had the opportunity to sample these wines, but only because I work in the wine trade and have the opportunity to attend tastings and events for trade only. But in my opinion, these tastings offer a mere shadow of what these wines should be like when enjoyed in the company of friends, or with a meal. The experience Mr. Parker describes of scrounging up $25 amongst friends to afford one bottle of an exceptional wine is a common story among friends I have in his generation. Sadly, and I think Mr. Parker would agree, this is not the experience of my generation. Prices have indeed become much less affordable.
That’s not to say, as others have noted, that there aren’t other great, even exceptional wines out there. And there will always continue to be exceptional wines outside of the Grand and Premier Crus. And these other wines can be quite affordable. However, it’s important to remember that Mr. Parker didn’t make these wines famous. They were famous long before he was around. But they were more affordable. The bottle that Mr. Parker mentions purchasing for $25 was Château Lafite Rothschild. Current releases of that same wine retail for an average of $1,200. For a little perspective, in 1967 the median household income was $7,200. Today it is $53,000. So in 1967, that bottle of Château Lafite cost .3% of a household’s annual income. Today it’ll cost you 2.2%. That’s over seven times more expensive! According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, median income has roughly kept up with inflation. That is, $7,200 is equal to almost $53,000 today. However, $25 adjusted for inflation is only about $175 today, not $1,200.
The question, then, is how much did Mr. Parker contribute to the rise in prices in the past 50 years. His remarks on the caste system of wine are valid where this is concerned. And this is where I have always had trouble with his touted 100 point scale. These points can sadly influence the price of a wine drastically, not because they are inherently powerful, but because it oversimplifies wine to the average consumer. Points can certainly act as a guideline, but they should not be the determining factor. As a “consumer advocate” I believe this is where Mr. Parker has failed because he has steered consumers to care less about the wine and more about the score. Given some of his recent decisions (and some of his recent scores) I get the sense he may be realizing this as well.
To read another perspective on scores, check out my colleague Lettie Teague’s article at WSJ.com.