The Parker alternative?

The Parker alternative?

9th Jan 2012

James Lawrence catches up with Francois Mauss, the self-proclaimed Parker alternative.

Francois Mauss entered the public consciousness in 2003, when a French magazine quoted him as describing Beaujolais as 'un vin de merde.' In other words, most Beaujolais, he said, was a load of shit. Since then, he has continued to promote himself as a 'dissenting voice' in the wine world, although quite a few would agree with his previous assessment of Beaujolais!

Catching up with Mauss was no easy task, not only is he responsible for organising the World Wine Symposium (WWW), a now annual event in Italy where the wine industry gathers to discuss its future, but he's also the founding father of the Grand Jury European (GJE) tasting panel, not to mention responsible for editing several consumer publications and offering frequent wine tours. “You could say I'm slightly wine centric”, he notes with a wry smile.

A better description would be wine obsessive - within minutes of chatting to Francois it becomes clear that wine is and always been at the forefront of his life. Originally born in Strasbourg (French to the core but we can forgive him for that), his background is in Economic science and law, although Mauss has been avid wine collector for over 20 years.

So how do you go from wine lover to Grand Jury President, I wondered?

“In June 1996, I saw a wine shop chain in France using Parker scores to promote their wines. I remember thinking to myself: why do we not have European tasters to do that? Why do we need an American, whatever qualities he has, to promote our own wine production? So, I decide to create an alternative: the GJE.”

Since 1996, Francois' top priority has been running the Grand Jury, an expert panel of judges who meet several times a year in Luxembourg to blind taste a selection of 30 or so wines, in an attempt to offer 'an alternative way of classifying the great wines of the world compared to the individual notes of the best critics worldwide, particularly the English and Americans'.

The panel currently is comprised of 34 members, an assortment of wine producers, sommeliers, journalists, consultants and what Mauss terms ‘grand amateurs’. There are 10 honorary and 34 permanent members, including some American professionals. The majority of the sessions are dedicated to classic and prestigious wine regions such as Bordeaux, Burgundy, Piedmont, Tuscany and California. The analysis focuses on wines inside a particular wine zone, however, comparative tastings between red wines of Bordeaux and California are held occasionally.

Unlike their American critic counterparts, all the wines that the panel scores are assessed in a group tasting; the wines are tasted blind (Parkers are open), the whole event is legally controlled, all the wines sampled are paid for and the results are subject to rigorous statistical analysis. It is a world away from how the Wine Advocate operates.

However, despite the obvious intention to distance themselves from the homogeneity of the Parker score system, Mauss is anxious to say that the GJE is not in competition with Parker's Wine Advocate. Indeed, as they only taste a fraction of the wines Parker does, over a period of 10 tasting sessions, they could not hope to be so.

“Robert Parker has clearly had a positive influence on the world of wine, no discussion about that, although too many producers did think he has a strong style preference (rich wines), which is not exactly the case”, Mauss exclaims. “The GJE is intended to be an alternative to his scores, since we taste blind and we have a collective score.”

“But in no way we are an alternative at his level since we taste only around 1000 wines per year”, he adds. Mauss resists the temptation to indulge in any hint of Parker bashing, which is quite refreshing. Most UK wine critics, Hugh Johnson, Michael Broadbent, Tim Atkin, well you get the idea, have more than once publicly voiced their dislike of Parker's influence over wine consumers. It is almost obligatory for a British wine critic to dislike the guy. In fact, I often wonder if it is at least partially motivated by jealously. Interestingly, Parker admitted last year that his influence over wine consumers was waning, false modesty or a reality?

What is certain is that Mauss' GJE offers a different and engaging model for independently assessing a wine's merits. For example, roughly 30 wines are assessed in a session and the panel start tasting from a glass the number of which corresponds to the same number of the table - “to avoid distorted perception”, Mauss emphasizes. After the tasting sheets have been submitted and opinions shared, the data is processed through a statistical model designed by the Frenchman Bernard Burtschy, a permanent member of the jury and professor of statistics in one of the Parisian universities. So, not bad credentials!

The results are presented in a variety of formats, as Mauss proudly explains that: “The simplified version is a linear table with a name of the wine and a calculated by a special formula score (down to a hundredth point). The table also has a column showing the consensus among the tasters regarding a given wine (very strong, strong, medium, weak and very weak). A more detailed presentation is done through a diagram with four planes where wines are dotted. The further to the right from the vertical axis, the higher is the wine’s score, the closer to the horizontal axis, the more homogeneously it is rated.”

While this sounds to me like information overload, Mauss sticks to his guns, arguing that “We have to stop the crazy inflation on scores and, a scale of 8 levels is largely enough for every wine. 

I must admit, I have never shown must interest in the concept of scoring wines. Can someone please explain to me the difference between a 93 and 95 point wine – exactly!

Of course, my view is not shared by the majority, most US and European wine critics score wines and the argument that taste is too subtle and subjective to be reduced to a series of pseudo-scientific numbers has been largely ignored. Number, it seems, are just too useful for consumers and investors!

This is why I feel Mauss should be applauded, not because his system is a viable alternative to Parker but because he dares to do something different. It is good to know that the wine community assess wines in different ways and have vastly different opinions, albeit ones that clearly reflect their own prejudices, just as Parker's scores reflect his. Mauss is, like so many European critics, not a fan of the powerful and extracted.

One thing is certain, we cannot accuse Mauss of being under-ambitious. With a desire to promote the World Wine Symposium the foremost wine conference in the world and his on-going work with the GJE, he ends on a high note. “The future of the Grand Jury is bright; we hope to create a FEDERATION DES GRANDS CRUS EUROPEENS soon, a powerful tool to lobby Brussels.”

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