Our society is plagued with inflation on various fronts; we all know, for example, that an "A" isn't what it used to be. (And sadly, it seems this is just as true at "top" schools as it is at the "bottom".) SAT scores have been "normalized" to the point where they scarcely distinguish between the best students. And just about everyone gets an 8 or 9 on Dancing With the Stars. Etc. On top of it all, there is a serious sort of inflation taking place in wine scores.
In case you don't know, Wines are traditionally scored on a scale from 1-100, where 100 is perfect, anything over 90 is amazing, and stuff below 80 is dishwater. When I first started paying attention, twenty years ago or so, it was unusual and special to find a wine in the 90s, and the high nineties was amazing. No longer, sadly; it seems just about any wine scores a 90 or more, good wines are routinely in the high 90s, and 100s, while still rare, are not unknown.
(In this connection, I reject absolutely the rebuttal that wines are getting better. Nope.)
There are two problems caused by this sort of inflation. First, of course, it makes comparison from year to year difficult. If a fine Stag's Leap Cab from 1997 scored 96, then how should we regard a new release which scores a 98? One needs a translation table, something that shows "98 in 2011" = "92 in 1997". Even with such a table, much is lost in the translation. The second difficulty is that as scores get compressed against 100, the available range of scores is diminished. In 1997 there were 10 different values available between great (90) and perfect (100). Now there are perhaps only 5, great being 95, and perfect still being 100. The compression at the top is the worst; with merely great wines getting 100s, how can we distinguish those once-in-a-lifetime wines which actually are perfect?
I just received an email advertising the latest release of Stag's Leap, with the subject line "potential 100-point 2012, a profound example of this iconic wine". It might be amazing, but to pretend it is a possible 100 points at initial release is a bit much. I'll probably still buy it but I don't have any way to compare it to vintages of the past. I guess I'll just have to do it the old way, and drink it.