Post-WOPN thoughts on alcohol, Pinot Noir and scores
First off, a confession. I didn’t go to the panel on alcohol levels at World of Pinot Noir, which was moderated by Eric Asimov, and included on the panel were Adam Lee, of Siduri (a frequent commenter here) and Jim Clendenen, of Au Bon Climate.
Instead, I went to Fred Dame’s Vintage Burgundy session. But, as good as that was, I kind of wish I’d gone to Eric’s session, because it sounds like it was really a helluva time.
It was the talk of WOPN. Everywhere you went, tongues were wagging. Adam and Jim, apparently, got into a showdown over alcohol levels. It’s still buzzing on Twitter.
If this exchange — Adam Lee: “I would never deign to say someone is making wines for Parker scores, would you?” Clendenen: “Absolutely I would.” – occurred as described, then I have to come down on Jim’s side, because I know of at least one case where someone admitted it to me.
Well, confession #2: It wasn’t Parker this winemaker told me he was designing a wine for, it was Laube. But we can, for philosophical purposes, assume that Parker/Laube are essentially the same person.
It was in the 1990s. There was a Pinot Noir producer determined to get a 90 from Wine Spectator. He told me how he had made a careful analysis of California Pinots that scored 90 or above in that magazine, and figured out a formula. He made the wine according to that formula, got his 90, and voila! His Pinot Noir became one of the most popular on American restaurant wine lists.
If it happened in one case, I’ll bet you a case of Romanée-Conti it happened in ten cases. Or a hundred. Or a thousand. All winemakers, on some level, think alike. They profess passion, but passion sans profit equals poop. [P - P1 = P2. Einstein developed that.] And you can’t live on poop.
Let’s examine the concept of integrity in a winemaker. The first thing to consider is that winemakers are no more and no less ethical than you or I–and I don’t know about you, but I’m not the most ethical person in the world. I try to be; I tell myself I’m a good person. But really, when you get right down to it, I’m not particularly proud of some of the stuff I do in this life.
If a winemaker is an employee, rather than an owner/producer, he or she is going to do what his boss tells him to. If the boss says, “I want a 15.5% Cabernet [or Pinot, or Syrah, of Chardonnay, whatever” that will get a high score from Parker, and it appalls and disgusts the winemaker, that winemaker has two choices: quit in protest, or comply with his employer’s wishes. True, he can try to talk his employer out of what he may consider to be a disastrous position, but chances are the employer didn’t resort to that disastrous position without some careful consideration of facts, some of which the winemaker may be unaware; and the employer isn’t likely to change his mind.
You don’t think that happens all the time? Trust me, it does. I’ve had probably hundreds of winemakers describe that scenario, or a similar one, to me. It’s one reason why employed winemakers love to do their own thing on the side. They get to make the decisions, not someone else. (It's not hard for insiders to think of winemakers who make very high alcohol wines at their paid day jobs, then turn around and make elegant, delicate ones for their own projects.)
I don’t know if Jim Clendenen had anyone in particular in mind when he said “absolutely” he believes someone would make wines for Parker scores. Parker has apparently liked Jim’s wines; it says right on Au Bon Climat’s website that “Au Bon Climat was listed on Robert Parker's Best Wineries of the World in both 1989 and 1990,” although that was a long time ago. Parker’s enthusiasm for ABC may have waned since then, to judge by the scores he gave ABC in the 7th edition of his Wine Buyer’s Guide. Four 90s or above, out of 19 wines reviewed. Doesn’t exactly sound like one of the best wineries in the world. What happened to explain ABC’s descent in Parker’s pantheon?
Perhaps some clues can be garnered from Alder Yarrow’s excellent report of the conversation during Asimov’s panel. In a heated discussion of alcohol levels, Alder reports Clendenen as saying, “Adam [Tolmach, of Qupe] and I were invented by Robert Parker, but when he invented us, the wines were 13.2%. Something changed, and his [Parker’s] tastes moved to the richer, higher PH, sweeter wines.” Although Clendenen resolutely insisted that “I have no problem with alcohol,” i.e. he does not go out of his way to pick early at lower brix, it may well be that his wines no longer suit the Parker palate, if in fact “Something changed” to make Parker like the bigger wines.
At any rate, we don’t have to worry about Parker in California anymore, do we? And I do believe there’s a trend here toward lower alcohol wines. It’s not a thundering trend–not explosive, like the growth of Pinot Noir was following Sideways. It’s slower, more natural, a modest curve that, I think, is being fueled by sommeliers, by critics who are rediscovering balance, by winemakers rebelling against the tyranny of high alcohol, and by a younger generation that seems to be saying, Hey, if I want high alcohol, I’ll have a mojito.