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Putting things in an historical context

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It was sheer green jealousy I felt as I read Eric Asimov’s “The Pour” New York Times column the other day. He’d been to a tasting of the 1982 Bordeaux, including all the first growths. Such tastings are one of the major perks of being a wine writer; you don’t get invited to them too often, so when you do, you make sure you’re there. (Plus, for a blogger, it solves the problem of another day’s content. Herb Caen, the late, great San Francisco Chronicle columnist, was constantly in search of material. He used to write, “Item, item, hoosegotta item?” Believe me, a tasting of ‘82 Bordeaux would be an item!)

Eric made an interesting statement. “One could easily make the case,” he wrote, “that the modern age of wine began with the 1982 vintage, or at least with the reception of the ’82s.” That’s good newspaper writing–pinioning a bit of history into the reporting. Eric takes us through the now familiar tale of how Robert M. Parker made his bones with that vintage. Several things happened as a result of his orgiastic praise of the ‘82s: Parker got rich and famous, wine reviewing received a huge shot in the arm as an indispensable and influential factor in the market, and the Bordelais went on to enjoy a period of financial prosperity that seems likely to endure for many more years, given the wealth and predilections of the Chinese. Oh, and one other thing: everybody started letting their grapes get riper than before. The Parkerization of wine had arrived.

For the industry as a whole, then, the two centerpieces of the “modern age of wine” have been the rise of the importance of critics, and the trend toward riper, sweeter, fruitier (and possibly oakier) wines, both red and white. But things don’t arise from a vacuum; these two phenomena both were already happening before Parker discovered the ‘82 Bordeaux. The 1970s, which is when I first began studying wine, saw the birth of an amateur wine press that was informed, passionate and centered in California. In that pre-Internet era, these pioneering writers saw their words into print through newspaper columns, full-fledged wine books and “handbooks”  that could fit into the back pocket of your jeans. It was from this fertile soil that Parker started his own newsletter, The Wine Advocate. (I’d love to know which wine writers he was reading and loving before he began.)

Now, here we are. Consumers dare not buy anything unless it has the imprimateur of a critic. Winemakers try to wander from the Parker style, but find it difficult to do so, unless they don’t care what important buyers think. There’s much talk of more restrained wines, lower in alcohol and less oaky than Parker liked, but it’s premature to declare that the age of Parker has ended. As it was years in the making even before anyone heard of Parker, so it will be years in the unraveling when he’s finished.

Those of us who fancy ourselves historians of wine are likely to agree with Asimov that that 1982 vintage was a game changer. History always is hard to write before much time has elapsed; but whenever consensus is reached that an event is historical, it’s because that event brought together a bunch of smaller events, each important in itself, into one coherent thing (think, for instance, of the current Supreme Court hearings on the Affordable Care Act). Anything that can bring Parker, wine critics, Bordeaux and a shift to a riper style into one broad context must surely be historical. Good call, Eric Asimov.

  1. Is that right, that in 1970s California, the wine press featured ‘“handbooks” that could fit into the back pocket of your jeans’?

    In Britain, Hugh Johnson’s annual wine guide was (and still is) designed to fit into the inside breast pocket of a proper jacket.

    Another world…

  2. George Vierra says:

    Caen

  3. Steve – the only “important buyer” is the one who actually pays for my wines. If anyone chooses not to buy my wines because they don’t have “the imprimatur of a critic”, they are unimportant to me by definition.

    But yes, ’82 was a game changer – whether for the better depends on your point of view. The reality is that ’82 and the knock-on consequences have generated a whole slew of wine lovers who think that is what wine is supposed to taste like. Parker’s anointing of the ’82 vintage created an new, internally-consistent wine experience from whole cloth – but one that is completely meaningless to me.

  4. Looking back on that vintage, it is impressive. A perfect storm really. People focus on the pt scale, the excessive new oak, 16%+ ETOH (or 15% for pinot). Yet these are fairly superficial concepts. Simple really, speaking to a simple palate (he was never well know for tasting .

    A lot has been said about putting wine in context. Meadows and Gallioni both said that it was why they don’t taste blind which is odd because if you taste blind it’s not as if you don’t eventually find out what you’re tasting and this little bit of false reasoning completely exiles them from the concept of objectivity. Which really isn’t that a big part of Parker’s legacy? A complete willingness to ignore the ethics of reporting. Really WA newsletters were blogging before there were blogs, which brought a whole new dynamic to wine writing and criticism and they simply walked into a perfect storm. Think about it, an untapped US wine market without a wine culture, rise of the US wine industry, creation of massive amounts of “false” wealth on Wall St that could seek out and afford the only varietal that can produce massive amounts of quality fruit to go with their steaks. Where would wine writing be if Parker had the mental fortitude to be ethical and unbiased? Maybe power would have been able to remain established in the wine newsletters and magazines, but let’s face facts. You get better reporting on a number of blogs than any established source. Maybe we would have forgone some of cult wines with bombastically meaningless tasting notes. Maybe our wine culture would be further along without making intensity the most important feature of wine, which played directly into the evolution of “modern” wine. But we can’t know and we are left with a sinister undertone to everything Parker does. Whether this is real or merely implied doesn’t matter because new wine enthusiasts can’t trust him.

    Looking back at 1982 and it reveals more about Parker than it does about the vintage. Most of us will never taste it, particularly after his embrace of unethical reviewing lead to massive scores and inflation. Now after a third (or is it the fourth, I’ve lost track) vintage of the century his megalomaniacal character has been revealed. The emperor simply has no clothes.

  5. I think a characteristic of wine criticism before 1982 was that many critics waited longer to rank or predict a vintage. Many critics did not presume they could predict the long term future of a vintage until after a reasonable amount of time, often a few years after release. Until the 1960′s the release dates of Bordelaise vintages was three years. As the wines were made more accessible at younger age and release at two years, conventions of wine criticism may have lagged behind.

    but the effect on buying decisions with an early assessment became apparent with Parker and his precocious touting of the 1982 vintage. Along with Parker’s success with his early accessment, judgements began to be made on younger and younger wine by all critics, often before bottling, months after harvest, and out of a barrel chosen by the winemaker.

    It became a competition to see who could come out with the first vintage assessment and pronouncement. This in turn has made wines with early attractive qualities to be those getting the higher ratings. These tended to favor “fruit forward”, high alcohol, and “soft” and, no surprise, this in turn has affected the way wines are now made.

  6. Parker. Parker. Parker. Parker.
    Parker . . . 99. Parker . . . 96.
    Parker. 1982.
    Parker. Parker. Parker. Parker.
    Parker. Parker 1982.
    History. Parker. 100. 1982.
    What else is there?
    Sella And Mosca Cannonau Riserva Sardegna 2007.
    Los Bermejos Listan Negro Tinto Maceración Carbónica Canary Islands 2008.
    Descendientes de J. Palacios Petalos Bierzo 2009.
    etc.
    Parker. Parker. Parker. Parker.
    Parker 100.
    Parker 1982.
    Parker.

  7. Sadly most people do want pre-validation in their choices, and for two reasons. First they believe that it will reduce error, which is possible, but not a probable as people wish to think. Secondly, and more insidious, people want to say they are part of something. If a big name critic pronounced it as killer, then they are cooler because they drink killer juice. This is the sadness that I have with our current media driven economy. People don’t explore as much anymore, don’t find and learn things by direct empirical activity as much. They want someone else to do the work and then want to assign themselves to that work as if it means something.

    When I came to SB in May of 2011 I visited Andrew Murray Vineyards because I figured that any winemaker that thought I was interesting enough (with so little to go on) to follow on Twitter would be worth checking out. And the wines were the best from my trip. If I looked up just scores it isn’t as likely that I would have visited.

    Jason

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