Putting things in an historical context
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.