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What is a Parkerized wine?

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Robert Parker, in what was called “a rare interview with the French magazine Terre du Vins,” denied “the idea of the ‘Parkerisation’ of wines and the emergence of a richer, riper style made to please the critic’s palate.”

 Now, the information I cited above comes from an article about the Terre du Vins interview that was in the drinks business publication. I felt the need to read the original Terre du Vins story, so I Googled it and asked for a translation.

Here is the relevant RMP quote: “is there a Parker taste? Even my wife thinks it is, but I’ve never subscribed to this belief. I think my taste is too complex and varied to be defined and placed in a small black or white category. I love too many wine styles, finesse and elegance of Pope Clement the creamy richness of Petrus or Trotanoy, through the extraordinary majesty, the fullness and aging potential of Latour or Pontet -Canet. The same goes for my appreciation of wines from other regions. But I know that even if I live another 25 to 35 years, and when I leave my obituary you read, there will be a reference to wine ‘parkerized’ or to taste ‘Parker’. There is nothing I can do against it.”

Even allowing for the eccentricities of automatic online translation, these remarks ring true. So let me accept them as words Parker actually spoke, and tell you what I think.

I think Mrs. Parker got it right, bless her soul. Of course there’s a Parkerized style. Everybody in the industry knows what that means. The topic has been endlessly discussed for decades, with worldwide agreement, that, yes, the era of Robert Parker has resulted in wines of higher alcohol, greater fruity extract, stronger oak influence, and a sweeter finish.

For RMP not to see this clearly is a bit of a mystery. He may feel that, since he also has an appreciation for lighter, drier wines such as, for example, the Chenin Blancs of the Savennieres (which he described as “among the potentially most profound and ageworthy” of the world’s wines), he has immunized himself against allegations of Parkerization. As much as RMP himself may see things that way, surely the rest of us realize that it isn’t so: Parker may like a broad range of wines, but the high scores he has consistently given to the richest and most extracted of them is precisely what has caused the world to become Parkerized since the 1980s.

Parker need not apologize for it. He ought to defer to his wife’s and history’s judgment and accept the verdict. He’s done nothing wrong, except to state his preferences. If the world has allowed RMP’s tastes to dictate the style of its wines, that is not Parker’s fault. It’s not something he set out to do, but happened of its own accord. Besides, I think that Parkerization has had salutary effects. You may like or dislike that style, but at least it has helped to make wine vastly more popular worldwide than it was pre-Parker, and is continuing to do so as RMP and his organization cement their hold on the Asia market.

Parkerization also has stimulated a healthy conversation about wine style among critics, sommeliers, merchants, winemakers, educated consumers and others whose opinions count. This debate arouses passions on all sides, and can verge on the ideological; but it’s a good argument to have, as it forces everyone to think about wine in terms of a wider range of parameters than used to be available. I have just returned from two days of tasting the Cabernet Sauvignons of Alexander Valley with some very talented winemakers and sommeliers, and the topic of Parkerization and its associated issues–alcohol level, ripeness, food-friendliness, oak level, fruit bombiness–constantly arose. Each winemaker, facing his task, must decide where to throw down the gantlet on this spectrum, which Parker helped broaden. That, too, is healthy, I think: it may make the winemaker’s task more complicated, for a variety of reasons (including the market), but there’s no reason why winemakers (and proprietors) should not be held to account on matters of style.

Will there be a backlash against Parkerization, as he and other Baby Boomer critics fade from the scene? The answer is likely to be yes, but rest assured, we are not going back to the era of 11.5% alcohol by volume Cabernet Sauvignons. The toothpaste is out of the tube and cannot be put back. Vintners going forward may tinker around the stylistic edges, adjusting their wines this way or that; and climate change will add its own voice to the results. But Parker moved the goal posts with authoritative finality, and no person, or combination of persons, is going to put them back to where they used to be.

  1. I appreciate Parker’s consistency, and make no mistake, he is consistent.

    So why can’t he accept what he is? His response to this issue indicates that deep down, he feels there’s something wrong with what he’s done. How bizarre that he can’t happily, boldly accept his legacy. It’s as if he senses how myopic his views have become, and he wants to disown them, but can’t. Well, yes, the toothpaste is out of the tube — too bad about that — and Parker is right to sense his legacy is not all roses.

  2. Parker is an easy target because he is the “Gold Standard.” If there is in fact a Parkerized style, then have the majority of wine reviewers followed his lead? One could draw that conclusion, because wine scores between reviewers don’t seem to very that much.

    Let’s look at a few wines. 2009 La Lagune (WS 93 to 96, WA 95, IWC 89 to 92. 2005 Leoville Las Cases (WS 100, WA 98, Suckling 98, IWC 95, Wine & Spirits 98). 2009 Robert Mondavi Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon (WS 87, WA 91, IWC 89, Wine Enthusiast 91). 2009 Larkmead LMV Salon (WS 94, WA 95+). 2009 Larkmead Solari (WS 91, WA 96). The difference in those scores is less than 5%, which in my opinion is not significant. Some people prefer Honda Accords over a Toyota Camry. At the end of the day, they are both great cars.

    I don’t know if this would work, but what if reviewers used a scoring curve? A statistical method of assigning scores designed to yield a pre-determined distribution of scores among the wines tasted in a sitting.

  3. Patrick says:

    I once had a conversation with the curator Robert Storr in which he denied that he had much influence over the art world. “I don’t have that much power,” he said. This took place while he was the chief curator of the Museum of Modern Art. People who have tremendous influence are often coy about it: “Who? ME?” Well . . .

  4. I expect he gets it. He’s just being defensive as he sees his legacy being tarnished towards the end of is career.
    I can certainly see *why* he would deny it.

  5. Carlos T says:

    Steve,

    i still can’t get over the fact that 99% (numbers not audited ;-) of amateur and professional wine critics alike give points or whatever is the case based on how they like the wine and not by the many characteristics that are easily gauged/observed/sniffed/touched/tasted.

    For all i care any Parker of the world could like only wines made out of dandelion, but we all know there’s a checklist of items the critic must follow in order to ‘grade’ the damn wines.

    I read a colossal amount of rubbish such as ‘hmmmm, great stuff, this one deserves 96 points’. No wine deserves anything, much less a critic should favour more the wines he likes instead of the ones he’s not a big fan of.

    It’s my understanding that parker liked the heavy, chewy, fruity, alcoholic wines, but that could be in the beginning of his career. When we’re younger we have proclivity to like more hardcore stuff, including hearty wines.

    As we age we tend to learn and know better about things in general (some people do anyways)… including food and wine. Maybe today he’s [also] a burgundy, or washington state wines kind of guy…but the Bordeaux stigma shall follow him into the grave.

    Don’t forget the bordeaux folks are VERY business savvy and they may have seen the benefits of adhering the name parker to bordeaux way before people from other regions saw it. And then it was too late, the names parker and bordeaux would be for a long time inseparable.

    Not a bad topic to kick off the week.

    Best wishes.

  6. george kaplan says:

    Changes in climate, viniculture and viticulture have paralleled Parker’s career, and may have had a synergistic effect with his own tastes. To his credit he has championed lower yields, more ” natural ” winemaking and the idea that wine should taste good. Those who think of themselves as attuned to what Lichine called breed may feel that there is less emphasis nowadays on this than they might like, at least in the most popular grapes and wines. By chance I’ve tasted maybe a dozen Cali chards from the challenging 2011 vintage, and for some reason there is a purity of fruit across the board that reminds me of the 70s and 80s. I get the impression the alcohols and extracts are a little lower. They taste good, and I’m looking forward to some of the later releases

  7. Bill Haydon says:

    [[Parker need not apologize for it. He ought to defer to his wife’s and history’s judgment and accept the verdict. He’s done nothing wrong, except to state his preferences.]]

    Steve, I absolutely have to disagree with this overly sympathetic view of Mr. Parker. Were it true, I think that much of the backlash against him would be confined solely to his preferred style of wine and not to the man’s personality.

    Parker did not simply say to the world that, “these are the wines that I prefer.” He absolutely never conceded that Parkerized wines were a matter of (his) choice. Quite to the contrary he consistently railed against producers who did not make wines appealing to his preferred style. Not only were they ripping off the consumers, but frequently it was implied–if not outright stated–that they were outright fraudulent. At the height of his powers, he railed against the concept of terroir and ridiculed those who argued that it was an important and legitimate component to winemaking.

    Year after year, Mr. Parker made it clear that he had neither use nor respect for wineries that didn’t toe his particular line.

  8. Zachary says:

    It is the cheap wines that instruct tasters on the Parker palate more than the ridiculously high scores. Cote du Rhone for $15 with a 90-92 rating from RP and I know exactly how it will taste. Lush, fruity and well…for me boring. When I taste something so viscous and simple, you realize he just loves smutty wines. It’s the thing he values most. Nothing wrong with it, just the gods honest truth.

  9. TomHill says:

    Carlos sez:”I still can’t get over the fact that 99% of amateur and professional wine critics alike give points or whatever is the case based on how they like the wine and not by the many characteristics that are easily gauged/observed/sniffed/touched/tasted.

    Carlos,
    THAT, exactly, is why all the 100-pt scales fall into what they (at Davis) term a HEDONISTIC scale…simply how much the person “likes” the wine. Nothing more. Things that are “easily gauged”, like balance, mouthfeel, texture, complexity, smooth or rough tannins, raspberry, acidity, etc. all go into the hedonistic 100-pt score…but, at the end of the day, it IS all about how much the critic “liked” the wine.
    Back in the early yrs..back when I started reading about wine, people (like Jerry Mead) mostly used the UC/Davis 20-pt scale, a (more or less) scientific scale…where you assigned points based on “easily gauged” quantities. This scale was exceedingly useful for UC/Davis studies, like how the Davis score was effected by the grape yields. You had to be trained to (correctly) use the UC/Davis 20-pt scale. It served its purpose to them.
    But the 20-pt scale was of little value to us mere consumers. It did NOT correlate well with what we “liked” in a wine. A Cab could be scored a 16 because of excessive tannins over a Merlot that’d receive an 18. But, down the road with age, that 16 pt wine would mature into a 20 pt wine (and recall….that all the 100-pt scores are based on how the wine will be a peak maturity…not on what it scores now) and the UC/Davis scale was useless for predicting that. So it fell into disuse amongst consumers and critics.
    So…at the end of the day…all 100-pt scores are based on how much the critic “likes” the wine. No more/no less. And with each critic…YMMV.
    Tom

  10. John Lahart says:

    Andrew Jefford dealt with this a long time ago:

    two wines same producer, same vintage:
    “The first wine is a “fragrant effort exhibiting scents of tropical fruits and orange rind, crisp acidity, and a lively, medium bodied, citrussy finish.”

    The second wine is a restrained well delineated white..(which) represents the essence of granite liqueur. There is no real fruit character, just glycerin, alcohol and liquid stones.”

    The notes are by Parker and the scores?
    84 for the first and 93-95 points for the second.

    I would also ask how is it Parker is possessing of a “preference” for a specific flavor profile or wine style when he has a long history of awarding glowing reviews for wines of such contrasting styles as Pavie and Haut Brion.

    The problem, as I see it, is simple. Parker embraced wines for what they are in the glass. Not for adherence to some stylistic model. That is all pinot noir wines should be measured against Burgundy. Those making a case–and there are many-againts wines like Molly Dooker have created the Parker palate myth because Parker liked the wine and advocated for it while ignoring the wines they like for which Parker also awarded rave reviews. They can’t explain why Parker –or anyone–could possibly like Molly Dooker AND Grange equally!

    One can not tell what style of wine Parker is reviewing by looking at scores. One must read the notes.

    “Parkerization” is a silly term that is a result of an equally silly Old World vs New World wine polemic. Of the examples from Jefford’s “The New France” cited above–which wine style should a wine maker produce? (as if wine makers crafted their wines to please one critic). There is a stronger case that Wasserman, Rosenthal and Lynch had much more impact on wine makers than Parker–who reviews a tiny number of the total wines produced.

  11. everyone targets the guy at the top

  12. @gabe: true enough.

  13. Bob Henry says:

    PART OE OF TWO COMMENTS. REGARDING PARKER’S PREFERENCES . . .

    “ . . . Readers often wonder what a 100-point score means, and the best answer is that it is pure emotion that makes me give a wine 100 instead of 96, 97, 98 or 99. ”

    Source: Robert Parker, The Wine Advocate (unknown issue from 2002)

    “The 1990 Le Pin [red Bordeaux, rated 98 points] is a point or two superior to the 1989 [Le Pin, rated 96 points], but at this level of quality comparisons are indeed tedious. Both are exceptional vintages, and the scores could easily be reversed at other tastings.”

    Source: Robert Parker, The Wine Advocate (issue 109, dated 6-27-97)

    “. . . Many of the wines reviewed have been tasted many times, and the score represents a cumulative average of the wine’s performance in tastings to date. Scores however, do not reveal the important facts about a wine. The written commentary that accompanies the ratings is a better source of information regarding the wine’s style and personality. Its relative quality vis-à-vis its peers, and its value and aging potential than any score could ever indicate.’ ”

    Source: Robert Parker, The Wine Advocate (issue 111, dated 6-27-97)

    “Long-time readers know that I am a fruit fanatic, and if a wine does not retain this essential component, it is not going to receive a satisfactory review.”

    Source: Robert Parker, The Wine Advocate (issue 103, dated 2-23-96)

    “Readers should recognize that when tasting old bottles the expression, ‘There are no great wines, only great bottles,’ is applicable. . . . Long-time readers have noted that I prefer my wines younger rather than older. Therefore, regardless of its historical significance, no wine which tastes old and decrepit will receive a good review. Those old wines that receive enthusiastic evaluations do so because they remain well-preserved and loaded with remarkable quantities of rich, pure fruit. They possess a freshness, in addition to the profound complexity that developed with significant bottle age. . . . bottles that received perfect or exceptional reviews are living, rich, concentrated, compelling wines that justify the enormous expense and considerable patience collectors invest in maturing the finest young wines from top vintages.”

    Source: Robert Parker, The Wine Advocate (issue 90, dated 12-20-93)

    “Long-time readers know that I am more critical of older wines than many other writers. To merit high ratings, an older wine must still be fully alive with its personality intact.”

    Source: Robert Parker, The Wine Advocate (issue 84, dated 12-11-92)

    AND EXCERPTS FROM AN INTERVIEW:

    WINE TIMES: . . . What are your preferences in terms of types and styles of wine?

    PARKER: I do want to taste fruit. . . .

    WINE TIMES: . . . What are your weaknesses as a taster?

    PARKER: . . . I don’t think these are weaknesses, just observations: I don’t like a vegetal character in wines. . . . I like delicate, elegant wines, . . . I also don’t like wines that are overly tart. Now that may be a weakness. I feel far too many California wines are excessively acidified. . . . if a wine tastes like biting into a fresh lemon or lime, I think that’s an objectionable character. . . .

    Source: Wine Times (September/October 1989) interview with Robert Parker, publisher of The Wine Advocate

  14. Bob Henry says:

    PART TWO ON LOW ACID AND RIPER WINES . . . SEE THIS DECANTER ARTICLE.

    Excerpt from Decanter
    (May 24, 2013):

    “Red Wines May Have Premature Oxidation Problems, Say Bordeaux esearchers”

    [Link: http://www.decanter.com/news/wine-news/583929/red-wines-may-have-premature-oxidation-problems-say-bordeaux-researchers

    By Jane Anson in Bordeaux

    Denis Dubourdieu, professor at the faculty of oenology (ISVV) in Bordeaux and author of a leading study into premature oxidation in white wines, told Decanter.com, ‘Ten years ago, many people were aware of the premature oxidation problem in white wines, but didn’t want to talk about it. For me, it’s a similar situation now with red wines.’

    Dubourdieu points to the 2003 vintage as the most obvious example, although any very ripe vintages – such as 2009 – could be at risk. ‘And it is not limited to Bordeaux – any region that makes long-living red wines, from Tuscany to Napa, should be aware of the potential issues.’

    Red wines have greater natural protection against premature oxidation, as the tannins and phenolics are natural buffers against oxygen. ‘But I have seen issues with a number of classified wines that are potentially storing up trouble for later,’ warns Dubourdieu. ‘The Right Bank is the worst affected because Merlot is so vulnerable.’

    The warnings signs of premox in reds comes through the appearance of certain aroma markers such as prunes, stewed fruits and dried figs, and is often linked to a rapid evolution in colour, as with whites.

    Dubourdieu, along with Valérie Lavigne and Alexandre Pons at the ISVV, has found two specific molecules – ZO1 giving the prune aroma and ZO2 giving a stewed fruit smell – that develop rapidly in the presence of oxygen.

    The causes are numerous, Dubourdieu believes: harvesting later in a bid for riper grapes with low acidity, and winemaking practises including too much new oak barrels, or low doses of sulphur dioxide particularly when coupled with a high pH (over a pH of 4, SO2 loses almost all of its effectiveness).”

    . . .

    ‘These are practices that winemakers are doing with the best intentions,’ Dubourdieu said. ‘Riper grapes, new oak, low sulphur use – these are all things intended to improve the wine and to benefit the consumer. But I would prefer to warn winemakers now that it’s possible to go too far, rather than say nothing simply to be politically correct.

  15. Bob Henry says:

    Steve,

    Back in the 1980s (as blogger W. Blake Gray observed recently: grade inflation ), Parker liked historically “average” 12-plus % alcohol-level California Cabs.

    His ratings generally fell within the 90 to 92 point range for his favorites.

    It was only until the 1985 Groth “Reserve” Cab that he awarded his first 100-point rating to a California red wine.

    I would opine that the “best” 1984 and 1986 and 1987 California Cabs — such as the Caymus “Special Selection” releases — were/are elegant.

    (“Delicate” is not a descriptor word in my red wine lexicon. Occasionally invoked when I taste Champagne.)

    It would be instructive to go back and retaste the 1985 Groth “Reserve” to see if it has stood the test of time.

    Some tasters have. 1985 Groth Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve – CellarTracker

    (Personally, I always enjoyed more the 1984 Groth “Reserve.” Some taster notes: 1984 Groth Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve – CellarTracker)

    I have a “pet” theory: What we ascribe to the “Parkerization of wine” can, in part, be attributed to the 1990s decade replanting of Napa and Sonoma vineyards due to phylloxera.

    Growers substituted reduced yield mature vines for immature high-yielding vines.

    Growers adopted different clones of Cabernet.

    Growers increased the density of vineyard planting.

    Growers adopted new trellising configurations.

    Growers adopted new canopy management practices.

    Growers adopted drip irrigation systems.

    Growers adopted “green harvest” practices.

    And growers adopted picked fruit sorting tables.

    All of which helped change in small incremental ways the “historical” character of Napa and Sonoma Cabs.

    What do your friends and contacts in the wine industry say about the effect of the 1990s replantings of the vineyards?

    ~~ Bob

  16. Dear Bob Henry, you make excellent points.

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