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Thursday throwaway: Rutherford dust, Bordeaux prices and Parker, Parker, Parker!

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Went up to Napa yesterday for the annual “Day in the Dust” tasting of the Rutherford Dust Society. I wanted to see if I could discern a “Rutherford dust” characteristic to the wines. If there was one, it was pretty well disguised. All the wines were very fine, as you’d expect, but they were different: Some more tannic, some less, some rustic, some refined. Some wines were oakier than others. The fruits tended toward reds: cherries, sometimes sour candy, sometimes freshly sweet, but there was plenty of blackberry and cassis and also, some pleasant herbaceousness. (The vintage was mostly the cool 2011.) Most of the wines were ageable. But Rutherford dust? I don’t think so. Andre Tchelistcheff’s phrase was pure marketing genius (or was made so after others latched onto it), but I defy anyone to consistently tell the difference between a Rutherford Cabernet and one from St. Helena, to use but one example.

* * *

The drinks business has a nice little article where they went back to something Parker said ten years ago, and it has proven to be right. “If my instincts are correct,” he predicted, “10 years from now a great vintage of these [Bordeaux] first growths will cost over US$10,000 a case…at the minimum.”

Well, that’s exactly what happened in some instances. Now I’m seeing certain recent Napa Valley Cabernets that cost close to $1,000 per bottle, which would put them well over $10,000 a case. I always have to rub my eyes at these nosebleed prices, but nothing seems to be slowing them down. Not the Great Recession, nor the incessant bashing Napa Cabernet has come under in recent years has changed wealthy people’s inclination to buy them at any price.

* * *

I’ve always held that wine tasting is both objective and subjective, even in the supposedly “greatest palates” in the world. How could it not be, when the proof lies in the prices I just referred to. Is any wine “worth” $1,000 a bottle? Not objectively. Instead, “emotional associations…affect what we taste,” says a scientist whose work was reported this month in The New Yorker.

By “emotional,” he means the “expectations” people have when they see a bottle of a wine they know to be rare, esteemed and expensive. “Every time we have a wine,” the article says, “we taste everything we know about it and other related wines.”

Fascinating statement. Think about it. I taste, let’s say, a Parker perfect 100-pointer and I know a lot about the history of the estate and the vineyard, the winemaker, the fact that the wine has been celebrated throughout the vintages as one of the world’s greatest. I know that it costs $1,000 a bottle or more on the wine lists of the world’s greatest restaurants. I know that it sells for multiples of that on eBay. I know that there are people who have been waiting for years to get on the waiting list for the mailing list. I know that the wine is so celebrated across the globe that counterfeiting it in China has become big business. I know that people buy it and put it in their cellars for their grandkids to drink (or sell). And that’s only the beginning: not only do I know stuff about that wine, I feel things about it that stir my emotions—that cannot be put into words, but are perhaps all the stronger for that very reason: they tap into my dreams, my fantasies, my hopes and aspirations. These are truths about wine as powerful as the objective truths of alcohol level, varietal composition or pH, and we should keep them in mind always when we ask the (now answered) question: Is the evaluation of wine objective or subjective?

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Speaking of all the above, a bearded and hairy Robert Parker—looking more and more like Orson Welles in his Paul Masson days—has been on what looks like a P.R. fix-it campaign lately. First he gave a rare and unusual interview, published on the Hawk Wakawaka blog, that wasn’t so much about wine as RMP’s views on film, spirituality, raising kids, the 24-hour news cycle and lots more. It’s a compelling peek inside the head of the most famous wine critic in the world.

And now, today’s Wall Street Journal has yet another exclusive interview with Parker, not particularly interesting because it’s predictable and says the same-old, same-old things. So why is Parker on the mashed potato circuit?

My guess is that after all the bashing, he’s decided it’s time to rehabilitate himself in the public’s eye (and also to publicize his new magazine). And you know what? There’s nothing wrong with either of those motives.

That’s it for now! Have a nice day.

  1. Steve, one of the things Parker says in his WSJ interview is: “The 100 points is the ultimate controversial thing because there are those who say perfection is impossible to obtain and I am saying that’s a cop-out,” he says. “If you think this is the very best wine that can be made from this property or this area, why would you not give it a perfect score?”

    Do you think every winery (or at least every region) has the potential to produce a 100-pt wine if they make the best wine they can make?

  2. Bob Henry says:

    Steve,

    Regarding this comment:

    “Now I’m seeing certain recent Napa Valley Cabernets that cost close to $1,000 per bottle, which would put them well over $10,000 a case. I always have to rub my eyes at these nosebleed prices, but nothing seems to be slowing them down. Not the Great Recession, …”

    Your buddy Patrick Comiskey at Wine & Spirits magazine has a different “take” on the demand for high-priced Napa Cabernets slowing down in the marketplace.

    Writing in the Los Angeles Times in 2009, Patrick commented:

    “Better Wines for Fewer Dollars?”

    Link: http://www.latimes.com/features/food/la-fo-sommelier4-2009mar04,0,481881.story

    Quote: “Most sommeliers report a modest downward shift in what’s known as “the sweet spot” — the price range where most consumers are comfortable spending. Many but not all report that THE SWEET SPOT HAS FALLEN INTO THE $50-TO-$60 RANGE, where it had once been more like $80. …”

    Writing in the Los Angeles Times in 2010, Patrick commented:

    “Dark Days for Cult Cabs”

    Link: http://articles.latimes.com/print/2010/feb/04/food/la-fo-cultcab4-2010feb04

    Quote: “At Twenty-Twenty Wine Co. in West Los Angeles, owner Bob Golbahar sees the same trend among former big spenders. THE MARKET, HE SAYS, IS ‘OVER-CULTED. OUR AVERAGE BOTTLE SALE USED TO BE $100; NOW IT’S $50. Unless you’re giving it away, they’re not interested.’”

    Writing in the Los Angeles Times in 2011, Patrick commented:

    “$15 Wine the New Normal”

    Link: http://articles.latimes.com/print/2011/apr/14/food/la-fo-economical-wines-20110414

    Quote: “…most wine store owners . . . are describing a new normal, one in which the high-margin sales of WINES IN THE $50 to $150 RANGE ARE DIFFICULT — indeed, some would say they’re ALMOST A THING OF THE PAST.

    “. . . To an overwhelming degree, retail customers are spending less for a bottle of wine than they did two years ago. In 2009, we wrote in these pages that, in terms of a SALES SWEET SPOT, $25 was the new $40. If anything, that median is trending further downward in 2011. For many, $15 to $20 might be the new $25.”

    ~~ Bob

  3. Bob Henry says:

    Kyle,

    Regarding your question:

    “Do you think every winery (or at least every region) has the potential to produce a 100-pt wine if they make the best wine they can make?”

    I haven’t read the alluded to Robert Parker interview, but from my following of his public and private pronouncements over the years, I doubt that he believes that ANY plot of land could potentially produce a 100-point scoring wine.

    Preface: CAPITALIZED TEXT used for emphasis. — Bob

    EXCERPTS FROM A 1989 INTERVIEW WITH WINE TIMES MAGAZINE:

    WINE TIMES: But how do you split the hairs between an 81 and an 83?

    PARKER: It’s a fairly methodical system. The wine gets up to 5 points on color, up to 15 on bouquet and aroma, and up to 20 points on flavor, harmony and length. And that gets you 40 points right there. And then THE [BALANCE OF] 10 POINTS ARE … SIMPLY AWARDED TO WINES THAT HAVE THE ABILITY TO IMPROVE IN THE BOTTLE.

    THIS IS SORT OF ARBITRARY AND GETS ME INTO TROUBLE.

    . . .

    WINE TIMES: Do you have a bias toward red wines? Why aren’t white wines getting as many scores in the UPPER 90s? Is it you or is it the wine?

    PARKER: Because of that 10-POINT CUSHION [awarded for wines that improve with bottle age]. Points are assigned to the overall quality but also to the potential period of time that wine can provide pleasure. And white Burgundies today have a lifespan of, at most, a decade with rare exceptions. Most top red wines can last 15 years and most top Bordeaux can last 20, 25 years. It’s a sign of the system that A GREAT 1985 MORGON [cru Beaujolais] IS NOT GOING TO GET 100 POINTS BECAUSE IT’S NOT FAIR TO THE READER TO EQUATE A BEAUJOLAIS WITH A 1982 MOUTON-ROTHSCHILD. You only have three or four years to drink the Beaujolais.

    WINE TIMES: In your system, what would be the HIGHEST RATED Beaujolais?

    PARKER: 90. That would be a PERFECT Beaujolais, and I’ve never given one. I have given a lot of 87s and 88s.

    [Bob Henry's comment: In 1990, Parker awarded a score of 92 points to the 1989 vintage Georges Duboeuf "Jean Descombes" Morgon Beaujolais, contradicting his then year-old statement above.

    Fast forward to 2011: the stellar 2009 vintage cru Beaujolaises garnered scores in the 91 to 94 point range from The Wine Advocate.]

    WINE TIMES: So it’s the AGING POTENTIAL that is the KEY FACTOR that gets a wine into the 90s.

    PARKER: Yes. And it goes back to how I evaluate vintages in general. To me the greatness of a vintage is assessed two ways: 1) its ability to provide great pleasure — wine provides, above all, pleasure; 2) the time period over which it can provide that pleasure.

    AND SEE THIS QUOTE:

    “ … 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).

    ~~ Bob

  4. Bill Haydon says:

    “Napa Cabernet has come under in recent years has changed wealthy people’s inclination to buy them at any price.”

    You’re making the grand assumption that these wines are still selling out. This is Napa we’re talking about, and image trumps everything. The reality is that they are not, and I heard that directly from the former winemaker at the bluest Napa chip of them all. I’ve also heard of their distributors in NYC and Chicago quietly being given (and in one hilarious case turning down) larger allocations to move through the three tier system.

    Given the reality that these wineries, given their prices, can be profitable while selling far less than their total production (hell a third of it would put most of them in the black for the year) and that for many of these producers, the overall financial portfolio of the owners gives them the luxury of losing money if necessary rather than dilute their image (hubris) through lower prices, many of these cult wines are backing up in the warehouse with an aim of eventually being re-released as library selections should they ever regain their market panache domestically or sold at auction to the Chinese down the road should the Chinese ever get a real taste for Cali juice. If you ever want to start a really vicious argument, just say something negative about our trade relationship with China to the producer of high end Napa Cabernet. Hell, I think half of them would fly the Chinese flag above their vineyards if they felt it would help.

  5. Mike Mora says:

    Parker says . .. zzzzzzznnnZZZZNNNnnnuuuh. Sorry I fell asleep.

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