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Parker vs. “trendy reds” is a fake choice



Here, you see, is the false dichotomy that infects so many of our wine conversations today: that there are “two different kinds” of wine and that we, as consumers and writers, “must pick one or the other,” as if we were in a vinous civil war where no one is permitted to be neutral and like both sides equally.

That is once again the premise of this think piece in San Francisco Magazine, whose very headline starkly presents the choice said to be confronting us: Should You Be Drinking Parker Bombs or Trendy Reds?” The article lists six red wines from California that all received “a perfect score from the Wine Advocate” and then contrasts them with six other red California wines “which probably aren’t going to net any 100-point scores…”.

Civil wars are dreadful things. Most people caught up in them, I suspect, would prefer to be left alone to live their lives in peace, but the fact of a civil war makes that practically impossible. We saw this in our own American Civil War (particularly in the border States) and we see it again, horribly, in places like Syria and Iraq, where common people—husbands and wives, children and old people, farmers and merchants and mechanics and teachers—get sucked against their wills into the crosshairs of the most disastrous arguments. Sometimes—often—it seems like these are arguments between maniacs, “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing,” as Macbeth described Life, “a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more.”

I submit that this false dichotomy is just such “sound and fury,” that it signifies absolutely nothing, except the unfortunate tendency of the media to fasten on anything that smells of controversy. Those proffering the argument that there are two kinds of wines, and that we must choose, frankly are almost exclusively from the “trendy reds” side of the spectrum. You never hear people who like Harlan or Verité or Saxum say that lighter red wines, such as Domaine de la Cote or Frog’s Leap Cabernet, are undrinkable. No sane or fair wine writer would take that position; if she were to do so, her credibility would be instantly undermined.

And yet the opposite is not the case; that is, writers and somms who like a lighter style of red wine (whatever that means) are able to charge, with impunity, that bigger red wines (whatever that means) are somehow marred or tainted or suspect.

How did we ever arrive at this impasse? More importantly, why do we suffer it to exist, in the exchanges that pass for our national wine conversation, which is supposed to be polite and reasoned, not polemical? This is why I have referred to the purveyors of the “lighter” side of the argument as the Taliban. (See here and here, for instance.)

An extremist, whether religious or cultural or stylistic, who insists that his interpretation of scripture is the only correct one is, by definition, a radical. And haven’t we seen that radicals of all stripes are the last things we need in this world?

So I return again to my old argument: When it comes to “lighter” or “more powerful” red wines, we don’t have to choose. We don’t have to feel as though we must choose, just because some authority (a sommelier, a newspaper columnist) tells us we must. People are so uncertain and insecure about wine; they look for whatever slender reed they can find, to grasp onto lest they be sucked into the quicksand of utter confusion. And this is why those purveyors of false choices do such a disservice to American wine drinkers. By creating the pretense that there is a true canon, as opposed to a false religion, they add to the confusion and, in the process, sow dissention where there ought to be nothing but respectful analysis and personal choice. It’s not and never has been “either-or.” It’s both. I wish that this phony argument, which now has enjoyed more than its expected fifteen minutes of strutting on the stage, would, like Macbeth’s walking shadow, go away and be heard no more.

  1. Bill Stephenson says:

    What rubbish.
    The sub-heading “Pitting six bottles from each side to settle the debate” suggests that the reader can just go down to his local wine purveyor and grab a bottle of Harlan, SQN or Shafer off the shelf and compare it to these other wines.

    “Pop them open and settle the question for yourself”
    Sure, let me empty my savings account.

    Some forms of radicalism are good and bring about positive change. (Our Founding Fathers, The Mattachine Society).
    Some are radical for misguided reasons.

    But wine radicalism? Nein danke.
    Rajat has an agenda that few people are truly interested in, unless they’re selling something. It also seems that most of the support for IPOB comes from San Francisco even though Jon has left for NYC. I might be more accepting of the IPOB if were couched in the form of a suggestion rather than it’s adherents telling me I’m drinking the wrong wines.

    For my part I drink wines from both sides of HIS argument but to me it’s not an argument. It’s variety.
    Somedays I prefer a lighter style, somedays I don’t.
    Somedays I like punk, somedays I like jazz.

  2. It takes a special brand of arrogance for a wine critic to tell people that they are drinking the wrong wine. There is really no such thing as “the wrong wine”.

    There is only wine that you like or you don’t–and that holds true for critics as well. Admittedly, some critics, Bonne and Burger come to mind on one side of the equation, Parker on the other, and most other critics somewhere in the middle.

    I live in a neighborhood where we all know each other and mostly drink wine. Happily, I am the only “geek” among this educated, decently heeled crowd, and I like to see what they are drinking to guage where the broader, upscale ($25 and up) marketplace is in the Bay Area.

    Funny thing about that: It is still Chardonnay leading the way, and buttery Chardonnay at that. Pinot Noir has become the go to wine for many, because it is both flavorful and less palate-attacking when young.

    The Chron article that focuses on the wines that cost hundreds of dollars and are at the very end of the ripeness scale completely overlooks what most people drink. It is an article for the hip geeks and sommeliers and fails utterly to reflect the real world.

    Thank you Steve for taking on its false, indeed phony and ill-informed, premise.

  3. “That is once again the premise of this think piece in San Francisco Magazine, whose very headline starkly presents the choice said to be confronting us: “Should You Be Drinking Parker Bombs or Trendy Reds?” – See more at:

    I must be reading a different article, I don’t see where they are presenting a “stark choice”. A little hyperbole on your part Steve. The article just points out that today there are different opinions and here are some vintners at opposite ends of the spectrum.

    I think many of the big established critics are a little too sensitive when their opinions are questioned. We all like different wines, I like more restrained wines but sometimes want a big plush Napa style wine. My tastes have changed over the years along with many of my friends, all to a more restrained style of wine. I certainly don’t think ill of anyone who appreciates a different style than I do, however.

    Several winemakers I have talked with say that in addition to their bigger fruit forward wines they are also making lighter wines. A good strategy as they will attract more wine drinkers/purchasers into their tasting rooms. Just like a good restaurant, serve some big plates and some small plates.

  4. Totally agree w/ your take on it, Peter.

    “except the unfortunate tendency of the media to fasten on anything that smells of controversy”

    I should point out that “media” not only applies to the SanFrancisco magazine, it also applies to our host blogger. They, too, thrive on perceived controversy…even when there is none.

    Wait’ll the old-guard bloggers get ahold of PatrickComisky’s article. Here, too, they’ll find controversy…even where there is none.

  5. My dear friend and colleague, Tish, you sound a lot angrier than Steve.

    I am unaware of any widely followed, paid-for wine review publication that does not use the 100-point system, which after all, is nothing more than a shorthand notation of the word contents of the review.

    But, frankly, I don’t care what system comes into or out of vogue. I care for the quality of the review. Using a number or a star or any other notation does not turn the review into sausage. That is unfortunate fiction of your part. And disappointingly misleading fiction at that.

    But, other than that, Bill, I am with you. People have to listen to their own palates. They just wish that there was a way to taste ten or twenty thousand wines a year to help them narrow the choices.

  6. “And yet the opposite is not the case; that is, writers and somms who like a lighter style of red wine (whatever that means) are able to charge, with impunity, that bigger red wines (whatever that means) are somehow marred or tainted or suspect.”

    Well, there’s the problem in a nutshell. People listen to writers and somms. As a wine writer, I’m gonna shoot myself in the foot, here, but I do it gleefully (and honestly) in The Pour Fool, all the time. If you take anybody’s word for what’s great or desirable in wine (or beer or whiskey or cheese or Pop Tarts), you’re voluntarily becoming a tool for that person’s ambitions. This sort of “controversy” is, Thank You Jesus, gradually fading from our national scene in the wake of average Americans finding out that they really don’t need lofty proclamations from “authorities” and can give and receive viewpoints to and from people with tastes just like their own by simply clicking over to any wine forum or consumer rating site. In fact, arguments like this never were controversies at all for the 85% of American wine drinkers (that vast consumer segment that generates most of the money in wine and makes all this dilettantish blather possible) whose uncomplicated desire is to find some wine that they like and enjoy and can afford. These sordid wine controversies all have one thing in common: they’re only important to that relatively small community of wine geeks who fancy themselves more erudite and enlightened than the Average Joe and obsess about such minutiae so they can feel like they’re really involved with the wine culture to a FAR greater degree than they actually are. I write about wine and, on occasion, help blend a bit. I am NOT a winemaker, cellarmaster, oenologist, vineyard manager, picker, or anyone who’s intimately and legitimately involved in actually producing this wonderful stuff. My exact status, in fact, is somewhere below the winery volunteer who helps load cases or glue on labels. If the folks who fixate on questions like Parker 100 Pointers versus “New” Cali wines would step back and take a look at what their actual contribution IS (instead of what they imagine it to be) maybe they’d find more productive pursuits like actually enjoying wines or telling readers about wines they found which taste great, show distinct terroir and structure, and constitute a good use of their dollars.

    Ultimately, as much as I enjoy this blog, dust-ups like this one are really nothing more than barely-detectable tempests in very tiny teapots. Luckily, because I avoid wine events and crowded tasting rooms like they were the Ebola virus, I never really find myself in the company of people who would stand around and pontificate about some dumb-ass comparison like this. If I heard somebody advocating for renouncing Parkerism OR shunning those unanointed “new” (silly description) California wines, I’d be hard put not to roll up a newspaper or a copy of Wine Spectator and smack them smartly about the head and shoulders while advising them LOUDLY to stop assaulting my ears with what the French so foppishly call “merde”. Drink the damned wines you like and shut up, is my admonition to almost everybody who asks. Anyone who ever talks themselves into force-ingesting any wine just because someone else insists that it’s great is a far bigger Fool than even me.

  7. Herta Peju says:

    I’m not as erudite as you are and I’m spare with my words.
    Your response echos the feelings of a professional wine critic.

    I for one as a vintner welcome the discussion, Ian’s article does not offer
    an opinion, it merely states that there are several sides to the world of ratings – readers do need to be reminded that its Ok to like wines that do not earn 95+ scores- after all in my experience most people believe what they read, it it is printed- then it must be true.

  8. Dear Herta, thanks for your comment. Of course you are correct.

  9. What kind of wine do you like, enjoy, favor?

    hmmmm, is this a trick question? Of course it is!

    default and true answer… if it’s good, I like it. Red, white, in between, sparkling or not. What is good or even great… I know it when I taste it. Likely a combination of the terroir, cru, ambiance and company.

    As for styles and generalizations, the pendulum keeps on swinging. For myself, I like curves, full body yet agile, good sense of humor, intelligent and sophisticated… but not sloppy. On the other hand heroin chic wines, interesting from a distance, a bit stark on their own, food definitely helps approachability…

    ok,ok… I’ll stick with the default answer… if it’s good, I like it.

  10. Mike DeLoach says:

    Our winery is in the RRV, so our Bordeaux reds tend to be on the sleeker side. And I still love huge, jammy reds from elsewhere. Adam Lee said it best in a conversation from some months ago: it’s not easy for [ultra premium wine businesses] to take the middle ground.

  11. Bob Henry says:

    Did I miss something?

    Charlie alludes to comments/opinions from Tish.

    Were they as ephemeral as Instagram postings?

  12. Bob Henry says:

    Let’s dig a little deeper . . .

    The San Francisco Magazine piece is penned by Ian White.

    His LinkedIn profile:

    His profile summary:

    “• Vintner, Entrepreneur and Marketing professional (MBA) specializing in the wine, artisan food and hospitality industries for over 7 years. Areas of focus include: executive business operations, brand development, product development and launch, project management, national sales,
    copywriting, wine education, graphic design, multimedia advertising, multi-platform media campaigns, and event planning and execution

    • Contributing Writer: San Francisco Magazine, California Home and Design Magazine, 7×7, Wine Enthusiast, Napa Sonoma Magazine, Press Democrat, and Napa Valley Life Magazine, and more.”

    Ian self-discloses that he is both a wine marketer and a wine journalist.

    So what “hat” is Ian wearing in representing himself as the author of this piece? Is there an agenda? Any implicit conflict of interest?

  13. Bob Henry says:

    Methinks some are giving too much credit to the “sway” of San Francisco Magazine and this piece.


    “Claimed” paid circulation: 51,000 (subscribers, print)

    When I accessed the digital version of this magazine, I was greeted by this message: Sign up [for free]


    It appears their funding comes from display ads for luxury goods and services, not paid subscriptions.

  14. Steve, you and I have privately and publicly discussed our mutual disdain for this kind of dichotomy thinking.

    Wine is big, there is literally room for all. Anyone with influence (and that is a wide spectrum these days) does their friends, followers, and consumers a disservice by proffering a particular style of wine (usually the one that they themselves prefer) as somehow qualitatively superior to another.

  15. Herta Peju says:

    Bob Henry,
    I did not mention in my reply to Steve that Ian White is
    my son in Law and I’m sure he acted under the” hat” of
    columnist for San Francisco Magazine. It is a paid job.

    The article does not state an opinion it just brings up 2 different points of view in order to spur spirited thinking – which it did- as it got you so involved!

  16. Digging a little deeper into two of the choices in the article of the “trendy reds”, somehow doesn’t fit with IPOB, “Old-World” or pre-Parker, at least in my humble opinion. The article in San Francisco Magazine needs to do better research before making these comparisons and write an article based on reality, not unicorn tastings.

    On Research:

    Jam Cellars is a 10,000 plus case production blended red wine within the California appellation that comes in at a stated 15.1% alcohol and is distributed nationwide and is priced at $19.99 retail, which would translate into a nice BTG program for most restaurants. “Easy drinking and affordable”, yes; I see it regularly in the Central Valley on a variety of store shelves. Its companion wine Butter is ubiquitous in the Central Valley as well. I’m pretty sure the folks at IPOB aren’t letting this big 10,000 case blend that states “harvested in mid to late September at 25.5-26.5 brix to ensure optimal ripeness” into the membership any time soon. And it isn’t Pinot. How is this a “new school” wine?

    Mazzocco makes a grand total of 24 Zinfandels, of which the 2012 Sonoma County label is sold out. Technically, it’s the Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel. More technically, it’s a 76% Zinfandel and 24% Petite Sirah. However, tech sheets are only available on the 2011 and 2010 Sonoma County Zinfandel of which each clocked in at 15.5% and 15.3% alcohol respectively and 1.5 g/l and 1.0 g/l of residual sugar. Hardly IPOB, pre-Parker or “old world”. The article you mentioned Steve doesn’t have a vintage, I have no idea what wine was actually chosen from Mazzocco, but if past is prologue, the 2012 is similar in style to 2010 and 2011.

    Unicorn Tasting:

    The premise of the article is not based on reality, but fantasy. I wonder what unicorn meat tastes like versus Safeway Select? The “Pop them open and settle the question for yourself” is just plain silly. How am I going to get my hands on a Harlan, Screaming Eagle or Sine Qua Non tomorrow? Next month? Or ever? Is the average reader of San Francisco Magazine worth $5 million and can afford to just “pop them open” any time they choose. Pure silliness.

    Lastly, why would I compare a $19.99 California appellation TTB borderline red wine to a Harlan Cabernet? This is like comparing apples and pineapples, yes they are both fruits that come from trees and that is all they have in common. If I were to do a taste test at my house and I could stock my cellar with allocated $1500 wine, I wouldn’t allow a bottle under $100 to cross the threshold of my estate!

    I’d be rotting in my spoils, not sampling grocery store wine!

  17. Bob Henry says:


    Referencing Ian White’s article for San Francisco Magazine, wine writer John Vankat’s bio:

    Wine writer Jonathan Cristaldi’s bio:


  18. Bob Henry says:


    I tried accessing John Vankat’s “In the Bottle” columns on Zinfandels published by Northern Arizona’s Mountain Living Magazine (September 2011 and July 2012), but the website didn’t reproduce it:



    I did find this “Pine Wine” column published by the Arizona Daily Sun (October 15, 2014):

    “50 Years of Ridge Zins”


    If you wish to query him about his selection of the Mazzocco Zinfandel, you can reach him at


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