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“Parkerization” is not a myth or a lie

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Lisa Perrotti-Brown surprised no one with her glowing defense of her “greatest mentor,” Robert M. Parker Jr., which she published the other day, on the occasion of Parker’s “immediate” retirement from The Wine Advocate, the periodical he founded in 1978.

That Parker was the most famous and influential wine critic of the last 35 years, as Perrotti-Brown writes, cannot be disputed. In making the following arguments, I cite my own position: as the lead California critic for Wine Enthusiast Magazine for many years, I had a privileged seat at the high table of wine criticism—a seat that enables me to make these observations with some degree of eye-witness veracity.

I would not challenge a single word of Ms. Perrotti-Brown’s encomium. Bob Parker absolutely was “the father of modern wine criticism”; he did indeed “raise the bar” for all of us who followed. But where I part ways with Perrotti-Brown is in her unfettered denial that Parker created an “international style” of ripe, high-alcohol wines. This is not a “big lie,” as she asserts, but the pure, unadulterated truth—and everybody in the wine industry knows it.

Perrotti-Brown has been trying to undo or obfuscate this truth about the “Parkerization of wine” for years. Last June, she wrote her piece de résistance on the topic, a robust rebuttal that does not stand up to scrutiny. Parkerization is “a myth,” she says. It is “a lie.” Its effect on wine is “purported.” Yes, Parker’s reign, she admits, coincided with a time when “wineries…developed styles that fit the trend” of riper, fruitier wines. But “it was not Parker who created the trend, consumers did.” Those who continue to decry Parkerization and the international style, she states, are merely seeking “a villain.” Wine writers who dare to suggest that Parkerization is real are just “looking for something to write about that attracts more viewers.”

These are patronizing, insulting remarks that Perrotti-Brown did not have to make. But she did, and they need to be addressed. I’m certainly not looking to “attract more viewers” by writing these words, and I never thought Parker was a “villain.” I admire the man tremendously. But I was there, in the front row, watching this whole phenomenon unroll, from the early 1980s until I formally retired from wine criticism in 2013 (and even since then I’ve kept my eye on the scene). And I can state with clear conscience that Parkerization was and is real.

We all know that alcohol levels in wine rose drastically during Parker’s era. Bordeaux, Burgundy and California in particular, as well as the Rhône, saw these increases—all regions Parker specialized in. During my heyday (and Parker’s as well), alcohol levels in California Cabernet Sauvignon, especially from Napa Valley, soared. Frequently, levels of more than 15% were seen, and many of us—aware of the fudge factor the Federal government allows in wine labeling—suspected that a Cabernet of official 15.5% strength might in reality be in excess of 16%. This is not a “myth” but a fact.

Why did it happen? Perrotti-Brown says that “consumers created the trend.” That is a misstatement. Consumers do not create such trends in wine; they respond to them. Consumers enjoyed wine before the Parker era when alcohol levels were between 11% and 13%. There is no evidence that a consumer uprising occurred in the 1980s, in which these consumers demanded riper, higher-alcohol wines. Talk about “myths”!! It simply didn’t happen.

What did happen was that wine periodicals, like The Wine Advocate and Wine Spectator, assumed a far greater importance than ever before, as a maturing and wealthier Baby Boomer generation realized it needed help figuring out what to buy (and cellar) among the thousands of competing brands. Parker’s Wine Advocate wasn’t the first to fill that market niche, but it was the most successful and influential. The 1982 Bordeaux vintage, which Parker lionized, did indeed cement his reputation. After that, he was golden.

I can’t prove the following assertion but I strongly believe it: wine critics who became well known after Parker’s rise, including James Laube, James Suckling and myself, felt they had to praise the same sorts of wine as did Parker. This may not have been a conscious thought on their part; but wine critics don’t work in a vacuum. The handwriting on the wall was very clear by the late 1980s: Parker was giving huge scores to wines like Groth’s 1985 Reserve (the first California wine to get 100 points from him). With each high score, not only the winery’s reputation was boosted, but Parker’s, as well. Wine writers took note! The concept that big, fruity, high-alcohol Cabernets were better than their thinner, less ripe but often more elegant counterparts became entrenched. No wine critic is immune to his environment; like artists, they are affected by their contemporaries. There has got to be a scale or continuum of hedonism in criticism; otherwise, criticism makes no sense; and what Parker bequeathed the rest of us was to define the upper scale of this continuum.

This is what is meant by “Parkerization.” Parker himself never denied his personal preference for big wines; he simply recoiled from what he felt was the smear of calling them “Parkerized.” And now, his successor at Wine Advocate, Perrotti-Brown, has picked up the mantle of outraged indignation. But I really don’t see why. Why is it so irksome to her (and to her “greatest mentor”) that Parker had this impact on wine? The only reason I can surmise—and it’s just my guess—is because Perrotti-Brown shares to some degree the belief common among younger (and some older) critics and sommeliers that some wines have indeed become too ripe, too alcoholic; and to the extent there’s a reason for this, it’s because of Robert Parker and the Wine Advocate.

History will be the final judge of all this. Does anyone doubt that History will record that Parkerization and the international style he inspired were real and not fake news? Meanwhile, Perrotti-Brown should calm down. The more she denies the reality of Parkerization—the lady doth protest too much–the more defensive she appears. As for Bob Parker, I salute you, sir, and–speaking as one whose retirement preceded yours–I welcome you to our ranks, and wish you peace and health!

  1. RH Drexel says:

    So you come out of retirement to diss someone who just retired. Okay. Got it. Page views, indeed.

  2. Patrick says:

    Well put, Steve. I am very glad that he’s gone. Now maybe our wine criticism can mature more quickly to allow a greater diversity of views about what good wine is.

  3. David Creighton says:

    I’ve had customers specifically ask me for wines that Parker rated over 90pts. they were following Parker not their own independent preferences. but the real horror or this period is the now undisputed notion that a wine can reliably be purchased on the basis of a single numerical score. why is a delicious white wine always rated mid 80’s and a hard to love now wine that may be wonderful in 20 years rated in the upper 90’s? and why are clearly Bretty wines still given high scores with nary a mention of this flaw in the notes.

  4. Bob Fostet says:

    Decades ago when Parker was the resident expert on Prodigy I told him winemakers would change their style of wines to the thick over ripe wines he loved. He scoffed at me and told me I was dumb to even suggest this.

  5. Interesting! Thanks.

  6. Oh dear, Sao, so sorry you’re still angry.

  7. RH Drexel says:

    Because I am a woman, you deem me angry? What I shared was called an opinion.

  8. Oh, Sao, what can I say? I never “dissed” Parker. All I said was that he was primarily responsible for the move towards higher alcohol. That is not an attack, it is a fact; but you seem to be so intent on denying that (was he your client? Did he pay you?) that you can’t stand even that simple assertion. If I “dissed” anyone it was Ms. Perrotti-Brown, and it wasn’t “disrespect” but a respectful difference of opinion. Why can’t you (and she) own the fact of Parker’s influence on ripeness, instead of getting so angry whenever somebody points it out? Everybody knows what happened, except, apparently, you and Ms. Perrotti-Brown. And by the way, this has nothing to do with gender. Love and peace!

  9. Bob Henry says:

    Steve writes:

    “. . . During my heyday (and Parker’s as well), alcohol levels in California Cabernet Sauvignon, especially from Napa Valley, soared. Frequently, levels of more than 15% were seen, and many of us—aware of the fudge factor the Federal government allows in wine labeling—suspected that a Cabernet of official 15.5% strength might in reality be in excess of 16%. This is not a “myth” but a fact.”

    Let me pull out of my hoary archive this 2009 column by Dan Berger:

    Excerpt from the Napa Valley Register
    (Friday, March 27, 2009, Page C2):

    “Bigger: Is it Better?”

    By Dan Berger
    “On Wine” Column

    Link: http://napavalleyregister.com/lifestyles/food-and-cooking/wine/columnists/dan-berger/bigger-is-it-better/article_57a3faab-a7dd-5dbb-840a-e8093c903fa0.html

    Back in the early 1980s, the common wisdom was that wines with 14 percent alcohol or more were considered high in alcohol. Some even thought 13.5 percent alcohol was a bit too much for a dry red wine aimed at the dinner table.

    I haven dozens of wines in my cellar from the 1970s that say 12.5 percent alcohol on the label and the wines are all fine to this day.

    Winemakers have long known that the higher the alcohol, the “richer” the wine is. That is, higher alcohols give a wine the impression of sweetness and the higher the alcohol, the greater that impression is.

    Recently, two winemakers old enough to remember that period reminisced about that old line referring to “14 percent alcohol.”

    “Remember that?” asked one. “Well, today’s 15 percent is the old 14 percent.”

    “No, it isn’t,” said the second winemaker, “16 percent is.”

    Has the culture of wine making changed so much that we no longer have many wines aimed at the dinner table? Youngsters who think of themselves as wine savvy and who love to toss around terms like “fruit bomb” could be extolling the dubious virtues of another abomination: sweet red wine.

    I was chatting with a winemaker the other day whose name would be mud if I were to identify him. He is old enough to recall when red wine was both actually and figuratively dry.

    “We got a bottle of —” and he named a particularly famous Napa Valley cabernet, “and we tasted it. It was sweet. Well, the label said it was 14.8 percent alcohol, so we took it to the lab.

    “It tested out at nearly 16 percent! And the acid was quite low, and the pH was nearly 4.0,” an indication of a very unbalanced wine.

    “So they are now making wine that is sweet,” he said with a look of disdain. “And this wine gets scores in the high 90s from people who should know better.”

    . . .

  10. Bob Henry says:

    Let me pull another chestnut out of my archive.

    Excerpt from the Napa Valley Register Online
    (March 21, 2013):

    “Blind Tasting and Alcohol”

    By Dan Berger
    “On Wine” Column

    Link: http://napavalleyregister.com/lifestyles/food-and-cooking/wine/columnists/dan-berger/blind-tasting-and-alcohol/article_85d38cf8-9287-11e2-af4a-0019bb2963f4.html

    “The comment was unsolicited and surprised me by its bluntness — and notably because it came from a respected Sonoma County wine maker who makes a well-regarded cabernet.

    “‘I don’t drink my cab,’ he said. ‘I just make it. It has too much alcohol for me.’

    “His remark was uttered about eight years ago in the midst of a blind tasting of 12 cabernets, one of which was his, and was followed by knowing nods from the other wine makers in the tasting.

    “More alcoholic wine sells better than better balanced wine, said a few of the wine makers, ‘and we have to make what sells,’ said one.”

    . . .

  11. Bob Henry says:

    And let me “tee” this up.

    Excerpt from the Napa Valley Register Online
    (October 23, 2014):

    “High alcohol and diminishing wine styles”

    By Dan Berger
    “On Wine” Column

    Link: http://napavalleyregister.com/wine/columnists/dan-berger/high-alcohol-and-diminishing-wine-styles/article_a030808e-c74f-5355-944c-5e5a9a32d79d.html

    “With wines whose labels say they have alcohols of more than 14.1 percent, the law says the statement carries a 1 percent leeway factor, so a wine whose label says it has 15.2 percent alcohol, in theory could be in compliance as low as 14.2 percent and as high as 16.2 percent. Remember that phrase ‘in theory.’

    “Some years ago, I determined that the government has no penalty whatever for wines with more than 14 percent alcohol that are out of compliance. As a result, for all practical purposes, government officials do not analyze most expensive, high-alcohol wines. If they did, they might be shocked.

    “A good friend and wine-maker not long ago was curious about this, so he sent samples of six expensive California wines to a lab for analysis. Each of the wines had labels that said the wines had alcohols in the high 14 percents. The lab results came back weeks later. The alcohols on all the wines were about 17 percent.”

    . . .

  12. Bob Henry says:

    The last time I “officially” saw a 17% ABV on a bottle of California wine was this one:

    URL: https://cdn1.wine-searcher.net/images/labels/75/89/10567589.jpg

    Backgrounder on these historic wines:

    From Wines & Vines magazine
    (January 2009):

    “WINES THAT CHANGED THE INDUSTRY;
    Handling extra ripeness 1968 Mayacamas Late-Harvest Zinfandel”

    URL: http://www.winesandvines.com/template.cfm?section=features&content=61190

  13. BRILLIANT contributions, Bob Henry! 🙂

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