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.
I like rosé wine, but for the longest time I didn’t think California had many good ones. There were all sorts of problems. I found a Renwood 2005 “too watery for recommendation,” a fairly common problem for a type of wine that’s delicate to begin with. Another set of issues arose with a Dominari 2005, from Napa Valley: “heavy, with bizarre medicinal flavors and a sugary finish.” That’s pretty common, too. I’m not sure what causes the medicinal stuff, but residual sugar in a thin, simple wine is awful; and R.S. was one of the biggest problems Cali Rosé had. Then there was the vegetal smell I found in a 2005 Big House “Pink Wine.” Unripe and pyraziney.
There used to be a restaurant in the Financial District called Vertigo. (It’s no longer there; Vertigo Bar, in the Tenderloin, is decidedly not the same place!) I had read that Vertigo claimed to have the biggest rosé wine selection of any restaurant in San Francisco–maybe America, for all I remember; this was about 12 years ago. I called them up and asked if I could drop by and taste through the lot. They said, Sure. (Being a wine writer does have its advantages!) I sat at the bar and went through 25 or 30 wines. Just about each was stunning. Blew me away. Some pale and delicate, others darker and fuller. But all dry, dry, dry, and crisp, crisp. Those are rosé’s first duties: to be dry and crisp. And not a one of them was from California. All French.
Oh, now I get it (I thought to myself). This is what rosé is supposed to be. I never forgot that tasting. It remains the bar to which rosé must rise, in my mind.
Then, for the next decade or so, I didn’t pay much attention to rosé. If it came in, I reviewed it. There wasn’t much, maybe 50 bottles a year. Every once in a while, a wine writer would write about rosé, usually as spring or summer was coming on, and claim it was enjoying some kind of comeback. I never believed that. Some years ago, there was that group, Rosé Avengers and Producers, that my old friend Jeff Morgan was behind. But they didn’t seem to gain much traction.
Starting about a year ago, I found myself thinking about rosé again. It started subtlely; I’m not sure why. Then the new year was upon us, and people started sending me a lot of rosé, to get reviews in time for the warm season, I guess. And all of a sudden, I was talking about rosé to anyone who would listen. I recently told Chuck, my intern, that in a way, rosé is the most interesting wine now being produced in California.
Really!?!? That’s a pretty radical thing to say. But I just said it. There’s more good rosé (which is to say, dry and crisp) than ever before. Is it the recent cool vintages (2010-2012)? Is it a change of mindset among producers? The influence of sommeliers? It is true that the best new rosés are coming from very small producers who may be in close touch with the on-premise market. As usual with such things, it’s impossible to pinpoint a reason.
Here are some rosés I’ve really enjoyed over the past year: Kokomo 2011 Pauline’s Vineyard Grenache (Dry Creek Valley); Minassian-Young 2011 (Paso Robles); La Grand Côte 2011 L’Estate (Paso Robles); Sanglier 2011 Rosé du Tusque (Sonoma County): Muscardini 2011 Alice’s Vineyard Rosato di Sangiovese (Sonoma Valley); Birichino 2011 Vin Gris (California); Balleto 2011 Rosé of Pinot Noir (Russian River Valley); Luli 2012 (Central Coast); Lynmar 2012 Rosé of Syrah (Russian River Valley) and Chiarello 2012 Chiara Rosé of Zinfandel (Napa Valley). All over 90 points, and not one of them more than $22, except for the Chiarello, which is $35.
Rosé, along with Champagne, is the most versatile food wine. It’s also a nice gateway wine for Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio and Moscato drinkers looking to get into red wine. If I was a winemaker today, I’m not sure what my main focus would be, but I’d definitely have a rosé on the list. (The one variety that I think is hard to do rosé with is Cabernet Sauvignon. Too heavy and full-bodied. Merlot is tough, too.)
Lots of work-related travel coming up. I’m off to New York for a quickie tomorrow to attend the big Red and White Bash, Wine Enthusiast’s 25th anniversary celebration, at the Hudson Hotel, on West 58th, in busy midtown. From the sound of it, it’s going to be quite the par-tay. I already have my red and white “costume,” and Chuck lent me a really cool papier-måché mask he bought in London.
Then next week, it’s up to Geyserville for the Alexander Valley Cabernet Academy. This is an offshoot of the annual Taste Alexander Valley consumer event, but the Cabernet Academy is an invitation-only thing for sommeliers. They fly in from all over the place for a series of seminars–four in all–which I’ll be moderating, at different locations throughout the valley.
The idea is to see if there are terroir differences between the southern, middle and northern stretches of Alexander Valley. This is a topic I hadn’t given much thought to before, so in the next week, I plan to study it. My impression, up to now, is that the major distinction in Alexander Valley terroir is between mountains and flatlands. If you take a property like Stonestreet, or Verité, they have to have an Alexander Valley appellation even though they’re thousands of feet up in the Mayacamas. That’s the same AVA all those wineries along Route 128 have, down on the valley floor, which makes no sense at all.
The late Jess Jackson tried for years to get his mountain vineyards under a new appellation. The mountain they’re on historically has been called Black Mountain. Jess wanted it changed to Alexander Mountain. He lost that one, a rare defeat for a man who seldom lost anything in his long, illustrious life. I don’t care what they call it, but that mountain does need a separate appellation.
At any rate, I think the temperature is a little hotter the further north you go in Alexander Valley, as it is in Napa Valley. The average high in July in Cloverdale, for instance. Is 93 degrees, while mid-valley, at Geyserville, it’s a little over 90. At Healdsburg, in the southernmost part, the average July high is 88.8 degrees. So there is that spread. But this is a simplistic way of looking at things, as there’s so much more involved. Along the Russian River, the soils are deep and fertile. As you climb the benches and get into the mountains, they become drier, thinner and less rich in nutrients. The mountains also are cooler, an important consideration in such a hot place.
Then, after Alexander Valley, I’m off to the Kapalua Wine & Food Festival, where I’ll be co-hosting, along with Michael Jordan, M.S., a tasting of the Cabernets of Pritchard Hill. (Michael told me he was inspired to organize this tasting after reading the article on Pritchard Hill I wrote last year for Wine Enthusiast. The confirmed winemakers and wineries for our panel at this point are Phillip Titus (Chappellet), Andy Erickson (Ovid), Phillipe Melka (Brand), David Long (David Arthur) and Carlo Mondavi (Continuum). This panel will be a high point of the festival, but only one of many: as you can see from the schedule of events, Kapalua is a fabulous four days of some of the greatest wines and winemakers in California (not to mention food. I’m assuming the hotel has a gym where I can burn off the calories!). I can’t wait to go. My only regret is that Gus won’t be able to come with me. He loves the beach.
Before I was a wine critic–which is to say, before any of my publishers would let me actually review and rate wines–I was a wine reporter. For quite a few years, I worked for numerous publications that wrote about the nuts and bolts of the wine industry.
Those articles could be about almost anything: a study on some insecticide, fumigating soils, selling in China, pricing strategies, the economics of barrels, estate planning, the consolidating distribution system (yes, even then it was shrinking). That may not sound very glamorous, compared to the popular image of the wine writer hanging out with famous winemakers, eating fabulous foods prepared by superstar chefs, and drinking rare wines. But it was a good, solid job that taught me how to report quickly and accurately, and I loved it. Moreover, I learned a lot about what makes the industry tick.
Having a grounding in the basics of the wine industry has been very important to me. Although I don’t do much reporting anymore on hardcore industry topics, I carry with me to this day an interest in it, especially the marketing, sales and promotional side of the wine business. I also think it makes me a better writer for the kind of writing I now do. Knowing this industry in my bones helps to give me a perspective on things, which I can then pass onto my readers. It also helps to cut through the B.S. that, with some regularity, tries to pass through the reporter’s filter as news. That doesn’t happen much, not on my watch.
Does this industry experience make me a better wine critic? Not necessarily, per se. I’m not saying that to be a great wine critic you have to have done a lot of reporting. But it can’t hurt. Besides, wine criticism is only a part of what I do. And I’m glad it’s only a part. I wouldn’t want to write exclusively for a publication that only published reviews, and didn’t let its writers explore the industry’s other facets.
In my articles for Wine Enthusiast, I think I’m able to bring the perspective of those years of industry reporting to my words. It’s one thing to know, for example, that a winery is exporting to China. It’s another to have a sense of the history of California wine exports to China–to know how odd it seemed in the 1990s. (In retrospect, people like the Wentes who developed the China connection back then, and were thought a little loopy, look like geniuses today. They faced tremendous challenges: a lack of trusted partners on the ground in China, or even a distribution and sales system, not to mention language difficulties). I like to think that, even when I write a simple sentence like, “Wente, who has a long history of developing Asian markets…”), it’s informed with meaning.
I’m glad I didn’t just jump into wine reviewing with scarcely any knowledge of how the industry works, or why it came to be what it is today. When I started, of course, you couldn’t just jump in; you needed someone to let you write in their publication. Today, with the blogosphere, anyone can start reviewing wines with no experience, no background, not even any knowledge. This has been celebrated as a good thing: the end of elitism and all that, the victory of the little guy against the tyranny of the corporate gatemasters. Yes, we’ve gained that. But I wonder what we’ve lost. Does anyone really care that Sally or Jimmy reviewed a Beaujolais on their blog–when they may not know Brouilly from brie? It’s an indication of the desperate situation some wineries find themselves in (wherein wineries need all the help they can get, however dubious) that they’ll actually use Sally-Jimmy’s review. Hey, I’m just saying.
A Facebook friend commented to me:
I rarely have to purchase wine .. but here in Ontario Canada we have to do so at a WINE STORE … so I walked in yesterday and was floored by the number of wines that had been judged by Steve Heimoff !! so like any good wine guy I purchased several bottles where scores above 90 were given. mostly 90 and 91 and a few higher. (price point on wines above were ridiculous). Familiarizing myself with your palate a bit was quite an experience. so Mr. Steve it brings a question to mind … When judging wines .. what characteristic stands out most for you that boosts the score of the wine ? I would like to think if this question gets an answer it will be more than the word BALANCE but knowing you I doubt that is possible. Cheers and Libations.
I replied (maybe a little touchily after that “knowing you” remark), “Balance, certainly. This is a topic I could write a book about and have explained on many occasions in my blog.”
The guy replied, “been reading through it .. looking for where you site a particular point or something specific you look for … and i’ve been reading it for years .. no luck .. so I thought the question may wake something up and prompt a ‘Heimoff’ Answer … without being a ‘WANK’ lol”
The reference to “a WANK” was to my post from yesterday.
So, all right, I should probably explain from time to time what I do and how I do it and why.
What characteristic stands out most for you that boosts the score of the wine?
He doesn’t like the word “balance,” so I’m looking for another one-word answer and the best I can come up with is Strikingness. It’s when the wine has that hard-to-define Wow! factor. I have a Platonic notion in my mind of what the perfect Wow! wine should be. Ninety nine percent of all the wines I taste fall short of it. I suppose the perfect Wow! is a perfect 100-point wine. The further away from perfect Wow! the wine is, the lower the score. At some point, wines that fall short are still enjoyable, so they get scores in the 85-90 point range. At a still lower point, the wines become increasingly irritating, until finally they’re almost or entirely undrinkable. This is your 80-point range and, at Wine Enthusiast, the ultimate Purgatory, 22 points.
As I implied earlier, it would take a book to get into all the details of what constitutes the Wow! factor. All that “balance” means is that nothing sticks out over everything else. Too much oak is unbalanced. In my blind tasting, I will critique a wine for being too oaky. Once I know what it is, I may suggest that the oakiness might become more integrated into the wine with age, but the score doesn’t change because it’s still too oaky. Same with residual sugar. Most people know I hate it in a table wine that’s supposed to be dry.
I know that doesn’t fully explain “balance.” Maybe this helps. Yesterday I got an email from Kevin Willenborg, who’s winemaker at Vina Robles, a winery I like. He wrote: “If a vine is balanced it is capable of producing its true potential – more evenly ripened, physiologically mature fruit that reflects the terroir.”
An important part of the Wow! factor is the ability of a wine to stand out in a flight. I’ve said before that I don’t see how it’s possible to give a very high score to a wine you taste all by itself (I mean, if it’s blind. If you know you’re drinking 2010 Latour at the chateau, it’s a whole different story). A wine needs to be tasted in the appropriate context of its peers, in order to be fully understood. Say you’re tasting a flight of Napa Valley Cabernets from great producers. Everything scores highly, but one or two of those wines will dominate the others, even after two hours or so of continuous back and forth and development in the bottle.
What does “dominate the others” mean? The conventional wisdom is that the biggest, most extracted, oakiest and, yes, most Parkerized wines will always dominate a less bold wine. I don’t know about other tasters, but that’s not true for me. I can taste a gigantic wine that’s too big for its britches, one that’s cynically designed to get a high score. Such a wine will not get a high score from me. It lacks balance–but here we go again, because that’s the very word my Facebook friend asked me to expostulate on. I’ve done my best, within the limits of a blog post.
Wanker [from Wiktionary}: (UK, Australia, New Zealand, slang, pejorative) An idiot, a stupid, annoying or ineffectual person who shows off too much, a poser or poseur; someone who is overly self-satisfied.
The Brits and their island relatives south of the equator love the word “wank” which in addition to the above meaning has so many other colorful implications. In the context of wine, it shows up in this article, in yesterday’s Sydney [Australian] Morning Herald, in which the writer, Nick Bhasin, was swirling and sniffing wine at an office party when one of his co-workers said to him, “It’s hard to do that and not look like a wanker.”
I never had any preconceptions about wine wankiness when I was coming up. When I moved to San Francisco and fell into the wine culture, we all swirled and sniffed, held the wine against a white tablecloth to see how clear it was, “chewed” it as if it were meat, thoughtfully appreciated its finish, and then, afterward, talked about it with the excited animation of a cadre of Giants fans debating Tim Lincecum’s abilities as a pitcher. (If you live here and hang out in sports bars, you know what I mean.)
In other words, I’ve always been comfortable being a wine wanker and being in the presence of wine wankers, although, even for me, there’s a limit. You can be wanky (or wonky) about wine without losing common sense and normal ways of talking.
But nobody should be embarrassed about their wine wankiness, as Nick Bhasin apparently was. He asked a “wine educator” for advice on how not to appear wanky, and she told him, “The glass doesn’t have to be raised to the sky in conductor-like fashion. And swirling can be done subtly, it doesn’t require much effort to swirl a glass properly at all – and it doesn’t require exaggerated facial expressions either.”
She’s surely right; one can easily imagine Fred Armisen, on Saturday Night Live, doing his Guy Fieri sthick as an out-of-control wank, gargling the Lafite, and sniffing it so hard it comes snorting out through his nose.
There are such people; we all have seen them, at tastings and such. Usually they’re amateurs. Fortunately, they’re in the minority. I often wonder, though, how we got to this position, where the merest, sincerest interest in wine is perceived by others as pretentious and fatuous. People don’t think that baseball or wrestling fans are pretentious. Personal aircraft owners talk about their planes all the time (try hanging out in Napa Valley) and, while it’s annoying to those of us who do not own such boy toys, I don’t think it’s pretentious. (Well, maybe a little.)
Yet wine talk and behavior has earned its own place of infamy. I guess partly it’s due to our American disdain for high culture. Wine is associated with the wealthy (although that’s a stupid attitude, because wine is really the beverage of the masses), and Americans have always had suspicions of the rich. Particularly suspect are people who aren’t rich but take on rich “airs”; and could any “air” be more offensive than swirling and sipping? Hence “wanker.”
I’ll just conclude by saying that I never exhibit my wankitude in public unless it’s in an appropriate setting. If I’m at a party where nobody cares about what they’re drinking, then neither do I. In my family, we do have certain members who seek me out at Thanksgiving and other holiday gatherings to ask me to pronounce on various wines. I’m happy to oblige, but not at length, and not because I don’t want to offend anyone else, but because that’s not why I go to parties. I do my analysis thing when I review and I do my drinking thing when I drink, and I keep the two things separate. Still, after all these years, I never fail to be amused when someone who knows me well introduces me to someone who doesn’t with the words, “Steve’s a wine expert.” The other person’s eyes open wide and, while they search for something to say, I can almost hear them thinking, “He’s a wank [or wonk].”