Everybody’s going to be jumping on poor Robert Parker because of this deal he struck over the “Robert Parker Selection” Bordeaux.
Actually, it doesn’t seem to have been Parker who struck the deal but his new bosses in Singapore, who appear set on maximizing the money they can make off the Parker brand.
Robert himself no longer seems like the towering figure he was just two years ago. He’s become a mere player within his organization, a kind of chess piece being moved around by his masters (“Go back to California.” “Let the French use your name,” etc.), and I wonder how he feels about all this, being (as I believe him to be) a man of integrity. It’s easy to paint him as a mercenary who sold out, and many will. It’s also easy to suggest that, as the Parker/Wine Advocate brand loses steam in the West, it’s turning to the inscrutable East for a new breath of air and cash.
Well, what’s wrong with that? Wineries are turning East, too, because that’s where the customers are. I figure Robert knows that his time is almost up (simply as a function of his age and health, not his intellectual capacity), and wishes to make as much as he can before the well runs dry. Would anyone in his position do differently?
* * *
A note on Zinfandel. I was thinking how nice it is that we have cool-climate Zins, like the ones from south of River Road in the Russian River Valley (exemplified by the likes of Joseph Swan) and warm climate ones from places like Paso Robles and Napa Valley.
Wine experts usually point to Pinot Noir, Riesling and Tempranillo as being acutely sensitive to the slightest changes in terroir, but so is Zinfandel. In fact, I think Zin shows its origins more clearly than does Cabernet (which may be a function of everyone making their Cabernet identically these days). In the interests of critical objectivity, I have to say that both cool- and warm-climate Zinfandels can be good, because they can, and each consumer will have his or her preference. For myself, I’d happily drink a southern Russian River Valley Zin any day. They’re wines of powerful dryness, and will age well. I’ve had Joe Swan Zins well over twenty years old and they were great: delicate, sweet, feminine, airy, charming. Those are words you’d never apply to a young Zin!
To Maui today for the Kapalua Wine & Food Festival. I’m co-chairing the Pritchard Hill event, so on the flight I’ll be brushing up on my notes. I have 10,600 words in interviews and fact-gathering I took for my Wine Enthusiast article last Fall, which I’ll be reading as we fly westward over the Pacific. And I’m sure I’ll have plenty to report on from Hawaii.
It’s funny, isn’t it, how we hierarchize wine. It’s almost reminiscent of the Indian caste system, in which the highest caste was the priests, then the warriors, followed by merchants and then, at the bottom, the untouchables.
Maybe the British social structure is more apt, with royalty at the top (themselves intensely hierarchized), then gentry of various orders, followed by an elite class of merchants and, finally, the poor. America is supposed to be a classless society, but it isn’t, as even a brief exposure to the Napa auction proved.
I suppose there’s something in human nature that likes to classify things, including where people are on the social scale. We do the same thing with wine. The First Growths and Grand Crus of France are wine’s Brahmins and Kings and Queens. Here in California, their equivalents are the you-know-whos of Napa Valley that go for high triple digits.
What I wonder is, we all know that pigeon-holing human beings into a caste system is wrong. All men are created equal and all that; all are the children of God, and each person should be appreciated for what he or she is–or so our liberal philosophy says. Regardless of whether or not we actually believe that, it’s patently obvious that we’re comfortable putting wine into castes. If you’re familiar with San Francisco’s neighborhoods, we might say there are Pacific Heights mansion wines, North Beach artisanal wines, Mission District working class wines, and finally there are ghetto wines nobody would ever be caught dead drinking or serving, unless they were poor and couldn’t afford any better.
I’ve always been of the opinion that all wines should be treated equally, which is to say, with respect. That comes from the way I was raised, in a household where my parents idolized FDR. They were far from wealthy and had to watch their expenses, so I grew up understanding the concept of value.
Today, I love value in a wine. I give credit to the Broncos and Wine Groups of California, companies that make wine affordable for the masses. Sure, you can call those wines peasant wines, the equivalents of the untouchables, the dreaded lower classes whom British royalty were so snobbish toward. I know people who would refuse to drink these wines; they’d rather drink nothing than to sully their palates.
But that’s a wrong-headed attitude. If I were a billionaire I’m sure I’d drink my share of old Burgundy, but I’m not. One of these days I’ll be cruising the supermarket wine aisle again, like I used to, looking for affordable wines. Here are some of the best value brands I’ve reviewed this year–some old names, some new names, all worth a round.
L de Lyeth
Woodbridge by Robert Mondavi
Robert Mondavi Private Selection
Are these great, world-class wines? No. But they’re the wines I’d be drinking if they were all I could afford, and they’d give me plenty of pleasure. All of them should be the envy of the world, when it comes to producing dry, properly varietal wines at a price ordinary working people can afford.
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.