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Wednesday Wraparound: Parker on futures, those “miracle” 2014s, and—Parker on futures, not!

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If, as Bob told The Drinks Business (and who would know better?), Bordeaux en primeur futures are “largely dead,” then good riddance, says I. I never did care for this futures stuff.

I mean, what purpose did they serve? Maybe once upon a time wine lovers could get a “bargain” by buying en primeur, but those days are long gone. I’m not entirely sure what killed them off, but surely the Internet had something to do with it. eBay? I don’t know for sure, but I bet much, if not most, en primeur Bordeaux is bought strictly for flipping. Something drove prices up so drastically that, as Parker himself points out, [producers] started raising the prices [on futures] higher and higher, so you were being asked to pay prices for unbottled wines two years before you received them for prices that will essentially be the same as when they came out…”.

That doesn’t make much sense—to tie your money up like that, in essence lending it to the chateau interest-free.

It’s funny how powerful is Parker’s influence. Even though people say his day is over, he’s still the 800-pound gorilla in the room, especially in Bordeaux. Decanter just wrote an article, How to buy en primeur, in which they said that, while the system can be complicated (involving not only the chateaux but negociants and merchants), there seems to be little sign of change in the offing, and the system does work.” Well, not according to Parker, it doesn’t. And I believe Parker.

* * *

Meanwhile, speaking of Bordeaux, how long will they continue to hype their vintages? As long as there are enough gullible people around to believe it. Here’s the latest on the 2014s, “a ‘great, miracle’ vintage that is close in style and quality to the exceptional 2010s,” according to a Bordeaux winery general manager. (There’s objectivity for you!)

How many times have we heard of a “vintage of the century” or “the greatest vintage since [fill in the blank]”? And it’s not just Bordeaux, it happens in every great wine-producing region. P.T. Barnum would be pleased to learn that his admonition about suckers is truer than ever when it comes to selling wine.

* * *

Finally—to reprise both Bordeaux and Bob Parker—his stepping down from reviewing en primeur—which he announced after giving The Drinks Business his gloomy prognostication on Bordeaux futures—is not the earth-shattering asteroid crash some writers have made it out to be. It was time for him to move on, a decision only he could make, and one into which not too much should be read, except this: as many have pointed out, no critic will ever have Bob’s influence. On balance, that influence has been a very healthy one for the wine industry. Bob was responsible—not entirely, but largely—for wine’s explosion in popularity in the 1980s and 1990s, when media all over the world trumpeted his achievements. More than anyone else, he made wine important. He glamorized it—the way an Oscar elevates a movie. We here in California ought to thank him, too, for he was/is the ultimate non-snob. He said that California wine could be as good as French at a time when many people didn’t want to hear it (and still don’t). I, personally, never begrudged him, as did some critics. In fact I’d venture to say that if it hadn’t been for Bob, there might not have been a Wine Spectator or Wine Enthusiast—and even if there had been, they wouldn’t have become as influential as they did, because he blazed the trail. He cleared the way. He set the style—and will, even after he retires. Bob Parker was the Sinatra of wine critics: The chairman of the board.

* * *

I’m up in Sonoma Valley today, at Richard Arrowood’s Amapola Creek Winery, where he’s hosting a 40-year retrospective tasting of some of his wines. I respect and admire Richard so much. He was a big part of my first book, A Wine Journey along the Russian River. I’ll write about this historic tasting tomorrow.

  1. Hate to tell you this but the WineSpectator well predates Parker. It was started in the mid-’70’s by BobMorrisey down in SanDiego as a tabloid newspaper, whilst Parker was just a two-bit attourney. It was already pretty successful, now in a magazine format, when Parker first hit the wine scene.
    Tom

  2. Bill Haydon says:

    Sorry, Steve. I’ve never subscribed to the great man theory of history. Did Parker really, like some cardboard character from an Ayn Rand novel, put the American public on his broad shoulders and carry us to the promised land of fine wine appreciation or, rather, was he in the right place at the right time to capitalize on America’s (well, at least in certain urban markets) growing sophistication in both food and wine (remember both happened at the same time), increased travel and globalization. All these things on a much more profound level drove America’s burgeoning wine knowledge and consumption in the 70s and 80s than one man putting out self-published newsletter that to this day most Americans have never heard of. These trends would have happened whether RMP left his law practice or not. Had no one ever heard his name, other voices (perhaps more nuanced and less polemic) would have undoubtedly risen to take the spot that he assumed.

  3. Wait, I’m confused. Who is it that proclaims vintages of the century, or of “A lifetime” again?

  4. Bob Henry says:

    Steve,

    “. . . buying en primeur . . . those days are long gone. I’m not entirely sure what killed them off . . .”

    What killed them off was three consecutive “dismal” vintages for red Bordeaux: 2011 and 2012 and 2013.

    And ambitious selling prices that didn’t reflect their inferior quality.

    Collectors and investors were waved off by the wine and business press.

    An example from BusinessWeek magazine.

    “A Dismal Bordeaux Vintage Hits the Market”

    Link: http://www.bloomberg.com/bw/articles/2013-11-27/a-dismal-bordeaux-vintage-hits-the-market

    Excerpt:

    “Wine producers in France’s Bordeaux region have enjoyed some fat years. Vintages from 34 top labels were fabulous enough to command average price hikes of 204 percent and 12 percent in 2009 and 2010, respectively. Chinese demand sustained the momentum.

    “The vintages of 2011 and 2012, though, were not so fabulous: British wine critic Jancis Robinson calls 2011 “a forgettable year,” and says most Bordeaux from 2012 “have a lack of depth and persistence.”

    “Prices have dropped some, but not nearly enough to please customers who are still paying 30 percent more than in 2008, before the great takeoff. Demand has fallen, and the middlemen and châteaux have been stuck with unsold stock from 2011 and 2012.

    “The 2013 Bordeaux looks the least fabulous of all the recent vintages. . . .

    “The crummy harvest comes as investors have soured on Bordeaux. . . .”

    It’s a big world out there.

    If a wine enthusiast wishes to drink Cabernet Sauvignon-Cabernet Franc-Malbec-Merlot-Petite Verdot red blends, s/he can turn to California and Washington and Argentina and Chile and Australia

  5. Bill Haydon, part of your argument is compelling. I agree that America, as a whole, reaches a similar level of interest in wine without Robert Parker.

    I think, however, Napa does not attain Disneyland status -most assuredly from a pricing standpoint- without Parker. And it is facile to assume “other voices” would have “undoubtedly” risen…. There were many other voices, and even more now. None seems to have spoken out so “loudly” or with such clarity about what was “good” than he did.

  6. Bill Haydon says:

    Steven, I agree with you to a degree. While I think that somebody would have arisen to fill the role that Parker assumed, I do believe that Parker–much like The Dude in Los Angeleees, California during our troubles with Sadaam and the Iraqis. And The Parker was most definitely a lazy man (5 seconds per wine), but I digress–was a man for his time and place. His simplistic, one-dimensional palate was perfectly in-tune with a novice wine buying public prone to understand and appreciate simple power (extract, oak, alcohol) over nuance and elegance.

    To use another metaphor, the American public was already on the road to fine wine appreciation. Parker just happened to be the pied piper waiting at a fork in the road ready to lead them down the wrong path for the next 25 years. That they seem to be getting back onto the right path at the very time Parker’s influence is waning is no coincidence. Rather, the two are inextricably linked.

  7. Bob Henry says:

    Excerpt from Los Angeles Times “Main News” Section
    (August 24, 1987, Page A1ff):

    “Wine Critics: Influence of Writers Can Be Heady”

    (Series: Second of Two Articles)

    Link: http://articles.latimes.com/print/1987-08-24/news/mn-1965_1_wine-advocate

    By David Shaw
    Times Staff Writer

    Parker is known as a fast taster. … Parker looks at each wine, sniffs, swirls, sips, sucks air into his mouth and gurgles. (The swirling and gurgling help aerate the wine and give a sense of how it’s likely to develop in the glass.) Then he spits it out. Each wine is in his mouth for maybe four or five seconds.

    If his first taste suggests that a wine is not worth at least 80 points, he won’t taste it again. “Why bother?” he asks. “You might just as well take your clothes off and say, ‘Beat me, beat me.'”

  8. Bob Henry says:

    ERRATUM.

    Back in 1987, the Los Angeles Times ran a two-part, two consecutive day front page profile on American wine writers/wine critics. Robert Parker was featured in those articles.

    Back in 1999, the Los Angeles Times ran a two-part, two consecutive day front page profile solely on Robert Parker.

    Through either a transcription error or editing mistake on my part in archives these material, these four article appear to have been “conflated.”

    Let me try again to get the historical record correct.

    Excerpt from the Los Angeles Times “Main News” Section
    (February 23, 1999, Page A1ff):

    “He Sips and Spits — and the World Listens;
    Wine writer Robert Parker may be the planet’s most powerful critic.
    His controversial views influence the industry and its sales globally,
    and have helped increase consumers’ knowledge.”

    (Series: First of Two Articles)

    Link: http://articles.latimes.com/print/1999/feb/23/news/mn-10770

    By David Shaw
    Times Staff Writer

    As soon as he reaches the sign for Arrowood Winery — several minutes before he has driven up the narrow, winding road and parked — Parker unfastens his seat belt and hunches forward, fidgeting, straining, like a racehorse in the starting gate. It’s this enthusiasm that enables him to spend four months a year on the road, often tasting from early morning until past nightfall; it also helps explain both his overwrought prose and the extremes of his scoring. (Compared to his major competitors, his high scores tend to be higher and his low scores tend to be lower, even when they agree on the general quality of a given wine.)

    When Parker steps out of the car, Dick Arrowood, the winemaker and proprietor, greets him warmly and escorts him into his tasting room. Empty glasses are lined up on white cardboard place mats atop a long wooden table. Parker begins tasting immediately.

    “The wines are a little too cold,” he says. “When they give me wines like that in France, it sometimes means they’re trying to hide the flaws in the wines–usually too much acid.”

    Arrowood starts to protest but Parker waves him away.

    “I know you wouldn’t do that,” he says.

    PARKER IS KNOWN AS A FAST TASTER. Jorge Ordonez, whose Fine Wine Estates from Spain is one of the leading American importers of Spanish wines, says he has “never seen anyone able to pick the best wines out of a ‘flight’ of 50 or 60 as quickly.”

    Parker looks at each wine, sniffs, swirls, sips, sucks air into his mouth and gurgles. (The swirling and gurgling help aerate the wine and give a sense of how it’s likely to develop in the glass.) Then he spits it out. EACH WINE IS IN HIS MOUTH FOR MAYBE FOUR OR FIVE SECONDS.

    If his first taste suggests that a wine is not worth at least 80 points, he won’t taste it again. “Why bother?” he asks. “You might just as well take your clothes off and say, ‘Beat me, beat me.’ ”

    But any wine that initially seems to merit 80 points or more is tasted twice, maybe three times in succession before Parker determines its final score. He doesn’t linger or ponder. It’s as if he has a small, carefully calibrated computer embedded in his palate: Wine in, judgment out. As soon as he spits, he scribbles several lines of descriptive material in his notebook, adds a precise score for a bottled wine or a narrow range of scores (say, 88-91) for a “barrel sample” — wine too young to have been bottled yet — and moves on to the next.

    Parker tastes 21 Arrowood wines in little more than an hour — whites and reds from 1995, ’96 and ’97. Here, as at most wineries, he tasted the ’95s and ’96s last year, too; the ’95s were already bottled then, the ’96s were barrel samples. Now the ’96s are also in bottles, and the ’97s are “from the barrel.”

    . . .

    [Bob’s aside: 60-plus minutes divided by 21 Arrowood wines “averages” 3 minutes per wine sampled AND conversation.]

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