Thursday, April 17, 2008

The Battle for Wine Hearts and Minds

For those French speakers out there, there is an interview of Robert Parker in today's Le Figaro. Not a lot on news in it (big shocker-'07 compares most directly to '97 or '99 vintages in BDX!), but I thought there was an interesting bit at the end. When asked about the dominant style of today, he dismissed the question (he basically calls the "international style" a media creation) and chose to highlight the efforts of young and new winemakers in the south of France, as well as Italy and Spain, working with indiginous c├ępages that in the past have been ignored or farmed off to cooperatives. In another place, he cites the move in Spain from a cooperative mindset to an artisinal one as the great improvement there. He also said that it was a myth that consumers love oaky wines (wood can mask the nuance of fruit in the name of rounding off the wine and adding flavors like espresso or spice).
I think that one of the reasons for this myth is the fact that I have been highly criticized for liking strong wines, very oaky and extracted. All that is far from the reality. It suffices to read my newsletter or my books to convince oneself. It's the same thing for the consumer. Consumers seek a pure wine, with character and this will always be the case. [my translation]
I had to double check that I wasn't reading an interview with Keith Levenberg. Not everyone is convinced though. As my friend Steve Eisenhauer noted, "I take what he says in his reviews much more seriously than what he says in an interview and there is a significant divergence between the two." In other words, notwithstanding his protestations, Parker rewards wines other than those he said are good for the industry in the Le Figaro article.

Still, I wonder if we can move past the old arguments. For those unaware, there has been a Balkanization of the wine world between what is regarded as the "Parkerization" of winemaking vs. "traditional" winemaking. The fight has gotten rather ugly recently with both side hunkering down and resorting to juvenile behavior (for example, Mark Squires prohibits mention of the anti-Parker gadfly Alice Fiering). Notwithstanding the vitriol, there is much common ground and the differences have narrowed, although no one seems to want to admit it. Change is afoot and the examples are many: the pendulum seems to have swung back to some degree on alcohol and ripeness in California; there is a revolution of artisinal producers in well-priced regions like the Loire; the concentration of corporate ownership in Champagne is causing people to seek out grower Champagne; and the list goes on and on. In some ways, the rocky dollar and pound and the spiraling increase in prices of the vins de garde is driving people to look elsewhere and that elsewhere is artisinal producers that are more in touch with the land (be it biodynamic, organic or good sense). That certainly has been the case for me, where my purchases of '05 BDX and California Cabernet has left me returning to my roots of searching for inexpensive wines from lesser know regions. I've discovered wonderful wines from Touraine, Beaujolais, Austria, among others that I wasn't even looking for a year ago. You should have seen Lyle Fass' face when I came in asking for Chinon. There have been misses for sure, but I finally enjoy the hunt again after cringing through recent high priced purchases.

Bob has been pretty consistent with trumpeting diversity as a great thing for the global wine market, but that has been fairly well drowned out by the din of the old arguments on style. Clearly uniformity, to the extent it existed or was regarded as a goal, is now fairly consistently seen as a negative and stylistic differences are being prized more greatly. I think everyone should be happy with that. Perhaps those here that feel they need to defend Bob so vehemently can prize the diversity of opinion when it trends away from wines of amplitude and those that constantly take pot-shots can accept his place in the world while they try to establish theirs...or perhaps people will continue to argue over the same old things.


Lyle Fass said...


I take a huge exception to this quote . . ."I think that one of the reasons for this myth is the fact that I have been highly criticized for liking strong wines, very oaky and extracted."

I believe there are the obvious great wines of the world that all critics unanimously agree on. Monfortino, La Tache, RC, Pre-spoof Lafite, Mouton and Petrus and Lafleur (not spoof), Unico, etc...but when it comes to that second polarizing tier of wines that some critics love and others hate Parker loves 99% of the time. Greenock Creek, all spoofed up Bordeaux that is being made today (Pavie, la confession, Dome, Larcis Ducasse), Harlan, Maya, 100 Acre, Scarecrow, Astralis, Kistler, perrot-Minot, etc. So as far as I am concerned that is bullshit...look at every hedonists gazette he starts with like ten flights of marcassin and Peter Michael chards and then moves onto 17% CDP' Mr. Parker you do like "strong wines, very oaky and extracted."

Ben said...

I think it really comes down to whether you want to follow what he says or what he does. All you have to do is look at the kind of California Pinot Noir and see the clumsy wines that he likes (Roar? really?) and you get a sense there is something wrong. At least he had the good sense to realize that he couldn't understand Burgundy and it would be nice if he left California alone as well. I've talked to more than one winemaker who hoped that he didn't get there hands on his wine.

I think the more damning statement he made that contradicts the quote you mention is his views on ESJ and the style there. Personally, I feel similarly and don't get those wines (or why he is making grapes from where he does in the style he wants), but I'm not a professional critic. To call out a winemaker that way in the way he did really was odd.

That said, those that seem to think of themselves as the "forces of good" should pick up the quote and declare victory. At least it's a good debate trick. See, Lyle, even Parker agrees with you now! ;-)