Seattle Wine Blog

This blog is dedicated to commentary on all aspects of wine, especially short entries to help you find the best wines without the usual hype and spin. These are my frank, independent opinions, usually based on tasting wine at a public event, off the shelf or at the winery. "All creative acts must arise out of a specific soil and flicker with a spirit of place" -D.H. Lawrence

Friday, March 24, 2006

Robert Parker And The Parkerization of Wine

Bob and Kathy Tovey sent along a recent article in the New York Times, “Decanting Robert Parker” by Eric Asimov, describing recent attacks on Parker by British wine writers some of whom are finally getting their revenge for his totally upsetting the cozy boat they all floated in before Parker entered the fray as one of the first, if not the first, honest consumer-oriented wine writer who told like it is and could not be bought off by wine merchants and big chateau owners. Until Parker, many of the most prominent wine writers were either in the trade or in bed with the trade and wrote vapid, flattering, fluffy, puff pieces that frequently had nothing much to do with the liquid in the bottle using phraseology such as sterling, elegant, first-rate, finesse, and first class. In those days, British wine writing was of the sort that described the classification of 1855 as the God’s truth and was based on an implicit faith in the importance of terroir, quibbling, for example, about the theoretical differences between a Pommard and a Corton knowing full well that you could hardly tell the difference, that both were adulterated, and that most of the wines were poorly made. I remember reading book after book about wine, learning a lot of geography, terminology and wine names, but nothing really about the wines themselves. Robert Parker is self-taught and consequently was not trained in a long tradition of poppycock and horse fiddle.

Robert Parker and the American wine industry revolutionized the wine world. This revolution was similar, in its effect, to the impact of the internet. More and more real information became available to consumers in a timely fashion and the overall quality of wine around the world improved incredibly. Parker took a real interest in enology and viticulture and lifted many a grapegrower and winemaker from impoverished obscurity to prosperous world wide renown. Among other regions, Parker put the Rhone Valley of France on the wine map for many consumers. Parker became the voice for a revolution that was happening around the world. As a pretty direct effect of Parker's writing, traditionally famous wine areas that were living on their laurels such as Burgundy, Bordeaux, Barolo, and Chianti, improved. Today, for example, Chateau Kirwan, has six people on the line to triage every individual grape that goes into the wine and this has made a huge difference. In the 1970s and 1980s, in California and the Pacific Northwest pioneer winemakers such as Philip Togni and David Lett were exploring wine making in new terroirs. American winemakers used technology – stainless steel tanks – to make wines that were fresh and clean without the impurities so common in the European wines of the period. In the 1970s, American winemakers made big structured wines some of which have lasted to this day.

As a psychologist, I can tell you that we are dealing here with a battle between envy and narcissism. Other wine writers envy Robert Parker’s success and he, perhaps, has become too enamoured of his million dollar nose. While Parker encouraged an incredible improvement in the overall quality of wine globally, the commercial striving after high Parker ratings has fostered greater uniformity in winemaking world wide. The increase in new wealth over the past twenty five years or so has created a class of consumer with lots of money and relatively little knowledge or aesthetic sense who strive to compete with each other and everyone else in everything they do including collecting wine. My wife and I recently had a marvelous dinner prepared by one of the top chefs in Seattle accompanied by First Growths from vintages such 1975 and 1982 and all this one fellow could talk about was how many bottles of Screaming Eagle he had in his cellar. This fellow and his wife seemed somehow irked when my wife kept alluding to the “Parkerization” of wine. What did she mean?

She was referring to the confluence of style in wines from all over the world. It appears to be a fact that, unless you were weaned on acidic, astringent, “classic,” “vin du gard” wine, most people prefer balanced wines with lots of good fruit flavor that is not overwhelmed by fire and sandpaper. The French have rather disdainfully referred to the “gout americain" when speaking of wines made ever so slightly sweeter and fruitier for the American palate. The Parkerization of wine is the global tendency toward big, rich, fruit forward, frequently monochromatic wine found everywhere. This is not necessarily Robert Parker’s doing, although I must admit I don’t like the taste of chocolate in my wine.

The other problem is grade inflation. I remember when a Chateau La Tour de By that was rated 75 by Parker was a perfectly delicious wine and reasonably priced. Now this same wine must be ranked in the high 80s to merit attention and, really, who would want to drink anything rated less than 90. Actually Parker’s system was a vast improvement over the 20 point Davis scale, which fortunately has mostly disappeared, or no rating at all. In those days the British wine writers in question didn’t rate wines at all. They might simply note that the wine was a second growth from a very good year. Ha! What did it taste like?

Grade inflation is not just a problem with Robert Parker. The Wine Spectator is an even worse sinner. Parker and the Spectator are useful. At least they are reasonably reliable and take it from me, it is no easy task to taste dozens of wine at a time and get the ranking right. You just need to get a sense of their taste and calibrate to your own, unless you are prone to slavishly seek out only 100 point wines. There are many issues and complications with wine tasting and rating which cannot be gone into here, just as there are many issues with comparing, say, French wine and California wine. In any event, Parker and the Brits needn’t worry. The Australians are coming with their marketing prowess. Don’t worry about ratings! Just drink Yellowtail. G’day to ya, mate!

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