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01.27.2014

Debating Robert Parker At His Invitation

debating_parker.jpgIn a recent "Article of Merit" on his web site, wine critic Robert M. Parker, Jr. went on a tear against what he described as essentially one or many anti-consumer movements that fly in the face of what he believes is proper and right when it comes to the "truth" of quality wine.

In this sweeping piece of highly-charged opinion, Parker manages to condemn the "natural wine movement," the "low alcohol wine movement," and a whole string of "obscure grape varieties."

He ends his article with the following statement: "I desperately have tried to find merit in these movements, and would love to invite well-reasoned arguments that support them. The fundamentals of open and cordial discussion and debate are essential."

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Thanks for inviting me to sit down for a discussion, Bob. Here's my cordial attempt to provide an alternative to your point of view.

Let me begin by asking why you seem increasingly satisfied to tar the world with such a broad brush? The sweeping generalizations you make in service of your strongly-held opinions do you no credit. You have long been someone whose credentials depended upon an ability to see the forest for the trees. Yet, here you are burning down every tree in sight in an attempt to get at a few old snags you don't care for.

You begin your recent piece with an opinion with which I can heartily concur:

"In the wine world, crusaders would have wine consumers believe that the only wines of merit are something completely indefinable but which they call "authentic" or "natural". They are quick to accuse some renowned wine producers - oftentimes those to whom I as well as many others have given favorable reviews over many years - of practicing industrial bulk wine techniques, adding artificial color, and even artificial tannins - something that is virtually never done by the sort of producers whose wines appear in this publication or in most serious wine publications."

You have clearly and fairly put your finger on the problem with some of the proponents of the so-called natural wine movement. Such dogmatic, and frankly insulting, dismissal of any winemaker that doesn't share their particular devotion makes such individuals nothing more than religious fanatics of a sort that deserve to be marginalized in any society.

But from there you move on to suggest that such voices have arisen largely as a means of differentiating themselves from established critics like yourself and getting themselves heard in the increasingly crowded marketplace of ideas.

"It appears this is an ill-conceived attempt to simply differentiate themselves from me and/or other established critics, because that's the only way they feel they can create attention for themselves. Obviously 35 years of comprehensive writing about the wines of the world doesn't leave too many stones unturned, and so it is difficult to impossible for new wannabes to get attention, and even more unlikely to monetize their internet site. So they do what many people do in many fields when they can't stand on their own merits and credibility - they simply try to discredit the people at the top and use both the producers and their readers alike in their self-serving scheme."

I think you've stepped over a couple of important points here.

Firstly, you don't acknowledge that for all the dogmatists making snide remarks about "industrial poison" there are plenty of folks who are just minding their own business making wines the way they think they ought to be made. And there are also people just as quietly buying them, without blogging about their opinions, without being sommeliers in the hippest new wine bar you've never heard of, without any self-congratulatory smugness that they are part of any sort of movement. Neither of these two groups has a horse in the race you're calling intellectually corrupt.

I'm not sure how many "natural" wines you've tasted, but I've tasted hundreds, and they range from acidophilus-and-apple-cider tasting stuff that barely seems like wine, to wines I'm sure you'd never know were "natural" if someone didn't tell you.

One of the problems with the natural wine phenomenon (as you point out) remains the lack of any official definition of what allows a wine to qualify for such a designation. To choose just a single point of discussion from this debate, some believe a "natural" wine must be made without any added sulfites, while others maintain that the addition of S02 doesn't disqualify a wine from the label. I hate the label "natural" because of how it implies anything else is unnatural, a fact which sits perfectly well with the dogmatists and not so well with the rest of the world who make wine, as you say, with an intention to produce the finest quality product they can without the addition of anything besides what nature provides them.

If we only barely broaden the general (though not definitive) description of natural wines usually put forth by their proponents to include an allowance for minimal use of sulfur, this definition would then include thousands of wines that you have long held in high esteem, including Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, DANA Estates, and Chapoutier, for starters. These folks have an awful lot in common with the majority of those who seek to make so-called "natural" wine.

So while we both find the dogmatic elements of the natural wine movement distasteful, there's more to it than the fanatics. There are plenty of people who both make such wines, and buy such wines without any claim to any of the movement's rhetoric.

But let's move on from the world of natural wine.

"This sort of vaudeville, thinly veiled behavior is intended to divide the wine-consuming public into an elite minority of "truists" (they are not really; no real truth there) versus the "oh so uneducated masses" or downright stupid consumers blindly drinking supposedly unhealthy, reprehensibly made, compromised, industrial crap. The absurd heights of this have even added phony words such as "spoofing" or "spoofilator" to the wine lexicon to suggest some omnipresent evil laying waste to "authentic" wine."

I also happen to agree with you that terms such as "spoofulated" and "Parkerized" are ridiculous, but I wonder if you're not taking these a bit personally since they are most often associated with people who (albeit sometimes vociferously and spitefully) don't happen to like some of the wines you've championed over the years.

I've long maintained, often publicly, that your palate is much more diverse than most people give you credit for, but I also hope you're willing to admit that you don't have a monopoly on quality and taste. There are wines you don't like that plenty of people (consumers and critics alike) agree are fantastic, and likewise there are wide swaths of the wine world which you have never personally covered in much depth (Austrian Riesling, for instance) that are filled with lots of good, high-quality wines.

I think if you can forgive (as we all should learn to do more) the somewhat pointed contrariness of terms such as "spoofulated" and "Parkerized," what these simply represent are people who gravitate towards wines that simply may not be to your taste.

Which brings us to the "anti-California, anti-New World movement by Eurocentric, self-proclaimed purists" that you later describe in shorthand as "Euro-elitists."

Their main fault in your eyes seems to be a preference for lower alcohol wines. You do admit that this in itself wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing, except you go on to suggest that such a preference normally comes with the tendency to "virtually trash just about every [wine] in the USA, South America or Australia."

Hang on to that baby while you're dumping out that bath water. Certainly there are a select few people who like to make waves by publicly stating that New World wines are crap, but these people are an incredibly small, and very marginalized minority in the contemporary world of wine.

I wonder if you're not just being a little reactionary here, perhaps in response to the occasional news story we see about some small restaurant somewhere whose sommelier has decided that they will only serve low-alcohol, European wines. Honestly, these people are the exception rather than the rule.

On the other hand, there is a widespread trend in the world of wine now, and I mean at both the trade and consumer level, towards lower-alcohol wines. This trend, as you might point out if this were a real debate, is happening only the in the upper echelons of the wine drinking and selling world.

Your average punter, to borrow a favorite descriptor from some of my British friends, largely doesn't know the alcohol level of the wines they're drinking, and doesn't care. But among the ever-growing ranks of serious wine drinkers there are thousands of people who prefer wines that are lower in alcohol.

To be perfectly honest, I believe that these people mostly prefer wines that are lighter in style and generally lower in pH and higher in acidity. Alcohol, as we both know, is a bit of a red herring. I believe that when many people do complain about high-alcohol wines, they are complaining of wines that aren't in balance, and we both know it isn't the alcohol that is to blame.

But if we are to be fully inclusive, there are definitely people out there who really do care about the alcohol, vis-a-vis how much they can drink in a sitting. These folks seem to be happy about the fact that they can put away a whole bottle of 9% Riesling Spätlese at a meal while maintaining the blood alcohol content that three glasses of a 15% alcohol wine might give them.

So what of these people? You're wrong to dismiss them as zealots and elitists. In doing so you make it seem like you're expecting the whole world to share your tastes, which I can hardly believe is truly your position.

"Following in the 1980s was the fixation, primarily emerging from California, of "food wines". What that meant was wines that were low alcohol, dull, sterile filtered, insipid and so innocuous as to not interfere when eating your favorite tofu. That is not a food wine; that is a hapless, characterless and sterile wine. Of course, this didn't last, because it was another gimmick and winespeak advocating mediocrity, and had no merit."

You so thoroughly attack the notion that low-alcohol wines might have any merits that you have again completely ignored whole swaths of the wine world that have always been low-alcohol and always will be.

Champagne is the first of many exceptions (along with Riesling) that makes the following statement about producers angling for lower alcohol pretty ridiculous:

"Their preferred method of wine production is the crazy notion that fruit should be picked long before it's ripe. Of course, anyone can pick grapes a month before they're ripe. There is no risk, with chances of rain virtually zero. Get the grapes harvested and fermented and go on vacation in early October, when the serious producers are just beginning to start their harvests. Are those producers fools for busting their asses trying to make something with flavors reflecting the vintage and character of their terroir? Under-ripe fruit never has and never will show more terroir. It just brings hard, harsh, unpleasant flavors that a few wannabes and some lazy, self-aggrandizing producers then call terroir. Truth be known, it detracts from terroir, and from quality, so just repeating it ad nauseum doesn't equate to the truth. Has anyone enjoyed eating an under-ripe apricot, peach apple, tomato or pineapple?"

Bob, you know better than to make such sweeping generalizations, and you are yourself falling prey to the same kind of "absolutist" claims that you're holding against the very people that this article of yours is criticizing.

Ripeness is a subjective judgement, not an absolute scientific number. One winemaker's ripe grape is another's raisin, or on the other side, another's mouth-puckering tart-bomb. But grapes on either end of this spectrum can be made in to gorgeous wines, as anyone who drinks both Amarone and Riesling knows all too well.

Incidentally, I might go so far as to agree with you that "under-ripeness" doesn't inherently show more terroir, but it should also be said in the same breath that over-ripeness can and does obscure terroir. I'm not sure if you'd agree with that statement, but I do believe it to be true. I've had wines that taste like liquified raisins and that could have been made with grapes grown in any hot dry climate. I'm sure your regular tasting of California Zinfandels has always yielded a few such examples. But what is over-ripeness? Well, there we're back into the subjective realm where everyone has a different definition.

Exceptions aside, let's get back to this so-called "movement" you are ready to dismiss as an agenda pushed by "a very tiny group of wine producers who claim Europe as their spiritual mentor."

I would be the last person to claim authority on what the criteria are for a true "movement" in a complex milieu like the world of wine, but I can tell you that I've been paying pretty close attention to one piece of it (California) for the last ten years. And while I don't have your 35+ years of experience, I'd have to be blind not to see the emergence of lots of producers who are, to one degree or another, actively seeking to make red and white wines at lower degrees of alcohol, and corresponding higher levels of acidity than was the norm in California during the 1990s and early 2000s. This is hardly a fringe phenomenon in the fine wine world.

Judging from your point scores, you've clearly decided already that some of these people don't make good wine. But there are a lot of consumers, sommeliers, wine buyers, and journalists (myself included) who happen to think that many of these producers are making extraordinary wines. To get on my soap box ever-so-briefly, these folks may be the best thing that has ever happened to California Chardonnay, in particular.

Personally, I've got a pretty catholic palate. I appreciate and enjoy Muscadet and Chateauneuf-Du-Pape, and don't think that the appreciation of a certain style of wine is a zero-sum game. I also think I'm not alone (will you join me here, Bob?) in appreciating multiple styles even within a single category of wine. I know you agree that Clape Cornas and Alban Syrah represent two equally valid interpretations of Syrah.

But you also know there are people who only like Cornas, and not California Syrah. Is there anything wrong with that? I don't personally think so. But I wonder that you might.

Perhaps Burgundy is a better example. Plenty of people prefer Burgundy to California Pinot Noir, in part because in general it is leaner and more mineral in nature (and yes, usually lower in alcohol).

While a very few of these people might have enough of a public platform in the form of a blog or a wine column to make stupid comments in the service of their preferences such as "California Pinot Noir sucks" (which might truly justify the moniker "Euro-elitists") for every one of those folks there are hundreds who don't say anything, they just vote with their dollars.

Which is why there is now, yes, a movement in California towards lower-alcohol, higher-acidity Pinot Noir and Syrah in particular. You may not like these wines, but lots of us -- enough to sell out the mailing lists of many of these small producers -- do like them.

The real question is, why do you care? Or more specifically, why do you lambast the whole movement? I understand your stance as a consumer advocate, and appreciate your desire to continue to be one, but what does it say when in the name of such advocacy you are telling tens of thousands of people that they are not just wrong to enjoy these wines, but they, or the writers they happen to agree with, are somehow "neo-intellectual extremists" whose beliefs run counter to what you say are the doctrines of good winemaking.

What happened to valuing diversity?

Frankly the most disappointing part of your article comes across as a direct attack on the whole idea of diversity in wine:

"What we also have from this group of absolutists is a near-complete rejection of some of the finest grapes and the wines they produce. Instead they espouse, with enormous gusto and noise, grapes and wines that are virtually unknown. That's their number one criteria - not how good it is, but how obscure it is"

I would love to know who it is that you have heard rejecting entire grapes outright. I mean besides the uninformed drinkers who stupidly say that they hate Merlot or Chardonnay when they just have never tried a good example of them.

No person of any real reputation that I know of here in the United States makes such categorical rejections of the wine world. Even your favorite gal, Alice Feiring, who did once go so far as to say that she doesn't like California wine, when pressed on the point, admitted that there were a few she did like. (Though come to think of it, Michael Steinberger did say that he thinks Sauvignon Blanc could never make a truly great wine. But in the same article he definitely did not say that instead of Sauvignon Blanc we should all be drinking Lignan Blanc).

So who are these haters?

"...they would have you believe some godforsaken grapes that, in hundreds and hundreds of years of viticulture, wine consumption, etc., have never gotten traction because they are rarely of interest (such as Trousseau, Savagnin, Grand Noir, Negrette, Lignan Blanc, Peloursin, Auban, Calet, Fongoneu and Blaufrankisch) can produce wines (in truth, rarely palatable unless lost in a larger blend) that consumers should be beating a path to buy and drink.

Forgive me, Bob, but that is one of the most elitist statements about wine that I've read in some time.

I'm sure you didn't mean it as such, but that's definitely how it comes across.

You're entirely dismissing literally centuries of winemaking tradition and culture in a single sweeping statement. Sure, Trousseau is not made in quantities remotely approaching that of Cabernet Sauvignon. It is not sold for as much money. It is relatively unknown by the average wine drinker in America. But you can bet you wouldn't be saying that if you had grown up in the Jura region of France, where it has been grown for at least four or five centuries and gets consumed every day by most people who live there.

Your statement also seems to suffer from the shortsighted presumption that what we can generally agree today are the world's "finest" grape varieties and wines are somehow always going to be so.

Forty years ago would you have included Malbec in that number? I doubt it. You probably would have only mentioned it as a grape blended into Bordeaux, made into some relatively unpalatable (to you, I'm guessing) wines in the little region of Cahors, and perhaps noted that it oddly seemed to be made in Argentina with increasing frequency.

While I'm not arguing in the slightest that Trousseau is going to be the next Argentinean Malbec, it seems ridiculous for you to sweep so much of the wine world under the rug.

You may not agree, but for me, one of the single greatest features of the wine world is its diversity. Haven't you dramatically expanded your coverage in the Wine Advocate over the last decade precisely for this reason?

I find it hard to believe that even many of your staff could possibly bring themselves to agree with your dismissal of some of these grapes. David Schildknecht clearly wasn't consulted on your list, given that he has penned scores of 90+ point reviews for Savagnins and Blaufrankischs in the pages of the Wine Advocate.

Given that, I'm completely puzzled that you maintain any interest by the public (or the writers that serve them) in these grapes consists of "the epitome of cyber-group goose-stepping, a completely deranged syndrome that somehow the internet has allowed to persist." You go on to maintain that anyone writing about these grapes is not doing so in the service of the consumer but is "rather a lame and fraudulent effort to get self attention to the detriment of the wine consumer."

How can you say that when your own publication is handing out 95 point scores to a Blaufrankisch?

Thankfully you come back around a little towards the rational:

"Diversity in wine is something that I have taken seriously ever since I wrote my first sentence about wine, but it has to be good, not flawed, and not just different. It has to be of interest, and it ultimately has to provide pleasure. It also must reflect the vintage character, varietal composition, and vineyard terroir itself."

Whew! We can at least all agree on that, which is as decent a descriptor of high-quality wine if I have ever heard one. But if that is true, why is there a need to single out grape varieties and their fans for vilification?

More to the point, why do you undermine your own argument by conflating the world's broadening interest in different grapes, regions, and wine styles with what seems, on balance, to be an attack on flawed wines and the most dogmatic aspects of the natural wine movement?

Is there a segment of the wine world that gravitates to wines that are, by every common oenological definition, flawed? Absolutely. I'm sitting here writing this in the press area of Millesime Bio, the world's largest Organic and Biodynamic wine fair, where I've spent the day tasting more than a few wines that never would have made it out of an ETS wine testing lab in the United States.

But the folks standing behind these tables aren't, for the most part, on the internet telling the world that Californian wine is poisonous (Nicolas Joly is conspicuously absent, in case you were wondering). They're hard-working vintners who are making wine the way they think is right. And while I might not like the wines these folks are making, there were plenty people lined up behind me who tasted them with a smile on their lips and an order ready to place for their little wine bar or shop.

Bob, you characterize your whole article as being about "a fight about quality" but in my opinion you've named far too many defendants in your suit. In so doing you've created the impression of righteousness and zealotry, two of the characteristics you so ardently attack in your piece.

Your insistence on using sweeping, even categorical statements about wine lovers, wine writers, wine grapes, regions, and consumer and industry trends all undermine your claim that this is about advocating for the wine consumer.

To my mind, you have succeeded in alienating more than you have advocating, and as a result, this piece risks being as polemical as the very people you set out to criticize. Condemn the mean-spirited people who trash most of the wine world's efforts all you want, I'll be right there with you. But leave the rest of us whose tastes might diverge a bit from yours out of it.

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Those who have a subscription to Parker's site can read his full article here.

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Required Reading for Wine Lovers

The Oxford Companion to Wine by Jancis Robinson The Taste of Wine by Emile Peynaud Adventures on the Wine Route by Kermit Lynch Love By the Glass by Dorothy Gaiter & John Brecher Noble Rot by William Echikson The Science of Wine by Jamie Goode The Judgement of Paris by George Taber The Wine Bible by Karen MacNeil The Botanist and the Vintner by Christy Campbell The Emperor of Wine by Elin McCoy The World Atlas of Wine by Hugh Johnson The World's Greatest Wine Estates by Robert M. Parker, Jr.