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My Conversation With Robert M. Parker, Jr.

Regular readers know that I have both a good amount of respect for Robert Parker, the founder and author of the Wine Advocate Newsletter, as well as a tendency to strongly and vehemently disagree with him on occasion. So what happens when the world’s most powerful critic and I get a chance to sit down and have a chat over some Syrah? I come away from the experience wishing everyone had a chance to do so. The man that comes across in the manila-colored pages of his newsletter, his books, and in other print vehicles, and the man I met and had a chance to drink 15 glasses of Syrah with are very different. “Maybe something gets lost in the translation,” said Parker, when I asked him about the disparity between my experience as a reader of the Wine Advocate and my experience with him that afternoon.

I couldn’t agree more.

Now before any of you start wondering how it is that I managed to wrangle a conversation with the somewhat reclusive and infamous wine critic, I should be straight with you. I wish I could say that this “conversation” Parker and I had was just him stopping by my place for a drink before dinner. Alas, I have to admit that there were about 80 other people in the room, and our personal conversation was just a few minutes before and after a 90 minute guided tasting of Syrah that Parker conducted three weeks ago at the Culinary Institute’s Greystone Castle as part of a celebration honoring him and the 25th anniversary of The Wine Advocate. Parker was feted with several other events that weekend, including a massively opulent $1500 per head champagne dinner at the Legion Of Honor (proceeds going to charity, thankfully) which I did NOT manage to attend.

I won’t bother you with background on Parker, if you’re interested in his ascendancy to his status as foremost and most feared critic in the business, there are plenty of other sources out there that I would recommend. I’m not writing this as a paean of any sort. Rather, I’m interested in sharing with those who are not lucky enough to find an event that affords some interaction with him the nature of the experience. In the process, perhaps, I can fill out your picture of him a little bit.

Parker too often is either vilified or revered, with little sense of how he actually relates to people and to the 25 years of history he has influencing the world of wine. Is he a humble man? Not particularly, but many accounts paint him with a bit of sneering haughtiness, which I found conspicuously absent. He very clearly acknowledges and accepts the role he plays in shaping the wine world, but he does so without much pride. He even expresses a certain regret at the degree that his palate (his alleged affinity for big, fruit-forward wines with lots of oak) might exert a stylistic on influence winemakers. On the other hand, he staunchly defends the degree to which his ratings, especially in Bordeaux, have pushed winemakers to make better wines. It’s a delicate question, and a complex one, and Parker addresses it well. “I didn’t set out to be the authority,” he says, “I just wanted to taste as many wines as I could.”

After a few opening remarks and taking some questions from me and the others assembled for the tasting, we start in on the 15 wines laid out in front of us, each selected by Parker and double decanted several hours earlier. I will give my tasting notes on them at the end of this piece for those who are interested (they were remarkable wines) but more important than their ratings was listening to Parker talk about these wines, why he had selected them, and most remarkably, their individual stories.

Let me say that again so that it actually sinks in. Their stories.

If you’ve ever seen any of Parker’s tasting notes, or even better, any of the essays that precede his marching army of tasting notes in every issue of the Wine Advocate, the last thing you would expect parker to be doing was telling charming stories about the people and the history behind these wines, yet that was exactly what he did. From the alcoholic old dog that accompanied the crotchety maker of Clape Cornas, a wine that Parker described as having “something savage about it,” to the meticulous vineyard work of the lumberjack /winemaker at Torbreck who named his winery after a Scottish forest, to the red gravelly loam soils in Heathcote, Victoria where extremely experienced winemakers are doing new things — Parker related the anecdotes and narratives that, to me, make good wines so much more interesting and compelling.

Frankly I was astonished. Here was someone whose approach to wine, while carefully consistent, insightful and driven, had always struck me as slightly mechanistic and certainly dry. Yet there he was explaining wines he loved to us in terms that I never expected from him.

Eventually after a story or two about each wine, we got around to drinking them. He would ask us (imagine asking us?) what we thought of these wines and what we thought they tasted like. And here I was in for my second surprise. When Parker finally got around to talking about how he enjoyed the wines, he was vague, he was approximate, he was contemplative, and he was curious. “If I remember correctly this one should have a note of smoke to it. Hmm. Actually today I’m getting more earth than smoke.” OK, so that’s not an exact quote (I didn’t write down everything the guy said) but you get the picture ” this wasn’t the same voice that comes across in tasting notes like this one:

Aged 18 months in 100% new French oak from 75-year old Tempranillo vines, the 2001 Pagos Viejos is one of Spain’s greatest wines. A singular red of extraordinary stature and intensity, it exhibits an inky/ruby/purple color as well as a luxurious bouquet of lead pencil shavings, black and blue fruits, espresso roast, and floral notes. This full-bodied, dense 2001 possesses layers of flavor, a sweet integration of tannin and wood, and a finish that lasts for nearly a minute. Drink this riveting Rioja between 2005-2015.

No room for doubt there. Instead of a booming voice of authority, really, I found myself drinking wine with someone who loved it and seemed to be enjoying sharing the experience of tasting with the rest of us. No pronouncements, no absolutes, just a conversational approach to figuring out what it was we were tasting.

At one point I was tasting a bit of a floral note in one of the wines we were going through, the 2001 Ojai “Roll Ranch” Syrah. Thinking that it might have some Viognier added in, I asked (or rather, shouted from my perch at the back of the room) whether this wine was 100% Syrah. Parker said that he thought it was, and someone else chimed in that they thought it tasted like it had a little Viognier in it. Apparently there was someone in the room who sold or imported the stuff because a few people shouted to ask her, and sure enough, she said that it had 2% Viognier in it.

That was a good feeling.

I should say, I don’t see this as a personal triumph, nor as a “gotcha” of Parker, but it’s nice to know that I’m not totally off my rocker, and to know that the guy that earned the nickname “The Nose” doesn’t always have a photographic, encyclopedic memory of wine (though there are story after story of his remarkable olfactory recall which contribute to the mystique of his reputation).

And so it went — an hour and a half spent experiencing a series of astonishing wines with this guy, listening to the stories and the aromas he extracted from each glass.

At the end of the tasting I mentioned to him the remarkably different way he approached the wines in a setting like this — the stories, the casual way of describing the wines. In addition to admitting perhaps a bit of this enthusiasm and informality might not come through in his writing, he said that while he tries to give some background on the wines that he reviews, that he simply can’t tell such stories about every wine, and that meant really that he couldn’t tell stories about any of them. I begrudgingly suppose this is true ” the man is so serious about his job as impartial critic that perhaps these charming, informative, and enticing stories are perhaps too close to favoritism for him to abide. It’s a shame though, because as I am back to interacting with Parker through the stripped down, formal pages of his newsletter, I can’t help but remember that behind the sometimes frustratingly terse notes Parker and I speak exactly the same language.

The Syrahs we tasted are as follows (in order of tasting):

1999 Guigal Cote Rotie “La Landonne,” Northern Rhone, France
This wine was deep purple in the glass and had a nose filled with toasted oak, dark roasted espresso beans and new leather. In the mouth it was spicy and peppery with flavors of red berries and fine, smooth tannins that tapered into a very long finish. Parker gives this wine 100 points and mentioned its long life, saying that the ’78 is just now starting to drink well. 100% Syrah, it spent 42 months in new French oak and was crushed in full clusters with all of its stems intact. I was surprised that this was a 100 point wine, as I wasn’t as bowled over as I expected to be. Score: 9. Cost: $300.

1999 Chave Hermitage, Northern Rhone, France
The color of medium garnet, this wine collected aromas of crushed herbs and blackberries. In the mouth it had a bright acidity with primary flavors of blackberries and boysenberries that continued through a decent finish that was lightly supported by tannins. This family has been making wine since 1481 on its sloping, south facing vineyards which are anchored into pure granite. Score: 9. Cost: $220

1999 Chapoutier Hermitage “Le Pavillion,” Northern Rhone, France
This wine is a deep dark garnet color, bordering on purple. It’s nose is filled with mysterious aromas of blackberries, mushrooms, wet earth and stones. On the palate it delivers flavors of blackberries and sawdust, with a hint of incense, and a satisfying finish. Parker described the 75 to 85 year old vineyards which produced this wine as “perhaps the one greatest parcel of Syrah in the world.” Score: 9.5. Cost: $170

2001 Clape Cornas “Reynard Vineyard,” Northern Rhone, France
This wine is a deep purple color, with a unique nose that manages to be sweet and slightly funky at the same time ” barnyard mixed with blackberry and tea. In the mouth it is incredibly expressive with a perfect balance between the dark tannins and flavors of tar and lavender supported with a little acidity and a hint of black fruit. I’ve never tasted a wine quite like this one. The wine is aged in oak so old that Parker wouldn’t even begin to try to pin a date on it, but says that like the oak it is aged in, it will last for decades. The vines that grow it are 80 to 90 years old and perch high above the town on a granite hilltop. Score: 10. Cost: $85

2002 DeLille “Doyenne” Syrah, Yakima Valley, Washington
This wine is a black-purple in the glass and is very discrete ” like a soft-spoken voice in the shadows it doesn’t jump out of the glass at you, but has a subtle nose with aromas of boysenberry, and surprisingly, apricot (I swear). Once you take a sip, however, gone is the demure darkness, replaced by a vibrancy that is astonishing without being overbearing. Somehow it pulls off the trick of being incredibly extracted in flavors of blackberry and boysenberry while still maintaining balance with its tannic structure and an acidity that carries it into a finish that lasts for what seems minutes. This wine is 2% Viognier and is made in the Red Mountain area of Washington. Score: 10. Cost: $40

1999 Shafer “Relentless” Syrah, Napa
This wine is a syrupy dark purple and has a brooding nose of black — black currants, black licorice, and blackberry. In the mouth it delivers a complex soup of flavors that echo the darkness of the nose ” licorice, smoke, blackberry, and thick, but still elegant, tannins that come from the full 20% Petite Sirah that went into the wine. Shafer is known, of course, for their Cabernet. This is their inaugural vintage. Score: 9.5/10. Cost: $70

2002 Alban “Lorraine Vineyard” Syrah, Edna Valley, Central Coast, California
This was by far the darkest wine of the tasting, shining purple but nearly black in the glass, with a high level of glycerin so that it coated the glass for minutes as it swirled. Its aromas were packed with cassis, blueberries, and blackberries, and in the mouth it was lavishly packed with incredible blackberry flavors, subtle and slightly sweet tannins that remained present in a lasting finish. Alban Vineyards was one of the pioneers of high quality Syrah in California, and these vines come from cuttings brought from France. Score: 10. Cost: $??

2001 Ojai “Roll Ranch” Syrah, Ventura County, California
This wine is a bright, deep purple color, and its nose is high-toned and floral, with additional aromas of blackberry and cassis. On the tongue it is thick and dusty with flavors of smoky blackberries. The wine is made from 100% destemmed fruit (hence the lack of heavy tannins) and furthermore has 2% Viognier added. Parker calls this region of California a sort of “backwater that no one has really recognized yet.” Score: 9/9.5. Cost: $45

2001 Edmunds St. John “Bassetti Vineyard” Syrah, San Luis Obispo, California
Dark garnet colored, this wine has a very French style nose, with aromas of black pepper, herbs, farmyard, and a hint of red pepper. In the mouth it is spicy and tart with flavors of redcurrant and a nice acidity that would make it a good food wine. Score: 9. Cost: $40

2002 Jasper Hill “Georgia’s Paddock” Shiraz, Heathcote, Victoria, Australia
An opaque deep purple in the glass, this wine has the most amazing nose of mint I’ve ever smelled on a wine. It literally smells like someone crushed peppermint candy or whole bunches of chopped mint into my wine. These aromas are followed by other scents of eucalyptus and chocolate. Wow. On the palate this wine displays a little more restraint with mostly blackberry fruit flavors wrapped in thick, earthy tannins that make for a dusty, long finish. The wine is aged in 100% new French oak. Score: 9/9.5. Cost: $70

2001 Torbreck “Run Rig” Shiraz, Barossa Valley, Australia
Deep purple in color, this wine has a lovely high-toned nose of violets, blueberries, and other summer florals. In the mouth it is lush with fruit flavors of blueberry and blackberry mixed with some light spicy notes. The mix of flavors and how they change in the mouth (what some call the flavor profile) is extremely unique in this wine ” very complex. The tannins are substantial and supportive of the overall flavor, and the wine tapers to a lasting finish with elements of vanilla. 1500 cases of this wine were produced, and it spent 30 months in French oak. 3% Viognier has been added (hence the violets on the nose). Parker scored this wine a 99, one of the highest scores he’s given to an Australian wine. Score: 9.5. Cost: $170

2002 D’Arenberg “Dead Arm” Shiraz, McLaren Vale, Australia
This wine is a dark, opaque garnet color, and its nose contains a medley of cinnamon, nutmeg, blackberry and vanilla aromas. In the mouth it is very tannic with spicy flavors of tart blackberry that have enough acidity to keep the tannins in balance. 100% Shiraz. Score: 9. Cost: $34

2002 Killikanoon “Oracle” Shiraz, Clare Valley, Australia
Deep garnet colored in the glass, this wine has got one of the most delectable mouthwatering aromas I have ever experienced. I’m struggling with the right metaphor to describe the combination of mint and chocolate, perhaps its best to imagine the best mint chocolate truffle you’ve ever eaten. In the mouth it is gorgeously complex, with swirling flavors of blackberry, figs, chocolate, and more. It is perfectly balanced with just enough acidity and thickness of tannin to make the whole thing perfect, and this wine may have one of the longest finishes I’ve ever experienced. It’s my favorite of the tasting. The vines (planted 1865) are some of the oldest in Australia. 100% Shiraz aged in French oak for 20 months. Score: 10. Cost: $60

2001 Hardy’s “Eileen Hardy” Shiraz, McLaren Vale, Australia
This wine is deep purple in the glass and has a nose that mixes floral elements and blackberry aromas. In the mouth the dominant flavor is blackberry, and the wine is unbalanced, weighted towards a sharp acidity that isn’t counterbalanced by the body of the wine and some tannins. Score: 8.5. Cost: $63

2001 Chateau La Negly “La Truffier,” Languedoc-Roussillon, France
Dark ruby colored, this wine has a heady nose of violets and candied lavender. Once in the mouth it is an astounding mix of smokiness and tar yet also bright crisp boysenberry fruit. Lots of complexity here, with characteristic velvet tannins that I’ve come to expect from good Languedoc wines, yet this one is better balanced and more pleasurable than any I’ve ever had. 100% Syrah from microscopic yields in the vineyard (1/2 ton per acre) aged in 100% new French oak. The wine goes through an extended 50-60 day maceration. Score: 10. Cost: $130.

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