The Craft of Culture
December 2, 2011 by Erin Thomas
In the trenches of the food and beverage industry.
NOTE: This is my attempt to pitch to the Huffington Post via a slightly stretched thin connection. If they won’t run it, then damn it, my blog will!
The name Robert Parker, Jr. is synonymous with the judgment of wine.
Parker, who thrust himself into the limelight via a raving review of the negatively disputed 1982 vintage in Bordeaux, has been pumping out updated volumes of his wine and winery guidebooks over the years. Although criticisms of the lawyer-turned-reviewer have surfaced in recent time concerning his dedication to neutrality, Parker has established himself as one of the leading wine critics in the United States, amongst his peers and those whom he adjudicates.
Dubbed “The Million Dollar Nose” and the “Emperor of Wine,” Parker has notoriously arranged the wine ranking scale of the 100-point system for both his Wine Advocate newsletter and his guidebooks. Exceedingly influential to the consumer, Parker rates wines from 50 to 100 points, based on a number of factors including appearance, aroma, flavor and overall quality.
The power harnessed in the sheer possibility of attaining high status courtesy of Parker, or any of today’s publications who have mirrored his classification (see Wine Spectator, Stephen Tanzer’s International Wine Cellar), is where controversy can come into play. Not just for the consumer to view and use as a shopping list but for the winery to produce according to its assessor’s palates.As the darling of the wine world, many critics set their bar at the iconic region of Bordeaux. Likewise, since a vast majority of northern California vineyards grafted their vine clippings from Bordeaux and claim to have a parallel climate and growing region, California wine houses have historically taken home the gold medal in wine ranking publications. These wines are typically exuding very ripe and high alcohol infused fruit due to hotter temperatures, dehydrating tannins from grape skin contact and barrel usage and vanilla from sweet oak aging. Stereotypes of California juice receiving substantial nods from wine writers have set a standard for aspiring grape crushers.
In plain English, star-f**king winemakers are producing wines to please the provincial palates of the Parker sorts. The problem is a fabricated survival of the fittest in a vicious cycle format.
Winery X produces a wine that racks in 95 points. It’s big, full, fruity, acidic, tannic and sits at a roaring 15.8% alcohol per volume and Critic A drooled all over this bottle.
Winery Y buys his glossy for more than pocket change and thumbs through to see who’s saying what and who’s buying that as he fantasizes about how he can someday be Winery X. As a result, Winery Y begins to produce wines of the prescribed formula, steroiding out his juice despite its original and individual character. Low and behold, he receives the scores his wallet has been dreaming of and begins to sell out of both his wines and his integrity.
Darwinism comes into the equation with the expectation that if his colleagues do not step up to the same plate, they will be left in the dust. Now that he’s on the proverbial upswing to Winery X status, Winery Y has joined the troops of Parker producers.
The bottom line is a wine reviewer divulges the voice of only one person, some more qualified than the next. The clout behind that option is only as big as the consumer allows it to be and in the end, the consumer is the cog that completes the cycle.
The solution? A liberally educated consumer. The muscle is too heavily placed in the hands of the critics when it is the consumer who is making the ultimate decision. The only plausible way to educate the consumer as a whole is by bringing wine more into the commercial picture. Too often is it seen as an alcoholic beverage instead of one of the courses of the meal itself, which is the light Europeans and the original oenophiles view wine as.
It is only grape juice, after all.