More than any other, three posts captured and commanded the attention of wine trade members, observers, and enthusiasts this month.
Master of Wine Jancis Robinson’s “Naturally Divisive” on “natural vs. conventional” wine culture for the Financial Times (republished and available to all on her tasting note portal); Cathy Huyghe’s interview with natural wine advocate Alice Feiring, “Alice Feiring on Satire and Misogyny in the Wine Industry,” a response and reaction to a predictably misogynic parody of Alice’s work; and New York Times wine columnist Eric Asimov’s “It’s Time to Rethink Wine Criticism” on the dismal state of winespeak today.
At the center of each of these pieces, one character looms ominous above all others: Robert Parker, Jr., the twentieth-century creator and disseminator of the hegemonic 100-point-scale score and tasting note model for wine criticism.
Jancis is the only one who doesn’t mention him by name but he’s in there. A genie in a bottle, he arrives via a pair of top-rated Bordeaux wines from the 1982 harvest — the same “near-mythical” vintage, as Jancis calls it, that launched his name, brand, and career as America’s most famous wine writer.
“His influence grew in the mid-1980s,” writes Eric for the Times, “particularly with his unconditional, flamboyant praise for the 1982 Bordeaux vintage…”
Parker more than any other writer, perhaps unjustly so, represents the realm of what has been inaptly called “conventional wine.” It’s a category that exists only inasmuch as it is the polar and polarizing opposite of “natural wine.”
“A very significant proportion of the wine establishment,” writes Jancis, “roll their eyes at the very mention of natural wine. On the other hand, there is no shortage of converts to natural wine who… will not sully their or their customers’ palates with wine they do not consider natural. They have a tendency to lecture the world on the iniquities of conventional wine.”
The terms of that dialectic were forged once and for all in 2008 when Alice published her now landmark book, The Battle for Wine and Love: or How I Saved the World from Parkerization (Harcourt).
In case you’re out of the loop, the “Parker” in “Parkerization” is Robert Parker, Jr.: the influence of his wine criticism paradigm (the 100-point scale accompanied by a concise however lyrical synaesthetic tasting note), she argued, had reshaped not only consumers’ perceptions of wine but also producer’s ideals. Many, she claimed (and rightly so), had abandoned their appellations’ native grapes and viticultural traditions in order to please the palate belonging to the “Emperor of Wine,” as Elin McCoy had called him in her monograph by the same title, The Emperor of Wine: the Rise of Robert M. Parker, Jr. and the Reign of American Taste (Ecco/HarperCollins 2005).
But there is ample evidence that the internationalization of wine had already begun long before Parker took center stage. He made his name with his reviews of the 1982 vintage of Bordeaux but his celebrity in the wine world didn’t take shape until the second half of the 1980s (as Eric notes).
Here’s what legacy winemaker and often vilified internationalist Piero Antinori said to wine writer Alexis Bespaloff in 1982 (quoted from a profile of Antinori, Angelo Gaja, and Piero Mastroberardino for New York):
- Even though Italy has been making wine for 7,000 years, we haven’t been using all the best varieties, so if we want to produce something exceptional, we have to import grapes from elsewhere. For example, the Trebbiano grape can’t produce superior white wine, so we planted 30 acres of Chardonnay in Orvieto and produced a first crop of ten barrels in 1981. We want to make a rich, complex wine, like California Chardonnay. We’ve also planted Cabernet Sauvignon in one of our Chianti vineyards and produced about 400 cases in 1980.
The New York piece is compelling, especially in retrospect.
“I bought 250 new barrels [barriques] in 1975,” Angelo Gaja boasted in his conversation with Bespaloff, “and by the spring of 1982, I’ll have 1,200 barrels of French and Yugoslavian oak.”
(Dwarfed by the large-format casks — botti — traditionally used by Italian winemakers at that time, the small barrels, known as barriques, became harbingers of the modernist wine era.)
“Many producers in Piedmont are afraid of using small barrels,” he explained, “because they think it will overdo the tannin in wines that are already tannic. But what I’m looking for is complexity in less time… By concentrating the aging process in small oak, you get harmony and complexity without losing fruit and appeal.”
It seems that the seeds of the culture wars over “modern vs. traditional” wines — and its organic outgrowth, “conventional vs. natural” — had been planted before millennials started being born in the early 1980s when Parker’s career took off.
The Slow Food university in Piedmont where I teach “wine communication” every year lies a stone’s through from the village of Barbaresco where Angelo Gaja still grows grapes and makes wine (and where he famously grubbed up local, native varieties and planted Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon in the late 1970s and early 1980s).
Most of the students there are millennials from Europe, Asia, and the Americas. And nearly all of them come from privileged homes.
Few of them have even heard of Robert Parker, Jr. But they all know what natural wine is. They may not always be able to define it succinctly. But like obscenity, they know it when they taste it.
They are hardly interested in learning about what precipitated the crisis in wine criticism and how it shapes wine production today. To my surprise, they have often argued that Robert Parker, Jr. should be remembered as an anti-hero pioneer who revolutionized the world of wine enthusiasm.
But they remain nonplussed by the historical sway of the Parker model. And they are also unsettled by the dogmatism that dogs wine writing today.
Every June when the term comes to an end, I can’t help but think to myself: they have no model for wine writing and they lack a wine critic hero with and to whom they can identify and aspire. Where are their Feirings, Asimovs, and Lawrence Osbornes? (The three writers who inspired my own career.) Where is their Parker, for that matter?
I agree with Eric that “it’s time to consider a better model that might be more useful to consumers, a system that would empower them to make their own choices rather than tether them endlessly to critics’ bottle-by-bottle reviews.”
I’m glad and I concur, as Alice notes, that “the [natural wine] movement has been a bigger success than anyone expected and is changing the way wine is made today. People committed to the corporate wine culture are being forced to look at their practices.”
But I’m also dismayed that we are leaving young people out of the conversation. There’s no doubt that they hold the key to the future — natural, conventional, and somewhere beyond the labels and hierarchies that seem less applicable and more misplaced with each passing year.