|Point rated wines tell you nothing. Ask for the story.|
If you don't know who Robert Parker, Jr. is and you've never heard of The Wine Advocate, rest assured you have been - if you buy and drink wine at all - affected by his too-powerful reign in a one-man quest to bring wine notes to the consumer, via a distinctive palate and a specious point based rating system.
Parker is known for his love of rich, highly extracted reds where new oak imparts often unnatural levels of vanilla on a wine, and jammy fruit bombs lacking in minerality, earth, and authenticity of place. Parker's palate has literally made never-heard-of wines into over night successes, earning a cult status and garnering outrageous prices. Many winemakers have sought such attention by changing their winemaking style and vineyard practices to suit Parker. A wine that earns a high score of, say 94 to 100, from The Wine Advocate is known as "a Parker wine."
From Jancis Robinson's wine encyclopedia The Oxford Companion to Wine:
"With a few notable and sometimes voluble exceptions, most agree that Parker is a gifted taster and diligent reporter. But his success has won a degree of power over the wine market so great that it is dangerous, in that such a high proportion of producers, particularly red wine producers, seem deliberately to be adapting the style of their wines to suit this one, compelling palate regardless of their own personal tastes."
Unfortunately his influence is not limited to the upper tiers, the bankers and high-income collectors.
In a Reagan-era style of wine economics, the Parker influence has trickled down over the moderately priced selections and spread the world over. A $20 Tuscan with a traditional Sangiovese base and blended with 20% Merlot, aged in new French barrels and tasting like a California table wine, has lost any hint of Italian rusticity - that wonderful good-funk aroma that marries so well with tomato sauce and garlic. It passes as Chianti for new consumers who don't know what traditional Sangiovese-Canaiolo blends taste like, and who arguably miss the experience of Chianti altogether. The loss of the traditional, the terroir, the integrity and individuality of place runs parallel with our homogeneously skewed planet when it comes to eating, too, where you can get a Big Mac and large fry in nearly every country in the world. But what's the point of leaving home only to seek the familiar?
Like many critics argue of trickle down economics, the poor stay poor, and the unknowing wine drinker new to the scene ends up with a poor palate, one where a Côte-du-Rhône tastes like a Rioja that tastes like a Chianti that tastes like a California Merlot. Though unlike the poor, the new drinker doesn't know what he's missing; the experience of wine, the emotion, memory, place evoking magic that makes wine so special in the first place.
The problem with a point system is the score tells you nothing of a wine. Does it reflect quality, in a technical sense? Maybe. But it doesn't tell you anything of flavor profiles, style (except that we know Parker's distinctive palate), place or story, or why a wine is culturally important. As wine columnist for Eater.com Talia Baiocchi wrote last week,
"I'm still inspired by the people who toil to give wine cultural context. And I would venture to suggest that there's a large portion of wine drinkers my age who are looking for the same thing. The magazines, newspapers, websites, restaurants, and wine shops that continue to put effort into being open to new wines — and finding meaningful ways of talking about them — will surely find a new generation of drinkers willing to support them. We aren't looking for one man to tell us what's good, we're looking to find that out on our own."
Wine is about story.
Any point-rated system, including The Wine Spectator, is at fault for the same reasons. It's an overly convenient way to sell wine. We Americans love our conveniences. As a former wine sales rep, I'd be lying if I told you I never used Parker ratings to sell wine. Shipping several thousand dollars of wine at a 10% commission with a single email is pretty sexy. And most of my customers felt the same way about those wines I did. We were moving boxes with little effort at a nice margin. Capitalism and convenience at their best.
I'm not oblivious to the reward on the part of the winemaker either. If Oprah wants to add my book to her newly revived book club, you better believe I'll accept the offer, not just because I want to make money (presumably one makes money off book sales) but because said proverbial book had been written not for Oprah, but for myself, to express my thoughts and experiences with the hope of connecting with other like-minded individuals. Connection is what the human soul desires and needs. When a multitude of winemakers abandon tradition and heart to make wines to serve the perceived American public, as dictated by one man, we lose any chance at connection. There is no story, no human element, no art, no life. We are simply consuming a product, drinking for the sake of getting drunk.
It's not all Parker's fault. He did not give himself the power. And his story as self-made American is a classic one. He started his newsletter as a hobby in 1978 and by 1984 he was able to leave his profession as a lawyer and devote all his time to tasting and travel. The consumer gave him the power, gobbling up the easy-to-digest 100-point system. Much of the fault lies on the wine buyer. We have allowed it to happen.
Understanding wine and it's many nuances, the process, the places, the language, is daunting. I know, I've been there. But with any worthy endeavor, it takes time and attentive appreciation to understand wine. And with all worthy, difficult endeavors, the pay off is great.
I now live in a place where the wine drinking population is small and religious morals are fierce. A handful of dry towns lie within a forty minute drive from my home. But I also hear, especially from the younger generation, I want to learn more about wine, and I hear it often. This makes me happy and wonder what my role might be. Is this where the Parkerization of the wine world fades out and tradition is celebrated? It seems to me the time is rife with opportunity. Young Americans increasingly embrace education about an egregious food industry, shun conveniences and seek out local and humanitarian food sources, as well as growing their own. Wal-Mart is out. The farmer's market is in. Wine is food. Couldn't the movement go hand in hand?
Parker's shift in direction is a clear welcome for positive change. Forget about points. Ask for the story. You'll enjoy the wine much more. I promise.
Recommended reading & Viewing for those interested in understanding more:
Alice Feiring's The Battle for Wine and Love: or How I Saved the World from Parkerization
Mondovino, a documentary about the gentrification and Parkerization of the wine industry, from France to California to Argentina and why it's a problem.