Killing the messenger or the message?
In a recent, interesting New York Times article, Bruce Schoenfeld confronts two sides that appear to be in the antipodes of wine profile or taste and how it should be made as a result.
Schoenfeld points out that for the last three decades some wine consumers and, thus winemaking, have been too influenced by just one person, Robert Parker JR. Parker’s opinions about any wine have been enough to make the difference between success and failure. Through the invention of his 100 points score system, he has established the most influential wine publication, The Wine Advocate, in the world. If a wine gets 95 points or higher on one of his reviews, it surely sells out quickly and becomes a sought- after item at the same time.
His detractors argue that he likes only one style of wine, usually wine above 14.5º of alcohol, so called fruit bombs, of inky color and almost a sweet mouth feeling. These characteristics can be obtained when the grapes from good vineyard sites are harvested fully ripe or even a bit over ripe, because it is then that the wines develop these descriptions and are rid of any green flavor. In fact, in search of ripeness, extending the hanging time has been widely practiced by the vast majority of wineries all around the world thus increasing the sugar in grapes and hence the alcohol of the resulting wines. This is easily confirmed by looking at wine labels on any retail store, where one observes that alcohol levels are above 14º on the higher end wines, as opposed to around 12.5º level where they were in the past.
Despite the success of mainstream wineries which have searched for high scores and recognition, there is a sort of a protest movement that proposes that wines harvested and made with lower alcohol levels, as a result, are better representatives of the place, as they put it. Wine aromas and flavors, according to their mind-set, are things you would never think to connect to wine, like the leaf-¬strewn ground in a forest—Schoenfeld remarks.
These complaints (which I have authoritatively curtailed to save you time) are not new and as a winemaker I have heard them all for such a long time that I think it is time to try to pose the question: what are they trying to kill, the messenger or the message? As a result of the unstable weather pattern of the European summers, each year’s wine quality, and quantity, is unknown until the last part of the season where temperature and rainfall play a crucial role. By looking back in time, before Parker, we can find information about how each harvest has been perceived and rated by critics and consumers who have paid a premium for the so called outstanding vintages.
On the figure below, two axes have been combined and vintages/years have been located according to the weather they had in August and September in Bordeaux. The horizontal line goes from cold temperatures on the left to warmer ones to the right; and the vertical line goes from wetter conditions on the bottom to dryer times to the top. Dark shaded dots are above average priced wine and light shaded dots are below average priced wine, and the time range goes from 1952 to 1980.
Figure 1 Vintage distribution 1952-1980
(Adapted from Ashenfelter, Ashmore, Lalonde “Bordeaux Wine Vintage Quality and the Weather”)
It’s clear that dryer/warmer weather (particularly warmer) helped in making wines that reached higher prices as compared to cooler/wetter years. We can assume without too much risk that those warmer years produced riper, higher alcohol wines, as compared to the colder ones, and as a result they were considered better and more expensive.
Therefore, it seems as though Parker’s sin was to prefer and prize those better wines that everybody else had liked. Prior to this protest movement, riper, higher alcohol wines were already appreciated by people willing to pay more for this style of wine. And even before Parker there was The Judgment of Paris in 1976 when California wines beat French famous counterparts in a blind tasting that has inspired books and movies. Why did this happen? Think about what California weather is like during the summer. Is it cold and wet or warm and dry? There you have it.
So, I think that after Parker created his 100 point scale, understanding wine quality became extremely (maybe too much) easier for eager consumers who were trying to interpret subjective wine descriptions until then. The phenomenon that resulted is now known history. In fact, it wasn’t long before he was not alone in giving scores to wines from all over the world.
Though the one thing they (Parker and other publications) didn’t do was to impose a new wine taste profile among consumers, because that taste profile was already in place long before they began rating wines.
So, if you don’t like Parker’s high score wines don’t blame him because he is a mere (though successful) messenger. As the figure above shows, the wines he likes have been appreciated by people for decades.
Now, I welcome all new initiatives, though I cannot hide my skepticism when I hear someone is going to harvest early just because that would produce a wine with no “Parker” tag attached to it, or, when they are searching for the most remote cold place to grow grapes just to go against mainstream thought. Remember that monks in Champagne used to make awful wines (it is too cold there) until they discovered they could make the bubbly stuff. I prefer more focus on facts than emotions.
Nevertheless, at Fall Creek Vineyards, our winemaking efforts are to please people with wines that combine four attributes: Elegancy, Concentration, Complexity and Uniqueness. This subject is to the topic for another post, to develop all four of these qualities, because we are in the position to say is that here in Texas we have the ability to get all these qualities in one glass. I know that this statement would be better to taste than to read, so check us out on-line or at your closest retail store in Texas.
Sergio Cuadra, Director of Winemaking