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Helen of Oy

2011 August 9
by Mike

Dr. Vino posted an item on his blog last week about the latest newsletter from California’s Marcassin Vineyard. Marcassin is the pet project of famed consulting winemaker Helen Turley and her husband John Wetlaufer and has won rapturous praise from Robert Parker for its Sonoma Coast pinot noirs and chardonnays.  The newsletter recounts a tasting that Turley and Wetlaufer did with Parker, in which their 2006s supposedly humiliated two heavyweight ringers from Burgundy, the 2006 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti La Tâche and the 2006 Domaine Leflaive Chevalier-Montrachet (there is no indication that the wines were tasted blind, so I assume they weren’t). Using this “victory” as their jumping-off point, Turley and Wetlaufer then launch into a disquisition on Burgundian viticulture, the gist of which is that the Burgundians are incompetent farmers who don’t obtain sufficiently ripe fruit because they mismanage their vines. Once you are done lifting your jaw off the floor, you should read this remarkable document, which really ought to have been titled Notes From a Parallel Universe (and be sure not to skip the endnotes!). Needless to say, the Marcassin missive has caused a stir, both for its off-the-charts hubris and its bizarro claims.

During my years of scribbling about wine, I’ve had two dealings with Turley. The first was back in 2000; I was heading to California, was thinking of doing a story about the suddenly very fashionable Sonoma Coast, and called her to request an appointment. She initially agreed, but then backed out a few days before we were due to meet. She had evidently discovered that I was friendly with a winemaker whom she disliked, and she no longer wished to see me. She left a rambling phone message telling me in a quivering, agitated voice that she was cancelling and that I couldn’t possibly do my story without her cooperation and input. Le Sonoma Coast, c’est moi. I ended up not doing the story, but only because of some scheduling conflicts. At any rate, my first experience of  “the Wine Goddess,” as Parker calls her, was a memorable one.

A year later, I was back in California, attending a food and wine festival in Carmel that happened to include a tasting of Marcassin led by Turley and Wetlaufer. I was among the 25 or so people who took part in the tasting, which featured a dozen wines—6 chardonnays and 6 pinots. After the event ended, I went up to Turley, introduced myself, and reminded her of our aborted meeting. She didn’t look terribly happy to see me but gamely made some small talk. I also spent several minutes chatting with Wetlaufer, who didn’t exude much warmth himself but was a bit more forthcoming. When he asked what I thought of the wines, I decided to fib rather than insult him: I said that they were impressive. The terseness with which I responded probably gave me away, but so be it.

In fact, the wines were terrible. The whites were typically overblown California chardonnays—too ripe, too fat, too oaky. They were charmless and exhausting. But the Marcassin pinots were in their own special category of vileness. These were cloying, completely disjointed wines that exhibited almost no varietal character. For a moment, I found myself wondering, only partially in jest, if Turley had mistakenly bottled her Martinelli zinfandels in the Marcassin bottles. The pinots were hideous confections, their inadequacy underscored by a vertical tasting of Domaine Dujac’s brilliant Clos de la Roche that was held the same weekend. I was fairly new to wine writing at the time, and I recall being shocked that Parker had compared one of the Marcassin pinots to a Clos de la Roche. Looking back, I think this was the moment I first began to question the whole Parker thing. It was bad enough that he thought so highly of these execrable wines, but to liken one of them to a Clos de la Roche? Apart from being derived from the same grape, the Marcassin pinots had nothing in common with red Burgundies. Sure, taste is subjective, but this was like comparing, oh, peanut butter to lobster—it made no sense.

Parker posted a lengthy comment on eBob regarding the Marcassin controversy. I won’t reproduce his remarks in full here, not least because every time I read one of his posts, I hear the voice of Keith Olbermann doing his Bill O’Reilly-as-Ted Baxter riff, and I then can’t get it out of my head. Parker tried to strike a tone of reasonableness, saying that people should consider Turley and Wetlaufer’s remarks in a “fair and responsible manner.” Of course, this was two sentences after he called Romanée-Conti fans “sycophants and apologists,” which was preceded by his claim that “the Burgundians have refused to change anything for several hundred years,” a statement so comically asinine that it ought to disqualify Parker from ever being taken seriously again on the subject of Burgundy. In fact, he should do himself a favor and no longer comment on Burgundy.  He is clearly nursing a grudge on account of having become persona non grata there, and Burgundy’s soaring popularity, which represents the triumph of an aesthetic far different from his own, is apparently only adding to the bitterness. He simply cannot resist taking potshots at Burgundy and Burgundy enthusiasts. It’s kind of pathetic, and he should give it a rest.

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