Depending on your taste, some dispiriting news out of Bordeaux: Château Figeac has hired Michel Rolland as a consultant. Figeac is one of Bordeaux’s most venerable estates, and also produces one of its more distinctive wines: Although Figeac is located in St. Émilion, the wine includes an unusually hefty share of cabernet sauvignon—around 35 percent—to go along with the merlot and cabernet franc. Figeac has also stood out in recent years by being one of the few wineries to resist the Parkerization/Rollandification (it has been a pincer move) of St. Émilion, Starting in the 1990s, there was a dramatic stylistic shift in St. Émilion, and brooding, lush, very oaky wines became the appellation’s signature. Rolland was a consultant to a number of St. Émilion estates and prescribed the practices (longer hang times, extended macerations, micro-oxygenation) that yielded these hedonistic fruit bombs, to use the vernacular. It was a change that thrilled Parker, who was effusive in his praise for the New Wave St. Émilions.
But Figeac’s late owner, Thierry Manoncourt, a revered figure in Bordeaux, abhorred these inky, jammy wines. Under his watch, Figeac continued to turn out elegant, classically proportioned (read: modest alcohol) St. Émilions that, thanks to the large percentage of cabernet sauvignon in the blend, were utterly sui generis among Right Bank wines. Although Parker was fairly bullish about some recent vintages of Figeac—he gave 90 points to the 2005 and 93 to the 2000 (though he later downgraded the latter)—he complained that the château was inconsistent and wasn’t realizing the full potential of its terroir. It appears he stopped reviewing Figeac after the 2008 vintage, which he slammed, giving the wine just 81 points; he definitely became more biting in his criticism of it. Perhaps there was a “frank exchange of views” and Parker either decided to shun Figeac or found he was no longer welcome there.
Manoncourt passed away in 2010 at the age of 92, and last year, Figeac was passed over for promotion to Grand Cru Classé A, the highest classification in St Emilion’s hierarchy of estates. However, two Rolland clients and Parker favorites, Pavie and Angélus, were elevated to the top rung, joining Cheval Blanc and Ausone. The Manoncourt family evidently decided that resistance had become futile and called in Rolland. Yet, the timing of this move strikes me as a little odd. It would have made much more sense 10 or 15 years ago, when Parker was at the apex of his power and all the buzz was about the revolutionary happenings in St. Émilion, But Parker is now 65, his influence is waning, Rolland appears to have lost some clout, too, and the radical changes in St. Émilion are yesterday’s news. While I don’t know that old-school clarets à la Figeac are poised for a comeback, it would seem that the cost of holding out against the modernist trend is not as high now as it was a decade ago.
Figeac fans are in various stages of grief over the news of Rolland’s hiring. The outpouring of dismay and concern elicited a typically blustery response from Parker. Writing on eBob, he said that he had recently spoken with Manoncourt’s widow, who told him that she had hired Rolland because she “wanted to return Figeac to a position of greatness.” He enumerated some of the ways in which Figeac had allegedly fallen short (underripe fruit, excessive yields), predicted that its performance would improve dramatically under Rolland, and suggested that the ignorant masochists lamenting the changes at Figeac look instead to the Loire Valley for “diluted and vegetal” wines. Ever the sweet voice of reason….
I don’t doubt that Figeac generally tastes “diluted and vegetal” to Parker and to people whose preferences align with his. The debate over the changes at Figeac is illustrative of something that too often gets overlooked or forgotten in these debates: no two palates are the same. Thank you for stating the obvious, Mr. Steinberger! I am stating the obvious, but it is a point that has a way of getting lost in all the sturm und drang. I attended a Figeac vertical in Paris in 2007 at which they poured the greatest hits from the 40s, 50s, and 60s, along with more recent vintages. The greatest hits were indeed great, but wines like the 2005, the 2000, and the 1986 all struck me as worthy successors to gems like the 64 and the 59. The 98 Figeac is a terrific wine, too. I adore Figeac for its restrained opulence (an excellent and very apt phrase that Neal Martin invoked at the Paris tasting) and its freshness—the ripe but not overripe fruit, the brisk acidity. I also like the green note that the two cabernets impart to the wine. But to Parker, that green note is a flaw, not a virtue, and what I perceive as fresh and elegant strikes his palate as thin and insipid. It’s a Mars. vs. Venus thing, you could say. To this point, Figeac has catered to ignorant masochists like me; the decision to hire Rolland suggests it will henceforth cater to Parker. As I said, it’s a move that would have made perfect sense a decade ago; it will be interesting to see if it pays off now.
Forget the vineyard; when it comes to wine, all the action this spring is in the courtroom. It began today at a federal courthouse in Manhattan, with opening arguments in the case of Koch v. Greenberg (the trial was supposed to start yesterday but was postponed; I assume it was on account of the weather). This is the case that billionaire collector Bill Koch filed six years ago against fellow collector and onetime billionaire Eric Greenberg. Koch alleges that Greenberg knowingly sold him a number of counterfeit wines at a Zachys auction in 2005. I did a long investigative piece for Slate in 2010 looking at the Koch/Greenberg saga and focusing on one bottle in particular, a magnum of 1921 Château Pétrus that Koch bought at the Zachys auction. The 21 Pétrus is a bottle that connects not only Greenberg and Koch, it also links New York’s Royal Wine Merchants, from which Greenberg procured many of his wines, to the infamous Hardy Rodenstock. The Wine Spectator published an excellent rundown of the case yesterday.
Rudy Kurniawan’s name is sure to factor prominently in the Koch v. Greenberg proceedings. Greenberg bought wine from Kurniawan and had frequent dealings with the alleged counterfeiter. It appears the criminal case against Kurniawan is headed for trial, too, presumably sometime in the next few months. Unless Kurniawan, who is being held at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn (and, no, he wasn’t given a weekend furlough to attend this year’s La Paulée), has something juicy to offer federal prosecutors—incriminating evidence against, say, an auction house—the government has no incentive to cut a deal with him, and so far as we know, no deal has been cut.
Last week brought more wine-related litigation: The Wine Advocate filed a lawsuit against Antonio Galloni alleging breach of contract and fraud. Galloni, Robert Parker’s onetime heir-apparent, quit The Wine Advocate in February to start his own publication and walked out the door without delivering several reports that he’d been contracted to write on behalf of The Wine Advocate and for which he had been paid, according to the complaint. Instead, he apparently intends to publish the disputed material, which includes tasting notes from Sonoma, Burgundy, Piedmont, and Tuscany, on his site. The lawsuit alleges that Galloni knew when he traveled to these places that he was planning to leave The Wine Advocate and to keep the tasting notes for his own use; yet, he allowed The Wine Advocate to fund his trips (the complaint indicates that he was reimbursed for everything except the Sonoma visit, which took place in January; it doesn’t say whether or not he ever submitted those expenses) and claimed to be representing The Wine Advocate when he was really representing himself.
Over on Wineberserkers, a number of lawyers have been scrutinizing the details of the lawsuit to see if there are loopholes that might allow Galloni to prevail. The complaint includes evidence of shoddy recordkeeping by Parker (in the form of some unexecuted contracts), and it also makes at least one preposterous assertion: it suggests that The Wine Advocate has a proprietary claim to the 100-point scale. Nonetheless, the sharpest corporate lawyer I know says that based on the available information, Galloni has little chance of winning if the case ever goes to trial. It surely won’t go to trial: unless Galloni has a very fat bank account and doesn’t mind being sidetracked for months by litigation, he is going to have to settle, and quickly.
That said, I’d love to hear his side of the story, because maybe it would help me understand why he has acted in such a seemingly self-sabotaging way. He was under contract to do these reports for The Wine Advocate, and even though he quit, it appears he was still obligated to turn them in. Perhaps there’s something in the fine print that might allow him to wiggle out of his responsibility to hand over the tasting notes, but even then, why risk a lawsuit, why court Parker’s wrath? It just makes no sense.
Galloni is almost certainly on the losing end legally, and from a PR standpoint, he has done himself no favors, either. However chagrined he might have been about the sale of The Wine Advocate, which cost him his status as Parker’s designated successor, it seems he was treated exceedingly well by Parker. According to the lawsuit, Parker paid him $300,000 each of the last two years, and also gave him a monthly budget of nearly $6000. That’s Condé Nast money (I’m surprised there wasn’t a Town Car included) and was surely far in excess of what Parker needed to pay to retain Galloni’s services. Galloni claims he quit The Wine Advocate because he didn’t want to be an employee. Fair enough, but his decision to stiff The Wine Advocate on the reports that he was contracted to write was foolish, and when you factor in the generosity that Parker showed him, his behavior looks pretty shabby. Indeed, Galloni has managed to achieve something that didn’t seem possible: he’s cast Parker in a sympathetic light (and yes, that’s a pig hovering over your house). I watch a lot of soccer, and I’d have to say that this is one of the more bizarre own goals I’ve ever seen.
I’d apologize for the light posting, but after a year of light posting, the three of you who are still following this site are surely accustomed to it. Anyway, it’s been a busy last month. I was in Tokyo for a week on a magazine assignment. Despite a crazy case of jet lag—I am not exaggerating when I say that I got 10 hours of sleep in total during the six nights I was there—it was a great trip. Tokyo is an amazing, amazing city, and I can’t wait to get back. The food was sensational. There was a lot of this:
That needs no explanation. And there were some unfamiliar things, too, like this:
That’s blowfish sperm sac. No, it didn’t kill me, but I did spend a few anxious minutes reflecting on my life after I ate it (I only learned what it was after I’d swallowed). Maritime reproductive material was very much in season during my visit to Tokyo: In fact, I ate so much cod milt (it wasn’t by choice—it was one of those When in Rome things) that I started to fear I might return home pregnant with a cod. If you see me pushing a stroller with a fish tank in it, you’ll know.
After returning from Tokyo, I spent two days trying to catch up on sleep, and then I was off for the Paulée de New York madness. The highlight for me was doing a Q&A with Aubert de Villaine as part of the Paulée program; he was amazing (no surprise), and the event went very well. I also got to drink some fabulous wines during the Paulée weekend (and not just Burgundies!). I will try to post some notes on what I drank later this week, along with notes for the 2010 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti wines.
Some good news: my Vanity Fair article about Rudy Kurniawan has been nominated for a James Beard Award. They announced the nominations this morning, and the winners will be announced at a dinner in New York in May.
Also—and apologies for the very short notice (not that you would expect otherwise from me)—I’m doing a Q&A on Wednesday night in New York with Jancis Robinson. Jancis has a new book called American Wine: The Ultimate Companion to the Wines and Wineries of the United States, and we are going to be talking about the American wine scene. The event is taking place at the 92YTribeca at 5:30pm. All 130 seats were sold as of this past weekend. However, because of the strong demand, the organizers are now making some additional seats available—and, yes, wine will be served! Click here for more information, and I hope to see a few of you on Wednesday.
As part of this year’s La Paulée de New York, I am going to be interviewing Aubert de Villaine, the co-director of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, Burgundy’s most celebrated estate and probably the most famous winery on the planet. “A conversation with Aubert de Villaine” will take place at Restaurant Daniel on Saturday March 9th, from 10-11:30AM. De Villaine and I will discuss his many years at the helm of DRC and will also talk about Burgundy’s past, present, and future. De Villaine is a remarkable figure whose importance to Burgundy, and to wine, can’t be overstated. As Allen Meadows put it to me, de Villaine is the conscience of Burgundy; where he leads, the rest of Burgundy follows. Changes he instituted at DRC in the 1970s helped set in motion Burgundy’s quality revolution, and some 40 years on, de Villaine remains Burgundy’s guiding light. Needless to say, I am very excited about this event, which will benefit the effort to have the vineyards of Burgundy recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site*, and am honored to be able to play a part in it. Click here for more details and tickets, and I hope some of you can join us on March 9th.
*The most acclaimed of those vineyards, of course, is Romanée-Conti itself, which has been a source of brilliant wines going back hundreds of years, and which was also the subject of probably my favorite wine quote of all. A document published in 1794 noted that the wine from the Romanée-Conti vineyard was “the most excellent of all those of the Côte d’Or…Its brilliant and velvety color, its ardor and scent, charm all the senses….Well kept, it always improves as it approaches its eighth or tenth year; it is then a balm for the elderly, the feeble and the disabled, and will restore life to the dying.” The de Villaine family acquired the Romanée-Conti vineyard in 1869, and Aubert de Villaine has been its custodian, and custodian of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, since the early 1970s.
GM Bailout: A leading environmentalist changes his mind about genetically modified crops.
Brownshirts in Birkenstocks: The rise of right-wing organic farming in Germany, with a reference to Rudolf Steiner and biodynamics.
Schlockwork Orange: Top sommeliers deliver a much-deserved smackdown of orange wines.
The Wallaby Loses Its Bounce: Hurt by the strong Australian dollar, Yellow Tail suffers its first annual loss in 20 years and may have to sell assets and move its bottling overseas.
I hired a deputy editor over the weekend. His name is Patches, he is 10 weeks old, and as you can see, he is a true Burghound. He is also partial to rawhide treats and Ridge and adores the biscuity aroma that you often find in mature Champagnes. He is an MW (Master of Woof), rates wines on a 0-5 wag scale, and plans to start posting tasting notes as soon as he is done potty training.
“Welcome to Lake Wobegon, where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, all the children are above average, and all the wines are special.” Okay, I added the last part. But that famous line from “A Prairie Home Companion” came whistling through my ears as I sifted through the latest issue of The Wine Advocate. As you probably know by now, Robert Parker and Antonio Galloni both put on their Santa Claus suits (Parker even grew a beard) and handed out massive scores in the issue of The Wine Advocate that was released right after Christmas. Galloni awarded 95 points or above to 223 California wines, a quarter of the nearly 900 California wines that he reviewed. If you are a producer in Napa and got less than 93 points, you should seriously consider pulling up your vines and replacing them with condos. Parker, meanwhile, awarded 100-point ratings to 17 Northern Rhones from the 2009-2011 vintages. This was on top of the 17 100-point scores that he dished out in a recent retrospective tasting of the 2002 Napa vintage, and the 19 100-point scores that he bestowed on the 2009 Bordeaux vintage. In all, Parker has given out at least 53 100-point ratings since last March. Perfection is literally falling off the vine these days!
Not surprisingly, the generosity of these latest Wine Advocate scores raised some eyebrows, and true to form, Parker lashed out at those who dared to question him. In a comment on eBob, he griped that the naysaying was emblematic of the “dim-witted group think culture we live in where complete falsehoods are passed off as conventional wisdom (wines are too alcoholic, all wines taste the same, terroir is dead), and then this garbage is bounced around every social media site these knuckleheads can find, and voila, it becomes dogma in a self-reassuring circle of zombies who would make Ayn Rand’s discussion of ‘second-handers’ look prophetic, and prove that propaganda—even if false and totally unsupported by facts, is still alive and flourishing in some circles.” Got that?
(Just out of curiosity: When did the Ralph Nader of wine morph into the John Galt of wine? Does he believe the world is divided between winemakers and wine, er, takers? Now that he has sold The Wine Advocate, perhaps he can launch a new publication called The Wine Objectivist. At any rate, the best thing I ever read about Ayn Rand was the following: “There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year-old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.”)
For his part, Galloni gamely entered the lion’s den, as it were, wading into a spirited discussion on Wineberserkers about his California scores. Galloni suggested that he had been too conservative with his ratings in the past and said that relative to the volume of wine produced in California, the number of high scores in his latest report was not implausible. Most of the people participating in the thread seemed to think that Galloni, who started covering California in 2011, was guilty of grade inflation, and it appears he didn’t change many minds. But he was rightly praised for his willingness to engage with his critics rather than hurl spitballs at them.
I’ve already offered my opinion about what accounts for all the perfect and near-perfect scores we are seeing, and there is no need to repeat it here. Nor do I want to get into a debate about the merits of the 100-point scale. But I think one reason Parker and Galloni have encountered so much skepticism is that if you accept the 100-point scale as a quasi-objective means of assessing wines—and it seems to me that if you buy into the 100-point thing, you are necessarily accepting the idea that it is a quasi-objective standard—then the sheer number of wines clustered at the top of the scale simply isn’t credible. There are two basic ways of rating wines: on an absolute scale or on a curve. With an absolute scale, you are judging wines against the benchmark set by wines like the 47 Cheval Blanc, 61 Latour, 61 La Chapelle, etc.—the all-time greats, universally recognized as such. If Parker is grading in this manner, he is essentially saying that he tasted 53 wines in the past year that are equal to these legends. You believe that? Me neither. (But Rudy Kurniawan is undoubtedly kicking himself as he sits in his Brooklyn jail cell awaiting trial: what a business opportunity those 53 perfect scores would have given him!)
Parker, in his tirade on eBob, gave conflicting indications regarding exactly how he arrives at his scores. “There is really nothing sacred to prevent a perfect score,” he wrote. “It simply means you, me, or someone thinks the wine is as brilliant an example of a vintage, a varietal or blend, or terroir that exists.” The references to varietal, blend, and terroir can perhaps be interpreted as meaning that he evaluates on an absolute scale. But by invoking vintage, he raised the possibility that he instead grades on a curve. Let’s assume, for the moment, that he does grade on a curve—in the context of a particular vintage, or of recent vintages. In defending this latest batch of stratospheric ratings, Parker claimed that “wines are greater than ever”, ipso facto more wines are getting monster scores than ever before.
However, that shouldn’t be the case. I don’t want to get into Gaussian distribution and all that brainy stuff; a simple mind like mine needs to keep things simple. But even if the overall quality of wines is better, it doesn’t follow that so many wines should be receiving eye-popping scores. If the competition is much tougher now than it was 10 years ago, it shouldn’t be easier to get 96 or 97 points; it should be harder. Yet, the Wine Advocate is giving out many more such scores these days than it did a decade ago. (On Wineberserkers, Galloni said that around 500 California wines that he tasted didn’t make the cut, meaning they received less than 85 points. But even with those slackers factored in, he gave 95 points or above to 16 percent of the wines he sampled, which doesn’t strike me as a normal distribution.) Forgive the tautology, but if the bar has been raised, you need to raise the bar. You can do that one of two ways: by lengthening the scale—making the highest score, say, 110 points rather than 100—or by tightening the standards within the 100-point framework to reflect the fact that the quality is so vastly improved. If you don’t do either of those things, you end up in a situation like the one that Parker and Galloni are now confronting—with your reviews being greeted mainly with cynicism and derision.
I think the flap over the latest Wine Advocate scores is another milestone in the demythologizing of wine critics. There’s no denying that Parker and other critics have played an invaluable role in educating the public about wine and in steering consumers towards quality. But there’s also no denying that there was always a faith-based aspect to their work. You were asked to take it on faith that they had exquisitely discerning palates, never suffered palate fatigue, had total recall of the wines they tasted, and were blessed with a talent for divining when wines barely out of the fermentation tank would be ready to drink and would reach their peaks of maturity. And you were also asked to believe that there was a certain rigor to their point-flogging, that they weren’t just deriving their grades in the willy-nilly manner of the renowned professor Dr. Otto Yerass (hat tip: Charles Pierce). But oenophiles are no longer willing to take it on faith. In this instance, they demanded an explanation for the improbably large number of highly rated wines, neither Parker nor Galloni was able to offer a persuasive answer, and they have suffered another blow to their authority as a result.
One last point: it will be interesting to see how many producers truly benefit from these whopping ratings. I suspect that very few will. With so many big-scoring wines on the market nowadays, consumers are no longer easily impressed. Indeed, what might be gratifying for individual wineries could prove to be disastrous collectively—if people get sufficiently cynical about the scores, they may decide that all of these wines are overrated and not worth the money. Last year, a Massachusetts high school teacher named David McCullough, Jr.—yes, the son of that David McCullough—gave a bracingly candid graduation speech that made headlines across the country. Two sentences in particular stood out: “If everyone is special, then no one is. If everyone gets a trophy, trophies become meaningless.” The same can be said of 95-point wines.
I don’t do a lot of PSAs, but this is an event that should be of interest to some folks. Stephen Bitterolf of New York’s Crush Wine & Spirits is organizing a big Riesling bash for mid-February—a weekend bacchanal devoted to Riesling and modeled after the Paulée de New York. For the debut edition of Rieslingfeier (“Riesling Celebration”), Bitterolf has put together an impressive lineup of winemakers. Katharina Prüm of J.J. Prüm, Klaus Peter Keller and Julia Keller of Weingut Keller, Dorothee Zilliken of Forstmeister Geltz Zilliken, Thomas Haag of Schloss Lieser, Florian Lauer of Weingut Peter Lauer, and Andreas Adam of A.J. Adam are all traveling to New York to take part. So, too, is friend-of-this-site David Schildknecht, who covers Germany for the Wine Advocate.
The weekend will kick off on Friday February 15th with a dinner at Eleven Madison Park featuring Prüm and Keller. On Saturday afternoon, four of the producers—Adam, Lauer, Haag, and Zilliken—will join Schildknecht for a seminar on diversity in the Mosel and Saar. This will be followed by a Riesling Crawl; all of the growers will be doing free tastings at various Manhattan wine shops, with staggered start times to ensure that highly motivated crawlers can hit each one. Rieslingfeier will conclude on Saturday night with a gala dinner at the restaurant Rouge Tomate, with wine duties handled by some top New York sommeliers. The producers will supply wines, and in the style of the Paulée, each guest is supposed to bring a bottle of German wine (and, no, that doesn’t mean Blue Nun—the winemakers will be digging deep into their own cellars, and it’s hoped that guests will match their generosity).
Riesling commands devotion like no other grape on the planet, and as if the Summer of Riesling weren’t enough, the Riesling faithful have now decided to put their stamp on winter, too. But I think Rieslingfeier is going to be a terrific event, offering a nice snapshot of the contemporary German wine scene and much good drinking. Here’s a link to the website.
I hope everyone had a great holiday season, and my best wishes to you for 2013.
As we are only four days into the new year, I don’t think it’s too late for me to partake of that obnoxious wine writer ritual: the annual top 10 list (we don’t make much money; at least let us boast about the fabulous wines we get to taste). I drank some sensational stuff in the year just ended, and I hope you did, as well. Here are my greatest hits of 2012:
1961 Château Haut-Brion: Say what you will about Bordeaux, there ain’t nothing finer than a great Haut-Brion…
1959 Château Haut-Brion: …except an even greater Haut-Brion. Sweet Jesus, was this good.
1961 Château La Mission Haut-Brion: If I told you that I drank these first three at the same time and then fell asleep under a palm tree, would you hate me? I’d hate me, too.
1989 Château Pétrus: To paraphrase Teri Hatcher, it was real and it was spectacular.
1988 Louis Roederer Cristal Rosé: A killer Chambertin masquerading as a Champagne (surely, this is the best pink bubbly ever made?).
1961 Champagne Lanson: Yes, 61 was quite the year, and Lanson was once quite the house.
2002 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Romanée-Conti: At a bar with a friend, talking about life and loss. Any wine would have done, but we did well with this one.
1963 Quinta do Noval Vintage Port Nacional: Sometimes they become legends for a reason.
1967 Quinta do Noval Vintage Port Nacional: And sometimes they deserve even bigger reputations than they have.
1991 Domaine Jamet Côte-Rôtie: Bringing home the bacon and so much more. RIP, old-school Northern Rhone; we await the resurrection.
Happy trails to Martine Saunier. The acclaimed Bay Area importer, a pioneering figure in the American wine industry, announced last week that she has sold her business. The buyers are Gregory Castells, a French-born sommelier with experience on both sides of the Atlantic, and Kate Laughlin, who spent seven years working in operations for Thomas Keller’s restaurant group. The company will still be known as Martine’s Wines, and Martine will serve on its board.
Martine is one of my favorite wine people and someone for whom I have great admiration. A native of Paris, she moved to San Francisco in 1964. She started her business in 1979, importing wines from her native France. It was a gusty thing to do: at the time, the wine trade was still overwhelmingly male, and it took no small amount of courage and self-confidence on her part to walk into cellars in France offering her services, and into wine shops here offering her wines. But Martine, as personable as she is elegant, was able to put together an extraordinary portfolio. She represented two of Burgundy’s most celebrated producers, Henri Jayer and Domaine Leroy, and also imported the legendary Châteauneuf-du-Papes of Château Rayas.
I had the chance to spend some time with Martine while on an assignment in Burgundy a few years ago. Her affection for the place was unmistakable, and has now found expression in a documentary she helped produce called “A Year in Burgundy”, which will be released this year. In addition to visiting some of her growers, Martine and I shared a bottle of 1988 Jayer Vosne-Romanée Cros-Parantoux. Jayer had recently passed away, and as we took our first sips, her eyes moistened and she made a simple toast: “Thank you, Henri.” I don’t have a glass of Jayer’s Cros-Parantoux handy, but I’d like to offer Martine a heartfelt thanks—for putting such extraordinary wines on our tables, for her role in nurturing the dynamic wine culture that we now have in the United States, and for the knowledge and graciousness she brought to the American wine scene.
I suspect that in the not-too-distant future, the sale of the Wine Advocate and the public relations debacle that ensued will become a business school case study. A management professor with a taste for the absurd (and perhaps also a taste for wine) will see this train wreck for the cautionary tale that is it is, an example of how to needlessly tarnish a brand and sink a reputation. Reading about this imbroglio, M.B.A. candidates will marvel at the ineptitude and hubris that led to the botched announcement of the sale and the controversy that percolated for weeks thereafter. They will struggle to understand why someone as successful and seemingly intelligent as Robert Parker thought that he could disclose news of the sale yet keep the identity of the buyers and the terms of the transaction secret. They will be baffled by Parker’s assertion that the investors were “totally independent” of the wine trade, when that claim was completely false and easily refuted. (The fact that the wife of the main investor brazenly refuted the claim will be seen as emblematic of the entire fiasco.) Why, they will ask, did Parker try to play his subscribers for fools instead of just telling them the truth? Even after they have moved on to other topics, these future bankers, consultants, and entrepreneurs will still be puzzling over this odd tale of brand mismanagement and PR incompetence. And they will recall, too, the epigraph with which the Parker case study began: Whom the gods would destroy, they first marinate in Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
Now that it is known that the new owners of the Wine Advocate are not “totally independent” of the wine trade but are instead totally immersed in it, some people are expressing disappointment in Parker—they believe that he has betrayed his legacy by selling the Wine Advocate to members of the trade. Sure, it is a little jarring to discover that a critic who spent his career preaching the importance of keeping one’s distance from the trade has sold his business to a wine merchant. But hypocrisy has been running thick in Monkton for years now, so this news shouldn’t have come as a complete shock to anyone. And let’s be real: while I am sure that Parker would prefer to have found a different buyer, someone not affiliated with the trade and who could be trusted to uphold the Wine Advocate’s editorial integrity, this was the offer that came his way, and I suspect it was the only offer that materialized. And given a choice between a multimillion-dollar payday and nothing, Parker made a choice that I think an overwhelming majority of us would have made.
There is an interesting thread over on Wineberserkers.com about a Frank Cornelissen wine that turned out to be hideously spoiled. Cornelissen is an icon of the natural wine movement, not least because he doesn’t add any sulfur dioxide to his wines. It appears the zero-added sulfur policy, possibly combined with less-than-perfect shipping conditions or storage, yielded the microbial disaster described on Berserkers. Without meaning to further incur the wrath of natural wine advocates, the Berserkers discussion prompts the following observation: many of the people championing these wines—journalists, sommeliers—do a lot of their drinking for free. They can afford to be more tolerant of defective bottles because they are often not the ones paying for them. The wine at issue in the Berserkers thread runs around $40 a bottle. That’s not a cheap wine, and while the retailer presumably took it back, the point is this: when it comes to these fragile, easily spoiled wines, the risk/reward calculus for a regular consumer is very different than it is for a wine writer or sommelier who is drinking on someone else’s dime. Just sayin’….