Friday, February 13, 2015

Okay, so I may have been wrong about Alice

Some years ago, back in the days when At First Glass was well known enough for nice people to send me free stuff, I got a copy of Alice Feiring's latest book. It was Naked Wine: Letting Grapes Do What Comes Naturally. I thought the book was a pretentious mess -- who quotes French winemakers who quote Japanese biodynamic "farming masters," and why do New York editors lap this up? -- and I tiptoed around the effrontery of saying so. My little review was kind of a pretentious mess also.

However, I must say that lately I have been reconsidering Alice Feiring. Her whole professional life in wine writing can be summed up, I think, in the subtitle of her first book. This was The Battle for Wine and Love, -- or How I Saved the World from Parkerization. She may be on to something. In saving the world from "Parkerization," she is talking about standing athwart, so to speak, the railroad track of the business of wine reviews, facing the successive oncoming locomotives which are the 90-and-above point scoring system, and yelling to anyone who will listen stop!

Before standing and yelling alongside her, we must delve back into history a bit. Robert Parker launched the 90 point system, really it's a 100 point system but only ratings in the 90s matter much because they're (oddly) so common, and so of course it reflects his taste in wine, especially reds. He likes them New World style -- a cognomen that has had to be invented, precisely and circularly, because of what he likes -- a style reflective of the hot climate ripeness possible in California: dense, inky-black, loaded with blackberry/"cassis"/plum compote/fill in the blank pie-filling fruit flavors, and maybe topped off with a generous drizzle of caramel-butter-licorice-chocolate, which tends to come from wines' fermenting and/or aging in oak barrels. Yeast choices can also do it, along with permitted bacterial growths that change a wine's acids from harsh (malic) to soft (lactic, milky). All of this contributes to the unnatural manipulation that Alice objects to. Which is why she wants her wines "naked," in other words made from grapes crushed, allowed to ferment, and the juice bottled.

"If he pours it into his glass and then can't see through it, he gives it 100 points," groused a former colleague of mine. The main objection to Parker's influence can be summed up in the word, well, Parkerization. He is said to have changed the way all red wines are made, especially in cool-climate, difficult-to-ripen Europe. Winemakers want those 90 point scores, and the sales resulting, the way writers want a New York editor. The way to get them is to make wine Parker likes: Chiantis with no traditional sour horsiness; inky-black Bordeaux with tannins soft enough to make them "drinkable now;" newly thick and jam-red, as opposed to gleaming clear and tawny-delicate, Spanish Riojas. Yeast and bacterial tinkerings in the cellar, mentioned above, will help accomplish this, along with the planting of muscular, "international" grape varieties in unlikely places and the hauling in of ripe grapes from anywhere in a country, regardless of old traditions of terroir or place. Consult Alice, here. What's being objected to as a result is the erasing of memories, choices, variety, history. I suspect that legendary Michael Broadbent had these overmanipulated, over-"extracted" wines in mind when he wrote, in Vintage Wine, briefly about "the global red."  

We'll pause just for a minute to take a look at Robert Parker's biography, and to note that, after all, the bigger the target, the easier it is to take aim at. (This is a general statement, not meant to imply that our last-mentioned personality, Mr. Broadbent, would take aim at anybody.) If Parker did start out basically as a consumer advocate, and if his work tasting, writing, and scoring in Wine Advocate has caused winemakers all over the world to haul up their shorts and produce oceans of consistently high quality product that makes people feel they are getting their money's worth, then he is a giant in the wine world for a reason. Goodness knows how many jobs he has created, too, in his role as bellows to the furnace you might say.

Still, after forty years of his influence, we return to the problem of "one man's palate," as another former colleague of mine groused in a different lifetime. Yesterday I tasted half a dozen red wines. We started with a good, fresh, fruity but correctly-barnyard-y (in my opinion) pinot noir, followed by a reserve Oregon pinot noir, a Spanish garnacha, and an Australian shiraz. The first pinot noir was the best of the bunch, but the next three pours were all mortarlike and without flavor. All, more to the point, interchangeable. They all had 90 and better reviews, from Parker I recollect.

In sum, they were global reds. And they were fawned over by almost all the colleagues present. Nobody liked the first, inexpensive, light pinot noir. That's another problem with the Parkerization of the world. If you are in the industry you don't dare disagree with him, or else you're a rube, and so much of this business is about fragile egos. Everyone wants to be perceived as instinctively appreciating the best, but also as already knowing enough to agree with trained minds. And Parker trains all minds.

Which leads me back to Alice. May I call her Alice? Her books have a crazy-aunt-in-a-feather-boa feel, and of course she's a dutifully lefty global-warmer -- that's how you get a New York editor --  but at least she is out there searching for wines that are not red mortar in a glass, "92 in Spectator, Parker gave it a 93. Absolutely beautiful." And everyone nods. "Beeaauu-ti-ful."

Here is something that should be different. Item, 2003 Chateau Barde-Haut, Saint Emilion Grand Cru, i.e., a Bordeaux heavy on the merlot grape. Retail, on sale, about $22. Like Bordeaux in general, it seems to have an interior core that you almost eat, as opposed to the sprawling blackberry-and-caramel-fudge, Parkerized bonbons which coat the tongue and go away. I do think, though, that it is nearing the end of its active life. It was closing in on vinegar status even the very next day after opening.

But I could be wrong -- about the interior core, not-a-bonbon thing. We have already said Parkerization has made great inroads in forty years. Who is to know what, now, is or is not a global red? Parker gave this one an 88; Wine Spectator a 90.

What would Alice say? More importantly, what is Alice finding and drinking now? You may consult her Feiring Line, provided you come straight back home.   

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