Sunday, 26 January 2014

The Wine Critic's Critic: Robert Parker, The wine industry’s Godfather. 88/100 points


"Have a look at the banner at the top of his site advertising the “Grand World Tour”. He is about to swoop in, like a vinous-breasted eagle, to a venue near you headlining at events called ‘Gala Hedonist’s Dinner’, ‘Up Close and Personal’ (oh hello) and ‘Masterclass’. These wine events aren’t for the faint hearted – the food will be rich, the wines rare and expensive and the prices high. Good on those (or me, maybe, possibly if I can squeeze the expense past my scrutinising wife) who have the good fortune to attend".


Venerated by his followers across the world, he is the omnipresent, all-powerful Godfather of the industry. His large, stuttering frame towers over it like a monument, his influence undiminished and his status rarely challenged since he made his mark in 1982. In spite of his elevated position, he hasn’t historically sought a high profile even if he’s had one. He has slowly and discreetly built his status (and undoubted financial success) on the back of painstaking independence, commitment and attention to detail. Mario Puzo (the author of that masterpiece The Godfather) would have appreciated Parker’s stature and influence.

Some say that Parker pioneered the whole wine-critic industry. That he was responsible for raising the public’s interest in wine and putting many producers on the map, and he certainly has a point of view which interests wine lovers the world over. He is also a man who clearly loves wine and the people who make it. This passion comes across in spades and a reason why I have respect for him and affection for his site.

But he is also a figure who polarizes opinion. There are many who dislike his influence, tasting notes and scores, and who feel they have a damaging effect on the industry.

Have a read of his recently published article on January 18th when he explodes into a stream of pent-up vitriol against the “perpetration of myths, half-truths, innuendoes and at times outright falsehoods”. The article is the literary equivalent of an inebriated wino after a long day's tasting, ‘wind-milling’ with both arms against all those who have challenged and offended his way of thinking over the last 35 years. By the way, I do think it is odd that he boasts about his “35 years of wine-tasting experience” when he is 66 years old (i.e. 53% of his life). What was he doing for the other 31 years? I am 46 and have been drinking wine for about 30 of those (i.e. 65%), starting with Blue Nun back in the 80’s when I was growing up in Bath, UK. Does that make me a greater expert than him? Yes, I believe it does…

As this article and some of his tasting notes illustrate, he is often criticized for the absoluteness of his opinions and his unwavering self-confidence which have an undue effect on how people make wine. I hear that some of the ovine Bordelais producers fawn obsequiously (allegedly) before the Parker brand when he or one of his entourage comes into town, such is their subjugation to his eponymous business. This is clearly not Parker’s fault but one of the unintended consequences of his success.

His (unintended) influence on wine prices can be significant and there are (allegedly) growers who alter the flavor of their wines to win better scores (destemming, cold maceration, over-extraction, excessive oak) and therefore gain higher prices. Some believe that Parker has a habit for marking styles of certain wines higher than others (e.g. big ripe, oaked Rhones compared to a lighter style of Loire red).

The term “Parkerisation” of wines has been coined which is a term to describe how wines have been stylized to suit Parker’s palate which creates very polished, standardised flavours across the world, weakening a wine’s identity and place of origin. Some feel that he has turned a symbol of individuality, community and culture into an insipid, bland, homogenized, homeless product.

I am sure that some myths about Parker are embellished. I am also sure that he never set out to achieve this or fame or fortune. He set out to transform the whole wine critic approach because he felt critics were biased and benefiting from the largesse of the industry.

It was Parker who started writing extensively about wine without an interest in selling it and he created the 100-point scale which is now used widely by may critics. He took the contrary view about Bordeaux’s 1982 vintage which he rated highly and he proved to be correct.

His and his team’s output is prolific. They produce an issue every 2 months which consists of 2500+ wine reviews and tasting notes from wines right across the world. Their notes are extensive as is his knowledge of the regions and growers. This accumulation of knowledge must mean that Parker’s site has to be the most extensive database on earth.

That his site and information source are impressive is not in doubt. What I do question is the ability of his team to carry on the mantle and influence which Parker has built and exerted over 30 years. Like any business (particularly knowledge-based ones) or family with a dominant figurehead, transition to a new leader will be very difficult and fraught with risk. Parker is a product of his time and when he goes, then his brand can’t possibly retain its exalted status and influence, can it? I don’t think people place nearly as much importance to the opinions of his colleagues’ notes (this is based on anecdotal evidence rather than anything scientific) and this could reduce further as he grows older and his influence in the business wanes. It would take 30 years and the repeat of a unique (by definition, not possible) set of circumstances for another wine critic to achieve what Parker has achieved. I don’t think it isn’t going to happen.

Parker has recently sold part of his business to external investors and brought on some new reviewers, presumably with a view to scale the business, reduce the reliance on Parker and make some money for themselves. Call me a cynic but having worked at the hard edge of business for nearly 25 years, that is what investors will want, whatever they say now.

It remains to be seen how successful this strategy will be, and whether people will keep re-subscribing as Parker’s contribution reduces, or whether they will have to change the business model. What the site does have it a huge database of old vintages tasted and written about by Parker, and these will always be of interest to a serious wine lover. At $99 pa, it is pretty good value.

Have a look at the banner at the top of his site advertising the “Grand World Tour”. He is about to swoop in, like a vinous-breasted eagle, to a venue near you headlining at events called ‘Gala Hedonist’s Dinner’, ‘Up Close and Personal’ (oh hello) and ‘Masterclass’. These wine events aren’t for the faint hearted – the food will be rich, the wines rare and expensive and the prices high. Good on those (or me, maybe, possibly if I can squeeze the expense past my scrutinising wife) who have the good fortune to attend. 

Two things strike me from reading their website:

1.     These have the finger prints of Parker’s new investors all over them. Extending the ‘Parker brand’ and maximizing revenue will be right at the forefront of their minds.

2.     Parker must have a seriously strong constitution, able to withstand enormous quantities of rich food and fine wine. Each stage reads like a month-long, continuous bachelor party. He will need a serious detox after this tour.

The irony of Parker is that while he set out to stop the largesse of the industry by being the independent ‘voice of the consumer’, he has inadvertently had some opposite effects. He has become such a powerful critic his high scores raise prices, making the producers more money. This is turn makes them unaffordable to the majority of the very consumers Parker set out to protect in the first place.

He clearly didn’t set out to achieve this and he guards his independence and principles fiercely but it is what the economists would call an ‘unintended consequence’. Nothing in life is simple is it?

Whilst many complain about his influence, I still very much enjoy his website and reading about some of the greatest wines the world has ever known. I love his passion and communication and writing style because he makes me want to taste the wines and visit the growers. Conversely to JancisRobinson.com, I do spend a lot of time surfing his web site.

In addition to his database, his site offers daily wine news (via a link to winebusiness.com), weekly wine buys, best buys and wine education. The also uses video to communicate its knowledge although this is still fairly unsophisticated and not at the level of jamessuckling.com.

His tasting notes do use some flowery language but they are clear and easy to read. Like Molesworth, even if the writer is guilty of over writing, they are easy on the ear. Here is an example of Beaucastel’s Chateauneuf du Pape Roussanne Vieilles Vignes, 2009:

It is a staggering wine of extraordinary complexity and richness. Aromas of rose petals, exotic fruits such as mango and nectarine intermixed with peach marmalade, honeysuckle and crushed pineapple emerge from this full-bodied white along with good acidity and lavish amounts of fruit and glycerin. It offers a nearly out of body wine tasting experience.

Here are my scores for Robert and robertparker.com:

Robert Parker and erobertparker.com
Generalist web site suitable for the trade, expert amateur and enthusiastic amateur.

Criteria
Score
Comments
Web site look, functionality and ease of use: up to 15 points

13
Very impressive. It has some useful distinct features such as bulletin boards, results of public tastings and restaurant reviews.

Ability to inform the consumer (keep them up to date on news and events): up to 15 points

13
The site linked to winebusiness.com to provide this information on a regular basis.

Ability to educate the consumer (provide depth and breadth of content): up to 15 points

13
The site has excellent depth and breadth of content. It is right up there with the best sites although its use of video is quite weak. Not quite as strong as WS or Jancis for breadth. Due to the limited time I have read them, I am also not yet convinced by the quality of the new critics who have joined Parker recently.

Ability to entertain the consumer (so the information and education is easy
to assimilate and enjoy): up to 15 points

12
This site is more about educating and informing than entertaining although Parker’s writing style is excellent and easy to read. It uses all the media (articles, blogs, videos) in a simple way so is capable of communicating effectively. It could improve a lot on its use of videos – quite limited and not very slick.

Quality of tasting notes: up to 15 points

14
Parker writes very eloquently and has incredible knowledge.

Overall impression: ability to communicate with target audience, using both online and print media: up to 25 points

23
It is a very impressive site and source of information.

Total
88
A grade


The Wine Critic's Critic: Jancis Robinson, The wine industry’s Doyenne and Head Girl. 86/100 points



"It is the site which, on the face of it, nearly has it all, and is worthy of A*. Yet it doesn’t leave me satisfied. I have thought about this site more than any of the others because I have struggled to solve the puzzle – how do I reconcile its apparent excellence with my disappointment? After all, it can’t be me who is wrong….

Respected across the world for her wine knowledge, she is the Doyenne of the wine industry - intelligent, organized, keen, serious, thorough, conservative, slightly self-important and a bit of a goodie-goodie. So orderly and correct is her site, you feel like you are being shown around a Convent by its Head Girl. But what JancisRobinson.com really needs is a smidgeon of decadence, moral laxity and self-indulgence - think cigars, Cuban bars, gambling, booze, gossip, scandal, anything to alleviate the boredom. Or may be it just needs some simple love and soul.

The stand-out attributes of JancisRobinson.com (and Burghound for that matter) are its wealth of knowledge but also its general boringness. Both sites are certainly examples of substance over style, which, let’s face it, is rare in this world of gloss and self-publicity. Their sites are on-line text books, a place to gather facts quickly and leave rather than linger to seek inspiration.


I always think of Voltaire’s famous quote when perusing Jancis’ web site: “Le secret d'ennuyer est celui de tout dire” (the secret of being a bore is to tell everything). You see, knowledge alone isn’t enough for me so this isn’t a site which tempts me into staying long.

Everything seems to be in order. It is very well laid out and organized, revealing a huge source of vinous information. Jancis and her team (which she rather self-importantly calls ‘Team JR’) generate prolific output – the site provides some global coverage and does print, web and (poor quality) video. There are news, views, features, tasting notes, maps, an events diary, access to the Oxford companion, expertise, information on food and wine stores, restaurants, discussion forums and recommendations.

It is the site which, on the face of it, nearly has it all, and is worthy of A*. Yet it doesn’t leave me satisfied. I have thought about this site more than any of the others because I have struggled to solve the puzzle – how do I reconcile its apparent excellence with my disappointment? After all, it can’t be me who is wrong…

I have concluded that for all its wisdom and knowledge, what it lacks is passion, colour and humour in most of the writing compared to many of the other wine sites. And it provides little insight into the people who make the wine. I will get accused of generalising but this is my overriding impression after years of reading Jancis.Robinson.com and related articles.

Many articles and notes are distilled into a faultless presentation of facts and conclusions, like a technically perfect but dull exam answer. Or perhaps a better analogy would be a faultless but utterly uninteresting wine. I am not after quantified, laboratory-standard accuracy or perfect results and opinions; but I do want to be seduced by the subject matter. I want some passion, wit and controversy in the writing because how the knowledge is conveyed is as important at the knowledge itself. The writing is often just too factual and wooden. Others may like this clipped style but I don’t. I know this is my style preference which determines this very subjective point of view, but this is what I think.

What do I mean by passion? I mean people who, because of how they write tasting notes, can get my mouth watering, drawing me momentarily into their sensory world, allowing me to experience what they experience regularly. Someone who can get me excited about a subject by sheer force of personality, affection for the subject, writing style and knowledge, and make me want to travel to the wine regions they are visiting and describing. Knowledge alone can’t do this and that is why JancisRobinson.com doesn’t ‘do it’ for me. Conversely, Parker, Molesworth and others do.

However, I do like the look of Alex Hunt, one of her contributors. His rapid fire, more irreverent and pugnacious writing style is much more appealing than much of the other tedious and bland stuff on the site, including Yellow Arrow’s, I mean Alder Yarrow’s. With the exception of a few of his articles, I can’t get past paragraph two. His writing can be insufferably dull and stiff, just like a starched white, button-downed shirt worn by a lawyer in a John Grisham novel. Please oh please provide some more interesting insight, wit, colour, passion… anything to relieve the boredom.

When I read the sites, articles and tasting notes of James Molesworth/WS or Robert Parker or Jamie Goode or John Livingstone-Learmonth, their writing seduces me into wanting to taste the wines and visit the growers, but I never feel that with JancisRobinson.com. I look to the writer to reveal the life and soul of the wines. I am as interested in the context (stories, history, food, people, sport – their whole culture) of wine as much as what is in the glass because this conveys so much more to me than the simple recital of intricate flavours and aromas. Yes the latter are important but I need more.

Jancis’ site is centred on tasting notes, and while there is some information on growers, it isn’t enough or particularly easy to find. Compare it for example with Parker’s site where the grower information is everywhere and can be found alongside the tasting notes. Or James Molesworth/WS where the producers feature as much as the wines.

Some will disagree but the role of the wine critic, in my view, is not just to educate and inform but to entertain too, and JancisRobinson.com doesn’t do this for me. Parker’s site and James Molesworth/WS are full of knowledge but they evince passion and style as well.

Jancis – please bring more passion, humour, controversy, irreverence and colour to balance your undoubted expertise.

But trying to put aside my subjective preferences (like a good critic tries to do), if it is knowledge and information you are after, it is an impressive site. She clearly runs an impressive operation and has a very knowledgeable team supporting her.

Her tasting notes are quite pithy but understandable: Here’s an example of one:

René Rostaing, Côte Blonde 2009 Côte Rôtie
Scented and concentrated. Very fresh and pointed. For the moment very youthful indeed. A little inky on the end. For Rostaing this is quite dramatic! It will need quite a while.

Here are my scores for Jancis and jancisrobinson.com:

Jancis Robinson and jancisrobinson.com
Generalist web site and publication, suitable for all consumer groups but notably the trade and expert enthusiast.

Criteria
Score
Comments
Web site look, functionality and ease of use: up to 15 points

13
The web site is a very good example for any consumer-based site. It is well designed and works very well. It is suitable for all consumer groups. However, it is considerably weaker on video that WS and James Suckling.

Ability to inform the consumer (keep them up to date on news and events): up to 15 points

14
Very regular updates across a wide variety of topics

Ability to educate the consumer (provide depth and breadth of content): up to 15 points

13
The site has excellent depth and breadth of content. It is right up there with the best sites although it could use video better.

Ability to entertain the consumer (so the information and education is easy
to assimilate and enjoy): up to 15 points

11
This site is more about educating and informing than entertaining. It uses all the media (articles, blogs, videos) in a simple way so is capable of communicating effectively even if the writing lacks colour. It could improve a lot on its use of videos – quite limited and not slick.

Quality of tasting notes: up to 15 points

13
Jancis and her team write clearly and concisely but it lacks the evocative, purple prose of Parker and Molesworth

Overall impression: ability to communicate with target audience, using both online and print media: up to 25 points

22
It is an impressive site and source of information even though it lacks some love and soul.

Total
86
A grade



Sunday, 22 December 2013

The Wine Critic's Critic: James Molesworth (Wine Spectator): The Wine Industry's Alchemist. 92/100 points


'His tasting notes are the literary equivalent of a sugar rush (admit it, we all love that feeling), words gushing from his frontal lobe as he disappears into a vinous-fuelled orgy only to reappear having described every fruit known to Del Monte. You can tell that he just loves wine and the people who make it'.

I have a good idea what James drinks because I read the WS, but I don’t know what his magic potion is. Whatever it is, I want some. He has the olfactory receptors of a great white shark, able to detect, for example, 1 part Jonagold apple to a 1,000,000 square hectares of New York orchard. He is the sensory alchemist who can turn a standard Cote du Rhone into a core of crushed plum, linzar torte and Lapsang souchong tea. He has the vivid imagination of Sid Barrett (former singer of Pink Floyd) on interstellar overdrive.


James is a Senior Editor for the Wine Spectator covering Bordeaux, Finger Lakes of New York, Loire Valley, Rhône Valley, South Africa. I write about both him and the Wine Spectator here, and score them together.

Eric Asimov and others have criticized critics like James Molesworth (and other critics) for using words in tasting notes which, in their view, are essentially meaningless, exaggerated in their jargon and contain obscure references. Some believe he and others are guilty of overwriting, deploying hyperbole and reaching for superlatives in his notes.

I don’t care what the others say. I love reading James’ work not only because I like his prose but most importantly because his notes seduce me into trying the wines and visiting the growers. I look at his writing like the lyrics of a song – they may be, sometimes, obscure but the singer gets away with it because the overall sound and melody are very easy on the ear. Some of my favourite singers (Van Morrison, Talk Talk, David Bowie,…..) regularly wrote and still write obscure lyrics but I love what they do nevertheless.

To James, his tasting notes are the verbal expression of his sensory perceptions and these are underpinned not just by his knowledge but also by his passion, notably for the Rhone.

Some people read critics’ notes just for their educational value but I look for more than just opinions, knowledge and experience. I also want to feel the critic’s love and passion for the subject matter. I want him or her to draw me momentarily into their sensory world and let me experience what they can experience regularly. The role of the wine critic, in my view, is not just to educate and inform but to entertain too. For me, James does this with great success.

By informing, educating and entertaining the world about wine, the end game of the critic has to be to encourage more wine drinking (responsible of course) otherwise what is the point?

I love James’ passion – it is one of the defining human characteristics of successful people and can paper over any cracks. I use it all the time to paper over mine.

Here are some examples of James’ tasting notes from the WS:

This white cuts a bold swath, delivering flavors of dried Jonagold apple, fig, creamed pear, hazelnut and persimmon. Creamy and lush, held together by a finely beaded spine of acidity, with strong minerality kicking in on the lengthy finish. Showy and suave, yet balanced.

This is gorgeous, with lush linzer torte, boysenberry pâte de fruit and plum sauce notes that captivate, while anise, Lapsang souchong tea and singed apple wood notes fill in the background. The long finish is fleshy and driven.

Ripe and lush, but very pure, with gorgeous yellow apple, white peach and Cavaillon melon fruit aromas and flavors, lined with honeysuckle, heather and quinine and sailing through the long, stone- and mineral-framed finish. A really beautiful combination of weight and purity.
On the WS site, he uses video very effectively covering all his areas and includes interesting topics such as food and wine matches, differences in types of wines (e.g. Gigondas and Chateauneuf du Pape, Tavel and Provence roses, Cote Blonde and Cote Brune on Cote Rotie), discussions with growers and tastings). These excellent videos and they are very intelligible to the viewer.

The WS accepts wine advertising and some purists would argue that this affects their ability to score objectively. I don’t subscribe to this view. I think they have a huge vested interest in ensuring their readers believe their integrity and I would be amazed if commercial interests affected editorial judgement. Money doesn’t always corrupt – it can be very powerful at holding commercial interests to account as well.

Here are my scores for James and WS:













Read on. The Wine Critic's Critic: Jancis Robinson and Robert Parker will feature next, after Christmas.