Parker's Wine Buyer's Guide
by Robert M. Parker Jr.
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Producers who care only about making wine as fast as possible and collecting their accounts receivable quickly also have many things in common. While they turn out neutral, vapid, mediocre wines, they are also believers in huge crop yields, with considerable fertilization to promote massive crops, as large as the vineyard can render (6 or more tons per acre, compared to modest yields of 3 tons per acre). Their philosophy is that the vineyard is a manufacturing plant and cost efficiency dictates that production be maximized. They rush their wine into bottle as quickly as possible in order to get paid. They believe in processing wine, such as centrifuging it initially, then practicing multiple fining and filtration procedures, particularly a denuding sterile filtration. This guarantees that the wine is lifeless but stable, a goal where the ability to withstand temperature extremes and stand upright on a grocery store's shelf is given priority over giving the consumer a beverage of pleasure. These wineries harvest earlier than anybody else because they are unwilling to take any risk, delegating all questions regarding wine to their oenologists, who, they know, have as their objectives security and stability, which is at conflict with the consumer's goal of finding joy in wine.
The effect of excessive manipulation of wine, particularly overly aggressive fining and filtration, is dramatic. It destroys a wine's bouquet as well as its ability to express its terroir and varietal character. It also mutes the vintage's character. Fining and filtration can be lightly done, causing only minor damage, but most wines produced in the New World (California, Australia, and South America in particular), and most bulk wines produced in Europe are sterile-filtered. This procedure requires numerous pre-filtrations to get the wines clean enough to pass through a micropore membrane filter. This system of wine stability and clarification strips, eviscerates, and denudes a wine of much of its character.
Some wines can suffer such abuse with less damage. Thick, tannic, concentrated, Syrah- and Cabernet Sauvignon-based wines may even survive these wine lobotomies, diminished in aromatic and flavor dimension but still alive. Wines such as Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are destroyed in the process.
Thanks to a new generation of producers, particularly in France, aided by a number of specialist importers from America, there has been a movement against unnecessary fining and filtration. One only has to look at the extraordinary success enjoyed by such American importers as Kermit Lynch and Robert Kacher to realize how much consumer demand exists for producers to bottle a natural, unfiltered, uncompromised wine that is a faithful representation of its vineyard and vintage. Most serious wine consumers do not mind not being able to drink the last half ounce of wine because of sediment. They know this sediment means they are getting a flavorful, authentic, unprocessed wine that is much more representative than one that has been stripped at bottling.
Other small importers who have followed the leads of Lynch and Kacher include Peter Weygandt of Weygandt-Metzler, Unionville, PA; Neal Rosenthal Select Vineyards, New York, NY; Eric Solomon of European Cellars, New York, NY; Don Quattlebaum of New Castle Imports, Myrtle Beach, SC; Fran Kysela of Kysela Père et Fils of Winchester, VA; Martine Saunier of Martine's Wines, San Rafael, CA; North Berkeley Imports, Berkeley, CA; Jorgé Ordonez, Dedham, MA; Leonardo LoCascio, Hohokus, NJ; Dan Phillips, Oxnard, CA; Ted Schrauth, West Australia; John Larchet, Australia; Jeffrey Davies, West Nyack, NY; and Alain Junguenet, Watchung, NJ; to name some of the best known. They often insist that their producers not filter those wines shipped to the United States, resulting in a richer, more age-worthy wine being sold in America than elsewhere in the world. Even some of our country's largest importers, most notably Kobrand, Inc., in New York City, are encouraging producers to move toward more gentle and natural bottling techniques.
I am certain there would have been an even more powerful movement to bottle wines naturally with minimal clarification if the world's wine press had examined the effect of excessive fining and filtration. I find it difficult to criticize many American wine writers since the vast majority of them are part-timers. Few have either the time or resources to taste the same wines before and after bottling. Yet I remain disappointed that many of our most influential writers and publications have remained strangely silent, particularly in view of the profound negative impact filtration can have on the quality of fine wine. The English wine writing corps, which includes many veteran, full-time wine writers, has an appalling record on this issue, especially in view of the fact that many of them make it a practice to taste before and after bottling. For those who care about the quality of wine and the preservation of the character of the vineyard, vintage, and varietal, the reluctance of so many writers to criticize the wine industry undermines the entire notion of wine appreciation.
Even a wine writer of the stature of Hugh Johnson comes out strongly on the side of processed, neutral wines that can be safely shipped 12 months of the year. Readers may want to consider Johnson's and his coauthor, James Halliday's, comments in their book, The Vintner's Art -- How Great Wines Are Made. Halliday is an Australian wine writer and winery owner and Hugh Johnson may be this century's most widely read wine author. In their book they chastise the American importer Kermit Lynch for his "romantic ideals" which they describe as "increasingly impractical." Johnson and Halliday assert that "The truth is that a good fifty percent of those artisan burgundies and Rhones are bacterial time bombs." Their plea for compromised and standardized wines is supported by the following observation: "The hard reality is that many restaurants and many consumers simply will not accept sediment." This may have been partially true in America 20 years ago, but today, the consumer not only wants but demands a natural wine. Moreover, the wine consumer understands that sediment in a bottle of fine wine is a healthy sign. The fact that both writers argue that modern-day winemaking and commercial necessity require that wines be shipped 12 months a year and be durable enough to withstand months on retailers' shelves in both cold and hot temperature conditions is highly debatable. America now has increasing numbers of responsible merchants, importers, and restaurant sommeliers who go to great lengths to guarantee the client a healthy bottle of wine that has not been abused. Astonishingly, Johnson and Halliday conclude that consumers cannot tell the difference as to whether a wine has been filtered or not! In summarizing their position, they state, "...but leave the wine for 1, 2, or 3 months (one cannot tell how long the recovery process will take), and it is usually impossible to tell the filtered from the nonfiltered wine, provided the filtration at bottling was skillfully carried out." After 14 years of conducting such tastings, I find this statement not only unbelievable but also insupportable! Am I to conclude that all of the wonderful wines I have tasted from cask that were subsequently damaged by vigorous fining and filtration were bottled by incompetent people who did not know how to filter? Am I to think that the results of the extensive comparative tastings (usually blind) that I have done of the same wine, filtered versus unfiltered, were bogus? Are the enormous aromatic, flavor, textural, and qualitative differences that are the result of vigorous clarification techniques figments of my imagination? Astoundingly, the wine industry's reluctance to accept responsibility for preserving all that the best vineyards and vintages can achieve is excused rather than condemned.
If excessive fining and filtration are not bad enough, consider the overzealous addition of citric and tartaric acids employed by Australia and California oenologists to perk up their wines. You know the feeling -- you open a bottle of Australia or California Chardonnay and not only is there no bouquet (because it was sterile filtered) but tasting the wine is like biting into a fresh lemon or lime. It is not enjoyable. What you are experiencing is the result of the misguided philosophy among New World winemakers to add too much acidity as a cheap but fatal life insurance policy for their wines. Because they are unwilling to reduce their yields, because they are unwilling to assume any risk, and because they see winemaking as nothing more than a processing technique, acidity is generously added. It does serve as an antibacterial, antioxidant agent, thus helping to keep the wine fresh. But those who acidify the most are usually those who harvest appallingly high crop yields. Thus, there is little flavor to protect! After 6-12 months of bottle age, what little fruit is present fades, and the consumer is left with a skeleton of sharp, shrill acid levels, alcohol, wood (if utilized), and no fruit -- an utterly reprehensible way of making wine.
I do not object to the use of these techniques for bulk and jug wines, which the consumer is buying for value, or because of brand name recognition. But for any producer to sell a wine as a handcrafted, artisan product at $20 or more a bottle, the adherence to such philosophies as excessive acidification, fining, and filtration is shameful. Anyone who tells you that excessive acidification, fining, and filtration does not damage a wine is either a fool or a liar.
The wine industry does little about this practice, being content merely to see its wines placed on a restaurant's list. But the consumer should revolt and avoid those restaurants that charge exorbitant wine prices, no matter how sublime the cuisine. This is nothing more than legitimized mugging of the consumer.
Fortunately, things are slightly better today than they were a decade ago, as some restaurant owners are now regarding wine as an integral part of the meal and not merely as a device used to increase the bill.
Several years ago I remember being deluged with telephone calls from a man wanting me to have dinner with him and tour his private cellar. After several months of resisting, I finally succumbed. A very prominent businessman, he had constructed an impressive cellar beneath his sprawling home. It was enormous and immaculately kept, with state-of-the-art humidity and temperature controls. I suspect it contained in excess of ten thousand bottles. While there were cases of such thoroughbreds as Pétrus, Lafite-Rothschild, Mouton-Rothschild, and rare vintages of the great red burgundies such as Romanée-Conti and La Tache, to my astonishment there were also hundreds of cases of 10- and 15-year-old Beaujolais, Pouilly-Fuissé, Dolcetto, and California Chardonnays -- all wines that should have been drunk during their first 4 or 5 years of life. I diplomatically suggested that he should inventory his cellar as there seemed to be a number of wines that mandated immediate consumption.
About the time I spotted the fifth or sixth case of what was clearly 10-year-old Beaujolais vinegar, I began to doubt the sincerity of my host's enthusiasm for wine. These unthinkable doubts (I was much more naive then than I am now) were amplified at dinner. As we entered the sprawling kitchen and dining room complex, he proudly announced that neither he nor his wife actually drank wine, and then asked if I would care for a glass of mineral water, iced tea, or, if I preferred, a bottle of wine. On my sorrow-filled drive home that evening, I lamented the fact that I had not opted for the mineral water. For when I made the mistake of requesting wine with the meal, my host proceeded to grab a bottle of wine that one of his friends suggested should be consumed immediately. It was a brown-colored, utterly repugnant, senile Bordeaux from perhaps the worst vintage in the last 25 years, 1969. Furthermore, the château chosen was a notorious underachiever from the famous commune of Pauillac. Normally the wine he chose does not merit buying in a good vintage, much less a pathetic one. I shall never forget my host opening the bottle and saying, "Well, Bob, this wine sure smells good."
Regrettably, this Non-Drinking Collector continues to buy large quantities of wine, not for investment and obviously not for drinking. The local wine merchants tell me his type is not rare. To him, a collection of wine is like a collection of crystal, art, sculpture, or china, something to be admired, to be shown off, but never, ever to be consumed.
More ostentatious by far is the collector-spitter, who thrives on gigantic tastings where fifty, sixty, sometimes even seventy or eighty vintages of great wines, often from the same châteaux, can be "tasted." Important members of the wine press are invited (no charge, of course) in the hope that this wine happening will receive a major article in the New York or Los Angeles Times, and the collector's name will become recognized and revered in the land of winedom. These collector-spitters relish rubbing elbows with famous proprietors and telling their friends, "Oh, I'll be at Château Lafite-Rothschild next week to taste all of the château's wines between 1870 and 1987. Sorry you can't be there." I have, I confess, participated in several of these events, and have learned from the exercise of trying to understand them that their primary purpose is to feed the sponsor's enormous ego, and often the château's ego as well.
I am not against academic tastings where a limited number of serious wine enthusiasts sit down to taste twenty or thirty different wines (usually young ones), because that is a manageable number that both neophytes and connoisseurs can generally grasp. But to taste sixty or more rare and monumental vintages at an 8- or 12-hour tasting marathon is carrying excess to its extreme. Most simply, what seems to happen at these tastings is that much of the world's greatest, rarest, and most expensive wines are spit out. No wine taster I have ever met could conceivably remain sober, even if only the greatest wines were swallowed. I can assure you, there is only remorse in spitting out 1929 or 1945 Mouton-Rothschild.
Other recollections of these events have also long troubled me. I vividly remember one tasting held at a very famous restaurant in Los Angeles where a number of compelling bottles from one of France's greatest estates were opened. Many of the wines were exhilarating. Yet, whether it was the otherworldly 1961 or opulent 1947, the reactions I saw on the faces of those forty or so people, who had each paid several thousand dollars to attend, made me wonder whether it was fifty different vintages of France's greatest wines we were tasting or fifty bottles of Pepto-Bismol. Fortunately, the organizer did appear to enjoy the gathering and appreciate the wines, but among the guests I never once saw a smile, or any enthusiasm or happiness in the course of this extraordinary 12-hour tasting.
I remember another marathon tasting held in France by one of Europe's leading collector-spitters, which lasted all day and much of the night. There were more than ninety legendary wines served, and midway through the afternoon I was reasonably certain there was not a sober individual remaining except for the chef and his staff. By the time the magnum of 1929 Mouton-Rothschild was served (one of the century's greatest wines), I do not think there was a guest left who was competent enough to know whether he was drinking claret or Beaujolais, myself included.
I have also noticed at these tastings that many collector-spitters did not even know that a bottle was corked (had the smell of moldy cardboard and was defective) or that a bottle was oxidized and undrinkable, adding truth to the old saying that money does not always buy good taste. Of course, most of these tastings are media happenings designed to stroke the host's vanity. All too frequently they undermine the principle that wine is a beverage of pleasure, and that is my basic regret.
The third type of collector, the investor, is motivated by the possibility of reselling the wines for profit. Eventually, most or all of these wines return to the marketplace, and much of it wends its way into the hands of serious consumers who share it with their spouses or good friends. Of course they often must pay dearly for the privilege, but wine is not the only product that falls prey to such manipulation. I hate to think of wine being thought of primarily as an investment, but the world's finest wines do appreciate significantly in value and it would be foolish to ignore the fact that more and more shrewd investors are looking at wine as a way of making money.
One other sign indicating the wine has been poorly stored is the presence of seepage, or legs, down the rim of the bottle. This is the sometimes sticky, dry residue of a wine that has expanded, seeped around the cork, and dripped onto the rim. Cases of this are almost always due to excessively high temperatures in transit or storage. Few merchants take the trouble to wipe the legs off, and they can often be spotted on wines that are shipped during the heat of the summer, or brought into the United States through the Panama Canal in containers that are not air-conditioned. Consumers should avoid buying wines that show dried seepage legs originating under the capsule and trickling down the sides of the bottle.
You should also be alert for young wines (those less than 4 years old) that have more than one-half inch of air space, or ullage, between the cork and the liquid level in the bottle. Modern bottling operations generally fill bottles within one-eighth inch of the cork, so more than one-half inch of air space should arouse your suspicion.
The problem, of course, is that too few people in the wine trade take the necessary steps to assure that the wine is not ruined in shipment or storage. The wine business has become so commercial that wines, whether from California, Italy, or France, are shipped 12 months of the year, regardless of weather conditions. Traditionally, wines from Europe were shipped only in the spring or fall when the temperatures encountered in shipment would be moderate, assuming they were not shipped by way of the Panama Canal. The cost of renting an air-conditioned or heated container for shipping wines adds anywhere from twenty to forty cents to the wholesale cost of the bottle, but when buying wines that cost more than $200 a case, I doubt the purchaser would mind paying the extra premium knowing that the wine will not smell or taste cooked when opened.
Many importers claim to ship in reefers (the trade jargon for temperature-controlled containers), but only a handful actually do. America's largest importer of high-quality Bordeaux wine rarely, if ever, uses reefers, and claims to have had no problems with their shipments. Perhaps they would change their minds if they had witnessed the cases of 1986 Rausan-Ségla, 1986 Talbot, 1986 Gruaud-Larose, and 1986 Château Margaux that arrived in the Maryland-Washington, D.C. market with stained labels and pushed-out corks. Somewhere between Bordeaux and Washington, D.C. these wines had been exposed to torridly high temperatures. It may not have been the fault of the importer as the wine passed through a number of intermediaries before reaching its final destination. But pity the poor consumer who buys this wine, puts it in his cellar, and opens it 10 or 15 years in the future. Who will grieve for them?
The problem with temperature extremes is that the naturally made, minimally processed, hand-produced wines are the most vulnerable to this kind of abuse. Therefore, many importers, not wanting to assume any risks, have gone back to their suppliers and demanded "more stable" wines. Translated into real terms this means the wine trade prefers to ship not living wines but vapid, denuded wines that have been "stabilized," subjected to a manufacturing process, and either pasteurized or sterile filtered so they can be shipped 12 months a year. While their corks may still pop out if subjected to enough heat, their taste will not change, because for all intents and purposes these wines are already dead when they are put in the bottle. Unfortunately, only a small segment of the wine trade seems to care.
While there are some wine merchants, wholesalers, and importers who are cognizant of the damage that can be done when wines are not protected and who take great pride in representing hand-made, quality products, the majority of the wine trade continues to ignore the risks. They would prefer that the wine be denuded by pasteurization, cold stabilization, or a sterile filtration. Only then can they be shipped safely under any weather conditions.
If one wonders why the Domaine Leroy's burgundies taste richer than those from other domaines, it is due not only to quality winemaking but also to the fact that their yields are one-third those of other Burgundy producers. If one asks why the best Châteauneuf du Papes are generally Rayas, Pegau, Bonneau, and Beaucastel, it is because their yields are one-half those of other producers of the appellation. The same assertion applies to J. J. Prum and Muller-Cattoir in Germany. Not surprisingly, they have conservative crop yields that produce one-third the amount of wine of their neighbors.
While I do not want to suggest there are no longer any great wines and that most of the wines now produced are no better than the plonk peasants drank in the nineteenth century, the point is that overfertilization, modern sprays which prevent rot, the development of highly prolific clonal selections, and the failure to keep production levels modest have all resulted in yields that may well be combining to destroy the reputations of many of the most famous wine regions of the world. Trying to find a flavorful Chardonnay from California today is not much easier than finding a concentrated red burgundy that can age gracefully beyond 10 years. The production yields of Chardonnay in California have often resulted in wines that have only a faint character of the grape and seem almost entirely dominated by acidity and/or the smell of oak barrels. What is appalling is that there is so little intrinsic flavor. Yet Chardonnays remain the most popular white wine in this country, so what incentive is there to lower yields?
Of course, if the public, encouraged by a noncritical, indifferent wine media, is willing to pay top dollar for mediocrity, then little is likely to change. On the other hand, if consumers start insisting that $15 or $20 should at the very minimum fetch a wine that provides far more pleasure, perhaps that message will gradually work its way back to the producers.
Wine writing in America has rarely been a profitable or promising full-time occupation. Historically, the most interesting work was always done by those people who sold wine. There's no doubting the influence or importance of the books written by Alexis Lichine and Frank Schoonmaker. But both men made their fortunes by selling rather than writing about wine, yet both managed to write about wine objectively, despite their ties to the trade.
There are probably not more than a dozen or so independent wine experts in this country who support themselves entirely by writing. Great Britain has long championed the cause of wine writers and looked upon them as true professionals. But even there, with all their experience and access to the finest European vineyards, most of the successful wine writers have been involved in the sale and distribution of wine. Can anyone name an English wine writer who criticized the performance of Lafite-Rothschild between 1961 and 1974, or Margaux between 1964 and 1977 (periods of time when the consumer was getting screwed)?
It is probably unrealistic to expect writers to develop a professional expertise with wine without access and support from the trade, but such support can compromise their findings. If they are beholden to wine producers for the wines they taste, they are not likely to fault them. If the trips they make to vineyards are the result of the winemaker's largesse, they are unlikely to criticize what they have seen. If they are lodged at the châteaux and their trunks are filled with cases of wine (as, sadly, is often the case), can a consumer expect them to be critical, or even objective?
Putting aside the foolish notion that a wine writer is going to bite the hand that feeds him, there is the problem that many wine writers are lacking the global experience essential to properly evaluate wine. Consequently, what has emerged from such inexperience is a school of wine writing that is primarily trained to look at the wine's structure and acid levels, and it is this philosophy that is too frequently in evidence when judging wines. The level of pleasure that a wine provides, or is capable of providing in the future, would appear to be irrelevant. The results are wine evaluations that read as though one was measuring the industrial strength of different grades of cardboard rather than a beverage that many consider nature's greatest gift to mankind. Balance is everything in wine, and wines that taste too tart or tannic rarely ever age into flavorful, distinctive, charming beverages. While winemaking and wine technology are indeed better, and some of the most compelling wines ever made are being produced today, there are far too many mediocre wines sitting on the shelves that hardly deserve their high praise.
There are, however, some interesting trends. The growth of The Wine Spectator with its staff of full-time writers obligated to follow a strict code of conflict of interest, has resulted in better and more professional journalism. It also cannot be discounted that this flashy magazine appears twice a month. This is good news for the wine industry, frequently under siege by the anti-alcohol extremists. Some may protest the inflated ratings that The Wine Spectator's tasting panel tends to bestow, but tasting is, as we all should know, subjective. The only criticism some might have is that their wine evaluations are the result of a committee's vote. Wines of great individuality and character rarely win a committee tasting because there is going to be at least one taster who will find something objectionable about the wines. Therefore, tasting panels, where all grades are averaged, frequently appear to find wines of great individuality unusual. Can anyone name just one of the world's greatest red or white wines that is produced by the consensus of a committee? The wines that too often score the highest are those that are technically correct and designed to please the greatest number of people. Wouldn't most Americans prefer a hamburger from McDonald's than seared salmon served over a bed of lentils at New York City's famed Montrachet restaurant? To The Wine Spectator's credit, more of their tasting reports are authored by one or two people, not an anonymous, secretive committee. The results of the numerous California wine judgings support the same conclusion -- that many a truly great, individualistic, and original wine has no chance. The winners are too often fail-safe, technically correct, spit-polished, and clean examples of winemaking -- in short, wines for fans of Velveeta cheese, Muzak, and frozen dinners. The opinion of an individual taster, despite that taster's prejudices and predilections, if reasonably informed and comprehensive, is always a far greater guide to the ultimate quality of the wine than that of a committee. At least the reader knows where the individual stands, whereas with a committee, one is never quite sure.
Given the vitality of our nation's best wine guides, it is unlikely that wine writers will have less influence in the future. The thousands and thousands of wines that come on the market, many of them overpriced and vapid, require consumer-oriented reviews from the wine writing community. But until a greater degree of professionalism is attained, until more experience is evidenced by wine writers, until their misinformed emphasis on a wine's high acidity and structure is forever discredited, until most of the English wine media begin to understand and adhere to the basic rules of conflict of interest, until we all remember that this is only a beverage of pleasure to be seriously consumed but not taken too seriously, then and only then will the quality of wine writing and the wines we drink improve. Will all of this happen, or will we be reminded of these words of Marcel Proust:
We do not succeed in changing things according to our desire, but gradually our desire changes. The situation that we hope to change because it was intolerable becomes unimportant. We have not managed to surmount the obstacle as we are absolutely determined to do, but life has taken us round to it, let us pass it, and then if we turn round to gaze at the road past, we can barely catch sight of it, so imperceptible has it become.
(1999) copyright © 1995, 1999 by Robert M. Parker, Jr. Used by permission.