Monday, April 20, 2009

Who Criticizes the Critic?

I recently viewed a very interesting documentary, questioning whether Robert Parker influences wine styles, and if so, by how much. And is that a bad thing? Differing opinions abound, but the term “Parkerized wines” suggests a commonly-held opinion that he does exert a strong pull on a winemaker’s style. One concern is the homogenizing of wines by following Parker preferences, and the negation of the affects of terroir on a wine. In other words, a Sonoma Russian River Zinfandel should not taste the same as one grown in the depths of the Arroyo Grande Valley on the Central Coast.

If two wines do taste the same, we might conclude that one or both wines have been over-manipulated. But how much is “over”? My short answer is that if the true nature of the grape, the soil it’s grown in and the weather patterns that harvest year, would make a unique wine, then over-oaking, longer hang-time, and other techniques would yield a palatable but generic wine that could have come from anywhere. The result is that some of the romance and specialness of the wine has been lost, which is sort of like colorizing Citizen Kane.

When I taste wine, I like to imagine where it came from. Sipping a Margaux, the lighter soils than its Northern neighbors and higher percentage of Merlot yields a soft, elegant wine with silky tannins, unmistakable from other Bordeaux wines. Tasting an authentic Santa Cruz Chardonnay, I’m back on the roads I bicycled for so many years, picking up the scent of sword ferns, huckleberry, trillium, and redwood sorrel. (I hate it when I don’t pick up the huckleberry.)

A wine Parker is said to favor is big on fruit, oak, and alcohol. That’s the short definition, but obviously his palate extends way beyond that or he wouldn’t be where he is. The fact is, many winemakers do go for over-extended hang time and longer extraction from the skins. Longer hang time means more sugars, lower acidity, and more alcohol. I’ve had 16+ % Zinfandels that can make one weak at the knees, bursting with ripe fruit and tongue-curling heat. Just don’t try to pair them with any wimpy food; they’ll overpower it.

Different types of oak change the signature of a grape, often for the better. Overdone they can unbalance a wine. Over-oaked California Chardonnay is, sadly, almost a redundant term. While oak flavors of vanilla, cloves, coconut, cinnamon, and spices can be desirable when subtle, bludgeoning a wine with oak makes them the most pronounced flavors, at which point, chewing on an oak tree begins to make sense. I can imagine someone complaining of oak-withdrawal when they switch to Old World styles.

If you take a red wine that exhibits black cherry flavors from extended hang-time, and age it in new American oak, you’re likely to get a strong vanilla flavor from the vanillin that resulted from toasting the staves before the barrel was assembled. Oak may also impart a toasty, nut-like flavor, such as coconut to the wine. What you can end up with is a wine reminiscent of Ben & Jerry’s Cherry Garcia ice cream.

Is that a good thing, or a bad thing? Depends on how much you love Cherry Garcia. By now, most Americans have grown up with California wines, and as alcohol levels rise, and more fruit-forward wines with big oak flavors multiply, our palates can lead us down the primrose path to fruit-bomb wines. Until we try to pair them with foods.

The disadvantages of this style of wine become clear when paired with food. As standalone wines, over-the-top reds stand out, which is one of the reasons they are chosen over more subtle, balanced wines of lower alcohol and oak shading. However, if you took your favorite dish to the tasting room, you might make different wine choices. I’m not advocating this, you understand, just pointing out a simple fact: tasting wines in isolation of what foods complement them, doesn’t reveal their suitability at the dinner table.

That said, I always have some big head-knocking wines in my cellar. Sitting on my patio on a balmy day with a Paso Robles Zinfandel and a well-aged cheddar works for me. Just don’t torture your rotisserie chicken with the same wine. There is room for all styles of wine. As long as one style doesn’t predominate; I have no problem with Parkerized wines.

Yes, Robert Parker has influenced the way wines are made, and that is good and bad depending on your own palate. He has also popularized wine in America, and made us aware of many wines deserving of recognition. Some winemakers have probably changed their style of making wine to earn higher scores. I’ve heard that some winemakers even have “Parker barrels” set aside that exhibit characteristics of past wines that have garnered 90 plus points.

The 100-point scale he created is actually a 50-point scale, going from 50 to 100. Would anyone even sample a 20-point wine? I don’t think so. Many contend that the scale suggests a level of precision that doesn’t square with reality, and I’d agree with that. The scale for movie reviews is often four to five stars, which seems appropriate for wine as well. Since a score of 88 can cause a wine to end up discounted and a 90 plus score can lead to raising the price of a wine, a more rational approach to wine scoring makes sense to me.

So who criticizes the critic? Everyone criticizes the critic when they disagree with a critic’s conclusion. That’s half the fun of reading a review, be it about wine or film. “Did you hear what so-and-so said about the 2005 Caymus Cab?” is often a good opening line in a discussion. So thank the critics for sticking their necks out and telling you what they think. They’ve heard it all before, too.

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