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.

Bottle Shocked; or Who Was That Guy?

Bottle Shock is the latest in a series of wine-related movies, kick-started by Sideways, with a dubious oenological lineage. Yes, I had issues with that film as well. Since I’m a movie nut, and also write screenplays, I wanted to comment on this film, but movie times and my travel schedule didn’t gel, so I had to Netflix it. I just hope you aren’t expecting an Ebert-like review.

First off, I did enjoy the movie. Any movie that has Alan Rickman cast as a wine snob will get my attention. Can any other actor sneer as fulsomely as Rickman? I doubt it, and his role as the Englishman, Steven Spurrier, couldn’t have been better. Spurrier set up the blind tasting event between French Burgundy and Bordeaux wines and their California counterparts. Dennis Farina was also good as his amiable business associate. The setting of 1976 Paris was well mounted for the actual judgment at movie’s end. (Even though the actual tasting was shot in Napa.)

In many respects, this was a reasonable reenactment of the events surrounding the Paris tasting in 1976, which I learned from reading George Taber’s book, The Judgment of Paris. When the story moved to Napa and images of dusty vineyards rolled by, it triggered memories of my own explorations there, proof they did a good job of evoking Napa in the 70’s. Bill Pullman as the irascible owner of Chateau Montelena, Jim Barrett, hit all the right notes and played off Rickman well.

The following dialog between Pullman and Rickman pretty much sums up what I mean.

Jim Barrett: Why don’t I like you?
Steve Spurrier: Because you think I’m an ass. And I’m not really. It’s just that I’m British, and you aren’t.

At this point, recalling Taber’s book, I was expecting to meet the other major players in the Napa success story. And then . . . and then things got strange.

Who was this Gustavo Brambila character? And where were Mike Grgich and Warren Winiarski? Grgich crafted the award-winning Chardonnay for Chateau Montelena, and Winiarski founded Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars and crafted the winning Cabernet Sauvignon at the judging. Their bios in the book were part of what made it fascinating as these two men struggled from the bottom to the top of the Napa wine ladder.

Gustavo (Freddy Rodriguez) is a real character, although he wasn’t at Chateau Montelena when the Chardonnay was made. He even has his own winery, the well-regarded Gustavo Thrace Winery. (I’ve tasted his wine, which is quite good.) He was also the technical consultant to the film. Hmmm. Well, OK, add Gustavo, but why take out two of the four principal players in the Judgment of Paris?

For that we need to check out the behind-the-scenes story, which may be as entertaining as the film. The screenwriter, Ross Schwartz, began work on the script before the Taber book came out. He planned to show the rivalry between Barrett and Grgich, but when Grgich asked to be removed from the film, Schwartz switched it to Jim and his son Bo (Chris Pine). If you don’t think that was a rivalry, you should check out the boxing scenes.

Schwartz decided to focus on this story, and the only mention of Winiarski or Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars was in the closing remarks summarizing the winners and subsequent blind tastings, which were also won by the Californians. If Grgich had wished to be in the film, Danny Devito had been cast to play him. What a missed opportunity, Devito and Rickman discoursing on wine; that I’d have paid extra to see.

While the lyrical subplot of Bo’s and Gustavo’s infatuation with Sam, (played by the glowing Rachel Taylor), was entertaining, it would tend to lead some viewers to the conclusion that Gustavo’s red wine was a winner at the blind tasting. Particularly since Sam’s passion for Gustavo’s wine soon led to a different kind of passion in a shack. I can’t believe the film played on the “shacked-up” metaphor. And I can’t believe I just commented on it.

What they got right was the passion for wine making and the sense that Napa was poised to take on the wine world. Wine purists have derided the movie for its inaccuracies, but the oenological sense of life felt right to me. Although Spurrier sent his assistant to Napa to procure the wine, the filmmaker’s decision to have Rickman confront the Californians on their own turf was an excellent choice and provided some of the film’s best moments.

There is another picture about the very same event called Judgment of Paris, which is in development and slated for 2010. The screenplay is by Robert Mark Kamen, based on the book by George Taber. Kamen is also a wine maker, and will probably be more faithful to the book. The film is also approved by Steven Spurrier, who claimed Rickman was too old and portrayed him as an effete wine snob. Unfortunately, every comment I’ve read by him comes across to me in Rickman’s voice. About Bottle Shock, Spurrier said “No doubt I shall have to watch it on my flight to Singapore next week, but at least it will be from the comfort of First Class, with a glass of Dom Perignon to ease the pain.”

See what I mean? Rickman, right?

Once more multiple movies based on the same story are generating controversy, and talk of law suits. While a more accurate take on the events of the Paris tasting would be welcomed, keeping it as entertaining as Bottle Shock could prove challenging. Particularly since Keanu Reeves is being cast as the diminutive Mike Grgich. What happened to Devito in all this? Who knows, if this movie comes out we may get the Judgment of Wine Movies. Salut!