Wednesday, February 10, 2010


Parkerdammerung--the fall of Parker--is upon us. How, you might ask? Well it started innocently enough with a condescending, arrogant tasting note (I've highlighted in bold a few key statements):
1997 HARLAN ESTATE 100 Points

I have never had a doubt about the 1997. Yet, I have read controversial comments about it, saying it tastes like Amarone, is overripe, volatile, with low acidity, etc., etc. These are simply false. The 1997 is one of those wines that transcends most wine-making parameters. In that sense, it is a California version of a 1959 Lafite-Rothschild, 1961 Petrus, 1947 Lafleur, 1947 Cheval Blanc, 1961 Latour à Pomerol, or 1990 Beauséjour-Duffau. Unable to think “outside the box” precludes comprehending any of these wines or the 1997 Harlan. It is one of those wines that just had so much of everything in its youth that it was nearly impossible to see past its thickness and massiveness. Not anymore. The wine is now settling down beautifully, and even Bill Harlan and Bob Levy seem to admit that the 1997 did go through a stage where it was awkward and clumsy. However, this is unquestionably an historical effort. An inky/purple color is accompanied by an extraordinary perfume of black truffles, graphite, blackberries, and an Haut-Brion-like scorched earth note (such as one sees in Haut Brion’s 1989, 1961, and 1959), an extraordinary density and unctuosity to the fruit and texture, and a remarkable finish of well over a minute. This monumental wine represents history in the making. It is richer, fuller, and more massive than anything Harlan made before or since. Still in its adolescence, it is becoming more civilized and refined with each passing year. The 1997 was the most unanimous perfect wine in the entire tasting, although 2002, 1995, and 1994 had their proponents. Anticipated maturity: 2017-2050
Big deal, right? Parker just telling you his palate is right and yours is wrong and you just need to shut up and buy whatever he rates 90 points or higher. And if you don't agree, then you are closed minded and can't comprehend wine. Just another day in the life of The Bob. Harlan wines are so expensive, they are irrelevant to the majority of consumers anyway.

But then there's this little issue: some bottles of the 1997 Harlan Estate are riddled with volatile acidity (VA). In fact, some tasters have consistently found VA in this wine. Not all bottles seem to show this character, though perhaps some tasters have chosen to "think outside the box" and agree with The Bob despite a glaring flaw. When this erupted into a full-blown tempest in a teapot, Parker suggested simply that this was bad storage on the part of the consumer.

There's just one little problem with his explanation. It is simply false. There is no true or false in subjective experiences, and one cannot tell another his experience is false. It's especially important to realize that when it comes to wine flaws, individual tolerances vary. VA can provide aromatic "lift" to wine below threshold. But above threshold it is distracting and can burn your nostrils like vinegar or nail polish remover. Not everyone has the same sensitivity, though. Whether it's the wine that varies or the tasters, it doesn't matter. Parker refuses to acknowledge that these phenomena exist. To insult the consumer by claiming authority over every single bottle produced is absurd. Also Sprach Parker simply does not fly.

The reality is that while Parker claims he is a consumer advocate in the image of Ralph Nader, he has become a producer advocate. In the case of this cult wine he blames the consumer for mishandling the allegedly flawed bottles instead of allowing for (gasp!) the possibility that some bottles were flawed when they left the winery or were micro-biologically unstable. He also seems indifferent to the fact that his reviews (well, points) move the wine market. Thus, he often rates wines based on barrel samples, allowing producers to price wines after he reviews them. This leaves open the possibility of manipulation before bottling, and doesn't account for the many issue that may arise once the wine is bottled. A true advocate would taste the same finished wines consumers will find on the shelves, after they've been priced.

Parker needs to get his act together because the critical world is changing. CellarTracker's pro-am model is the future of wine criticism. While there is no substitute for the breadth of experience and knowledge that experts provide, there are limitations to what experts can do. They cannot taste every bottle of a wine, for example. Nor do their tastes match those of every single person. This is where CellarTracker, in this age of freely disseminated information, comes in. If a wine has a high degree of bottle variation due to instability (low SO2, high pH, residual sugar, incomplete ML fermentation, etc.), it will become evident as users post their notes. If a wine is stylistically incompatible with a subset of tasters, it will become evident. The tyranny of a single taste maker is ending, and Parker must realize he can either adapt to this world or incrementally lose relevance.

Stay tuned. There are more variations to follow on this leitmotif of Parkerdammerung.


Matt Mauldin said...

I don't really mind Parker so much as a critic. He's fairly interesting to read (as are WS, WE, W&S) if you take it for what it is. I do think the criticism that he receives is fair game because he claims to be the whole consumer advocate thing.

Critics, be it for wine, music, art, movies, books, don't advocate for consumers. They critique the art based on their knowledge and involvement in the art. They are a completely separate entity from the buying public.

CabFrancoPhile said...

Exactly, I think he's essentially put his publication on a pedestal, and it simply cannot live up top how he is billing it. The reality is that because he is good at what he does, he has become close to many top producers and winemakers. You can't be both an insider and an outsider.

While the attitude of the quote I posted is off-putting, it's hardly unique. It's more the dismissive tone alone the lines of "I vouch for this great wine from this great producer." He's a critic, he should have a POV. But he should be cognizant that his voice is not absolute.

Matt Mauldin said...

You might this interesting-

Evidently a different take on the 97 Harlan from James Suckling. I don't have a subscription so I haven't read the whole post.

CabFrancoPhile said...

Sounds like Suckling was not such a big fan from the first sentence. Hmmm, he must be false or thinking inside the box!