Thursday, October 16, 2008

Parker's Wine Buying Guide, 7th Edition

Robert Parker remains a figure of controversy, and probably will continue to be one for years to come. He has done much positive for the world of wine though some would also claim he has had a significant negative effect. No matter what one thinks of Parker, his opinions still possess great power.

Now let us look to the future. Parker won't be around forever but he has groomed some successors, reviewers who now assist with the Wine Advocate. Can they carry Parker's torch? Will they retain his power? Clues to answers for these questions might be found in Parker's latest book.

Parker's Wine Buying Guide, 7th Edition ($35) has just been published, and it is the first of this series to include the opinions of other than just Parker. The world of wine is huge and no single person can cover it all. So, Parker has included several others who cover those regions that he cannot. These other reviewers include: David Schildknecht (Alsace, Austria, Burgundy, Central Europe, Champagne, East of the West Coast, France's Southwest, Germany, the Jura and the Savoie, the Languedoc and Roussillon and the Loire Valley), Antonio Galloni (Italy), Dr. Jay Miller (Argentina, Australia, Chile, Oregon, Ports, Spain, and Washington), Mark Squires (Israel and Portugal) and Neal Martin (New Zealand and South Africa). Parker only covers California and the French regions of Bordeaux, Provence and the Rhône.

This is a huge book, at 1513 pages! The first 39 wines are some introductory material, essays, reading recommendations and more. There is some interesting information here and I will discuss some of what can be found there. The rest of the book contains information about various wine regions as well as scores for thousands of wines.

The book opens with a Preface, an essay, The Last Thirty Years, which is similar to an article Parker wrote for Food & Wine magazine in September 2008. Parker talks about the changes that have occurred in the wine world over the last thirty years, touching on such issues as wine making, wine critics, prices and diversity.

Parker does not speak too well about wine blogs. "As a result the strategic importance of an independent wine press continues to have a growing and dramatic role. I see no softening or dilution of that influence, even with the advent of many free Internet wine blogs, which usually do little more than raise the level of useless white noise to a deafening and confusing level of nonsense." (p.xvii) It is this type of negative generalization that usually raises the ire of bloggers. We all know there are some bad blogs out there, yet there are also plenty of good ones as well as some excellent ones. And I don't think anyone can deny that blogs are having a growing influence. Blogs won't be dethroning Parker, but they do have their impact on wine buying.

Parker also tries to counter the critics who allege the wine market has become too globalized. "The largest myth in the wine world, constructed on half truths, inaccurate observations, and shrewd journalistic manipulation, purports that the wine market has become so globalized that international companies are producing monochromatic wines from a limited number of grape varieties, resulting in bland, standardized wine quality and causing all wines to taste the same. This is appallingly untrue. Moreover, it cannot be backed by any spefific evidence and generally makes headlines without any serious discussion." (p.xviii) I will have more to say about this later in the post as Parker addresses this issue again.

The next section of the book is the Introduction, containing a diverse selection of articles. It begins with "How To Use This Guide." The guide is broken down into regional sections, each which contains an overview, a buying strategy, a summary of recent vintages, a list of the best producers/growers, and rating scores with suggested maturity dates. What has been eliminated from this edition are the specific tasting notes. It was thought that including the voluminous tasting notes would mean certain regions would have had to been omitted from the book. No tasting notes??? Are I the only one that sees something wrong with that?

So, you are left with primarily scores. Parker has emphatically stated before that it is his tasting notes that are more important than the scores. So why then eliminate those important tasting notes and provide only scores? I think the elimination of the tasting notes also eliminates much of the potential usefulness of this guide. It lends itself more to a slavish point-following mentality rather than selecting wines based on what they are like and how they taste. Though there are sometimes a few sentences written about each producer which occasionally discuss specific wines, it is the scores that are most prominent.

I think Parker would produced a better guide if he chose not to try to include everything in a single book. He could have produced buying guides for each different region, maybe combining a few related ones. That way he would have been able to include all of the important tasting notes. As the guide stands, it will be largely useless for many people, and perpetuates a score-following mentality.

The Introduction then continues with an article "The Role of a Wine Critic." Parker states: "In short, the role of the critic is to render judgments that are reliable." (p.5) Sounds reasonable. Parker then continues to list the qualities that a critic should possess, including Independence, Courage, Experience, Individual Accountability, Emphasis on Pleasure and Value, Focus on Qualitative Issues, and Candor. This article is interesting, although a bit pretentious at parts. Parker seems to believe wine criticism is not for part-timers, which would include most bloggers. "Wine criticism, if it is ever to be regarded as a serious profesison, must be a full-time endeavor, not the pursuit of part-timers dabbling in a field that is so complex and requires such time commitment." (p.6)

The next sections of the Introduction are basic wine info, including how to buy wine, how to store it, which wines benefit from aging, and food and wine pairing. All introductory stuff which has been covered elsewhere and which adds little of significant value to this guide.

The following section is more intriguing, and is subtitled "the dark side of wine." It touches on what Parker sees as the negative aspects of the wine world. Remember above when Parker stated that wine was not becoming too globalized? Well, now he contradicts himself, warning about that very thing in a section titled "The Growing International Standardization of Wine Styles." Parker states it is getting difficult to differentiate an Italian Chardonnay from one made in France or California. Wine makers are "designing them to offend the least number of people,.." (p.18) So which is it Parker? Parker then continues to speak out against excessive manipulation of wine, sounding much like Alice Feiring.

There is another section on "Wine Writers' Ethics and Competence," which largely concentrates on professional wine writing, noting how there are few independent wine writers who support themselves entirely by writing. This is followed by a section on counterfeit wines and some guidelines on how to avoid being ripped off. The next couple essays are "What Constitutes a Great Wine" and "Making Sense of Terroir." On the issue of terroir, Parker is in the middle, accepting the existence of terroir and noting it can have an impact, but also acknowledging there is more involved. The last two items in the Introduction are meant to be humorous, "The Wine World's Biggest Lies" and "The Language of the Wine Maker."

As for the regional reviews, the largest section is France which consists of over 600 pages. California comes in second with over 200 pages and Italy is at third with about 170 pages. The preliminary information on each region, including a discussion of the major grape varieties, recent vintages, maps, important vineyards and producers, etc. is often interesting and worth reading. But, not all the regions receive such extended information. For example, Portugal and Spain have relatively small preliminary sections. Most of the chapters though are scores for thousands of wines.

There is an interesting chapter covering the wineries of the U.S., those outside of California, Oregon and Washington. The section is short but lists recommended wineries in a number of states. In Massachusetts, the only recommended winery is The Neighborhood Cellar. I have some familiarity with this winery and they produce very little wine. Their only current release is a 2006 Syrah and I have only seen their wines available in one local wine store. I don't know which other wineries were tried, as I would have placed Turtle Creek Winery at the top of any Massachusetts list. All of the scores in this section though are only for New York wines.

Overall, I cannot recommend this book as it is mainly wine scores without tasting notes. There are a few things of interest here but not worth the purchase price. Parker would have been better off creating individual guides for separate regions and then including tasting notes.


Wine Tasting Guy said...

Hey Richard- Great review.

I must say I think think I agree with just about all your takes on Parker. There was an interesting LA Times article written about the book. Of most interest was the authors take that "Most wine experts believe American enthusiasts have been slowly moving away from vintages that exhibit the kind of brazen power and ripeness that Parker prefers".

But what excited me most about the latest guide is that it has TEN PAGES with many positive reviews on Israeli wines!

ryan said...

Great post! I Love the job you did of catching Parkers confusion over "globalization". Seriously use to like the guy and had a lot of respect for him, but if he removes the notes and leaves just the scores, I say it's not worth anyone's time to buy this book. Sad really. Also I agree this book needs different volumes, since France is receiving a much more disproportionate level of press, than many regions that deserve equal praise.

Oh and to the blogging comment. He did hire a blogger, must mean this addition to the Wine Advocate does, "little more than raise the level of useless white noise to a deafening and confusing level of nonsense." ;)

Richard A. said...

Hi wine tasting guy:
Thanks. Technically, there are only 9 pages of reviews of Israeli wines. Though you are correct the reviews are largely positive, and there are a bit more tasting notes than in the other sections. the section was written by Mark Squires.

Hi Ryan:
Thanks to you as well.

boyce said...

Richard, thanks so much for taking the time for a thorough review. (By the way, I tried to post this once, and my computer crashed, so you may or may no have already received this comment).

Anyway, re Parker's comments about blogs, I think the thing is, there ARE a lot of blogs, but that doesn't mean they get equal attention. Like with many things, the best do rise to the top and these are blogs to be respected, not lumped in with everyone else.

Also, did Parker by any chance include Chinese wines in the book? He was here in Beijing in May and I know he did a private tasting - I thought maybe he squeezed in those scores in this edition.

Cheers, Jim

Richard A. said...

Hi Boyce:
Thanks for your comments. No, sadly the book does not contain any info on Chinese wines.

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