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Thursday Thorns
The Gods Must Be Crazy

By Stephen Eliot

Make no mistake, there is a war going on among a handful of prominent wine writers that has a good many others choosing up sides in a most public way. It would be easy enough to see it as nothing new, no more than a warming of what has been a simmering cold war for some time, but things are heating up to the point that the conflict is getting hard to ignore. Voice after grating voice cannot wait to tell you just what you should think, and too many of them have the heady ring of righteousness in what is becoming a rancorous battle for the hearts and minds of wine lovers.

I am speaking, of course, of the latest round of insults hurled and defenses taken by followers of big-flavor advocate, Robert Parker Jr., and those to whom he has, in the past, referred as the “anti-flavor elite,” in this specific instance, the champions of what is being called the “New California” wine movement led by Jon Bonné of the San Francisco Chronicle and openly seconded by Eric Asimov of the New York Times.

I would neither praise nor bury Mr. Parker, nor would I damn his opponents for liking what they like, but I cannot but question the so very predictable agendas of the true-believing parties involved. Moreover, I have become increasingly dismayed at the “with us or against us” ethos of the same, and I wonder just who any of this is meant to serve. I am betting that the principals are delighting in the publicity. It sells books and subscriptions, but more than a few of us in the business are getting fed up. Wars are fought for reasons, and generally speaking one side or the other is the aggressor, but, for other than self-promotion, those reasons are not clear to me, and, in this case, the lines between offense and defense are both blurred and changing.

Alder Yarrow writes that “It’s a battle largely off the radar (and frankly of no real interest) to the average (or even above average) wine drinker. But even though it exists in the rarified air of the upper echelons of wine drinkers who pay attention to such things, that does not diminish its significance.”

I am not sure that it is quite so limited or so far off the radar. That argument is hard to reconcile with anxious claims that Parker is a danger because of his far-reaching influence, nor can the debate be seen as affecting but a rarified few when the two most influential proponents of “change” in wine taste write for very powerful newspapers with hundreds of thousands of readers. If the upper management of the New York Times and the San Francisco Chronicle think that Asimov and Bonné readers are uninterested and do not pay attention, then just maybe there is a reason that newspapers are in trouble. That, however, is a topic for another day.

No, I would argue that the debate is reaching the mainstream and must, in however a subtle or even insidious way, impact the decisions of retailers, sommeliers and necessarily consumers. The question is whether it has all that much life beyond that.

There is no question that Mr. Parker and his publication, The Wine Advocate, changed the face of wine criticism and the ways in which such criticism affects the market. Some maintain that he has dictated taste, while others would argue that his success has been based on identifying what people really like, and I suspect that there is a fair bit of truth in both views. I have, however, been doing what I do for a very long time and find specious the claims that the whole of California wine culture has been irremediably corrupted by him or anyone else for that matter. That he has wielded tremendous power is beyond debate, and there is room for dissenting voices, but I do not think that the consumers are so stupid and easily convinced to continually drink wines that they do not enjoy.

There are laudably innocent claims by his detractors that diversity of style and freedom of choice is their only goal, yet too many are revealed as being disingenuous when they subsequently and smugly dismiss a generation of California wines as having been the ripe and yet utterly artless creations of a “reactionary” winemaking culture driven by greed. Worse yet, they would revise history with the fabrication of a failed golden age and simplistic fables of California winemakers, most notably those in Napa Valley, having sold out and making commodity wines in which they did not really believe. Some of these dissenting voices would have the world believe that new and different, by definition, are somehow a priori “better.” Future greatness in California lies, at least in some minds, in lower levels of ripeness, more acidity and in varieties such as Carignane, Charbono and Gray Riesling, aka Trousseau Gris. And, there is a steady, not-quite-subliminal message that enduring vinous success depends on being more like the French.

Now, I would not for a minute dismiss new and interesting bottlings made from out-of-the-mainstream varietals and new places. Many are indeed exciting and there have always been high-achieving local wines of unique character, but to deny that California has a special gift for richness is, to me, inconceivable. California is not France or Italy or Spain. It should not be expected to make wines in their images.

We have for some time heard from our readers that they are becoming bored with the whole shtick. There have been several steady and exceptionally angry internet voices whose pique for Parker borders on neurosis, and more than a few who, like myself, are tired of being made to feel the need to chose sides, have been equally disapproving of both. I had to chuckle a bit at veteran wine writer Blake Grey’s questioning if maybe “the anti-Parker crowd is becoming conformist in its own way”, and Doug Wilder of the Purely Domestic Wine Report casts his vote to “put me in the column of ‘Tired of the New California drumbeat.’ I find good things in and out of that arena. People shouldn’t think they need to be in or out of a particular camp.”

Writer Rick Kushman commenting at length on David White’s Terroirist blog about the kerfuffle surrounding Parker’s opinions about a recent Bonne/Asimov presentation of “unexpected” Napa Valley wines offers the following thoughts. “...I was there and I can say that the people around me all agreed on one point, and it wasn’t about the wines. We all agreed Jon and Eric were revising history and basically accusing Napa of selling out…and, yes, we were all pretty worn out by the argument that so much of what Napa does is wrong.” He further said, “I was one of the people who asked a question about their more narrow perspective, and heard from more than a dozen people after the session who agreed with my question. Jon and Eric get to love the wines they love, and to push them, but given their positions in the media and the industry, they are, as journalists everywhere argue, supposed to help us see the whole world.” I must confess that it is nice to find out that I am not so alone.

Please, dear people, by all means drink what you like, but we will all be better off when we reach the point that the success of one winemaking style is not dependent upon on another’s failing. Your wine of choice will not taste any better because you look down your nose at what someone else might like.

The value of Parker’s or Asimov’s or Bonne’s opinions, and, lest we forget, they are no more than just that, will be ultimately decided by wine drinkers who care to listen. I cannot help but wonder, however, if as the debate about style grows ever more vitriolic, it changes the course of where fine wine is headed or instead falls on the deaf ears of those who find it an utter waste of attention and time.

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Yes, But
by Ron Washam, HMW
Posted on:3/12/2014 12:24:32 PM

Stephen, While the entire wine critic war may be tiresome to most, for a satirist, it's Nirvana. I just hope it gets a lot uglier. And that the speculation about it stays as juvenile and empty as it's been so far. It makes my job a lot easier. An unsightly carcass is seen as a gourmet meal by a hungry vulture.

Yes, But
by Ron Washam, HMW
Posted on:3/12/2014 12:25:59 PM

Stephen, While the entire wine critic war may be tiresome to most, for a satirist, it's Nirvana. I just hope it gets a lot uglier. And that the speculation about it stays as juvenile and empty as it's been so far. It makes my job a lot easier. An unsightly carcass is seen as a gourmet meal by a hungry vulture.

I am not implying your commentary was juvenile or empty, it wasn't. But you are the exception.

From one exception to another...
by Stephen Eliot
Posted on:3/12/2014 2:44:22 PM

Ron, Thanks for the kind words but no offense was taken. Senile, maybe, but I haven't been called juvenile in a very long time. And, yes, I had a feeling that the Hosemaster was likely delighting in the absolute embarrassment of riches set before him.

BTW, it's been too long since we have seen you. Don't forget that you always have a place at our table.

Balance is a perception
by Paul Jacroux
Posted on:3/23/2014 3:56:17 PM

You are right on Stephen.  Balance is perceived differently by every wine drinker.  If your palate agrees with parker's then follow his advice.  If it agrees with Jon's then follow his.  Or go your own way.  Arguing about it seeme senseless to me.

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