Someone left a comment in response to my “passing time” post the other day suggesting that I check out the film “Mondovino” and perhaps reassess my view of Robert Parker. I haven’t seen the film yet but I’m looking forward to it – I see it as a kind Fahrenheit 911 on the wine industry from what I’ve read.
The central story of the documentary is whether the big multi-national wine companies are introducing a boring uniformity to wine, aided and abetted by such people as Parker, Michel Rolland and others. The underlings – the small producers in rural France – want freedom of choice. Sometimes, based on the wine I’ve tasted out there, that’s the freedom to choose to make mediocre wine, and charge high prices.
The French wine system is fully broken. The classification systems are ossified probably even fossil relics. Sharp producers make wine as part of a “grand cru” designation and then sell it at inflated prices, despite it being barely drinkable.
That leaves the consumer, me, needing a guide. In 1982, Robert Parker called the vintage “great” before anyone else. That call made his name. Since then he has gone as far as anyone to promote and publicise what can be done with wine, whether in Bordeaux (his speciality), Burgundy (via Pierre Romani, his co-worker), California, Australia or elsewhere.
For me it’s really simple. You taste a wine, you read the Parker notes. If you agree, then you see that your taste aligns somewhat with his. If you don’t agree, then you read Jancis, or Clive or someone else until you find someone that matches your taste. The thing that Parker got right and, based on his continuing influence seems to have kept getting right, is that he captured the taste of many – and the aspirations of many more. And he applied a simple numeric format to that. 100 is amazing, 90 is pretty damn good, 80 is not really worth a go unless it’s very cheap. He’s proved that he can award 100 points to a $30 Australian wine just as easily as to a $1000 French wine.
Wine is, obviously, the product of many things – the soil (the terrior as the French insist on calling it – a word that encompasses things like the angle of elevation, the amount of sun and so on), the weather (not just for one day but for months, with increasing focus towards the harvest), the care that the vineyard staff put into the vines, when the grapes are picked, how they are treated on the way to the winemaking facility and then the whole process of the wine itself – the type of barrels, the length of time in them and so on. And there are some, supporting the Biodynamique theory, who will tell you that the alignment of the stars matters along with whether they are burying the bodies of dead moles alongside the vines.
It’s all of those things that make wine such a pleasure and, potentially, such a hit and miss affair. The very best vineyards and winemakers turn out great wines no matter the weather. But they can also price their wine according to their heritage rather than the quality of the wine – 1997 in Bordeaux for instance. Likewise, they can underprice wines that have far more potential than might be expected – 1998 for instance.
Just like mutual funds that change performance when the guy that runs the fund moves on, a winemaker moving on can be a chance for great new things. In the former case, look at Clos L’Eglise since 1997. Or things can stay the same – see how consistent Cos D’Estournel has been.
In the mid-range of the market, the opportunity to drop a wad of cash and strike out with a wine that is perhaps not poor but just not worth the money is high. If you’re in a restaurant and paying 3-5x retail, that’s a much bigger risk.
So having Parker in my pocket does a few things for me. It lets me try out new wines that I otherwise wouldn’t try, with a little bit of extra security that just because I’m going off-piste doesn’t mean I’m going to crash; it lets me try different vintages for wines that I already know, confident that the style will be at least consistent. And it lets me avoid wines that I’m either pretty sure I won’t like, that are too expensive or just plain no good.
And if Mondovino doesn’t reinforce all of that for me then it won’t be that it’s a bad film, it will just be one that I don’t agree with.