Monday, November 23, 2015
It's a new era in wine: Thoughts on Pinot Noir, Robert Parker and the mainstream food media
In 1992, Bill Clinton became the first admitted marijuana smoker to be elected President. That used to be a litmus test, so much so that Clinton, the most famous equivocator in the White House, claimed, "I didn't inhale." Now, a black man can say he used a little cocaine and be elected President. The world is different now and people paying attention could see it in 1992.
Friday was such a day for me. In three different events, I noticed that changes many people have been predicting have all happened already. Individually they are not news, but the fact that we have actually entered a new era is worth noting.
Point 1: I went to PinotFest, an annual tasting in San Francisco of only west coast Pinot Noir, for the 10th time. When I went to this event for the first time the full-bodied style of Pinot Noir was the most common. You could find leaner styles, and sommeliers gathered around those tables, but they were the minority.
I tasted wines from about half the 60 producers in attendance (5 were from Oregon; the rest from California). There are still some big-bodied Pinots, but they are the minority now. It could be my taste memory but in many instances the same brands I have tasted for several years have lightened up. And it's not because of vintage: most wines were from 2012 and 2013, which were warm, dry years on the West Coast.
One could argue that curation is a factor: Rent-a-Sommie Peter Palmer turns away wineries because the venue doesn't have space for more than 60. But I would disagree with that. Continuity is key for Palmer, as most of these wineries have been participating for years. And he has always welcomed big Pinot advocates like Kosta Browne. We're tasting Pinots from the same producers; they're just lighter.
Both Littorai winemaker Ted Lemon and John Winthrop Haeger, author of "North American Pinot Noir," suggested to me that it's a natural consequence of people planting vineyards in cooler, more marginal areas, generally closer to the coast.
This is true, but that is a natural consequence of what the underlying reason is: Most West Coast wineries now choose to make lighter bodied Pinot Noir.
Point 2: Coincidentally, I chose Friday to run an experimental blog post. I posted a very short, straightforward 6-sentence statement titled "I don't agree with Robert Parker's wine ratings." (I'm not linking to it because I don't want you to click on it. Instead, if you want to read it, please go back to the main page of my blog and read it there, which will not count as a page view.)
Parker has long been the lightning rod for bloggers, sommeliers and wine aficionados who used to be considered counterculture. A few years ago, if my blog was sagging in readers or comments, I could reliably post something with Robert Parker in the headline and bang, instant readership. And not just me. Wine Business' list of top daily blog posts frequently contained criticisms of Parker. Moreover, the comments on these posts were long and passionate.
I wondered if people still care about Parker, which is why I created the post. People have been saying "I don't care about Parker!!!!!" for so long, yet still taking the clickbait and getting their dander up. Would it still be true?
Despite my warning above, the Heisenberg Principle is going to change my findings; more people will click on it. But right now, a post entitled "I don't agree with Robert Parker's wine ratings" is my worst-read post since Feb. 2011, a post in which I suggested people attend a farm pop-up stand in Oakland. Moreover, I got (so far) only three comments, the most indicative of which was by my regular reader jo6pac, who wrote, "So?"
It's not the quality of the writing: I have written a lot worse posts, believe me. The stripped-down nature of the post meant, as much as possible, I was testing the passion level of readers on the topic itself.
The only conclusion I can draw is this: Other than his fans (who still exist in decent numbers), wine drinkers really don't care anymore about Robert Parker.
Point 3: The mainstream food media has never been a place to read about the cutting edge in wine.
This makes sense, because food magazines have much wider readership than wine magazines and many of their readers don't care much about wine. Not only that, wine availability is a huge issue. Food magazines don't want to tell their readers about a terrific wine that none of them can get their hands on. Even Eric Asimov gets this kind of complaint for his New York Times wine column; imagine what it's like for readers of, say, Bon Appétit.
I mention those two together because it was a tweet from Asimov (thanks, Eric!) that alerted me to this Bon Appétit article, "The (Totally Fun, Not At All Stuffy) New Rules of Wine."
There's very little difference between the wines mentioned in this article and those that might have been chosen for a wine-geek blog. The first wines listed were from Corsica, the Canary Islands and Jura (for reds!)
Yet it's clearly written as an article for beginners. And it's clearly NOT written by a wine expert. (Nobody with a serious cellar rotates the wines in it every week; that's crazy talk.)
The point isn't that the article tells a reader of this blog, or wine publications in general, anything you don't already know. The point is that for a major food magazine, the counterculture is the culture now.
It's like the 1996 election. Bob Dole, before he became a Viagra spokesman, told voters that he thought there might be one more mission for the men of his generation. But that era was over, and there was nothing left but retirement (and Viagra). So it is for a certain era in wine.
I give this development 95 points.
Posted by W. Blake Gray at 6:00 AM