Monday, November 23, 2015

It's a new era in wine: Thoughts on Pinot Noir, Robert Parker and the mainstream food media

In wine, the counterculture is the culture now.

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.

Not anymore.

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.

Follow me on Twitter: @wblakegray and like The Gray Report on Facebook.


  1. So what you're saying is that I went and moved to Europe for nothing? I could have just stuck it out another decade on the West Coast and European style wines would have come to me? Well that just sucks, although not nearly as much as my former rent and health insurance costs in SF though.

    And yeah, I was wondering why that Parker post was so sucky. Thought it was some draft you had accidentally published.

    Wine on VI

  2. Yep, there's no country in Europe where you can get more interesting wines in one place at a good price than in the US. Sure, there are interesting wines all over France, for example, but even in Paris it's not that easy to find them all, and good luck drinking something interesting from anywhere else.

  3. Ah, so that explains that post. Nice experiment, but I think if you had actually made it a longer, more "real" post (or taken something you wrote 5 years ago and updated and reposted) you might have gotten more. As it is, it just seemed like a weird nonsense nothing post.

  4. And...apparently Natural Wine is the new thing for people at large. *sigh* That article is...interesting.

  5. But does this counterculture truly exist at the consumer level, or is it merely representative of the people involved in the wine industry and wine media? I have a hard time believing someone who is not a somm, writer, or wine salesperson would go out and seek a wine from Jura or Georgia after reading the BonApp story. In my experience, the truly average wine consumer -- millennials included -- want an affordable wine that "tastes smooth" (i.e., has RS) and don't care all that much where it comes from, who makes it, or whether it's a varietal new to them. Ironically (in light of this post), the most popular red wines today are Cabernet, formulaic blends, and the light-bodied Pinot Noirs you refer to. Are wineries making leaner Pinot because it's different or because it's easier to meet increased demand by planting in cooler areas? I'm not entirely sure -- I only know that I've experienced the same lightness and assumed it was because Pinot has become cheaper and more ubiquitous thanks to a movie rather than a sommelier-inspired counter-culture thing. And despite all the recent chatter and championing of Arneis, Harslevelu, Txakoli, and other enamel-eroding varietals of the month, the most popular whites remain Pinot Grigio and Chardonnay, with the hardly counter-culture Moscato a distant third.

    As for Parker, I agree with you that the only people who care about him are his fans. But did anyone ever care about him other than his fans? His fans have predominantly been wine trade professionals who use his ratings to sell wine and wealthy wine collectors. The performance of your click-bait experiment isn't necessarily an indication of counter-culture nor Parker's loss of popularity. I'd argue that Parker hasn't grown his audience in the digital age mainly because his content is behind a paywall, which makes it inaccessible by search engines (that people use to find wine content) and to millennials (who generally don't pay for content).

    I agree with you that counterculture is culture now in the industry (somms and media especially) and possibly extending to uber-geeks, but as for mainstream? I'm not so sure.

  6. Joe: You raise some good points. On Thanksgiving few Americans will drink Riesling or Sherry though the media has been telling them to for years.

    But there's a preponderance of evidence of a new era that I want to point to, and don't think I have done so adequately. Chardonnay is also far different than it was 10 years ago, and with a varietal that popular, it can't have been changed without the public's consent.

  7. One thing to note, from the California Grape Crush Report, are average brix numbers at harvest for all of the major CA growing regions for Pinot Noir.

    2014 in Mendocino County was the second highest average brix ever recorded.
    2014 in Sonoma County was the second highest average brix ever recorded (2013 was tied for 3rd - behind the really hot 2004 vintage).
    2014 and 2013 in Monterey are tied for the 2nd highest brix ever recorded (behind 2004 as well).
    In San Luis/Santa Barbara Counties 2014 is actually only the 4th highest brix while 2013 is tied for 6th.

    I will leave it to you all to figure out how that all results in lighter Pinots on average.

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

  8. Great comment Adam.....There are a few reasons I can think of that explain Blakes observations depite the higher Brix at harvest (BTW, do you have the extact figures?). This includes skin contact, oak and enzyme use which contributes to the perception of body and color and "Jesus juice" (water) additions / de-ETOH-izations techniques which are (frequently?) used to reduce overall ETOH levels despite high harvest brix.

  9. Andrew,

    Indeed, I do have exact figures...for the past two decades plus. Let me know what you would like to have and I can give them to you.

    I think there are many reasons, and you name some. Thanks for that.

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

  10. Guys,

    If California Pinot Noir is getting lighter, then comment about Meomi (recently purchased for $315 million) . . . a wine with residual sugar that no one would describe as anorexic.

    Quoting David White of Terriorist:

    "For hard data, the 2012 'Meiomi' Pinot Noir from Belle Glos contains 6.22 grams/liter of sugar according to a lab test. ..."

    "... [not] 'dry' in any sense of the word. Indeed, the European regulatory sense of the word, wine is 'dry' when under 3 g/L. (Interestingly, while most U.S. winemakers believe that 'dry' is under 1 g/L RS, most European winemakers believe that 'dry' is under 3 g/L.)

    . . .

    "My beef with these wines (and others like it) is that they're sold and advertised as 'dry,' and not just from a marketing sense. The tech sheets on these particular wines don't mention RS even though that's the industry standard."


    ~~ Bob