Robert Parker is Not the Worst Person In the World

Handsome is as handsome does

For a couple of decades I've been convinced that Robert Parker (above) is pretty much the most pernicious critic in human history, on any topic,. He has come the closest to convincing me of the existence of the Devil of anyone on this planet.

But I was wrong.

It turns out that however misguided Parker may be (and make no mistake, his meaningless and fraudulent 100 point rating system is the worst thing that's happened to critical thinking about wine in the 20th century), at least it's an ethos, man. He created something and stands for it, however harmful and meretricious it may be.

Which leaves astute readers the question: who the heck fits my criterion of 'worse than Robert Parker'? His unfailing handmaiden, Leo McCloskey. McCloskey is the principal behind Enologix, a company that does 'wine metrics' for producers around the world. A hat-tip to the ever-lively Tom Wark. In his blog he asked the question, Will Napa Valley Cabernet Be Saved By Ranking It? The genesis of the question was prompted by McCloskey's editorial piece in Wines and Vines, wherein (to quote Tom),

Essentially, he points out that much more Cabernet is being planted around the world. In addition, worldwide winemakers know how to make good wine from this variety. The result is that so much Cabernet Sauvignon is continually being produced around the world that eventually this varietal, like Chardonnay before it, will become a commodity. When that happens prices go down.

Okey-doke, a few things here. First, from a consumer standpoint it's difficult to see the problem. After all, this free market supply and demand situation is the essence of capitalism (albeit capitalism of the Austrian School, not the  protectionism and corporate-welfare socialism practiced today): when supply increases and demand remains unchanged, lower price and higher quantity result. Yay for us Cabernet drinkers.

Another winner in this are value-priced wine producers, like Two-Buck Chuck. A falling tide lowers all boats, and validates their price point. Of course, it's more competition, but I've met Fred Franzia and throwing competition at him is like pelting a shark with rich, bloody chum.

4 out of 5 smokers preferred Benjamins

From a premium wine producer standpoint, however, this is terrible. With massive investments in advertising, PR, distribution chains and suchlike, they need to keep margins as high as possible. In addition, my old friend Veblen economics rears it's head. People like to pay high prices for stuff because it makes them think they're cool and smart for paying high prices for stuff (no, really!) If prices for exclusive Cabernets were  forced down they couldn't justify their reputation, and then the smoke and mirrors of fashionable consumption would fall apart and they'd be reduced to cost-up pricing, where they would account for all cost-of-goods-sold and add a reasonable markup for profits and shareholders, like a real business.

To avert this potential catastrophe, McCloskey suggests a solution:

An economic underworld of oversupply may be shifting the price of Cabernet Sauvignon down in the future. Figures show Cabernet Sauvignon exhibiting early signs of commoditization. But it is not too late to save Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon.

Enologix warns winemakers to differentiate Napa from California by classifying the wines of Napa Valley. In lieu of a classification, Enologix advises that companies create a three-year trailing average 100-point score of 92-plus points to support prices above $50.

This classification he speaks of would be along the lines of the 1855 Bordeaux classification. In a nutshell, Paris had a world exposition, and the Emperor (Napoleon, not Parker) wanted a quick fix guide to wines for visitors. Accordingly, the most important wines of Bordeaux were ranked from 1 through 5, with 1 being best. It worked pretty well, as shortcuts often do, but mainly it worked for people in the 1st category, a situation which lasts to this day. 

The important, and I'll argue, the most heavily concealed part of this story is that the wines were emphatically not classified according to quality. They were classified by price. And 155 years later, after properties have grown, shrank, been sold, fallen into ruin or absorbed by others, the classification is still in place, ossified, outdated and cherished by all who benefit from it. Even Parker himself tried to revamp the classification, but even a sith lord has limits on his power, and he was largely ignored, for once.

Failing the classification, McCloskey suggests that wine companies point to their averaged scores on the 100 point scale to justify their premium pricing, so they won't have to compete on an economic basis. Now why would he do that?

Well, because he offers a service that helps wineries get higher point scores. From his website,

To understand a bit better just what this 'metrics' service does, here's a quote from a 2005 article by David Darlington in the New York Times Magazine:

To analyze an individual wine, Enologix runs a sample through a liquid chromatograph (and for white wine, a mass spectrometer) to separate and measure chemical compounds. McCloskey says he has identified about 100 that can affect a person's response; to compute a wine's ''quality index,'' the ratios -- not just the amounts -- of these compounds to one another are compared with those of bottled wines previously judged and scored by groups of vintners, growers, owners and critics. McCloskey publishes his findings in his magazine, Global Vintage Quarterly, alongside a separate National Critics' Score, which represents an average rating compiled from five publications: Wine Spectator, The Wine Advocate, Wine Enthusiast, Stephen Tanzer's International Wine Cellar and Connoisseurs' Guide to California Wine.

Enologix divides wine into four categories. For reds, Style 1 is pale in color and low in tannin, like most pinot noir or French Burgundy; Style 2 is also pale, but higher in tannin, like Italian Barolo; Style 3 is dark and tannic, like a great many cabernet sauvignons and first-growth Bordeaux; Style 4 is similarly dark but only moderately tannic. This last category, McCloskey told me, represents ''the vast majority of successful, flagship mainstream wines, the most elegant and popular wines in the world.''

Fermentation, the foundation of winemaking, occurs when yeast converts grape sugar into alcohol. Harvesting fruit late yields more intense flavor, though higher sugars result in higher alcohol levels; ''draining down sweet'' -- separating the juice in a fermentation tank from its crushed grape skins before all the sugar has been transformed -- means that less harsh-tasting tannin will find its way into the wine, with the side effect that it may age less well. According to McCloskey, these techniques (guided by Enologix chemistry and his winemaking expertise) can yield the Style 4 qualities -- rich, concentrated flavor and a soft, velvety sensation in the mouth -- that contemporary critics value most.

McCloskey claims that by using his system and the 100-point scale, winemakers can predict their own average critical scores within two and a half points with 95 percent accuracy (one and a half points with 80 percent accuracy). He says that the typical winery signing up with Enologix realizes a five-point rise over its previous years' average scores for red wines -- six for white. McCloskey's emphasis is on the luxury cabernet market in which wineries can afford Enologix's average annual service fee of $20,000. The company's revenues (which vary between $1 million and $1.4 million) flow from such prestigious names as Beaulieu, Benziger, Diamond Creek, Merry Edwards, Niebaum-Coppola, Ridge, St. Francis and Sebastiani. According to McCloskey, 39 Enologix wines scored 90 points or higher in a recent issue of The Wine Advocate.

McCloskey uses a chemistry set to tell producers how to game the system and score Parker Points in order to justify prices that would otherwise be untenable in a market where the 100 point rating system was relegated to the junkpile of popular madness. And it gets worse. From the same article, McCloskey's opinion on the value of his system:

''The consumer doesn't need to know about terroir. He just wants to know whether a wine is worth . . . whatever he's paying for it.''

Although McCloskey is fond of proclaiming that ''the consumer is king,'' sales don't figure into the Enologix Index. In lieu of formal studies or statistics, McCloskey (like most of the rest of the wine industry) accepts the axiom that buyers obey critics, whether or not the average consumer's palate agrees with that of the average wine writer.

Holy smokes! Sometimes the most horrible conspiracies are right out in the open, in front of your eyes. McCloskey is admitting that his scheme is only good for justifying price to consumers, whatever blather about quality or sylistic choices he parrots to cover up his manipulation of the system, and that he's catering to wine critics palates, and not to absolute quality, consumer judgment or anything else.

McCloskey admits--no, he emphasizes--that one day his advice will be replaced by customer management software, and his system will churn out Zombie Wines that stalk the shelves like overpriced soulless undead, revenants of grapes designed to eat the brains of blandly hedonistic consumers bent on overspending to comfort themselves in the face of purchase uncertainty. Well, okay, he didn't say the part about Zombie Wine, that was me. But that's what he's pushing.

I say the commoditisation of Napa Cabernet can't happen soon enough. To heck with this McCloskey fool and his gaming the rotten point system. When I drink wine I don't want rich concentration and 'velvet in the mouth'. I want poetry trapped in sunshine. I want a wine that makes me think, that fills me with joy just to smell it. What I really want is what Maya said in Sideways:

I like to think about what was going on the year the grapes were growing; how the sun was shining; if it rained. I like to think about all the people who tended and picked the grapes. And if it's an old wine, how many of them must be dead by now. I like how wine continues to evolve, like if I opened a bottle of wine today it would taste different than if I'd opened it on any other day, because a bottle of wine is actually alive. And it's constantly evolving and gaining complexity. That is, until it peaks, like your '61. And then it begins its steady, inevitable decline.

Stick that in your gas chromatograph and smoke it, McCloskey. I hope market forces treat you with the same respect you treat consumers.

Posted by Confounded Tim AT 4:37PM 8 Comments Comments Post A Comment Post A Comment Email Email

Send this post to a friend