Dave Jones’ Cafe Beat

Food & Drink Opinions - May 13th, 1988

Continuing my diatribe against wine writers and using as a basis the two-part series on the subject in the Los Angeles Times by staff writer David Shaw, published on Aug. 23 and 24 last year, I will now go into what I consider a disgraceful result of the wine-tasting business, for business it has indeed become. It is the effect it has on consumers.

Shaw terms Robert M. Par­ker Jr., who writes and pub­lishes the Wine Advocate, “The most influential wine writer in the world today.” He cites as an example of his influence a fellow who had bought a case of Chardonnay at a certain wine shop, came back a day or two later to return 11 bottles. He had drunk one and did not like it. Then about a week later he showed up at the shop asking for another case of the wine. When the astonished proprietor asked the reason for his reculiar be­havior, he said that he had just read a rave review of it in the Wine Advocate.

As another example of Parker’s influence, Shaw tells of importer who sold out his entire stock of 12,000 bottles of 1982 Chateau Cerlan, a lit­tle-known Pomerel, in 48 hours alter Parker had given it a 97 in his rating system of 50 to 100 points.

Then there is the case of the Matanzas Creek Winery in Sonoma County. According to Shaw, co-owner William McIvor admitted to changing the style of the winery’s red wines, because Parker, though prais­ing the whites, condemned the reds.

“Wc weren’t making good red wine and didn’t even know it,” McIvor was quoted as saying.

That statement jolted me. If the winery has to be told it is making bad wines, how does it know when it is making good wines? Did Parker give them his imprimatur? What then does the cellarmaker know about wines? He may be one of those recent oenology graduates from at the U. C. Davis campus whose wine knowledge consists of Bunsen burners and chemical formulas.

In a way, I know why the winery changed its style of reds to suit Parker’s tastes. Parker would then write favorably about them, and they would sell like hot cakes. It makes good marketing sense.

What I don’t understand is why wine drinkers go by somebody else’s judgment. Do they know Parker’s qualifications? The qualifications Shaw gave him didn’t add up to much. He started drinking wine about 1957 when, during a European trip, he found beer too bloat­ing and Coke too expensive. Turning to the cheap local table wines, he developed an interest in the subject and began to study it, spending his summers in Bordeaux. But does that qualify him as an expert? How do the readers of the Wine Advocate know that his know­ledge of wine is so great that they will take his word on what to buy?

Compare Parker and other U.S. wine writers with their counterparts in England. Most of the English wine writers I know hold Master of Wine degrees, which they obtained after working two years in the industry and another two years learning the finer points of the subject from lectures, reading and tastings. They have to pass stiff written and tasting tests. Those who do not have an M.W., like Hugh Johnson, who may be the best-known English wine writer in the U.S. now because of the popular wine books he wrote, have to be good. The competition there is so exacting.

Shaw wrote that Parker’s influence was on the East Coast at the beginning and concerned Bordeaux wines. He has now spread across the country “and has written knowledgeably (and influentially) about the wines of other regions of France and about the wines of Italy, Ger­many, Spain, Australia, Califor­nia and Oregon as well.”

Where’s Portugal, Chile, Argentina, South Africa, Alge­ria and all other wine-producing countries? Why set a limit on his ambitions? His limit really should have ended at Bordeaux, for it’s tough to know enough about the wines of one region to be able to write knowledgeably about them. So wise wine writers confine their efforts to a particular area. They know their limitations. I view with suspicion any book that covers more than one region and won’t bother with those which cover the world of wine.

For any author who lakes on such an insurmountable task either does not know enough about wine to know better or else has knowledgeable persons in other areas send him the information which he rewrites in his style. The contributors are usually pleased to have their region covered and care nothing about author rights. For they are usually knowledgeable wine dealers.

After reading Shaw’s series, I was astounded at the infant and infantile slate of the wine scene in the U.S. American wine drinkers should learn to develop their own tastes and opinions like wine drinkers in other countries. If they think their palate is not sufficiently developed, they should take steps to correct the deficiency by drinking more wine.

Reading other people’s opin­ions should be a matter of interest only.

I don’t believe any columnist should have the power to make or break anything, be it a wine, a restaurant, a movie, stage performance or what­ever. For the dictum that ab­solute power corrupts absolute­ly applies not just to politics.