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I just finished reading a prepublication version of Elin McCoy's upcoming book about Robert Parker. I found a copy, by accident, at a local coffee shop and was lucky to read this interesting book before it comes out in July.
On the whole, it is a balanced portrait of everything the man has done well and badly for international wine. I'll have more to say about the book's treatment of Parker when the book is published, but McCoy's portrait of how the wine world changed from the 1970s through today is a compelling story.
McCoy sees the tasting organized in Paris in 1976 by Steven Spurrier as one of the turning points. That tasting, for those who don't remember, created international headlines when a series of California wines bested some of the great names of French viticulture in a blind tasting conducted by some of France's best-known wine critics. Stags Leap came out the winner, matched against some of the greatest wines of Bordeaux.
There seemed to be something democratic and practically revolutionary about the results. The upstarts from America beat out the aristocratic Moutons and Haut-Brions and the lesson was that tasted blind, without seeing the prestigious labels and without knowing the history, the superior wines were from young vines from a young country with a young wine industry which was not trapped by tradition and class privileges. American brashness and dynamism reigned supreme.
More importantly, the old system of evaluating wines, a system based on the history of a region, a vineyard, a producer and the track history of their wines was no longer reliable. Blind tasting, deconstructing wine into fleeting aromatics and flavors was now the way to evaluate the worth of each bottle. Wine was no longer a culture, a way of life, a complement to a meal, but was now an Olympic event best judged by great and aspiring-to-be-great palates. Wine was removed from context and the eventual result was the Score/Tasting Note evaluatory system.
I spend a great deal of time with impassioned vignerons and always try to explain to our customers how the work in the fields and in the cellars is what makes great wine. I try to explain that the 20 second sniff and spit tasting exercise can only offer a glimpse of the vigneron's work and achievements. But, it is often difficult to sell wine as a natural product since so many people in the trade have been trained to believe that the way to judge wine is through a reductionist search for "tasting" characteristics.
So few people now are being trained to taste a wine in context, for where it came from, what it expresses and how it interacts with food and the real world. Instead, we have an external construct of fruit/wood/earthy flavors and aromas and we try to pigeonhole a wine into the confines of these external evaluators. We do not taste and drink the wine for what it is, but for what it approximates in wine tasting lexicon.
Certainly, famous wines are not great wines because of their birthright and history. There are underachievers, deceptions and disappointments -- wine is horribly complicated..
But I am still happy to drink a Raveneau knowing it needs years to develop and seeing a Raveneau label when I drink a Raveneau does not dull my critical perspective. In fact, it enriches my knowledge of what I am smelling and tasting.
Because the wine is not about me and not about my palate. Wine is not a vehicle for egomania, boastfulness and self-promotion. All the great "tasters" I have known are able to submerge their ego and understand what is in the bottle. Where it came from and where it is going. And they've done that without charts, tasting wheels or tortured prose likening wine to 57 different fruits (the Heinz Variety Tasting method).
A great taster is at one with the wine. Something we can all hope to be through experience, constant skepticism and openness to new experience and new sensations.
How boring the world of Points/Tasting notes has become! I even see my friends, people I like, writing endless tasting notes with endless useless fruit/wood/earth analogies that are of no possible use to anyone. Yes, they drop off the points, but they are still using the same methodology. Furthermore, modern oenology has learned how to manipulate wine to create manufactured aromas and flavors that fit into the "tasting palates" artificial construct.
I'm always shocked to see people enjoying fake fruits and fake sweetness and fake viscosity that is so obviously fraudulent and alien to wine. But even people with good intentions get sucked into this whirlwind of tasting frenzy, thinking that they are somehow coming closer to learning something about wine.
Why not just sit down with one great bottle. Learn everything you can about the region and producer. Go visit them on a vacation. Immerse yourself.
Learn to enjoy wine.