Tuesday, June 2, 2015
EPHEMERA: "The Wrath of Grapes"--Not Just a Lousy Title
Most of the buzz in the biz the past week has centered on Bruce Schoenfeld’s article in The New York Times Magazine, “The Wrath of Grapes.” I think the title pissed me off to begin with, though I’m certain that wasn’t Schoenfeld’s doing. Maybe “Parr for the Coarse” would have been more accurate. Or “In Hirsute of Balance.” I thought I’d add to the discussion, though I am also certain that what I say and think is relatively unimportant.
When I was 42, Raj Parr’s current age, I thought I knew everything about wine, too. I’ve never met Parr, but he’s certainly well-liked around the wine world, which I’m happy to note, and not just by adherents of his winemaking philosophy. At 42, many people reinvent themselves. Parr had become a celebrity sommelier, the kind of oxymoron that makes me laugh, like “natural wine.” And the best way to get into the pages of The New York Times Magazine is to become a celebrity. Parr was smart, a sommelier who knew to hitch his star to a wealthy patron, Charles Banks. (Does anyone else find it ironic that Banks began his foray into the wine world with the money he made as an investment banker (paragons of integrity) with Jonata first, followed by the purchase of the very epitome of the wines Parr hates and Robert Parker made valuable, Screaming Eagle?)
Parr’s being front and center in the sommelier world brings a very distorted image of a sommelier to the public. He’s presented as the anti-Parker in the piece, the angel on your shoulder, not that big, fat, evil, 100-Point-Beelzebub whispering nasty remarks in your ear. At 42, I was damned preachy about wine, too. I wasn’t smart enough to get one of my wealthy customers to bankroll me through life, but I was certainly right about wine just about all of the time. Though I never had any desire to own a winery. And I never assumed it was my job to decide for customers what wines they were supposed to like. I tried to list wines that were great examples of their style and appellation, regardless of whether I found them personally rewarding. I swear, I thought that was the job! Turns out, I was a crappy sommelier.
Eventually, I learned that what I didn’t know about wine was infinite. This is still true today. The NYT Magazine piece paints Parr as a visionary, a kind and thoughtful revolutionary, a wine savant with unquestionable knowledge, instead of as a man who has had a single idea and has run with it. That’s not revolutionary, that’s narrowminded. Parr and Jasmine Hirsch had a simple marketing idea, and it has worked much better than they could have dreamed it would. Good for them. Now along comes Bruce Schoenfeld, who pitches an idea to the New York Times, writes a marketing piece for In Pursuit of Balance, and now Parr is the savior of wine. For another month or so, anyway. The last winemaker anointed by the NYT Magazine was Abe Schoener. Who talks about him anymore? Well, aside from Abe.
It seems to me there is a lot left out of the piece. That might be an editorial decision, or it might have been the author. The piece quotes Parker’s rant about Raj Parr, but fails to note that the rant was several years old. That seems purposefully slanted editorializing. It fails to note that Raj Parr doesn’t make Domaine de la Cote or Sandhi wines, which would seem to me to be important, especially to the vast majority of the readers of the piece who would certainly come away believing he does make the wines. Does he make picking decisions? Does he just tell Sashi Moorman how to make the wines so that they reflect their sites? Does he tell Sashi to make wines without any style? “Hey, Sashi, I’m detecting some style in this Pinot Noir. Knock that shit off.” And what about talking to some of the producers Raj Parr and his tasting committee have turned down for inclusion to IPOB? They might have something interesting to say.
I don’t like the tone of the piece. But Schoenfeld is a talented writer (even though he hates the HoseMaster, for which I am deeply grateful), so the tone must be deliberate. Stuff like Parker being “hefty and bearded” while Parr has a "teddy-bear physique.” He could have reversed those descriptions and they’d be accurate, too. The tone shifts back and forth, depending upon which side of the balance fence he’s writing about. Parr’s parts are lullabies, sweetly rendered and cherubic. The other parts are almost dismissive, and certainly skewed. And I know skewed. Steve Matthiason is a dreamer, an ethical man who follows his wine beliefs at his own expense. Doug Shafer lives among the grandiose architecture of Napa, whereas Steve lives in a farmhouse. See that? Grandiose vs. Farmer Steve. It’s propaganda, a NYT Magazine celebrity piece, plain and simple. And when a PR piece is written by someone talented, it’s just that much more effective, and that much more insidious. Yes, a piece should have a point of view, and Schoenfeld is entitled to his. It’s just that his point of view, illuminated by the hyperbolic subtitle, “A band of upstart winemakers is trying to redefine what California wine should taste like — and enraging America’s most famous oenophile in the process.” is so clearly sympathetic to one side at the expense of the broader picture.
Try making one of Parr’s “virtually flavorless” wines and selling it in the supermarket. Oh, that’s right, Santa Margherita did that twenty years ago. Unlike Matthiason’s wines, it won’t make you think. It will make you drunk. Try selling wines under 14% ABV in the supermarket. Oh, wait, just about every wine mass-produced for supermarkets is under 14% ABV. Why? Because you pay a lot more in taxes for a wine over 14% ABV, and that kills your bottom line. Are those great wines? They are to the folks who buy them. Maybe that Parr is on to something.
I’ve had a lot of fun at IPOB’s expense, and, to their credit, they’ve been gracious targets. Jasmine Hirsch is a sweetheart, and has always been generous to me. I’ve also insulted and satirized Robert Parker, and he has been equally gracious. It’s weird to me how Schoenfeld’s article paints Parker as responsible for what’s wrong with California wine, because, in truth, there is nothing wrong with California wine. And if there were, Parker would only be responsible for how it’s sold, not how it’s made. Are there wines that were made tailored to Parker’s palate? Yes. They were lousy and almost always scored lousy. Will there be more wines made tailored to Parr’s palate? Not very many, I’d guess. And that is a blessing.
What Parr really represents is the culture’s awareness of wine as something more than an inebriant. This is relatively new to Americans. Few people in my generation thought about terroir, including winemakers. You were basically unable to make “Parkerized” wines back then, so you didn’t. Cabernet Sauvignons from Napa Valley in the ’60’s and ’70’s were all under 14% ABV, many were under 13%, just not by choice. Now people are thinking about the differences between wine and Great Wine. All this is fantastic, and it helps give meaning to wines like Sandhi. It also gives meaning to wines like Carlisle and Bedrock and Spottswoode, too. There’s not just one way to make Great Wine. Anyone, and I mean anyone, who tells you otherwise is a fraud.
I’m just sorry that Raj Parr and company were anointed by the Newspaper of Record. I’m glad for them, they’re all very nice people, and I’d love to have a puff piece written about me in that magazine. But for the vast majority of folks who read the NYT Magazine, that piece is very misleading and misguided. It implies California has made stupid wines for decades because of one critic, which is simply untrue. And it implies that Raj Parr is some kind of visionary, while in truth he’s more Don Quixote tilting at windmills.