Let’s talk about the ratings system and Robert Parker. There seems to occasionally be talk of throwing out the wine rating system, and reenergizing it — what do you think about that?
Parker just became such a sensation because he was one palate single-handedly changing the way Europeans were making wines. And it drove some people to ecstasy and others to apoplexy. And you actually had a love-hate thing for him. And I think the American palate, even among the very wealthy collectors, is instant gratification. And he would say, his question always was, “Why would I buy wine that I’m going to have to hold for 40 years?”
When talking to producers in Brunello about a 40-year-old wine, before it was even opened up, he was like, “Why would I bother?” I’m paraphrasing him completely, but he would say, “I want this wine to be ready now or in five years at least.” And it started to change the way people were making wine, and I think that just became a lightning rod for the industry. And also because it’s not really just about his ratings, he’s encyclopedic.
I was in France five years ago, and the stories among winemakers of him coming up and asking questions that they could not believe he could possibly have known… There’s a famous story about him being at Petrus, and they’ve poured 20 wines for him let’s say, and he’s being translated back and forth between the PR people and the wine-making team, and he said, “But I have a question, you stopped filtering,” and I’m now making this up, “In ’92, ’93, and ’94, but then you started again in ’95, skipped ’96,” and there was just the translation, and then the silence, and then, you can imagine, who the f@ck told him that, in French. And then there was all this handwringing. Like, who’s telling our secrets, and it’s because he’s amazing.
Any other stories?
A winemaker in Sauternes told me they all had to bring a bottle of wine in a brown paper bag and then they did a round-robin at the table to see who could guess whose wine was which. Not even whose wine was which, but then the vintage was secondary. Parker tasted one of the wines and said, “This is a 1957," and he named the producer and the winemaker said, “Why would you say that?” And he said, “Because I had this wine in 1986, and I remembered it distinctly, and I imagine that this is what it would taste like today. I’m completely guessing.” And he was right, and people fell out of their chairs. He’s insanely encyclopedic. That just drives people crazy. It’s impressive, and it drives people crazy.
Here’s why everyone would say Robert Parker is unimpeachable: there’s not a single ounce of advertising in the wine report, in the Wine Advocate. In the Wine Spectator there is. In all the other magazines there is. So you say, it has to affect something, right? But what I like about The Spectator is that the critics’ names are next to each rating, so you could say, “Oh, I don’t like Jim Laube’s opinions so I don’t read his reviews.” So you can dismiss them, but you don’t dismiss the whole Spectator. But again, the whole numbers thing, it drives people crazy.
What's your personal stance on ratings?
I fought to get rid of the ratings in the wine guide. And I was told by Food & Wine editors that people depend on them; they need to know. It informs how they buy, so they need it. So if we say it’s three stars or four stars, that works for them. I would rather say, this book is only about wines that we love. And they’re across-the-board equal. And if we recommend out of 5,000 bottles, 1,100, they’re all recommended. I threw everyone else overboard. But they said, “No, we need stars.” So clearly I’m not a businessman, which is why I’m a lowly journalist making schoolteacher pay. But this is what makes the world go around. I don’t think that ratings will ever go away. I just think that there will be fierce debate about who says what and what drives them. So Parker still remains unimpeachable because he doesn’t have advertising.
Well what do you do in a world without Robert Parker?
I know. Well now Antonio Barone is taking his place in California, and he’s already been doing Italy and now he’s taking over California… that was enormous. That was like you could hear the gasps when that was announced a few months ago. So now Barone becomes powerful. Who knows? I wish it was Antonio Giglio who was to become the most powerful wine critic on the planet, but I remain to be tested.
From your travels in Europe, what should be the next big up-and-coming wine?
I said this at the seminar, and I’ll say it to you. I still think that based on how people buy, and this is having entertained constantly — I mean every year I do over 100 wine dinners — I don’t care how wealthy the demographic, they all want to know on the side, sotto voce, “Tell me your favorite values.” What’s the best bang for your buck under $20, even under $50 might be a value for some people. But I say to them, "Go to the wine store and ask for Spain. Ask for help and ask for what they have from Spain." Depending on where you are in the country, it might be less and less available.
I mean, where we are in New York there’s an amazing amount of Spanish wine available. PJ’s up in Harlem has the most incredible selection of Spanish wines, I think, in the Northeast. And it’s because most Americans who need to know the grapes or at least need to know the trophy regions don’t look to Spain. I mean, Rioja, they used to call it the Bordeaux of Spain. But it’s sort of shaking off the jacket of being a fuddy-duddy, old provincial appellation, but you have dynamic winemakers taking trophies home constantly now. And I say, yeah, sure you buy them and you’ll find delicious, amazing wines, but there are so many regions that are unknown, so many inexpensive bottles that if they were from Italy or Spain or California they’d be $20, $30, $50 more, and you can buy them for $12.