The Executive Wine Seminar‘s showcase of 2005 Bordeaux in New York City was arguably the most significant tasting event of last week. It combined three highlight characteristics including, Robert Parker’s customary attendance, some of the best wines from the heralded vintage, and the excellent organization and format that EWS founders Howard Kaplan and Robert Millman continue to orchestrate. Yet, with the signature effect of a roadside bomb intended for Parker’s motorcade, Tyler Colman’s follow-up post created an explosion after outlining his version and anticipation of the tasting’s three highlight characteristics:
Aside from that outrageous apparent quality of the wines, the tasting had two other attractions: the ability to taste some of the top wines blind and to do so in the company of Robert Parker.
The post did some early dancing and jabbing delivering reporting that wine collectors are most interested in; the different wines’ characteristics, favorites and clunkers, dumb and over ripe, claims on tannin and bret, an updated report on the vintage, etc. In the end, there were some nice concluding observations around a popularized and homogenized style of overly oaked, highly extracted wines that mask terroir and overshadow more restrained but excellent wines, and an occurence every blind tasting buyer likes to see; Parker’s favorite wine of the night and one the crowd felt performed much better than Lafite, Le Gay, held one of the lowest original Parker ratings and could be had for 1/8 the price of the first growth.
But alas Colman, who has come by a “Parker head hunting” reputation honestly, declared proof of thesis in what appears somewhat premeditated and only barely veiled in his original interest in attending the event:
1) Parker performed poorly in guessing exact wines when tasting blind despite his public claims of photographic palate memory
2) The EWS blind tasting upended his original ratings because Parker does not consistently subject himself to blind tasting regimens
As of this writing, the post has received 75 comments. I offered the first one recalling the 1990 vintage EWS Bordeaux/Parker tasting which I attended and witnessed Parker nailing many of the wines blind, an admittedly most difficult and tenuous feat for anybody that has ever tried. I think Charlie Olken nailed it best when he called it “a parlor trick”.
Colman attracts a number of followers who gladly jump on his “dump Parker and his ratings” bandwagon, and many came out to the party this weekend. Claims that the 100 point scale was useless and misleading, Parker’s self-declared champion tasting skills are examples of unjustified public chest beating, he did or did not invent the 100 point scale, young or evolving wine should not be tagged with definitive reviews, the end of Parker is near, Parker can’t even decipher right bank wines from left bank ones, Parker is really cooked now because the controversy is about him and not the behavior of his hired correspondents, and there is no difference between wines 95 points and up had my Blackberry buzzing all weekend. It was an equal opportunity lynching by wine afficionados, traditional wine journalists, members of the wine trade, and bloggers as they swayed back and forth over the weekend pummeling Parker.
Occasionally, there were attempts to lightly defend Parker’s performance at the event. Watching as my initial volley to represent the past success Parker had at the 1990 vintage tasting proved feeble, Charlie Olken, as he often does, provided some substantial balance to the discussion:
…I have seen great tasters who can do it frequently, even when not knowing what was being tasted, and I have seen great tasters who can rarely do it.
It would be a total non-issue here except for the big deal that Parker himself has made of it.
That said, the preference order changes in this tasting are virtually insignificant and tell us next to nothing about the 100-point scale. With the exception of one 100-point wine, all the other wines were rated 95 to 98. It really does not matter if the next time they were rated the order changed. Scores at that level are other worldly, and if the wines continue to be other worldly, then there is no argument except for those who think that wine scores are scientific rather than subjective approximations.
Finally, Parker identified three wines as his top choices. They scored 100, 98 and 95. I cant see how one can be totally upset with that result.
No, it is not the qualitative judgment that is subject here. It is the claim to parlor trick wizardry that loses out.
The range of wines tasted should suggest to all that it would be impossible to criticize Parker for getting the order wrong.
There were a handful of others that suggested Parker’s participation and willingness to publicly put himself at risk should be considered. The beauty of our new found expression through social media is that everyone is entitled to their opinion, to be taken or left by the reader, and it is not my intention here to malign anyone for sharing theirs. My personal opinion is that Parker is an icon, a market maker, a dedicated professional, a passionate wine enthusiast, and a hard working guy that has been working his regimen for more than 30 years. There is a lot to applaud here. With all that comes responsibility, unavoidable missteps, and error. In this blog I have raised my views on some less than consumer friendly characteristics of the Parker market making machine.There are members of the trade that have been hurt by his opinions, and those that have benefitted. There are consumers who abide by his guidance, and some who hate it. It seems, though, that nobody can ignore it.
It should be noted that attendees at this event came from all over the country and spent $795 to taste these wines. I think there could be a more practical way to taste these wines blind, and the reason that people came (as I used to) is to get a chance to belly up with Parker at the tasting table. Organizer Howard Kaplan said it best as he weighed into the spiraling conversation:
Thanks for the nice writeup of the tasting, mentioning myself and EWS. I just thought that what was missing from the piece was capturing the sheer joy shared by most participants to be there.
Or, to put it more simply, it was unbelievable FUN to taste those 2005s with Mr. P. This is why we drink wine as our hobby instead of collecting stamps!
Wine blogs break down the barriers between those that make their livings in wine and those that live to enjoy wine. Some live on both sides of that fence simultaneously. Critics defending their perspectives on rating systems live side by side with consumers searching for like minded folks to share wine experiences and education in the blogosphere creating an abrasive juxtaposition of agendas. In the end, I think it connects trade and professional critics with the audience they serve and both sides are better off for it.
In the midst of the drawn out and charged discussion between critics over methodology, Christina, a seemingly sensible wine enthusiast cleared some of the smoke for everyone:
All of the above are interesting posts to read, but I can’t help but interpret this as insiders arguing with other insiders about issues the average wine drinker doesn’t care about. When I first started drinking wine, I relied heavily on Parker and Wine Spectator scores. I early on discarded Parker for, in my view, grade inflation, but continued on with WS for a while until I got better educated about grapes and geography. I still am interested in what WS has to say – I know where my tastes diverge from theirs – but I rely much more on my own judgment and wines tasted in my travels…The fact that Parker likes to brag about his unerring palate and comes up wrong is entertaining, but not relevant to buying and drinking wine on a daily basis…Ratings aren’t the only way to gain that self confidence, but they’re the way that’s the most accessible to the most people. Some may never move away from relying on ratings, and they’re missing out on a lot, but for many of us, they’ve been a very useful launching point.
Had Parker correctly guessed a half dozen wines blind would Colman have declared blind tasting less important? Might he have lead with a headline about Parker’s skill as opposed to “blind tasting is tough?” Would he have created a post that represented the thrilling experience of wine collectors getting to spit into the same bucket as Parker? I doubt it. But again, I have no gripe with Colman and he has the right to vehemently oppose Parker’s influence on the wine market. So, if the violence of Colman’s roadside bomb has a silver lining it must be its amplification of the emerging discussion between consumers, wine trade, and critics through the social web. While everyone’s opinion is welcome, I just wish Christina’s had surfaced on Friday morning so I could have turned off my Blackberry for the rest of the weekend.