Here in California, the big news last week was that Mr. Robert Parker has ceded responsibility for tasting the state's wines to his assistant, Mr. Antonio Galloni. Many people have asked me what impact this will have on California wine, if any. My answer is, not much.
Mr. Parker was a very influential reviewer in his day. A high score from him upon a California wine would guarantee its commercial success, while a low one, or no score at all, consigned it to obscurity. But that was in the 1980s and 1990s, when Mr. Parker was pretty much "the only game in town." He held a virtual monopoly on wine scores and reviews and, as such, was the Hosni Mubarak of wine reviewers: an absolute dictator whose word was law. We are now in the 21st century, a time when old authority is being overturned and important new critical voices are arising. This is largely the result of the same force we recently saw at play in Egypt: the Internet. We live in an era in which every man and woman can express an opinion, and self-publish it instantly across the world. As a result of wine bloggers, there are many more voices expressing opinions about wine. Not all of them know what they're talking about, of course; but as the old saying goes, the cream will rise to the top. The effect Robert Parker had on California wine over the last 25 years has been what is often called "the Parkerization of wine." Mr. Parker's highest scores tended to be awarded to big, bold, extracted wines, both red and white, and highly oaked, as well. I know many winemakers who have lamented the fact that they try to make balanced wines, under 14%, with modest oak, only to have Mr. Parker give them terrible scores, if he even takes the time to review them in the first place. Instead, the typical high-scoring Parker Cabernet is a 15.5% jammy monster groaning under the weight of significant new oak, with a sweet finish.
It's not clear how Mr. Galloni will react to California wine, although I doubt that Mr. Parker would have assigned California to him if he (Mr. Parker) thought that Mr. Galloni was going to reverse course and take exactly the opposite approach to California that Mr. Parker did. Thus, my guess is that we can expect more of the same from The Wine Advocate.
It is also interesting to speculate how California wineries that routinely depended on Parker scores for publicity will react now that they no longer have Mr. Parker to cite. Will they instead talk about their Antonio Galloni scores? Very few people in America, even sophisticated wine collectors, have heard of Mr. Galloni. This conundrum may mean that wineries will have to turn to alternative reviewers, including myself, in place of Mr. Parker. At any rate, my view is that California wine, and particular Cabernet Sauvignon, is returning to a more balanced, nuanced style, lower in alcohol than we've seen in the previous decade. There are reasons for this. One is simply that styles in wine change, as they do in fashion, films and politics. The new emergent style in wine is lower in alcohol, more elegant, showing greater finesse. This trend also has been aided by California's series of unusually cool vintages since 2005, of which 2010 was the most remarkably chilly in living memory. Nature thus helps to ensure wines of greater balance since vintners were unable to get the grapes to ripen to the extraordinarily high sugar levels that result in candied, extracted wines. The fact is that the distinctions between the best California Cabernets and top Bordeaux are less each year. The Bordelais too have been picking riper due to the influence of Mr. Parker, so that, today, it can be difficult to tell the difference between a classified growth and a top Napa Cabernet in a blind tasting. This troubles some people, who object to "the international style" as blurring, if not completely eliminating, terroir differences. If anyone should be troubled, however, it's the Bordelais, who are going to find it increasingly difficult to explain to consumers why their wines should routinely cost 3 or 4 times as much as a California Cabernet that is similar in quality.
It's said that the Chinese will be the saviours of Bordeaux, but I don't think that's quite accurate. The Chinese are enamored only of the top Growths. The thousands of smaller chateaux are not in great demand in China, or in Singapore, India or elsewhere. Meanwhile, back in California, vintners know they have to navigate through a commercial environment complicated by the following facts:
- the lingering effects of the Recession, which made it extremely difficult for wineries to maintain high prices
- continuing cool vintages
- the rise of the Internet and social media
- a younger generation that does not accept the conventional wisdom of their elders
To say that the California wine industry faces its most perilous challenges in generations is an understatement. Compared to this, the phylloxera epidemic of the 1990s was a minor irritant. One must go back to the imposition of Prohibition and the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, passed in 1919, for a comparable crisis. However, as I like to remind my California friends, Bordeaux has been through world wars and revolutions, and managed to survive them all. California vintners can take heart from the example of their French cousins.