Sunday, September 06, 2015

“I just want wines reviewed by Parker”

While in one of my favorite little Italian wine shops near my home, I ventured over to the Tuscan section to see how the owner’s Labor Day sale was going. Earlier in the week I had arranged the Brunello section (for about five minutes, before the various distributor reps decided they didn’t like where their placements had been configured). A 50ish man was looking at one of the bottles. “Can I help you with anything?” I asked him. I figured, having just organized this section, and researched the critical acclaim various wines received, I was about as versed as anyone regarding what was what. As well, I had tasted nearly all of the wines, so I could give him my blow-by-blow. “No thanks, I’m just looking for wines rated by Parker,” he said. I wanted to ask him, “Would you like the reviews of Italian wines from Parker by Daniel Thomases or the ones by Antonio Galloni (now with Vinous) or the ones now being done by Monica Larner (once with the Wine Enthusiast). And if you liked those, let’s say in the time when Galloni was reviewing, why wouldn’t you like to look at his reviews now and consider those (on Vinous) with as much credibility that you imbued his reviews when they were on Parker?” But I started with “Oh well, there are plenty of wines rated by Parker’s writers here, so that shouldn’t be a problem, if that is what you are looking for.” He gave me this look, as if I didn’t know what he was talking about and then he shouted out, “No, I just want wines reviewed by Parker.”

There was no way he was going to take my advice on anything as important as buying Brunello for his meal that night. Yeah, that night. He wasn’t even going to lay the wine down. He asked if we had any other 100 point Brunello wines that were drinkable now. Seeing as I couldn’t help him, I moved out of his way, and disappeared from the aisles.

But it kind of got to me. Here we were – this fellow had someone in front of him who had spent their whole professional career in the study of Italian wine – Hell, even had some recognition for it – but he wasn’t buying into my expertise.

In a totally unrelated event I recently was trying to help a young (30ish) wine buyer with their wine list. Looking for Tuscans, Super and otherwise. Again, right up my alley. I prepared my list, and had reviews, if needed. But in reality, I knew the properties, having been there many times. I knew the stories - not the scores, the stories – the things that sell wines on the floor. “I was reading about this wine list in New York,” he told me, “I want to find some of the wines they have.” Here we go again, I thought to myself. As it turned out, he was looking for highly allocated wines that maybe, maybe, he could have gotten a three-pack of them. Not something one could sell to a crowd of thirsty diners who jammed his restaurant five nights a week. “Don’t you want to take a look at some of these wines here?” I asked him. “These are good wines, they have good stories, nice people behind them, and some of them even are highly rated by the experts.” He cut me off. “I’m the expert here; I don’t need them to tell me what is good.” Well, wasn’t that exactly what he had been doing when he referred to the hip-tone wine list from NY that he was so hot to emulate?

Both of these incidents punctuate the epitome of peer-reviews and just how unpredictable collectors and wine buyers have become with the new Babel-standard we find ourselves in. It also speaks to how we get our information and what kind of currency we subscribe to perceived expertise, whether it be a recognized one, or one among our peers. I find also the aspect of trust plays into this. The middle-aged white man, by all accounts, should have been a ripe candidate to trust the counsel of what I (another white man not far from his generation) was offering. I can readily understand a 30-something not wanting to have any part of me – the young wine director wants to “discover” Italian wines in his own way and in his own time and the idea of being mentored by an elder who has trodden the path just doesn’t fit into his cosmogony. It wasn’t how I went about it when I was his age, but maybe his way will work out for him just fine. There just isn’t anything I can do to help him – his world doesn’t leave room for folks like me.

Jancis Robinson recently wrote “What future for expertise?” in which she offered a glimpse into her path. One aspect that resonated with me was the sheer volume of wine she tastes (“up to 100 wines a day”). I daresay my middle-aged collector has never had to do that. Unlikely that the young wine director has either. Jancis clearly makes a case for the professional wine critic who sees tasting as work, and work to be pursued with diligence. For that alone, people like her have earned the right to have (and to share) her erudite commentary about wine be considered expert advice.

“I would honestly be delighted if every wine drinker felt confident enough to make their own choices dependent on their own individual responses to wines previously tasted. But I do recognize that for many people it will always be simpler to be told what to like,” Ms. Robinson writes. Being told what to like is experiencing a seismic shift, with information bombarding all of us, daily. And for those who prefer to “go it alone,” why not? Maybe they will discover something new in the wine world. A new orange wine, an oaky Super-Tuscan no one has heard of, a California wine from 100 year old Angelica vines in Eldorado County. It’s possible. Although it’s a bit like the tree that falls in the forest - who is hearing it?

Interesting times, these days. Who influences us and those around us and how each of us go about how we share our information, our inspiration and effectively transmit some of that experience ( and expertise) is being challenged daily on many fronts.

“With access to an army of opinionated young wine drinkers, whether consumers or professionals pouring their latest finds by the glass in a bar in Shoreditch or showing fellow enthusiasts round an urban winery in Brooklyn, like any expert nowadays, I know I can stay in the game only by working hard and accurately enough to earn my readers' trust.” Ms. Robinson’s spot-on assessment offers a humble, honest, cogent plan. Not that it will help me with the 50-something collector or the 30ish “go it alone” guy. But like all the wines we have to choose from, so there are as many (or more) people whom we can enter into meaningful discourse, whether it be virtual or in camera.







wine blog +  Italian wine blog + Italy W

20 comments:

James Biddle said...

Those of us “of a certain age” have seen coming-going-and-coming-back cycles in many areas: fashion, food, cars (muscle cars are back!) music, and yes, wine. It’s one thing to make conscious choices to move on, but the two you described are willfully unaware (i.e. clueless) about multiple options beyond their ephemeral now. As I read this piece, I thought of the owners of my favorite wine shops; I heard their laments about difficulties stocking significant amounts of wine that I (and you) find fascinating. Shelve space is limited, wine tastings have to sell the wine now, and the growing new set of customers have little time/taste for such wines as you tried to introduce to the clueless duo. Given many historical factors and current trends, America’s vacuum of a vibrant and substantive wine culture is being filled by vocal and increasing opinionated buyers. Some of us are being driven to buying more wine online; I get the wines I want but in manner that fails to build the kind of wine culture I’d like to see.

Alfonso Cevola said...

Thanks James,

the really cool thing about this particular wine shop is that the owner will buy anything if you have a good enough reason for him to do so (and space to put it). Reviews, no reviews - he's a relationship person, like my friend in the Bay Area, Gerald or in LB, Samantha.

Thing is, he told me a similar thing happened to him as well and he just had to walk away and let the customer make their own choice (usually with and Android or Iphone in hand)

A good wine is a good wine - whether Galloni reviewed it for Parker or for his own site, whether Larner reviewed it for the Wine Enthusiast or for the Wine Advocate.

Thanks for stopping by...

Penny Sadler said...

I hear there is a trend away from following the Robert Parkers of the world and relying more on peer reviews -- though your article seems to put the kabash on that rumour.

Mark said...

Altho not nearly in the same realm as yourself in terms of knowledge or experience, I still brought a few certificates (Master Court and SWE) to my retail job, had a special fondness for Italian wines and logged several (going on 15!?) visits in-country, each with some more exploration of regions and styles. That said, I was routinely surprised / stunned / flabbergasted to learn the power of and preference for the written recommendation, Parker or not ("I read in the WSJ" - substitute your favorite print or virtual source) over anything thing that a knowledgeable human standing right in front of them may have had to offer. Perhaps they never had knowledgeable help, don't trust sales people, didn't want to appear unintelligent, etc., etc. Frustrating when you really could have steered them toward something, even something new, they might enjoy based on their preferences.

Oh well...

Alfonso Cevola said...

No Penny, that is a trend is well...

Bob Rossi said...

I'm always amazed how many people in the wine world, including those in the business, don't seem to realize that Parker himself reviews very few of the WA wines. Even I don't know what regions he still deals with. I've had wine salesmen say to me: "And Parker gave this a 91." Once I replied: "OK, but I'll keep an open mind; I won't hold that against the wine." I don't think the salesman even heard me, or understood.

Randy said...

Well said Alfonso. Having worked service, retail and distributor it is curious to the point of annoyance at the unwillingness of much of the wine buying public to accept or even listen to advice on choosing wine. The level and prevalence of label bigotry runs counter to everything wonderful about wine. With thousands of produces and varietals combined with a new and different vintage every year isn’t the excitement in your own discovery?

California Wine Gallery said...

Hello Alfonso,
I’m an 67 yo man and this is my first comment on a wine blog. I have a tiny wine tasting room/shop in the sweet spot of a medieval village in Annecy, France, wherein I specialized in California and Oregon Pinot Noir wines. I read the J. Robinson article that you mentioned and your words about wines by the numbers and difficulty with un-receptive customers who come into your shop. And I have to say that your comments from the front lines of wine consumers is more credible to me than the well thought-out but distance writing from a long time enduring wordsmith tasting 100 wines per day at their home/office or at staged wine tastings with the few who can afford it. Everything about wine is changing, including new and old wine consumers who have been influenced by media’s bombardment of so called wine experts. I tell my inquiring French customers that, “the wine speaks for itself”.
California Wine Gallery

Wine Curmudgeon said...

Well said, old pal. I can just see the guy screaming for the Parker number. It's his loss, too, that he will never taste great wine because he is so scared or such a snob or whatever. Might as well be drinking white zinfandel.

Bob Rossi said...

Hello California Wine Gallery. I'm curious about your shop in the center of one of the most beautiful towns I've ever been to. I visited several wine shops while we stayed in Annecy a few times 5 -7 years ago, but I assume your shop wasn't there then. I'll have to check it out on another visit.

California Wine Gallery said...

Hello Bob Russo, you’re welcome anytime. I opened my wine shop in June of 2014 and I am slowly building a local clientele along with returning tourists. I opened my wine shop after being disappointed year after year with the Burgundies that I purchased in wine shops and restaurants in France. The fact is, that there are many great tasting and competitively priced California and Oregon Pinot Noirs and my experience is that the French absolutely love to drink them. And so far I haven’t met one Frenchman or woman who gives a hoot about Parker except one, a wine buyer of a DTC internet wine sales company who thinks that her customers want to see wines by the numbers. There again, she’s not face to face with customers.

Daniel said...

I always feel that any kind of shelf talker is for when there is no one there to help you, i.e. in a grocery store or really big shop. But to not take the advice of someone who knows what they are talking about is just silly. Even if I don't really want a 15% ABV Pinot Noir from CA, if the shop owner is crazy about it I'll at least consider it. (although that one I passed on...rather drink Italy, or France, or Spain, Portugal etc.)

Alfonso Cevola said...

Thanks, Daniel - good point - a shelf talker post will ensue soon.

Alfonso Cevola said...

or Warby Parker, eh Jar?

Frank Cipparone said...

"The wines speak for themselves"...could not agree more, it's a point I always emphasized during the years I taught classes about wine in general and Italian wine in particular. The wines that have always fascinated me are those with a compelling story behind them, such as the mad prince behind Fiorano, or the generosity of spirit and love in the Montenidoli wines of Elisabetta Fagiuoli. The problem with too many consumers is that they have neither the patience nor willingness to listen to what the wine is telling them, they'd rather tell the wine what they expect it to be based on a review or a rating.

Travel and Taste said...

I was recently at wine dinner in Tbilisi with a great and poetic wine maker. Some oil mogol from Kazakhstan and his wife joined us and told us how much they loved oaky Chardonnay and Argentinian reds. The wine maker was right there, we were tasting his rare vintages, he was right there to explain the wine and they still asked for Chardonnay. In Georgia! A country with 500+ varieties.
My friend, of course was very noble. But I took it personal. We explained my job as a wine educator, but they did not care.
I was modified to be at the same table. But these people are everywhere. Not everyone understands a poetic wine, or has that moment when, for a second, wine makes total sense. Its okay. At least their was wine in that shop for your friend to make a sale with.

Travel and Taste said...

there was a wine* not their

Steve Armes said...

Was that 50-something know-it-all me? lol

Alfonso Cevola said...

no Steve, it was not you...

Irvin Moss said...

I've worked as a wine professional for 13 years. In that time I've worked close to every side of the business, from retail to wholesale, and then onto the Sommelier stage at some of America's highest rated restaurants. My experience suggests that the savvy wine salesman (and that's what a Sommelier is) will listen to the guest or clientele and adapt their approach to the methodology of each patron. There are those who will want to be told what to buy, and those that whip out their smart phone to check the scores. The great thing is, there are wines to suit almost every type of wine consumer.

Irvin Moss @ Shop Brewmeister

Real Time Analytics