Thursday, December 08, 2011

The Million Point March

In the early 1980’s in the United States, the practice of selling wine in the trade was a fairly simple process. You made an appointment (or had a set appointment time) and you took wines into the account, showed them, often tasting them, and then talked about them and tried to get an order. There weren’t a lot of third party endorsements, reviews, sales aids. There were a few writers; Finigan, Balzer, Connoisseurs Guide, a little newspaper coming on called the Wine Spectator, Hugh Johnson, Gerald Asher, Michael Broadbent, and a handful of historical books. But it was pretty slim pickin's. That said, many folks were well read, reasonably educated, fairly open minded. And ready for whatever could help them sell more wine. And then a young lawyer from Maryland came on the scene with his newsletter, aptly named The Wine Advocate. And the race for the high scoring wines began.

The Wine Spectator joined the race, as did the Wine Enthusiast, and before long shelf talkers started appearing with numbers on them. At first anything over 85 was good. And then it was 87, then 89. And then the scores started climbing into the 90’s. Before long if a wine didn’t have the magic 90+ score, it seemed the wine just wouldn’t sell. In reality there were plenty of wines that didn’t score 90; there were still folks who sold the wines on their merits and there were tasters who wanted to form their own judgments. But then a lot of folks started getting into the wine game. 60 minutes did a report on the French Paradox, and before you knew it, folks were talking about wine. In the 1990's, even Jerry Seinfeld was making jokes about Pinot Grigio.

The Wine Enthusiast grew; the Wine Spectator grew even larger. But the Wine Advocate, “Parker” was the gold standard. It was a pivotal time. Wine sales were climbing; more people were drinking wine, coming over from “brown goods”. Women loved wine, shopped for it, daily. Oddly, women didn’t flock to a wine because of the score. They loved the story, the label, the name. The points, that was something men loved.

Men love scores. they pore over ballgames and labor over every point. And so it was wine won them, because they didn’t have to study wine extensively or taste though the panorama of wines across the planet to find those special wines they should cellar. It was a simple formula - find the high scoring wines from Bordeaux, Burgundy, Napa, Tuscany, Piedmont, Walla Walla, anywhere there was a 90+ wine there was an opportunity to fast track a personal wine collection to prominence. Possibly a vault for future riches, an investment vehicle that, if wine as an investment went south, would still bring pleasure to the owner, the collector. And it worked. And the critics, Robert Parker the prominent one among them, became powerful and wealthy and influential. Hell, he changed the way folks made wine in France, in Italy, in California, in Australia, in Argentina, all over the world. Never in the history of wine had one person in so short a time spearheaded a frenzy of winemaking  (and styling) focused on attaining the highest possible score. A few even made it to 100 points – these were the perfect wines – the Golden Fleece. A lot of people made money; their careers (and salaries) intensified. It was an exciting time, an historical era.

But there comes that time when one can have enough of a good thing. The events of Sept 11, 2001, the economic meltdown, the globalization of communication, the growing influence of the blogosphere, a perfect storm hovering over a confluence of unrelated events that has forced the world to change. And just like that, a wine with 90 points just doesn’t seem to be as important as it once did. But it did get us to a plateau of appreciation and intensity. And Robert Parker has been a major force in getting the wine business there.

Is Parker now like Moses, who can only look upon the Promised Land as he watches his people go forward without him?

I don’t know what’s in store for him; he is the one in control of his destiny. Unlike Moses, however, I imagine his life, from this point, will follow a course in which he might pursue his desires in a slightly less critical manner. He’s earned it. He’s exposed his body (and his palate) to an onslaught of pleasures that while to the man on the street might seem like the ultimate pleasures, in such large doses can be quite fatiguing. I do not envy Antonio Galloni and his colleagues the task they have in their future.

As for Parker, wherever the road leads him, his career has been a million point march. And his feet, and his tongue, and his body must be ready for a (well deserved) cool down period.


Jonsomm said...

And no mention of Jay Miller?! Pancho Campo?... The next round? The fall of the critic.. The Watergate of the infailable?... Or are you leaving us ready for the next installment. I look forward.

bianca said...

Thank you!!

So many of us in this business owe our livelihoods to Parker, because one thing that man does is sell a LOT of wine. At the end of the day, regardless of whether or not his wines work for everyone, you have to give him this: his palate is consistent--which is why, as you point out here, a global push toward Parker wines happened in the first place.

I may be in the camp that generally avoids that style of wine on my own table, but I sell it to folks who care deeply about those scores. And if we can lead them down the garden path to . . . previously unknown pleasures, I think the man deserves his iconic status.

I love the Moses analogy. I've always thought of him along the same lines, but for some reason I use Virgil instead--for some metaphysical reason, Paradiso seems beyond his reach.

TWG said...

Great post. It's nice to read an evenhanded perspective on the evolution of wine marketing over the last decades.

Winethropology said...

Bravo, Alfonso. As usual, a balanced and thoughtful perspective. Cheers.

Thomas said...

Nice photos, especially around Grand Central Station.

On the subject matter of the post: Y-A-W-N on this end of the world.

Have I become jaded?

Alfonso Cevola said...

Thank Jon and Bianca

Yeah, Thomas, I am sure you have moved on, knowing this is all little more than a thousand angels dancing on the head of a pin.

thanks all....glad you like the pix - Kubrick was an amazing shooter! and you can go to the link and buy the images and help support the New York City Museum - a great Holiday gift (hint, hint)

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