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.

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