Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Are they worth it? Part 2: Robert Parker and the Fellowship of the Grape

Robert Parker Online is a logical extension of The Wine Advocate: Self-published and independent, it holds out the promise of privileged access to the man. For $99US, you can peer over Robert Parker’s shoulder as he scribbles his tasting notes on all of those pilgrimages he makes across the world’s great wine regions.

Take the current issue—there are something like 1000 reviews of wines from a very modest number of regions. The back-catalog promises tens of thousands of reviews; the known universe of wine logged on a scale of 75 to 100. It’s all very intimidating, actually: Having unlimited access to Parker’s notes is a bit like putting on Sauron’s great ring of power, or staring into the Palantir of Orthanc—it can be deadly if you haven’t got the personal power or strength of character to process the information capably.

And these days, the rings of power are of most use to the merchants. A Parker score of 85 or above on a tag below a bottle on a wine-store shelf is a guarantee of a second look from a customer; a score of 90 virtually assures a sale. At least one reason a wine-lover hardly needs to subscribe to the newsletter is that all the good scores have already been cherry-picked and posted at a store near you. You already have access where you need it most.

Much of the rest of RPO is fairly typical weblog fare, i.e., gossip and filler—albeit at a social level where hubris is on the menu right after the aperitif. (A running series of dinner-party notes called The Hedonist’s Gazette feels like Don Juan’s Diary for the wine-slut—yet another unsuccessful attempt to give porn a good name.)

If that sounds as sour as a month-old, half-finished bottle of Beaujolais, it’s not meant to. The point is that we should probably think twice before we try to meddle in the affairs of enological wizards. Parker is a Force, and if we’re candid we admit that that’s what we’re trying to buy into when we subscribe to Robert Parker Online. And we’re not there to admire the depth of the metaphors; to luxuriate in the explosions of fruit, silky tannins and hints of shoe-leather on the finish. It’s Parker’s mighty 90’s and withering 79’s that are the name of Parker Online game; he’s there to sit in judgment of our purchasing decisions, and we’re paying him the money to either praise his good taste when he agrees with us, or call him a fool when he doesn’t. Robert Parker Online is wine-appreciation as fantasy baseball: A library of Alexandria for people whose lives revolve around vinicultural box-scores.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

The Week in Alcohol

Hold the chocolate-mocha Zinfandel, thanks A dairy in Boonsville, New York has introduced a line of wine-flavored ice creams that are 5% alcohol. In other news, the Diamond Headache Clinic of Chicago and the American Academy of neurology have fingered red wine as the most common trigger for sufferers of migraine headaches; while the Neurological Institute of the Cleveland Clinic reports that ice cream is a trigger for about 90% of those susceptible to migraine

We're not like those wild libertines of Casseltown, North Dakota It took The Utah Tax Commission 10 years---and even then only after an anonymous tip---to figure out that "Merlot" on a driver's vanity licence plate referred to a wine. The owner was ordered to change the plate, as intoxicants are not allowed to be named on vanity plates. (Utah authorities had previously banned the word "Chianti".)

Next: Robert Parker sings Bob Dylan
The Wine Spectator announced that their list of top 100 wines of 2006 would be made available for download to your iPod

I asked her if she was game---she said yes, so I shot her
Organizers of the 75th Minneapolis Northwest Sports Show announced the innaguration of a "Women, Wine and Wild Game" day

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Wein, Weib, und Gesang: Geschichten aus dem Hardy Rodenstock Wald

While the growing counterfeit-wine scandal (see previous posts, below) has the world's billionaires nervously re-authenticating the contents of their palatial wine-cellars, the normally non-reflexive wine press takes a few tentative steps towards some nominal self-examination.

Eric Asimov in the NY Times gives some background as to why fraud is sometimes difficult to detect, while Beppi Crosariol in the Globe talks about why this kind of thing would never, ever happen in Canada.

Still, the greatest entertainment value (and have no doubt about it, for those of us who aren't billionaires, this story is strictly entertainment) nothing yet tops the portrait of the suit's defendant, Hardy Rodenstock, who for a couple of decades had the titans of the wine press eating (drinking?) out of his hand. Cynthia Cotts in Bloomberg and Gilles Whittell of the Times Online have done some nice spadework uncovering some of the story's more lurid twists: a family's Nazi past, a wife from the above-illustrated Playboy Magazine's November 1964's "The Girls of Germany" (and film actress: 1969's Das Go-Go-Girl Von Blow-Up is a happy reference point) together with the current stony silence emanating from the Parkers, Broadbents and Johnsons who were taken in by the accused charlatan's lavish partying. (Parker's 100-point review of a 1921 magnum of Chateau Petrus at a Rodenstock blow-out has proven particularly embarrassing, given that Petrus wasn't bottled in Magnums before World War 2.) A useful eyewitness account of that party, from a wine-trade king-maker who claims not to have been fooled, can be found in Jancis Robinson's latest column for the Financial Times.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

More recipes from the cold cereal cookbook

If you’ve a taste for gratuitous, merely space-filling information, a definitive example of the species awaits you in this month’s Food and Wine: It's called “50 Wines You Can Always Trust”.

Simply put, you don’t need the information the article hands you. It’s not only packed full of particulars any typical Food and Wine reader already knows, but it's a dead loss at reassembling that information into a useful guide even for the neophyte. This is because virtually every one of its listed wines is already on the bill of fare of just about every liquor store between Victoria, BC and St. Johns, Nfld. What you need to know is which among the 50 to choose---because that’s the situation actually facing the casual wine-buyer. Studying the article is no more than opening the door to the store---you're really no further forward than you were when you set out.

Two decades ago, a piece like this might have had its place. But the happy result of 25 years of steady improvement in the quality of reasonably-priced wine is that today, in any well-stocked store, virtually everything sold is dependable. It’s what rises above "dependable" that you want to find out more about; what's in the store that can give you a sniff of a more exotic territory.

Ultimately, what's most galling about “50 Wines You Can Always Trust” is how at its heart it caters to the fearful rather than adventurous wine wayfarer. Think about it: You only really need advice when you're exploring new territory and pushing personal boundaries forward---but this article is more like a guide on how to successfully stay home and watch TV. The Food and Wine piece I want to see is "50 Wines to Take a Chance on." Then we'll all learn something worthwhile.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Backstory of a Rant

As a Canadian wine producer, I guess you'll take your publicity wherever you can. But if you're Ontario's Daniel Lenko Estate Winery, you must be feeling just the tiniest bit exploited.

If you were trolling for domestic wine news today through the print media---let's say you typed "Canada Wine" into Google News---the top of the result list was a piece in the National Post, which with the wine reference excerpted, looks like a story on, well, Canadian wine. But go to the piece itself, and you're confronted by yet another 2250-word, heavy-hand-of-government-regulation screed from the nation's neo-con pifflesheet of record. Lenko is mentioned precisely twice, both times disingenuously as some kind of a wounded producer, hobbled by government and unable to market his wares.

The picture is somewhat different if you check out Lenko's own website, though. Turns out he makes his (excellent) wine in quantities small enough to sell them all through his front door. (His exact words: "due to our limited production, the wines are currently only available at the winery.") So the Daniel Lenko winery makes an extremely weak case for Post's authors' free-market fulmination. You want to ask, why Lenko? How'd they stumble onto him?

Simple: The Post is owned by Canwest; Canwest owns Macleans; and at least one Macleans scribbler reads the UK's Financial Times online. Wine critic Jancis Robinson files a Financial Times piece about the Canadian Wine industry on January 12th; on January 22nd, Maclone's excerpts a list of producers Robinson highlighted; 19 days and (probably) a brief Post phone call later, Daniel Lenko finds himself fighting the good fight for unfettered trade in the pages of the Financial Post.

Of course, the real news obscured by such Canwest opportunism is the snapshot of the list of Canadian Wine that Jancis fancies: Osoyoos-Larose Le Grand Vin; Mission Hill Oculus; Tantalus Riesling; Wild Goose Mystic River Gewurtz; Sumac Ridge White Meritage... and some stuff from Ontario. In the Post universe, you might not realize that for the most part, they're all available in a store near you... but they are.

Thursday, March 8, 2007

Wine fraud's bright future

The fallout from Christies' admission that they had been subpoenaed by US Federal authorities investigating fraud in the auction of classic wines, continues to fall out: Sothebys and Zachys Auction houses have now been dragged in to the vat.

But the reason it's little more than spectator sport for the typical wine-lover is that both morally and aesthetically, it's a win-win, so-what situation: First off, anybody who can afford to pay $20K for a '45 Mouton and who's planning to drink it, can afford to have a bottle of '45 Haut-Brion as a backup. And anybody who buys a '45 Mouton not intending ever to consume it, deserves whatever he gets. For real wine-lovers, this kind of thing makes better theater even than a Dick Cheney hunting-trip.

How widespread is wine counterfeiting likely to be? The sages at The Wine Spectator have pulled a figure of 5% out of their hats, (Interpol claims 6%) but there's no reason to believe that the total isn't significantly higher, if only because with the stupendous amounts of money involved, it's in everybody's interest to keep their mouths shut about it.

The theatrically-minded wine-consumer is thus hoping that this story has more legs than a glass of good Port: Hell, let's discover that 30% of the collectible wines sold to the speculators at auction are frauds. It's probably too much to hope for, but let's have big-ticket wine auctions become so risky a proposition that wine will lose any attraction it has as an object of financial speculation.

So, comrade wine-lovers, let's hear it for the world's wine forgers: Keep up the good work!

Monday, March 5, 2007

The Week in Alcohol

Next month, David Lee Roth on the Super-Tuscans In The Wine Spectator, Ex-Van Halen frontman Sammy Hagar the Horrible reveals an unexpected fondness for classic Bordeaux; together with praise for the guys he considers the greatest noses in rock-and-roll: Boston's Fran Sheehan, and The Year of the Cat's Al Stewart

Meet your new wine glass A study presented to the American Heart Association's 47th Annual Conference on Cardiovascular Disease Epidemiology and Prevention concluded that the benefits of red wine for men's health peaked at a daily consumption of 1.5 ounces.

Watch out for the Warhol illustration on the '45 Mouton label
Bloomberg reports that Christies Auction House has been subpoenaed by American Federal authorities over possible counterfeit wine sales. $27.9 Million US of wine passed through Christies' North American division last year, an unknown percentage of it now suspect.

Thursday, March 1, 2007

Are they worth it? Part 1

When somebody asks you to pay $140CDN a year for access to her private blog, the first claim you'd want its author to make is of some professionalism; Robinson professes something closer to flirty neurosis: "Welcome to this very personal, obsessively updated, completely INDEPENDENT source of news, views and opinion on fine wine and food by me, Jancis Robinson." Close your eyes and pretend that was written by a guy---would you ever want to meet him without witnesses?

What's perhaps most fascinating is the almost teen-magazine vocabulary she uses to promote her wares, promising "gossip and my deeply personal opinions" or "my special collection of advice and facts" to the subscriber. (You mean, there's an ordinary collection of advice somewhere in the free section, alongside a selection of more superficially impersonal opinions?) The come-on is that you're not only getting inside information, but that you're getting an ethereal sort of equivalent to personal access; she's not only going to be whispering in your ear but nibbling on it as well.

And the privileged content? Well, for every two articles available only to paid members, there are three that any plebe can read, so you've already got more than half of her output without dropping even a sou. As for the rest, a lot is local and inapplicable to you (like February 1st's "If you're going to the Australia tasting today..."); or ratings of wines you're never going to see (the same day's "Domaine de la Romanée Conti 2004's"). By and large, the unique stuff that you might find nowhere else really does amount to highly esoteric gossip---her marketing actually matches her goods.

Are the goods worth it? Well, here's one way to think of it: For the cost of a year's admission to JancisRobinson.com, you could buy a couple of fabulous bottles of wine and a copy of Robinson's Oxford Companion to Wine---a book that, the last time I looked, made no claims to being obsessive or deeply personal, but merely to being a fabulously professional piece of work. The choice isn't just yours, it's a pretty easy choice as well.