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Robert Parker's Advice to Wine Writers

Wine-critic-Robert-Parker-010Given the quantity of articles last week on Robert Parker’s appearance at The Symposium for Professional Wine Writers, and the length of this one as it stands, I’m not doing the compleat review I’d intended here. Instead, I’m focusing on his advice to wine writers, which was intended to be one of the primary benefits to us of his talk.

Though some disagree, I believe Parker thought the issue through and was genuinely trying to be helpful. Wine writer Elin McCoy, who wrote the 2005 biography of Parker, The Emperor of Wine: The Rise of Robert M. Parker, Jr. and the Reign of American Taste, also attended the conference and saw his appearance similarly, “What struck me first was his clear desire to reach out to this group of wine writers, certainly generous given his current health issues. – i.e. back surgery, and he has bad knees, too.”

In his opening remarks last week, Parker said, “In the time that I have here today, I’d like to share as much information as I have because I want to see all of you succeed. I came out of basically nowhere… and never dreamed of the kind of success I would have…. I have some ideas how I got there and I want other people to succeed.”

But then he added, “When I retire, I don’t want to see the wine writing profession just sort of dwindle away.” That led to open-mouthed gapes. Does he fear that, without him as shepherd, the huge flock of contemporary wine writers will lose focus and drift off into oblivion? To some writers, Robert Parker seems like one of those fathers who dispenses encouragement and sage advice, urges you to work hard and then pauses to remind you (again) that you’ll never be as good as he is. It can be maddening. But, perhaps, we are hearing what we expect, not what’s said.

Let’s look at his words again. He did not say “wine writing.” He said “the wine writing profession.” He’s not saying that we aren’t good writers. He said the opposite, “There’s a lot of good talent here. I think there are infinite possibilities to do something very, very special.”

He’s worried about the profession. “When I started in 1978, and looking around the room I think this makes me the premier geezer in the room [he and the room laugh], in 1978 when I started most magazines that dealt with any kind of lifestyle involving food had wine writers. I’ve seen a lot of those publications reduce their staffs. They’re under strict budgets and that’s unfortunate.” We have seen most all newspapers cut their paid wine columns too, and trim their culture sections overall.

How many professional wine writers today make a living based solely on that vocation? A survey at last year’s Symposium revealed that most of the attendees made less than $20,000 per year writing about wine. How many wine scribes make the kind of money through wine writing that Parker has? Probably none. Other areas of journalism are little better. This is what causes him trepidation, not our talent. He’s not demeaning our capabilities. He’s realistically appraising the state of paid journalism today. It’s abysmal.

Later, Parker hit on that topic in a different way. “The idea of giving content away makes no sense at all. People will always be willing to pay for independent expertise. In the overall blog world I see content that is derived from other sources, it may be good reading and attract a lot of hits but we’re talking about people willing to pay you for content.” I’ve heard wine writer and educator Karen MacNeil give this advice more bluntly, “Never do anything for free.”

Parker is not criticizing us as writers. He’s cautioning us, bloggers in particular, as business people and he’s correct to do so. Very few writers have the financial wherewithal and stubbornness to continue writing quality articles day after day, year after year, without compensation. And nobody has meaningfully monetized a personal wine blog. Meanwhile, the internet’s demand for new content every day almost guarantees a great many blog articles will be superficial, derivative or navel-gazing—not the kind of thing people will pay for.

Creating enough valuable, unique content to drive a profitable level of paid subscriptions, let alone ads, is hard. The niche isn’t big enough to support everyone that might want to do it either. But the market has already proved free wine content with an ad- or affinity sales-based model won’t support anyone at all. There is a good number of subscription-based content providers who have achieved at least modest success though. Some have done much better.

Parker suggests teaming up may be a way forward. “If you have a website, and there are some really good websites… there’s got to be real content, original content not derivative stuff… We’re talking about making money. People willing to pay you, $9.95, $20 or whatever for that content. You may have to do it with a group of people [to get enough content].”

The already successful sites and newsletters also reinforce something else Parker said. Despite complaints from many writers about the banality of wine reviews, people still want to read them. The majority of consumer-focused, subscription-based wine newsletters have wine reviews at their core. Even so, the market for paid wine newsletters in the United States is small and more likely to decline than improve.

There will never be another figure such as Parker in wine for the western world. “Today,” he said, “the internet sort of neutralizes things. It’s a reservoir almost.” The great ease with which wine writing can now be published and the broad access to it for consumers precludes that. Parker’s empire is being divided among many hundreds of writers and thousands of citizen reviewers.

This leads into Parker’s next point. "“The real growth market, and this is why I sold the majority of the Wine Advocate to guys in Singapore, is in Asia. There is no question about it, even though the economy in China has slowed a bit; it’s still booming.” There is virtually no credible, Chinese-language writing on wine, but many of the wealthy in Asia who can afford fine wine are comfortable with English.

“I really think the opportunity today,” Parker continued “is live-streamed video, high-quality video content… I think the future is in an educational wine video program that streams through all of the different Asian countries. If you do it as professionally as possible, and don’t charge too much for it, you’ll have success because the volume of people in these countries dying for education is enormous.”

I know this to be true. The number of applicants to the Wine & Spirits Education Trust for authorization and training to teach WSET curriculum throughout Asia is startling, as is attendance in the resulting classes. Some well-established western wine writers, such as Australia’s Jeremy Oliver, are spending more and more of their time in China serving this thirst for wine education. And Robert Parker, with his reconstructed back and aching knees, wouldn’t be embarking on a month-long trip to China were it not important.

We can laugh at stories about people in Asia mixing expensive Bordeaux with Coca-Cola, as I heard some writers do. Or we can let those folks pay us to help them enjoy the nuances of great wine, straight-up, no chaser. We can titter at the idea of doing videos from home while we write our pajama-clad, freelancing-butts off for fifty cents per word, or we can give Parker’s suggestions a shot.

Nobody in Parker’s audience at the symposium was a serious videographer but video, even mediocre video, will be more compelling to this audience, and many others, than the same content in writing. Jancis Robinson spoke to this when addressing bloggers in Virginia two years ago. She urged them to integrate video into their repertoire. She said it didn’t have to be sleek, if the information was solid and unique. Antonio Galloni has made videos a big component of his Vinous Media site.

In a post-symposium discussion, David White of the excellent Terroirist.com told me, “I think writers are still hoping for Parker to become the elder statesman he pretends he wants to be… We still revere him. Yet over and over again, he’s divisive and dismissive.” There were definitely moments of that in Parker’s session and they’ve been well-documented. However, his advice to us as professional writers was solid and well-intentioned.

Follow NorCalWine on Twitter for wine news, information on events and more, or friend me on Facebook. This article is original to NorCalWine.com. Copyright 2014. Robert Parker photo by Shahrar Azran/WireImage. All rights reserved.

Biodynamic Cabernet of Grace from Wise Acre Vineyards

A hundred chocolate-brown feathers litter the ground before the barn, the only remaining traces of a bobcat’s midnight chicken dinner. Seemingly unaware of their narrow escape, the remaining heritage Buckeye hens and a homely, bare-necked turchicken peck the earth between feathers for insects and bits of grain. Horses, rabbits and sheep are nearby and a friendly old, yellow labrador lies sleepily on his side, watching the action.

In the barn is a two-wheeled, hand-guided tractor that works the soil without causing compaction. A large plastic tub with a central filter occupies one corner, looking like an industrial version of a Bodum teapot. It’s used for making biodynamic teas though, nothing you’d want to drink. Just past the barn in the shade of a tree lies a large compost pile and, buried next to that, a decomposing wooden barrel filled with older compost and thousands of happy worms. Somewhere, cow horns are buried. They’re contents will ultimately be sprayed onto the soil to benefit microorganisms and increase uptake of nutrients by the plants.

The vineyard itself is small, just about half an acre, and slopes at 11 degrees down toward the barn. It’s set into a small bowl in the hillside which is consistently three to four degrees cooler than the valley floor but a couple of degrees warmer than the hillside outside of the bowl. Swirling winds prevent frost. It’s a nearly perfect site tucked away in a spot you’d never find on your own, even with a GPS. There’s not a single winery in sight. This is Napa Valley though, and home to one of that AVAs most lithe and balanced Cabernet Sauvignon.

lynn-and-kirk-grace
Lynn and Kirk Grace of Wise Acre Vineyard. Photo provided by Lynn Grace.

Lynn and Kirk Grace bought the property in 2003. They planted it with 4 x 4 spacing to Bosche-clone Cabernet Sauvignon on 101–14 rootstock. That’s the same combination found at his family’s Grace Family Vineyards, considered the first of Napa’s “cult” Cabernet Sauvignon producers. Kirk is responsible for viticulture at Grace Family too, but his primary job is viticulturist for Stags Leap Wine Cellars. He held the same position at the certified-organic* Robert Sinskey Vineyards for nine years.

Lynn and Kirk do everything themselves by hand at their home vineyard, using bio-correct practices that Kirk has developed over 32 years of organic and biodynamic wine-growing. The wine is made solely from their Wise Acre Vineyard grapes by Gary Brookman. Brookman makes the wine for Grace Family too.

Despite their cult status, Grace Family wines have never been big or over-extracted. Raj Parr, well-known now not just for his wine expertise but also for his “pursuit of balance” and stance against high-alcohol wines has said, “Grace Family wines are among my favorite wines in the world… honest wines, true to variety and sense of place.” The Wise Acre vineyard is in a different location—in between the St. Helena and Howell Mountain AVAs—but shares the same vineyard set-up, practices and philosophy. Lynn and Kirk shoot for alcohol levels of 13.5% or less.

Their first vintage was 2008. I recently tasted a barrel sample of the 2012. It will be bottled in May and then age for another 16 months before release. I’d happily drink it now. In fact, I swallowed every drop of my tasting pour.

The wine smells of currant, red cherry, earth, spice and a hint of juniper. In the mouth there is a moderate amount of fine-grained, lightly grippy tannins balanced neatly with acidity. The wine will be lovely with food but, even now, doesn’t require any. Body is medium to medium+. Flavor intensity is excellent and the finish long. Flavors echo the nose with currant, red cherry, earth and spice but also a splash of mocha. I don’t rate barrel samples but, if this was a released wine today, it would be Very Highly Recommended.

Production volume is very low and heavily dependent on vintage. It’s been as low as 20 cases and will never be more than 100. Given that, plus the all of the hand labor, the pedigree and the quality of the wine itself, it’s a bargain in Napa Valley at $150. The wines are sold direct and there’s a 3-bottle minimum.

*Robert Sinskey has been Demeter-certified biodynamic. It recently cancelled their licensing/certification relationship with Demeter and can no longer use the term biodynamic but has not changed its farming practices.

Follow NorCalWine on Twitter for wine news, information on events and more, or friend me on Facebook. This article is original to NorCalWine.com. Copyright 2014. All rights reserved.

Back Labels I Can Get Behind

The vast majority of wine back labels are a waste of ink and your time. Their branding messages are weak and don’t help with buying decisions or inform your drinking experience. There’s not enough space to tell a compelling story about the winery or it’s owners. Descriptions of flavors are rarely meaningfully different from those on other bottles of the same variety nearby on the shelf.

Calera takes a very different approach with its single-vineyard wines and I love it. There’s no marketing blather or flavor descriptors. The text is focused, objective and its sole focus is to explain how the wine and the vineyard from which it came are distinct from other vineyards, including others at Calera.

This detailed, somewhat scientific, approach is not for every wine consumer. Many of the statistics are too technical for most wine drinkers. Casual sippers may not care at all. But then they are unlikely to be buying a Calera vineyard-designate anyway.

Calera-Ryan-Back-Label
Back label from the Calera Ryan Vineyard Pinot Noir 2011

For avid wine lovers—and wine professionals—the labels rock, communicating vitals on the wine, vineyard and AVA clearly and concisely. This is particularly valuable for wineries, such as Calera, that market multiple vineyard-designate wines of the same variety. If there’s no clear difference between wines from the various vineyards, why make designates? But few labels communicate those differences effectively.

Another winery with really good back labels is Ridge. They take a more prose-heavy approach but still communicate very clearly on key topics: vineyard location and soils, weather throughout the vintage, yield and production volume, winemaking processes and their effect on the wine’s character, and estimated age-ability of the wine. [Alcohol percentage and percentages of each grape variety are prominently noted on the front label.]

When relevant, Ridge also compares the wine with others in their lineup. For example, the back label for Ridge Estate Cabernet Sauvignon contrasts it with Monte Bello Cabernet Sauvignon. All of the text is well-written and descriptive but not flowery. I hope other wineries move in this direction.

Follow NorCalWine on Twitter for wine news, information on events and more, or friend me on Facebook. This article is original to NorCalWine.com. Copyright 2014. All rights reserved.

Napa Valley Premiere - Competitive Juices Yield Record Prices

On Saturday, February 22, 225 one-of-a-kind lots of meticulously produced Napa Valley wine were offered at auction to some of the world’s most passionate and well-moneyed wine sellers and restauranteurs. Four-and-a-half hours later the last gavel fell and a record $5.9 million had been realized, nearly doubling last year’s take which had been an all-time record itself.

2014pnv-6671
The gavel falls on the last lot at the 2014 Premiere Napa Valley Auction.
Photo Bob McClenahan.

The proceeds of Napa Valley Premiere go to support the efforts of the Napa Valley Vintners in promoting, preserving and improving that AVA, but there’s much more on the line. There is pride. There’s reputation. And, to some extent, there’s the promise of winery revenue. Stratospheric auction results aren’t an abstract number. They are to some degree a measure of the winery’s reputation, the star-power of the winemaker. Top results mean a press release and the opportunity to edge the price of all wines upward.

One particularly competitive winemaker stumbled toward me, crestfallen. “I’m a loser!” he said. This from a guy who was actually among the top sellers. But a handful of lots had gone for more than his best. Moments later when the 60-bottle lot of Scarecrow made by Celia Welch sold for a mind-blowing $260,000, he looked like he wanted to throw up. He was now “loser” by an order of magnitude.

For the most part though, Napa Valley Premiere was an “all smiles” event. Dozens of winery-hosted events earlier in the week had drawn trade buyers, top sommeliers and press to the valley. New releases, library wines and the auction cuvees were poured side-by-side. There were big dinners, quiet meetings, cocktail parties, dancing and more.

The after-lunch auction itself was preceded by a tasting of all the lots that morning in the historic barrel room of the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone. It’s the best meet-and-greet-and-taste that this country’s most important wine region offers with samples poured by the winemakers, proprietors or both for a crowd small enough to enable friendly conversation and detailed questions.

I didn’t taste every wine this time, opting instead for deeper conversations and very detailed notes on a select number of wines which I was reviewing for the St. Helena Star. Alder Yarrow did make it to nearly every barrel though, so keep an eye on Vinography for his commentary.

Of the wines I did taste, I found much to love. There was the savory complexity of the Mt. Brave and the dynamically fruited Ovid. Oakville Ranch offered yet another supple, stunningly gorgeous Cabernet Franc. Inglenook’s wine is showing heightened sophistication under estate manager Philippe Bascaules. New label Pulido-Walker debuted with a wine made by Thomas Brown that offered amazingly pure aromas of freshly crushed black currants. Another wine by Brown, for THE GRADE, offered mineral-laden scents and a beautifully creamy mouthfeel. Schramsberg refreshed and delighted with a late-disgorged sparkling wine from the 1993 vintage. I taste thousands of wines every year. Many of them are truly excellent. Nonetheless my pen was shocked to be writing scores such as 95, 96 and 97 with such frequency. 

Quick Stats for the 2014 Premiere Napa Valley Auction

Auction lots - 225
Total revenue - $5.9 million
Average bottle price - $283
Highest-selling debut offering - Pulido-Walker for $65,000

Top Ten Lots
$260,000 from The Wine House for 60 bottles of Scarecrow made by Celia Welch
$100,000 from Beverage Warehouse for 60 bottles of ZD Wines made by Brandon deLeuze and Chris Pisani
$100,000 from Zoes Restaurant for 60 bottles of Shafer made by Elias Fernandez
$100,000 from Bounty Hunter for 60 bottles of Schrader made by Thomas Brown
$90,000 from Wine Library for 240 bottles of Robert Mondavi Winery made by Genevieve Janssens
$90,000 from Wine Library for 240 bottles of Cakebread Cellars made by Julianne Laks
$85,000 from Wine Library for 120 bottles of Bevan Cellars & Chateau Boswell made by Russell Bevan
$80,000 from Cliffewood Wine Syndicate for 240 bottles of Reynolds Family, Constant and David Arthur made by Steve Reynolds
$80,000 from Imbibe Wine & Spirits for 60 bottles of VHR Vine Hill Ranch made by Francoise Peschon
$80,000 from Total Wine for 240 bottles of Silver Oak made by Daniel Baron

Top Five Bottle Prices
$4,333 for Scarecrow
$1,666 for ZD Wines
$1,666 for Shafer
$1,666 for Schrader
$1,333 for VHR Vine Hill Ranch

Most Represented Winemakers
Thomas Brown - eight wineries
Philippe Melka - seven wineries
Aaron Pott - four wineries

Top Grossing Winemakers
$340,000 - Celia Welch
$302,000 - Philippe Melka
$255,000 - Thomas Brown
$113.000 - Russell Bevan 

Top Buyers
Total Wine & More of Potomac, MD
Bounty Hunter of Napa, CA
Cliffewood Wine Syndicate of Little Rock, AR
Wine Library of Springfield, NJ
The Wine House of Los Angeles, CA
Gary’s Wine & Marketplace of Madison, NJ
Nakagawa Wine Company of Tokyo, Japan
Beverage Warehouse of Los Angeles, CA
Yakiniku Hiroshi of Honolulu, HI
Meritage Wine Market of Encinitas, CA
Zoes Restaurant of Virginia Beach, VA
HEB of San Antonio, TX.

Specifics on each wine can be found at http://premierenapawines.com/2014/

Download a Full List of 2014 Premiere Napa Valley Auction Wines & Realized Prices

Follow NorCalWine on Twitter for wine news, information on events and more, or friend me on Facebook. This article is original to NorCalWine.com. Copyright 2014. All rights reserved.

Robert Parker Scores and Misses

robert parker“I want to see all of you succeed,” Robert M. Parker Jr. told more than 40 wine writers in attendance at last week’s Symposium for Professional Wine Writers at Meadowood in St. Helena. This was a generous, perhaps surprising, statement from Parker who has frequently— and very recently—traded criticism and low blows with many of the same scribes. I’m convinced he meant every word, the denunciations and the well-wishes.

Robert Parker is full of contradictions, as are we all. But unlike the things you and I say, his every sentence is scrutinized, canonized and simultaneously chastised. He has long been the emperor of wine criticism. He remains so, though the power of that empire declines due to democratization of wine commentary and a recent secession.

As sound bites from Parker’s semi-extemporaneous talk were tweeted and retweeted, Facebooked and “liked,” outside observers responded instantly. “Words to live by!” said one. Parker’s statements resonated with many. But others called him “delusional” and “disingenous.” It’s lonely at the top.

Speaking of which, there were poignant moments. “I was extremely lucky,” said Parker, “I wish you all the success I’ve had. And the climb to the top is what makes it all worthwhile. Once you get there, there’s nothing there.” He’s been “there” for 30 years.

Robert Parker set out to be a consumer advocate. Ralph Nader was his inspiration. The clear conflicts of interest inherent with top British wine writers’ also selling wine were his call to action. He set out to create a newsletter with unassailably independent reviews. Parker’s identification of 1982 as a Bordeaux vintage for the ages, in stark disagreement with many critics, brought international prominence that he built upon for the three decades to follow.

Along the way he made and buried wineries. He can’t see that. Producers’ desire to rate highly in his newsletter drove richness in wine, and eventually alcohol, to unprecedented levels. He won’t admit that. He simply said, “I do believe flavor intensity is critical. And I am looking for wines that will develop in five to ten years. Some of the thin, feminine, elegant wines being praised today will fall apart. You need some richness and intensity for development.” Then there were popping sounds as some writers’ heads exploded.

Parker spoke for roughly half-an-hour and took questions for another 30 minutes. Listening was a privilege and a frustration. I was grateful for the opportunity, regretful he didn’t stay longer. Dozens of questions went unasked, as many conflicts unresolved. But Robert Parker did offer valuable insights. Later this week I’ll share them, along with comments from some other writers in attendance.

In the meantime, please enjoy this beautiful video montage of the symposium created by Kaethy and Tim Kennedy of Story Cellars.

 

Follow NorCalWine on Twitter for wine news, information on events and more, or friend me on Facebook. This article is original to NorCalWine.com. Copyright 2014. Photo of Robert Parker from erobertparker.com.  All rights reserved.