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COLUMN ONE

For Wine Critic, the Truth Is in the Glass

In a field notorious for freeloading and pretension, Robert Parker is known as incorruptible and down-to-earth. But he does have detractors.

February 24, 1999|DAVID SHAW | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Others say blind tasting is overrated. Knowing what wine you're tasting, they say, enables you to take into account the characteristics and history of that particular vineyard and that particular vintage and thus evaluate the wine and its potential within a meaningful context.

What does Parker have to say about this debate?

He looks at his watch before addressing the issue, as if trying to calculate if he has enough time to do so before he gets to the restaurant, now just a few minutes away.

"I probably taste blind about 25% to 35% of the wines I wind up writing about--most of them in the tasting room at my house," he says. "I used to taste more blind, but the more experienced I've become, the more I've realized that the label doesn't mean a thing to me. I focus totally on what's in the glass."

'King of Wines, Wine of Kings'

What's in the glass?

Randy Dunn violates Parker's winemaking guidelines about not filtering wines or adding acid to them. He's convinced that such steps are necessary to assure his customers of stable, healthy wines. Parker gave 96 points to each of Dunn's last three vintages anyway. Bo Barrett of Chateau Montelena also filters his wines. He, too, gets high scores from Parker--94s and 95s for his last three vintages. In the December issue of the Wine Advocate, Parker wrote, "No other winery in California has such a consistent record of excellence over the last 25 years." Then there's Nils Venge. He made the 1985 Groth Reserve Cabernet. He says he not only filtered the wine, he also harvested five tons of grapes per acre that year--more than double the yield Parker generally recommends. Parker gave the wine 100 points--the first American wine to earn a perfect score.

Do these examples prove that Parker's critics are right and that he can't always tell how a wine was made? Or are Dunn, Barrett and Venge proof that he does judge wine by "what's in the glass"?

His ratings of recent vintages of Barolo might provide an answer. Until the last 15 or 20 years, Barolo makers let their grape juice macerate--remain in contact with the skins--for several weeks during the fermentation process, then aged it in large, Yugoslavian oak barrels. The combination produced wines so powerful and tannic that they couldn't be drunk for 15 or 20 years. Once drinkable, though, they lasted for 20 or 30 years--or longer. In Italy, Barolo has long been regarded as "the king of wines, the wine of kings." Aldo Conterno, one of the great winemakers--and, at 67, one of the grand old men--of Piemonte, likes to say, "If Christ had served Barolo at the Last Supper, Judas wouldn't have betrayed him.

"But everybody has changed the way they make wine here," Conterno says, "even if they deny it."

Many in the new generation of Piemontese winemakers (not Conterno) now put their wine in small, French oak barrels, and some--older winemakers like Conterno among them--now allow their grape juice to remain in contact with the skins for only days, not weeks. These changes and others have produced a different kind of wine, drinkable at a much earlier age.

"The new-style wines are good, some of them may even be great," Conterno says. "But they aren't characteristic of Barolo."

At many wineries, these changes have triggered considerable hostility, often pitting father against son.

"My father made wines the old way for years," says Elio Altare, "and when I wanted to change, we had a big fight. He said I was destroying everything he'd built up. But this area was dying. People weren't buying Barolo anymore. I finally took an electric saw into the cellar and cut up all his big, old casks, so we had to use the barriques [small, French oak barrels]. When he died two years later, he was still so angry he didn't leave anything to me. My sisters got the house and the vineyards and everything."

Altare borrowed money, bought the vineyards from his sisters and made wine his way, and four years later, Parker named him one of the top 12 wine producers in the world for 1989.

Parker was one of the first to praise the new-style wines--the Barbarescos of Angelo Gaja and the Barolos of Altare, among others. That encouraged the pioneers in that style to persevere, and it encouraged many others to join in the experiment. (He's had much the same effect in Spain in recent years.) But Parker, while critical of the "harshness and mustiness" of many old-style Barolos, also gives high praise--and high scores--to the best wines made by some of the few remaining traditionalists.

"By praising both, it was a miracle--he created the best possible world for Piemonte," says Pio Boffa, proprietor of Pio Cesare vineyards.

To Parker, there's no "miracle" about it. "A great wine is a great wine," he says, "no matter how you make it."

California's 'Most Profound Wine'

The maitre d' at Pinot Blanc takes Parker straight to his table, and Parker immediately orders a dozen oysters. As soon as he begins scanning the menu, he abandons his plan for a quick, light dinner with no wine.

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