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25 Years in Wine: The Parker Report

The critic Robert M. Parker, Jr., chronicles a global revolution

Robert M. Parker, Jr., an F&W contributing editor, is unquestionably the single most important wine critic in the world. Since the inception of his newsletter, the Wine Advocate, in 1978, Parker has educated millions with his insightful commentary and inspired winemakers around the globe to create purer, less manipulated, more characterful wines. Here Parker chronicles 25 years of radical change. —The Editors

With a large gathering of television and radio people and a huge crowd of well-wishers providing plenty of distraction, the president of France spoke, his words seeming to drift from afar. My vision was blurred, my back aching, as I stood straighter, trying to listen as Jacques Chirac praised one of the French actors or business tycoons to my right. I stared at the ornate decorations behind Chirac embroidered with the letters RF (République Française) and tried to take measure of the moment, but it was all dreamlike—quite literally beyond my imagination.

Soon, I knew, Chirac would turn to me and explain to those assembled why a wine critic and country boy from Monkton, Maryland, was about to receive France's most prestigious award, the Legion of Honor. During those fleeting moments, I considered how dramatically the wines of France—and truly the world—had changed since all my sniffing, swirling and spitting began, some 25 years ago.

During the last quarter century, a revolution had occurred not only in the hallowed vineyards of France but throughout the Old World, and even more shockingly, in the New World. In fact, in less than 25 years, there had been nothing less than a complete reorganization of the wine universe. Democracy had come to elitist wine cliques and even spread to the vineyards. There had also been a media revolution, as writers and critics gained power, and wine drinkers in turn became more sophisticated and better educated.

I considered the visionary men and women responsible—in places like California, Italy, Spain and Argentina. And, of course, France, where 25 years ago, the number of estates making wines equal to their terroirs was less than 25 percent. Today, I would estimate that the number is somewhere between 75 and 90 percent. Although the French can be arrogant and unforgiving about their heritage and wine culture, they have responded to international challenges and proven convincingly that their wines are still the reference point for many of the world's noblest grapes.

When Chirac finally fixed his eyes and words upon me, I stood up straighter. The significance of my presence seemed so clear. In spite of over two decades of controversy, criticism and occasional defeats, I had been both a witness and a player in the most dramatic quarter century the wine world had ever known. It was hard to believe that when I first began writing about wine, all I had ever wanted to do was taste every one made—at which I have, regrettably, failed—and share my uncensored, independent thoughts about them with other wine lovers. In this, at least, I have succeeded.

Classic Wine Regions of 1978

Three French wine regions dominated the world 25 years ago and retain an important place today: Bordeaux, Burgundy and Champagne. Bordeaux is still the gold standard for wines of exceptional longevity and elegance (the 2000 vintage is the pinnacle) while Burgundy is, well, Burgundy...a minefield of potential disappointments beloved by elitists and pseudointellectuals who like to discuss ad nauseam growers and terroirs—not quality.

Although Burgundy has helped raise the overall standards of winemaking, its failures and overpriced mediocrities sadly outnumber its truly profound efforts. To paraphrase the late, great A. J. Liebling, "Burgundy is great when someone else is buying it." Champagne, meanwhile, remains a classic because no other wine region in the world has been able to produce elegant, effervescent wines of such delicacy and flavor.

California Cabernet Sauvignon, particularly from Napa, was a classic even 25 years ago, though it didn't receive much respect until wine drinkers start comparing it to the greatest Bordeaux—following a famous 1976 taste-off in Paris that pitted Bordeaux against California. (California won.) Napa Cabernet remains California's most famous wine, and rightfully so. In 1978 there were fewer than a dozen world-class producers; today, I'd estimate, conservatively, there are 65 to 75.

Although it was just catching on 25 years ago, California Chardonnay has a special place too, because when it is well made, it tastes damn good. Despite those who advocate the foolish "ABC" (Anything But Chardonnay) theory, the fact is that Chardonnay is a noble grape, and wine drinkers love it in its many forms.

Only two of the great classics of northern Italy, Barolo and Barbaresco, were making their way into the lexicon of wine drinkers and restaurateurs in 1978. The same was true of Spanish wines—a Rioja might make an appearance on a wine list, but that was it. Vintage port was known but far from sought after.

New Classic Wine Regions

The trend that began in the '80s, accelerated in the '90s and continues today is the emergence of what I call wines of the sun belt—from the warm microclimates of Spain, southern France, central Italy and central and southern California.

In France, the greatness of the Rhône Valley has become more and more evident, with increased attention to France's oldest vineyards in regions such as Côte-Rôtie, Hermitage and Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Today, wines from these regions enjoy the respect they deserve. The southern Rhône has also proven to be a source of great value Côtes-du-Rhônes, mostly made from Grenache or Grenache-dominated blends whose hallmarks are gorgeous up-front aromas and flavors and velvety tannins.

In California, the words Rhône Ranger appeared in the '80s referring to winemakers using Rhône Valley varieties, largely produced in the state's south and central coast regions. The response by wine drinkers and restaurateurs was enthusiastic. Broadly flavored wines of undeniable fruit and charm, they demonstrated a remarkable flexibility with food. Meanwhile, in Napa and Sonoma, producers began fashioning proprietary Bordeaux-style blends. Joseph Phelps Insignia was one of the first, followed by the French-American breakthrough effort Opus One and later Maya, Dominus, Trilogy, Cinq Cépages, Vérité, Infinity, Arietta, Affinity, Journey and Rubicon. Though often frightfully expensive, these Bordeaux-style blends continue to proliferate.

In Spain, home to a multitude of old-vine vineyards and top growing areas, producers have demonstrated that world-class wines could be made outside of the country's most famous region, Rioja. And by the late '70s and '80s, a second great wine followed Vega Sicilia's triumph in the Ribera del Duero—Alejandro Fernández's Pesquera. The worldwide success of this sumptuous, juicy red seemed to spur investment and interest in other forgotten Spanish viticultural areas, like Priorato, Toro, Jumilla and Navarra. In fact, the wines of Rioja have taken a backseat to the gorgeously ripe, inexpensive, fruit-driven reds of these once-overlooked regions. (In most cases, the grape of choice is Tempranillo—which was once little known, but is now much appreciated.)

As for Italy, the word Super-Tuscan has become part of every wine geek's vocabulary; it refers to the wines of an innovative group of producers working outside Italian wine laws who fashion Bordeaux-style blends of indigenous varieties such as Sangiovese and international grapes such as Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon. Early efforts such as Sassicaia and Solaia were followed by Ornellaia and seemingly another four or five dozen world-class Super-Tuscan blends with names ending in -aia.

There's been big news from Italy's sunny south, as Tuscany and Piedmont, Italy's two classic regions, now must contend with sensational efforts that were unheard of a mere decade ago as well-informed consumers seek out red and white wines from previously overlooked regions such as Umbria, Campania, Abruzzi, Puglia and Sicily.

A wealth of Pinot Noirs are now made in regions outside of Burgundy, particularly New Zealand, Oregon and California. And while New Zealand and Oregon have become favorites among the wine-writing intelligentsia, it is actually California that has enjoyed a real Pinot Noir revolution, from once-unknown areas such as Sonoma Coast, Russian River Valley, Santa Lucia Highlands, Anderson Valley and Santa Barbara County. (With the exception of Russian River, none were on anyone's radar screen back in 1978.)

The emergence of South American wines on the international scene has been notable, most particularly those from Argentina. Although Chile broke through 15 years ago as a source of good values, it remains somewhat locked in time and has been surpassed in quality and value by Argentina. In fact, a grape that failed miserably in France—Malbec—has proven able to reach celestial heights in Argentina's high-altitude vineyards, and while there are certainly expensive Malbecs to be found, most sell for realistic prices.

Finally, the search for wines filled with fruit and personality and unburdened by excessive tannin and wood has increased demand for dry Rieslings from Germany, Alsace, Austria and, believe it or not, Australia. In fact, although in 1978 Australia was a virtually unknown wine source (not even its so-called greatest wine, Penfolds Grange, was sold in the United States that year), today it is the home of at least three or four dozen world-class wines. Australia is the leading supplier of both value-priced and high-quality wines—especially oversize, bold and brawny fruit-bomb Shirazes from regions like Barossa Valley and McLaren Vale.

Vineyard Revolution

The transformation that's taking place around the world has similarly occurred in the vineyard and winery. The changes in equipment and fermentation techniques as well as improvements in aging and bottling procedures have been dramatic—designed to preserve the freshness, purity and expression of the fruit and a vineyard's terroir. New viticultural techniques, practically unimaginable 25 years ago, have been introduced—such as aggressive winter and spring pruning; crop thinning (cutting off grape bunches to encourage low yields); and leaf pulling (designed to expose the grapes to the sun).

In wineries, some avant-garde producers have replaced the temperature-controlled, stainless steel fermentation tanks popular in the late '70s and '80s with open-top, temperature-controlled wood fermenters—an update of the old wooden vats. Another radical invention of the last quarter century has been the use of the so-called sorting table, or, as the French say, table de tri. Every top property now uses one (some perfectionists even have two) to remove damaged or vegetal material from grapes brought in from the fields.

There has been a tremendous movement at the best estates for far less interventionist winemaking techniques—with the idea that the less the winemaker interferes with the winemaking and aging process, the better the wine is likely to be. For example, many top wineries have moved to much less fining and filtration at bottling—a serious problem when I first began writing about wine in 1978. Back then, many estates were literally eviscerating their wines, stripping them of any texture by this brutal, traumatic process. Today, producers may fine and filter, but the best now stop to decide if it is truly necessary and proceed accordingly.

Of course, many other techniques have helped improve winemaking over the last 25 years, and there is no doubt that they have all been aimed at producing wines with more integrated acidity, tannins and alcohol, as well as more intense flavors, textures, aromatics and terroir characteristics—while never undermining the ultimate goal: that of creating the most unmanipulated, uncompromised and natural wines possible.

Media Revolution

Several American wine publications (including, admittedly, my guide, the Wine Advocate) have had an enormous influence on wine drinkers and the wine trade in the past 25 years. This represents a major shift in power. Prior to 1978, wine writing was dominated by the British, who rarely published a negative review—very different from today's candid, pro-consumer wine writing. This is not to denigrate the enormous contributions of contemporary British writers like Hugh Johnson, Jancis Robinson, Michael Broadbent, Serena Sutcliffe, David Peppercorn, or the late Harry Waugh and Edmund

Penning-Rowsell, or of such younger writers as Stephen Brook, Andrew Jefford, Joanna Simon and Anthony Rose (and that's just my short list). But none of these writers, singularly or cumulatively, have had the impact that American wine publications have.

Wine Shop and Restaurant Revolution

Wine drinkers in America today have access to some of the finest shops in the world. Although one can point to specialist merchants in London and elsewhere in the United Kingdom, to my knowledge, no British shop can rival top American wine stores in breadth of offerings. In virtually every major city in the U.S., there are high-quality merchants who stock an enormous selection of the best wines from around the world. It's all thanks to the demands of the well-informed American wine drinker.

The sophistication of restaurant wine lists and wine-by-the-glass programs, both of which barely existed in 1978, continues to increase. In 1978, it was practically impossible to find a list that wasn't dominated by expensive Champagne, Bordeaux or Burgundy, and that included more than a few casual selections from the New World. This is no longer an intelligent approach, and the growth in serious wine lists, as well as the rise of knowledgeable, noncondescending sommeliers, has been significant.

The Next 25 Years

Cynics may suggest that while all these great changes have occurred, wine has never been more expensive. Certainly that may be true for some of the world's most prestigious wines as well as for those with the best reviews, but the fact is that there are more fine wines and more excellent values now than ever before. There is still an inordinate amount of plonk in the marketplace, but the number of great wine values as well as great wines is at least tenfold in 2003 what it was in 1978.

After 25 years, over 250,000 wines tasted and enough frequent flyer miles to guarantee upgrades for years to come, I can produce irrefutable evidence that wine quality, in all price categories, from all viticultural regions, is dramatically superior to what it was in 1978. The future of good wine has never looked brighter. Could anyone have possibly imagined all of this 25 years ago?

For information on subscribing to the Wine Advocate, call 410-329-6477.

Published September 2003
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