When Robert Parker spoke to attendees at last week’s Wine Writers Symposium, virtually everyone assumed there’d be at least a few fireworks.
After all, in an “Article of Merit” published on his website (subscription required) in late January, Parker laid into the sommeliers and wine writers who champion obscure varieties and low-alcohol wines. (For background, check out the responses from Alder Yarrow and Jason Wilson.)
Few writers have been as vocal as Jon Bonné in their frustration with California’s modern style. Indeed, his 2013 book, The New California Wine, celebrates those producers who remain committed to “restrained, compelling wines that [speak] clearly of their origins.”
So I wasn’t surprised that Bonné stood up to ask Parker about his recent screed.
Jon Bonné: First, a huge thanks to you for coming today. I know we are not necessarily the easiest crowd to get in front of. I want to go back to a couple things you had said before, one of which is that California is making more world-class wines today than we ever have. I would certainly agree, I think most folks in the room would agree, but I also want to go back to the essay you wrote not that long ago, when you described the low-alcohol movement as a “phony anti-California, anti-New World movement by Eurocentric, self- proclaimed purists… spurred on by a very tiny group of wine producers who claim Europe as their spiritual mentor, which would be fine were it not for the fact that the along the way, they virtually trash just about everything in the USA, South America or Australia.”
I don’t know exactly who you were referring to. I know Scholium Project and Raj Parr’s wines were sort of name checked later, on the bulletin board, which I do still read.
I guess my question is, whether it’s a wine like Sandhi, whether it’s other wines in California – and to your point about power, and really having stuffing in the bottle, certainly there are diluted wines and certainly there are under-powered wines, but there are also wines that are being made in a style that I don’t know if I would necessarily say they’re low alcohol, but I’d say they are different from the style that was dominant in California for a while. Those aren’t necessarily flukes. I mean, I would say certainly there’s critical disagreements about them, whether it’s me, whether it’s Eric or Jancis or whoever. Under the notion of live and let live, why not allow more diversity? Why not allow California to explore the full potential of what it can do that might show nuance in addition to that.
Robert Parker: Well, you’d be surprised — I actually agree with what you’re saying. And I’ll read something here, written about 20 years ago, that I think confirms that. Even though that passage you just read is, you know, a call-to-arms so to speak, I’m not saying that these wines shouldn’t be made. I am saying I think it’s a mistake to have a formula where your objective is to have low alcohol and you’re going to pick the grapes at a lower brix just so you can have low alcohol and then somehow slam the word elegant on it. You’re not getting an elegant wine; you’re just getting a wine that’s lower in alcohol.
California is not really conducive to making low-alcohol wines in many ways, but we’re seeing a change. We’re seeing projects like Steve Kistler’s in Occidental. Okay, he’s able to get exceptional flavor concentration in his Pinots at about 12.5 to 13 percent alcohol. But that’s related to the micro-climate, and obviously somewhat to the viticulture that he’s employed.
I have no problem with that. I’ve never actually used alcohol at any level as a litmus test for judging a wine, it’s just not important to me. Also, for most of my career, the little strip labels that had the alcohol lied anyhow!
What I’m railing about there is that if you intentionally go out and say, well, I’ve got to make a lower alcohol wine so I’m just going pick earlier, you’re really just picking under-ripe fruit that isn’t going give the full expression of terroir or of that fruit.
I had this argument with Adam Tolmach at Ojai, who I visited probably every year for 10 or 15 years, and one year he brings out this Chardonnay that he picked at some ridiculously low brix number. And he says, “Now this is what I’m going do in the future because it’s low in alcohol.”
And it had no flavor! The acidities were too high. Now you could say, well, okay, “that’s your taste.” But I can guarantee, if he sticks with that program, he’s not going to make it, because that’s not what people want. He can find a smaller group that may endorse this sort of wine. But when I look across the entire field of play, I have no problem with these kind of wines. I just don’t think that people making those wines should be trashing the other wines that are big, rich, full-bodied, and alcoholic as some sort of beverage for Neanderthals.
That’s when I really get upset. I wrote that column to encourage conversation on the subject, because I think it needs to be discussed, and because we need to discuss it civilly. I think that now there are terroirs that Californians are discovering where you can get the concentration of flavor.
See, I’m going to flunk a wine if it doesn’t have the requisite flavor focus and intensity of flavor. It’s not going pass muster with me, because then I think they haven’t picked the grapes at the proper time. They haven’t gotten the full phenolic expression of the grapes or the terroir or the vintage character.
And I just want to read something I wrote, God knows, I think it was the first written in 1990.
Exceptional wines emerge from a philosophy which includes the following: permit the vineyards terroir, slow micro-climate, distinctiveness to express itself; 2) allow the purity and characteristics of the grape varietal or blend of varietals to be faithfully represented in the wine; 3) produce a wine without distorting the personality and character of a particular vintage by excessive manipulation. Excessive manipulation to me would be picking too soon, or picking too late; 4) follow an uncompromising, non-interventionistic winemaking philosophy that eschews food-processing industrial mindset of high-tech winemaking. In short, give the wine a chance to make itself naturally without – ah, I hate the world naturally! — without the human element attempting to sculpture or alter the wine’s intrinsic character.
Now, I don’t want to sound like that was a dogma annunciated by Alice Feiring, but in many ways, there’s a lot of similarities. And I think I have never deviated from that point.
When I first started, winemaking was on a real dangerous, slippery slope. They were bringing in micropore filters that could just strip the hell out of wines. There was too much fining going on, there were all kinds of techniques. But I think what has happened is that when you start throwing around things like, oh, mega-purple is being used now and tannins are being added and all these yeasts and enzymes — I really don’t know any quality producer that does that, and if they do it, then they’ve done it very well. And I’m totally against that.
You know, I never talk about the fact that I’ve had a vineyard with Pat’s brother since 1986 – our first vintage was 1990 — and I’ve never spoken, but I’m going to say one thing about it. (Editor’s note: Parker is referring to Beaux Frères in Oregon.) When people are looking at me and accusing me of loving fruit bombs — I do like fruit, don’t get me wrong – but that vineyard? In most vintages, we’ve had sulfur levels where we didn’t have to put SO2 on the label; they were that low. And we can go back now 20 years and see that at those low levels, the wines are still stable. That was a dangerous game. That vineyard is bio-dynamically farmed. I’m not totally in agreement with that — and I won’t let them advertise it — but I’m in agreement with the philosophy, less chemicals and doing things as naturally as possible. I just don’t think you can go from that and say, oh, it automatically makes better wines and people who are fertilizing and using pesticides and stuff are making crappy wine. I just don’t believe that.
We don’t fine or filter and I think the wine is relatively delicate and not a big wine. And we’ve had only two or three vintages over 13.5, 14 percent alcohol. In my mind, I know the best wine we’ve ever made out there was the 1994, which was 15.5 percent alcohol!
So there’s always these contradictory things that you run across. But anyhow, if I had one hope, it’s that all of us would stick together a little bit better than we’re doing. And that we move forward as a group of real wine lovers. I would hope that some of you — and I’m inviting you — when you disagree with something I say, or you want to ask a question about anything, pick up the phone and call me. I am not going bite anybody.
Having been the butt of jokes and ridiculed – and obviously, when you’re ridiculed, there’s really no way to respond; you just ignore it — but I would like to see more civility. And I think that by and large, we’re much closer together in what we believe than what separates us.