38th TWA Anniversary Addition POST SCRIPT: Since 2003 and the 25th Anniversary
Social Media, the
Internet and the Enormous Focus on Wine Quality: 2004-2011
The era that started in 2004 included the advent of social media, blogging and endless sources of easily accessible information online, ranging from distorted to highly reliable. There is no doubt that the quantity of free wine information on the internet presented an enormous opportunity for amateurs and serious wine enthusiasts to share their opinions and thoughts about wine. In short, it was a wine information bonanza, and totally free. This phenomenon made choices for readers possibly rewarding, but also fraught with peril. Today, many hundreds, if not thousands, of sites have disappeared for lack of interest, dominated by bloviating, mind-numbing dullness and narrow, negative agendas. However, the wine bloggers and commentators who were serious, who did the work tasting wines and kept open minds, have flourished and have viable sites that still exist and should continue to do so.
The Wine Advocate made the big jump to the internet with its website in 2001. Since its launch, the site largely remained unchanged for many years, but is currently undergoing its first massive modification, revision and facelift. Although robertparker.com sits behind a paywall, for those who subscribe, it has provided one of the most reliable sources for wine information on the internet, including hundreds of thousands of tasting notes, producer profiles, restaurant reviews and a lively discussion board.
Along with the increased access to wine information, wine quality throughout the world has continued to soar, giving consumers better wines at all price levels. This has been accompanied by unbridled diversity in styles of wine seen throughout even monolithic wine regions, such as Bordeaux or Burgundy. People have tried for centuries to define greatness in wine by going well beyond fundamentals – that great wine emanates from well-placed vineyards with microclimates favorable to specific types of grapes. There is little disagreement that profound wines, whether they are from France, Italy, Spain, California, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, etc., are the product of conservative viticultural practices that emphasize low yields and physiologically, rather than analytically, ripe fruit. That always raises the question – and something that I have observed for more than 38 years – has a superb wine ever been made from underripe fruit? Not likely.
Increasingly, serious winemakers have met the following challenges:
- Permit the vineyard’s terroir (soil, microclimate, distinctiveness) to express itself.
- Allow the purity and characteristics of the grape varietal or blend of varietals to be faithfully represented in the wine.
- Produce a wine without disturbing the personality and character of the particular vintage by excessive manipulation.
- Follow an uncompromising, noninterventionist winemaking philosophy that eschews the food-processing industrial mind-set of high-tech winemaking – in short, give the wine a chance to evolve naturally without the human element attempting to sculpt or alter the wine’s intrinsic character.
- Follow a policy of minimal handling, clarification and treatment of the wine, so that what is placed in the bottle represents a natural expression of the vineyard, varietal and vintage as much as possible.
In keeping with this overall philosophy, winemakers who reduce traumatic clarification procedures such as fining and filtration and lower sulfur levels (which can dry out a wine’s fruit, bleach color from a wine, and exacerbate the tannin and sharpness) are undeniably producing wines with far more aromatics and flavors, as well as more enthralling textures.
In short, there truly are seven elements of a great wine, and all of these characteristics have appeared in increasing numbers in the world’s finest wine regions:
- The ability to please both the palate and the intellect.
- The ability to hold the taster’s interest.
- The ability to offer intense aromas and flavors without heaviness.
- The ability to actually taste better with each sip.
- The ability to improve with age beyond two or three years.
- The ability to display a singular personality.
- (And perhaps the most important) The ability to reflect its place of origin.
One of the arguments heard frequently from the blogging world is about globalism – the potential problem (but in reality, a myth) of wines that were too monochromatic, without enough varietal diversity. This is untrue and impossible to justify with any specific evidence.
We have also seen the growth and acceptance of indigenous grapes that produce extremely high-quality wine, resurfacing and thriving in today’s world wine economy. Indigenous varietals from Italy including Aglianico, Nero d’Avola and Piedirosso have flourished and are now gaining acceptance among even the most demanding wine connoisseurs. From Spain, white grapes such as Godello, Verdejo and Albariño are now standard fare for serious wine lovers. Some of Spain’s indigenous reds. such as Tempranillo, have always been famous, but more recently consumers have embraced Mencia, Bobal and Carignan, while propelling wines from more obscure wine regions of Spain onto dining tables throughout the world. This will continue.
Throughout the 1990s, and certainly accelerating over the last 16 years, there have been significant changes in the vineyard moving toward more conservative viticultural practices, more organic and biodynamic farming and later harvests in search of riper fruit and lower yields. There are even new techniques, called radical viticulture, from shoot positioning to crop thinning and leaf pulling. These practices are aimed at producing higher-quality fruit and, ultimately, better wines. These changes have not been restricted to vineyards, as wine cellars have been completely overhauled in the last 25 years. They are increasingly temperature-controlled, spotless from a sanitation standpoint, with custom-made, variously sized fermentation vats designed for specific parcels in the vineyard. The use of nitrogen, or argon gas to move wines, rather than aggressive pumping, has helped keep wines from being bruised and the fruit damaged. All in all, the modern tendency is to intervene less and be as gentle as possible with extraction and movement of wine from fermentation tanks to its final destination – the bottle.
Even the so-called triage tables and selection processes, from culling blemished and underripe or overripe fruit in the vineyard, to optical laser sorters in the winery, have resulted in pristine, perfect fruit – resulting in wines of extraordinary purity and richness. Of course, this has all culminated with less fining, less filtration, wines being bottled earlier that are healthier with less spoilage problems, and minimal exposure to oxidation. All of this has ramped up in the first decade of the new millennium.
We could say that the result of all this has been that:
- The increased knowledge of viticulture, vinification and weather that exists today has resulted in greater wines.
- The improved health of vineyards has resulted in higher-quality grapes.
- The movement toward more natural winemaking has led to a less-traumatic bruising of fruit.
- The preservation of the fruit, vintage and terroir characteristics has reached a pinnacle because of these soft handling techniques.
- The bottling process today is aimed more at putting the essence of the vineyard and microclimate/terroir into the bottle in the purest, least oxidized and least manipulated way possible.
- In many respects, this is a victory for common sense as well as wine consumers, as the results are wines that taste better young, but have the ability to age better and longer than any of their predecessors. To deny this is folly.
Big Changes for The
Wine Advocate, Significant Growth in Content and Staff, and Being the First to
Cross a Few Lines: 2012-2016
In 2012, at age 65 (which would mean facing mandatory retirement age in many countries), I decided to plan for the future legacy of The Wine Advocate and sold a majority interest to several young entrepreneurs from Singapore. I still remain as CEO and continue to taste wine and write reports, having kept Bordeaux and Northern California for the first three years after the sale. However, I am now focusing primarily on Northern California, along with reports on many different kinds of wines in the Hedonist’s Gazettes and other articles. Full retirement sounds scary and is probably unlikely, but The Wine Advocate has been strengthened significantly by the decision to sell it. Numerous top independent and extremely professional and knowledgeable wine writers have been added to the staff. Today, our team is stronger than it has ever been in the past. With the addition of Hamburg resident Stephan Reinhardt, we finally have the critical and timely coverage of Austria, Germany, Loire Valley and Champagne that has been missing. Madrid’s Luis Gutiérrez, a gifted and renowned Spanish writer, covers Spain and South America. Replacing me in the Rhône Valley and California’s Central Coast, but also picking up Washington State and other areas, is another superstar in the making, Jeb Dunnuck. Along with Stephan, Luis and Jeb, we have an American living in Rome, Monica Larner, establishing herself as the preeminent Italian wine authority in the world. Englishman Neal Martin is covering Bordeaux, Burgundy, South Africa and Oregon as well as a few other regions. Add to this team the comprehensive coverage we have added on Greece, Portugal and other areas by Mark Squires, and the Asian wine scene by Liwen Hao, and no other wine publication can match our knowledge, professionalism and independence.
Running the entire shop is our Editor in Chief – who also covers New Zealand and Australia and may eventually pick up other areas – our only MW, Lisa Perrotti-Brown. The Wine Advocate, which from 1978 was run entirely from my backyard in Monkton, Maryland, has added offices in Singapore and in the Napa Valley, giving us far easier reach and accessibility. With the debut of the new website, which has profited from a complete facelift, we will add even more talent, with articles on health issues affecting wine drinkers, and special profile reports of some of the great personalities that inhabit the wine world.
The content from the early days of The Wine Advocate, when I was working solo, began with 200 to maybe 500 wines per issue, and then several thousand. But that seems a small drop in the ocean of wine, as over the last four years, each issue has averaged between 3,000 and 5,000 wine reviews! In addition, we now publish interim issues online. So essentially, the bi-monthly feature has grown to monthly coverage and we are routinely providing nearly 50,000+ professional reviews that are independent, uninfluenced by advertising (which we still do not accept after 38 years of subscription-funded wine journalism), and authored by the top authorities in their respective fields.
I know change is often difficult for people, but I am thrilled with the direction that The Wine Advocate has taken, and we continue to excel in providing the finest professional wine coverage in the world – something that none of us take lightly.
Personal accolades continue to arrive, almost all of them unexpected and humbling. In 2004, the Culinary Institute of America created a legacy endowment for wine education scholarships in my name. That was followed by being bestowed the Distinguished Alumnus Award by the University of Maryland in 2006. An even more prestigious award followed that, as I became one of 63 graduates of the University of Maryland to be inducted into the university’s Alumni Hall of Fame. In 2005, France’s President Jacques Chirac promoted me from a “Chevalier” to an “Officier” in that country’s prestigious National Order of the Legion of Honour. In 2011, King Juan Carlos of Spain bestowed on me the Grand Cross of the Order of Civil Merit, which is Spain’s highest civilian honor, at a ceremony in Madrid. Lastly, but certainly not unimportantly, in February of 2014 I became the first wine critic inducted into the Culinary Institute of America’s Vintner’s Hall of Fame, in Napa Valley.
All of this is incredibly gratifying, and all of these honors were the “first of” as a wine critic. Hopefully, it signifies that a line has been crossed and that future wine critics, journalists and winemakers will also be considered for any of these extraordinary honors.
People should read the last paragraph above this postscript, from the supplement from the issue celebrating The Wine Advocate's 25th Anniversary. My feelings about subscribers’ support and the wine world in general are stronger than ever. My journey has been an incredible one – always fascinating, and filled with great joy and discovery. I have cherished every step of the road.
– Robert M. Parker, Jr. (August 2016)
More articles from this author
Best of 2016: Robert M. Parker, Jr.
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Join Robert M. Parker, Jr. as he revisits his most outstanding wines, best value wines, greatest wine drinking experiences of the year and more in his Best of 2016 report.
Robert Parker Tastes Joseph Phelps Insignia (Videos)
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During his August visit to Napa Valley for his forthcoming Napa Report in Issue 227 of the Wine Advocate, Robert Parker tasted the recently released 2013 Joseph Phelps Insignia. Shared here is a video produced by the winery, which includes some of Robert Parker's comments. Also featured are videos of Parker's visit to the winery in 2013 to taste every vintage ever made of Insignia: 1974-2012.