Monday, April 20, 2009

On reviews and Parker and valuable insight

Always hate an interview sitting for more than a couple of days, but this one with Pennsylvania wine grape educator Mark Chien is already beginning to age. We probably talked a week and a half ago. I read his most recent e-letter, which was part rant and part advice:

"Robert M Parker Jr and Us - I often use the phrase "wine growing" which is growing grapes specifically for wine. It can apply to any wine from sweet Concord to the driest red vinifera. The goal is to grow a high quality grape that will make the best wine of its type. It is easy to get isolated and locked into a particular set of ideas or practices in the vineyard. Ultimately, the wine is meant for someone to drink. Whether it is a quaffing wine or a cult wine, it is probably a good idea to be aware and informed of those who will pass judgment on your end product, certainly a wine consumer but possibly a wine critic. Like it or not, wine criticism, like wine competitions, is part of the landscape of the commercial wine business. It's useful, sometimes even instructive, to know what the pooh-bahs are thinking and saying about wine. I encourage all wine growers to taste benchmarks of the wines they make with no exceptions. The range is from 2 Buck Chuck to $50 reds. Someone out there is judging what you do relative to the competition and it only makes good business sense to know where you stand relative to others in the same type and class. Robert M Parker Jr is the most influential wine critic in the world. I rarely agree with what he says and cannot bear his bombastic, overbearing and confrontational style of prose, but like it or not, his opinion matters to all of us in the wine biz, even the smallest winery in the woods. Not that every customer reads Parker but the range of his experience and knowledge can help us to become better wine growers. His recently released 7th edition of the Wine Buyers Guide is good for a door stop but doubles as a very informative guide into the qualitative variables that produce the best wines in the best wine regions. I skip the individual winery notes and go right into the regional guides that describe some production practices that might offer a few tidbits of useful information to a dedicated wine grower in Pennsylvania. It is well worth reading for that information."

The few e-letters from Chien that I’ve had the chance to read have been a blend of information and opinion. He said the latter can often be a problem because people will read it and think it’s the official stance of his department or the state or Penn State, when it’s simply the perspective coming from someone who’s passionate about wine and wine-making and likes to share those opinions. It would be a shame if that part of Chien's contribution to these e-letters ever disappeared.

Talking more specifically about Parker and his guide, Chien told me that the information one can glean if they read around the personal commentary can be quite valuable.

“For anyone who’s really trying to make good wine,” he said, “the thing about Parker is that over the years . . . he has absorbed a tremendous amount about how the best winemakers are making wine, and if you read his words carefully you can learn an awful lot about it.

“I’m not saying that he’s a viticulturist or an enologist by any stretch, but . . . in a way his view is very useful because he’s not formally trained as many people in this industry are not, and he takes that information and he tries to connect dots based on his experience. . . . as much as maybe like myself doesn’t like Parker or even agree with him . . . you have to understand him because so much of the wine-consuming world considers him so important. From that standpoint, whether you like him or not, he’s an important part of your business if you’re trying to service that end of the wine spectrum.”

We talked about how so few people are reviewing wines in this region at the present; Chien was talking specifically about Pennsylvania but you could say the same about Maryland wines as well. He noted that in general the country’s primary wine reviewers wouldn’t even know where to go to taste wines in Pennsylvania. “If they just took a dart board of the wine map of Pennsylvania and threw darts at it and went around and tasted those wines, chances are they’d come away with a very bad experience,” Chien said. “But, you know, the same thing would happen if they did that for Burgundy. So they know who to cherry-pick in Burgundy and Australia and California, but they don’t know who to cherry-pick in our area, and unless they’re willing to make the effort to try and find out, chances are they are going to get a lot of 70 and 80 wines instead of high 80s and low 90s wines, which is what all of us want them to find.

"It’s a learning experience for al of us. We have to take the time to educate them and at the same time while we’re sort of educating ourselves and making better wines.”

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