Over at Dr. Vino, probably the best wine blog on the internet, Tyler Coleman (who actually is the Doctor himself) gives the play by play of an exclusive blind tasting of some of the 2005 Bordeaux with the great Robert Parker. For those who don’t follow these things, Parker is probably the most influential voice and palate the wine industry has ever seen. He’s partly famous for his extraordinary powers of discernment and partly for his unyielding bombast and self-promotion (hubris is not scarce in the wine world). However, much of Parker’s reputation has to do with his purportedly unimpeachable integrity and independence: he never accepts any free gifts from winemakers and distributors, always pays his own way no matter what the cost, and even famously avoids becoming too friendly with those who work for wineries and distributors so he doesn’t create even the appearance that his judgment might be compromised. He even devised a much more nuanced and complicated one hundred point system for rating wines with greater specificity transforming the capricious art of wine tasting into a quasi-science.
What’s so fascinating to me about the great success of Parker, an American lawyer from Baltimore, is that for all his aristocratic posturing (and he does plenty) he has inadvertently helped to democratize the otherwise highfalutin world of wine appreciation. He has done this by exaggerating the scientific, and therefore meritocratic, aspect of both winemaking and wine appreciation: instead of tradition and mysterious terroir, Parker emphasizes viticultural science and the rigorous development, training, and exercise of one’s palate. Parker, therefore, advertises himself as a peculiarly American aristocrat, something in line with Jefferson’s “natural aristocracy”, and assigns primary significance to individual exertion and accomplishment versus submission or resignation to our traditional inheritance. Winemaking is excellent example of the Lockean conquest of otherwise worthless land–our rational industry can extract from soil transcendent, consumable art and even those of us of inauspicious origins can learn to love it.
Parker’s view, though, like the “individualism” Tocqueville once ascribed to Americans, is an exaggeration, and sometimes so egregious it borders on myth–neither winemaking nor tasting can be a purely scientific enterprise. In my experience, even the most discerning wine afficionados heavily rely upon often hazy intuitive judgments and half-guesses about what it is in their glass, and why they think it is so. And everyone knows that even the best winery can produce an unspectacular product, and there is so much variation even within one estate’s production that any one bottle can perform well above or well below its “pedigree”. Climatology is only sort of scientific, and the fact that New York State is utterly incapable of producing a decent pinot noir is powerful evidence that the land often stubbornly resists our efforts to scientifically subdue it (ask Jim Ceasar if he’s ever had a Virginian Malbec).
One problem at the heart of American individualism, as Tocqueville described it, is a that we believe our nature can conquer tradition (our natural reason investigates everything convention presents to us) but we also caricature both nature and convention, conceiving the former as the seat of individual independence and the latter as locus of calcified dogma and gratuitous restriction. The American appreciation of wine provides an interesting microcosm of our sentiments regarding class and equality–or the unique way in which we long for greatness and the experiences that remind us of it but also embrace an egalitarianism that constantly attempts to fashion greatness into something accessible to all. There is, however, something good to report about this tendency, often only desribed as a vice: we tend to admire extraordinary ability and even demand that it be rewarded (you really can see some of this in popular form with shows like American Idol) but if the same talent generalizes itself into greater and more robustly aristocratic pretensions, we’re reflexively suspicious if not resentful. One way of saying this is that Americans love greatness but not if it has to occur at the expense of goodness. Go to any average wine tasting in America and you’ll see what I mean: drop Parker’s name and you’ll hear everyone praise his considerable talent but rarely without also mentioning his insufferable character.