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Thursday, 28 April 2016

Parker Points and Natural Wine

The other day the Parker Points for the Sierra de Gredos region in Spain were published in the Wine Advocate. About 25 producers had sent in about 120 different wines to be rated, including myself; I sent in only one bottle of Garnacha 2014.

I was satisfied to see that my quality is remaining constant. My Garnacha 2014 was ranked in position 118 out of 118, with 80 Points!  And last year when I sent in three wines they were ranked in positions 150, 149 and 146 out of 150!  So no change there!

Wonderful! I think this is an excellent example of subjectivity in wine tasting. On the one hand my wines get the worst possible ratings from the Wine Advocate, yet on the other hand, they are sold and appreciated in many top restaurants and winestores all over the world. (Just look here for a list of outlets that carry my wines).

Well, I suppose I could use my horrible score for anti-marketing in the 'natural wine niche/ghetto' if I wanted to; I'm sure it would go down a treat, give rise to some chatter on social media, and some people would love it. But happily, and thankfully, I don't even need to bother doing that; I must be doing something right because my sales are doing very nicely these days! (touch wood!)

I think it's a terrible shame that so many producers, especially small ones, waste so much time and energy on chasing Parker Points. It's really a no-brainer for the vast majority of them. They would be much better off seeking their own markets and clients for their own unique and individual wines; instead of forcing their wines to conform to an international standard taste.

It's a no-brainer because there are literally thousands of producers who are all doing the same thing. The competition is brutal, and probably loss-making! Why not find your own niche? Why not be a big or medium sized fish in a small pond? Where you can actually know and speak to the outlet managers and wine-list curators at restaurants and even with some of the final customers? As opposed to being one minnow among thousands, swimming with the pikes and sharks? Where you are just one ‘account’ among many and the relationship is purely commercial. But, hey, I’m just saying! Each winery is obviously free to choose their own path - in terms of viticulture, winemaking and promotion/sales.

Apart from the above commercial considerations there is also the much more interesting ‘subjectivity’ aspect. It’s all part of the incredibly varied colourful and complex wine world which I’m so happy to be part of. My experience of the wine world over the last decade is that there isn’t just one monolithic wine world, but many different wine worlds (or niches or ghettos!) (or extending the previous metaphor, bodies of water). And each has its own cast of characters, rules of the game, criteria and points systems (though not necessarily numerical ones).

The big difference between Parker’s World and the other worlds is that Parkers’ World is hugely more enormous in all senses: there are thousands of wineries, thousands of intermediaries, thousands of outlets, and probably millions of wine consumers who pay close heed to what thousands of writers, journalists, bloggers, wine critics and sommeliers all have to say. The dominance is such that it’s not surprising that everyone forgets about the existence of the other tiny worlds. Maybe my world is tiny in relative terms, but it’s still big and complex enough to be self-sustaining and independent.

Let me clarify my thoughts here. I have nothing against the Wine Advocate or any of its similar publications with their points systems. I believe they have all done a great job over the last three decades or so, widening the wine base, and bringing many people into the wine universe who otherwise would not have bought wine at all.

They have done away with the snobbery and elitism, and they have simplified what was often an unnecessarily complex and arcane private world, which was intimidating and unwelcoming for new consumers.

But like in all good things there is also the other side of the coin which should be borne in mind. One of them is that people (producers, writers, distributors, outlet managers and the final consumers) all tend to think that Parker’s World is the only game in town, and that its rules and points and criteria are the only valid ones.

Example 1: Cloudiness. The rules in Parker’s World say that all wines must be transparent and not have anything floating in wine in the bottle; while the ‘rules’ of the Natural Wine World say that it doesn’t matter whether a wine is cloudy or not. Fair enough, rules are rules and if you want to play in Parker’s World you have to abide by them (otherwise you get 80 Points or less!).

But what a shame to restrict the enjoyment of looking at a glass of wine to a single dimension. Cloudiness can be beautiful to look at too; especially holding your glass up against the sunset.

Example 2: Sediments. Same as above. Though in this case some wineries apologetically explain on the back label that it’s OK to have sediments at the bottom of the bottle because it’s a ‘natural’ process. Ha!

Example 3: Filtering, clarifying and fining. Again the rules of Parker’s World say that all wines have to be clean and sterilized and stable. Why? Why take out all those ‘bits’ that add delicious flavours and complexity to the wine? And which also help to protect and conserve the wine.

There are several consequences of all the above restrictions:

Firstly there is the question of standardization/globalization/homogenization. The great majority of wines sold these days, are all very similar to each other in style, no matter what part of the world they come from or what grape variety they were made with. On the one hand this is great because millions of consumers can now buy good drinkable wine at a good price without fear. But on the other hand, (1) it’s terribly boring and (2) it’s a sad loss of regional diversity.

Secondly there is the question of the restriction or limitation of acceptability of all the characteristics of a wine. All the players in Parker’s World tend to be very intolerant of any characteristic that is out of their narrow range of acceptability.

The most mentioned characteristic in my experience is the volatile acidity content of a wine, ie the ‘vinegariness’. The same applies to other characteristics such as acidity and sweetness. The range of acceptable aromas and flavours is also limited; if a given wine does not conform to certain expected characteristics, then somehow it is deemed not as good as another one. So we have thousands of wineries all striving to attain 100 points, or approach this Platonic ideal of what the wine should conform to! Whatever happened to regional and personal diversity? Uniqueness? Terroir? All gone in the name of standardization and massification.

Oh well! Basically I find these restrictions sad and boring. I mean, what’s wrong with drinking a wine that’s a bit more acidic/sweeter/alcoholic/weaker than usual every so often? Is it not interesting and pleasant? Or is it better to stick to a safe, clean, predictable wine every time? But there’s no accounting for taste. As I said above, I’m happy and honoured to be a part of the tiny natural wine world, providing different and interesting and complex wines to a growing number of winelovers who enjoy them for what they are, without worrying about how many points they scored.

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