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Copyright © Ric Einstein 2009
Spittoons at Twenty Paces - Halliday and Parker spit it out
The gloves are off: it is not duelling pistols at twenty paces, it’s spittoons with gobs full of spray, and as things go in these fights, the participants get messy. In the left-hand corner wearing dark purple, is the heavyweight champion of the world, Robert Parker Jr, and in the right-hand corner, wearing a lovely shade of deep garnet is the Australian heavyweight champion, James Halliday.
The fight is being broadcast to a worldwide audience, thanks to the Mark Squires Bulletin Board, the New South Wales Wine Press and Jancis Robinson's Purple Pages, with highlights being replayed on many of the other wine forums. Oenophiles from all over the world wait with bated breath to see if there will be a knockout spray, and like all serious fights, every observer has an opinion and many will score differently from the official judges.
Round One saw (another) unprovoked right hook directed at the Australian wine press by the champion when he stated, in relation to the Yarra Valley, “This is Australia's most fashionable viticultural area as well as the darling of their wine press. Its proponents (the provincial Australian wine press) argue that the climate and resulting wines come closest in spirit to those of Bordeaux and Burgundy in France. I am not convinced….. there is much more ‘sizzle’ than substance for most wineries from Yarra Valley.”
The champion then spent the rest of this round in a prolific display which essentially extrapolated the virtues of his choice in wine styles. A few other point-winning punches were landed (bad pun intended.)
Round Two commences with the Australian champion all fired up and determined to land a few winners. Halliday emerges with a mouthful, but many observers think that much of his spray misses the mark and winds up blowing back into his own face. Here is a brief summary of the play (the full move can be read here.) Halliday laid the foundation of his argument on the results and workings of the Royal Sydney Wine Show. As a strategy goes, he may have got away with it until he said “At the same time, the composition of the judging panels goes a long way to explaining why Parkeresque wines seldom achieve any significant recognition. Under the Chairmanship of Brian Croser, there has been an emphatic instruction to all judges to reward wines with finesse and elegance, and to penalise over-ripe, over-extracted wines. I can assure you there will be no change of policy under my forthcoming Chairmanship.”
The World Champ then threw this one in retaliation, “The wine show system in Australia as illustrated by this thread is appallingly prejudiced and rigged...no wonder many of the finest small independent estates refuse to participate....”
A good many of the punters watching the International Fight saw this admission as tantamount to Halliday punching himself in the face and almost scoring a knockout blow for his competitor.
In reality, whilst it may not have been the smartest move to make, some of Halliday’s movement showed distinct promise. There is a world of difference between a full-bodied, well-balanced wine and a wine that is either over-ripe or over-extracted. Over-ripe and over-extracted wines should be penalised in the show ring because these are not good wines and anyone who thinks they are, has clearly lost the plot. Anyone who does not know the difference between these facets should not be judging wine in the first place. If the judges are competent, they will be well aware of this fact, however many observers cannot understand why judges should be told to reward wines that have “finesse and elegance.” Most casual observers would see this as an unduly heavy hand in trying to influence the results, whilst some others who understand the system far better than I, think it is perfectly reasonable. From my personal perspective, I would think that if a judge was up to the task at hand, they would know what to look for, what was good, and what was bad.
But when I really thought about it carefully, it’s not that simple fight fans! Some years ago, when Croser was Chairman of Judges at the National Wine Show in Canberra, he issued an edict “that all wines that showed overt oak were to be marked down.” It caused a complete furore at the time. Let’s rewind, and go back in history to get a better perspective.
In the 1980’s many Australian wines were lean, green and unripe. Due to a combination of press and show ring pressure (and no one knows where the pressure started first,) things changed for the better and our wines became riper.
The next evolutionary step in our wines progress was to become incredibly over-enthusiastic in the use of oak, and that was a dominant factor in many of out wine in the mid to late 1990’s. According to Halliday, the Royal Sydney Wine show judges are made up of three groups, or classifications, of people but approximately half of them are local winemakers. Now ask yourself who was making those over-oaked wines? Yep; the local winemakers, so that instruction by Croser to the judges at the National Wine Show made sense.
On the Squires Forum thread, there were many (US) “armchair fight experts” throwing their opinions around and roundly criticising the stupidity of the Australian Show System whereby the Chief Judge gives instruction; and on the suggestion of Brian when he was proof reading the story, I tried obtaining further information about what happens on the US show circuit. Who better to provide the information than Bob Foster.
For those of you who are not familiar with Bob, he has been judging wine competitions in the US for over twenty years, so he should know a thing of five about their practices; especially seeing how he is an active judge in about ten annual shows and runs another one.
Here is what Bob said “Almost always, the Competition Director will give a general set of instruction to the wine judges. Just last week I judged the Jefferson Cup competition so this is fresh in my mind.
Generally the director tells them:
Widen your horizons. Just because you don't like heavily oaked Chardonnays that doesn't mean everyone hates them. If you find a heavily oaked Chardonnay that, for that style, is top notch, it should get a gold medal.
Be aware that sometimes wines stand out not because of greatness but because they are over the top in flavors and intensity. No wine should get a medal for sheer intensity. Look for balance and varietal character. Be aware that lighter wines of great flavor and balance are often overlooked in competitions. Make a special effort to search for such wines.”
Bob then goes onto say, “I think it needs to be noted that wine judges are normally told that sheer power is not enough. We are reminded again and again that balance, style and varietal character are critical. A big wine can easily win a gold if it has these characteristics. Thus a low acid fruit bomb should not. No one (in a US Show) has ever uttered this last sentence but it's the logical conclusion.”
Bob’s information is proof positive that the Chief Judge giving instructions to the Judging Panel is a common practice and not just an Australian quirk thought up a couple of Aussie megalomaniacs.
Despite the logic behind Halliday’s comments, most casual fight observers felt that Halliday lost this round badly. (Perhaps now they have had an opportunity to consider the above information, they may now feel differently.)
Halliday’s previous comments invigorated the World champ and opened Halliday up for a further attack at the start of Round Three. Parker came out punching with another stinging volley. “I wish several of you would stop using code words that are totally misleading .... like "over-extraction'....already defined and deplorable in ANY wine.....and of course the only word in Croser's vocabulary to describe wines that are very concentrated, balanced and too ripe for HIS palate...."dead grapes"....an unappetizing as well as preposterous thought...why not give us some examples of highly rated wines that you think define these code words for a prejudiced palate...inquiring minds want to know.....in fact this sounds like deja vu "all over again"...I much prefer the term.."weapons of mass seduction" for the old vine grenaches and shirazes made from optimally ripe grapes by small, dedicated artisans and craftspeople in south Australia.....but then again maybe Croser is right...always pick your grapes BEFORE they are ripe (no risk or skill there)...add beaucoup acidity...and give anyone a free prilosec to preclude acid indigestion....suggested with my tongue firmly in my cheek....Bon Appetit!”
Let's examine this series of moves using the benefit of slow motion replay. His initial left cross, where he stated, “I wish several of you would stop using code words that are totally misleading .... like "over-extraction'....already defined and in ANY wine” was brilliant. It looked like a good defensive, jabbing movement designed to quieten the forum audience and let them know that over-extraction was not a good thing. However it was a cunningly designed feint for the forthcoming right uppercut which was faithfully directed at someone standing at the side of the ring, Brian Croser. So now, the whole movement looks essentially like this: “over-extraction is the only word in Croser's vocabulary to describe wines that are very concentrated, balanced and too ripe for HIS palate...."
We now have a situation where the World Champion is confident enough to not only take on the Australian Champion, but he is now slugging it out with the local champions ring assistant. And, it is not the first time he has had a big swing at Croser. In issue 155 of the Wine Advocate (last year's Australian edition,) in regard to Petaluma, Parker had this to say, "Petaluma 2000 Coonawarra 84 points - displays a tight, muted nose of pure cherries, blackcurrants, and background earth. A good attack and clipped finish are typical of many Petaluma reds. Acidified and tart, with no real texture or expansiveness on the palate, my rating, which may be too liberal, rewards its purity of character. Drink it over the next 3 - 4 years as my experience indicates these wines hold up, but never get any better in the bottle."
As someone who has drunk every single vintage of Petaluma Coonawarra made, many of them with extended bottle age, my opinion is completely opposed to Robert Parker’s. His comments would apply to those that were made in the 1980s, but they certainly do not apply to those made from 1990 onwards (vintage conditions aside.)
In the next part of the movement, Parker states “…...."dead grapes"....an unappetizing as well as preposterous thought...why not give us some examples of highly rated wines that you think define these code words for a prejudiced palate...inquiring minds want to know....” In a cunning ploy, this movement is carried out in double quick time and I can't tell if it was aimed at Halliday or Croser.
As far as it being a “preposterous thought,” based on my humble tasting experience, and I mean that sincerely, I have tasted wines were the fruit is clearly over-ripe to the point of being dead which results in a wine that is a little lifeless, will not last, and undoubtedly will go leathery with time. Now if I can find “dead grape characters” its most surprising that Parker thinks is a preposterous thought.
The world champion then goes on to state “I much prefer the term...."weapons of mass seduction" for the old vine grenaches and shirazes made from optimally ripe grapes by small,dedicated artisans and craftspeople in south Australia.” Truth be known, I love those wines too and I'm sure that there would be no argument about the quality of those wines from the majority the Australian press, including Halliday.
It is interesting to note that the man who made a wine called “WOMS” (which stands for Weapon of Mass Seduction) was Reid Bosworth of Kaesler Wines and this is exactly the sort of wine that Parker is referring to in his previous statement. During my last visit to Kaesler in May this year, Reid had this to say (which was written up in the Tour Diary at the time.) “We are looking for freshness, lift, vibrancy and raciness. We are looking to make wines in between what they were in the 70s and mid 80’s (13% alcohol,) and where they have been in the last few years. We want to get some delicacy about them whilst avoiding overripe characters. Ripeness is important but the one thing we fear is over-ripeness, before hotness, sulphides, VA or any other fault; I can’t stand dead fruit!"
So, the man that made the WOMS recognises the existence of “dead grapes” and the importance of avoiding over-ripeness and clearly, unlike Parker, doesn't think that there is anything "preposterous" about the concept of dead fruit characters. So who do you wish to believe, Parker or the man who makes the wine that Parker so adores? As it happens, the man that makes the wine also happens to agree with Halliday.
As far as the existence of “dead grape” characters, speaking for myself, I started noticing it in wines from the 1998 vintage onwards and have written about it in a number of articles. It is a poor viticultural practice that is cause for grave concern, and one that needs to be eradicated if winemakers want to make good wine.
In the same way as Croser, the show system (and the wine press) influenced the winemakers and got them to back off on the oak usage in the 1990’s, penalising over-ripe and over-extracted wines in the show ring is a good thing and is aimed at getting rid of dead fruit wines.
Round Four continues with Parker coming out with another concentrated attack on Croser. “….but then again maybe Croser is right...always pick your grapes BEFORE they are ripe(no risk or skill there)...add beaucoup acidity...and give anyone a free prilosec to preclude acid indigestion....suggested with my tongue firmly in my cheek....Bon Appetit”
This tongue in cheek attempt at humour fails miserably anyway you look at it. Croser is not advocating that grapes should be picked before they are ripe and in his own wines, Croser has tried to achieve optimal ripeness since the late 1980’s. The Petaluma Coonawarra, for my money, normally gets very close to the mark, although in the difficult 2002 Coonawarra vintage it was not up to his usual standard. There is a huge difference between under-ripe, perfectly-ripe, and over-ripe but the line dividing the three categories is extremely fine. To make matters infinitely more complex, the variances of viticulture play a big part in trying to achieve perfect ripeness; and as hard as people may try, obtaining optimal ripeness is very difficult to achieve and requires very smart viticultural practices.
As to why Parker suggests that additional acid is added to grapes that are unripe is beyond my understanding, unripe grapes are typically high in acid and low in sugar. One of the major problems with added acid is when it is needed in “beaucoup” quantity to try and balance over-ripe grapes (that have low acid) and that is when it tends to stick out like dogs you know what’s.
To the best of my knowledge, Croser has never attacked Parker in public, but that has not stopped Parker playing the man instead of the ball. This is very poor form and does nothing to enhance Parkers credibility. When you play in the mud and start to hurl it, some of it is going to stick to you and that does not matter if it is Halliday, Parker, Robinson or the Pope himself. Throwing mud should be beyond a true professional, no matter what the profession.
In today’s world, especially with the advent of the Internet and Bulletin Boards in particular, the professional critic (in every field) is open to question like never before. With the advent of mass communication and the formation of the global village, there is a cross-pollenisation of expertise. Experts no longer have to be local, so people like Halliday, Oliver, Hooke et al don’t have a monopoly on commenting on Australian wine and have to contend with “outside professionals,” as well as local avid consumers, calling their pronouncements into question.
On the surface there is nothing wrong with any of that, but where you have a situation where one critic wields an inordinate level of power, things get “interesting.” Whilst it is not Parker’s fault he wields such inordinate power, especially in the worlds richest market, it can have unhealthy consequences, because no matter how good one person is at their job, they are not God or the arbiter of good taste and their pronouncements are still just one person’s opinion.
And opinions are like armpits – everyone has a couple of them. And everyone’s opinion is not always correct – even mine!!
Finally as “preposterous” as Mr Parker may think it sounds, don’t be surprised if you see some scientific research soon proving the reality of “dead grapes”; research that started well before this current debate. That information may prove to be a golden knock out punch.
In the meantime, keen fight fans await the next round; watching this stoush is better than “rubber necking” past a traffic smash.
Copyright © Ric Einstein 2005