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Copyright © Ric Einstein 2009
Review of The Wine Advocate 2007 Australian Segment (28 Nov)
Late last year Robert Parker announced that he would give up reviewing Australian wines and hand the segment over to Dr Jay Miller, a long-time tasting companion. At that stage very few people had heard of Jay Miller in US wine circles, let alone in Australia, so he is virtually a completely unknown entity, but before we look at Miller and his work, let’s put The Wine Advocate and Robert Parker in particular in perspective.
Parker fell in love with the 1998 vintage Oz wines and his enthusiasm and engaging style of writing hooked many US wine lovers. Aussie wines were hot. Anything that Parker rated over 90 flew off the shelves in the US. Those rated over 95 caused a stampede of people trying to snag the wines before they sold out. Prices on the secondary market rocketed. Our wines were flavour of the month, in more ways than one.
Without Parker, the Australian premium segment’s growth in the US would have been far slower, so as a nation we should be grateful for his help in growing in this very important export market.
Tasting wine prior to purchase in the US is extremely difficult thanks to their archaic, restrictive and corrupt wine distribution laws, so many of Parker’s followers were buying his Australian recommendations on trust. We all have unique taste, nothing wrong with that, and Parker’s taste preference in Oz wines tends towards big, concentrated wines, especially SA Shiraz. Many of them were in the “sweet” spectrum and his taste appeals to a segment of the US market. However, over time, as evidenced by the reaction to Parker’s ratings on a number of US wine forums, many of the people who bought his Oz recommendations found out two things.
Firstly, they decided their palates did not coincide with Parker when it came to this segment of the market. Secondly, many thought his Australian scores were shall we say, “generous”. Basically, Parker’s credibility in this segment was waning.
As time went on, Australia was no longer “fashion of the month” and importers found that moving wine based on Parker’s reviews was not as easy. Instead of needing 90 points to sell wine, they were finding they needed to have a score of 95 or above for the score to have an impact.
Parker had a huge workload so it was not surprising that he decided to off-load some segments to other reviewers, but why his beloved Australian Shiraz? Could the decision have been influenced by some readers’ reactions and their loss of confidence in Parker for this category?
So what do we know about Dr Jay Miller? Not a lot to be honest, other than he is a long time tasting buddy of Parker’s and has been sitting in on his tasting sessions for many years. When the announcement of Miller’s appointment was made there was much speculation on the effect his appointment would have on the Australian segment.
I have no idea how much experience Miller has with Australian wines or how good his palate is, but one thing I do know, no matter how good a persons palate, when it comes to assessing wines, there is no substitute for experience in the category. Just because you are an expert in one category, it does not mean you will be as successful in another segment. Parker is proof of this point. He is highly respected for his Bordeaux reports, but the same can not be said for his Burgundy skills.
(This story is based on Issue 173 of the Wine Advocate. I understand there are further reviews of Australian wines that have been included on the Wine Advocate Website, but as I only purchased the hard copy and do not subscribe to the online edition, I can only report on what I have seen.)
All new appointees want to put their personal stamp on their work, and Miller is no exception. Looking at the list of wineries he reviewed, there are some noticeable additions and omissions.
Those that don’t make the edition who were included last year include: Bleasdale, Fonthill, Gemtree, Giant Steps, Gralyn, Richard Hamilton, Lengs and Cooter, Charles Melton, Nugan Family, Ross Estate, Rockbare, St Marys, Samuel’s Gorge, Step Road and Beresford, Sylvan Springs, Warrabilla and Winter Creek. When I saw that list one thing immediately stuck out like the proverbial dogs you know what, six of these wineries are represented by one US importer. I have no idea why, but it does seem odd.
Notable additions to this edition include the following wineries: Hardys - 5 wines, Peter Howland - 4 wines, Peter Lehmann - 3 wines, Longhop - 3 wines, Nepenthe - 9 wines (all rated 85-87), R Wines – 38 wines, Reschke - 6 wines, Small Gully - 8 wines, Spinifex - 3 wines and Yangarra Estate - 5 wines.
(Miller says, “R Wines is a new company founded by importer and marketing genius, Dan Phillips, along with co-owner renowned winemaker, Chris Ringland…….. It encompasses four family labels, …… along with 13 others created especially for R Wines.)
In Australia, to get wines reviewed, generally the wineries send samples to the reviewer. In occasional cases, wine journos will visit a winery or attend trade dinners to sample wines. These visits tend to be isolated instances, and generally occur when they are writing a story on the winery, or attending a product launch.
Things are done very differently by the Wine Advocate for the Australian reviews. The most significant difference is that, in most cases, the importer and often the winemaker are present when Miller is going through the portfolio of wines. Readers can deduce the wisdom or otherwise of this practice.
In the past, one comment I have heard time and time again from numerous Australian wineries is that your score can be impacted by the US importer that presented your wine to Parker. If the importer was “in favour” it was worth a few extra points. For those readers that think those comments have come from wineries that are not getting high scores and it is a case of sour grapes, it needs to be noted those comment have also been made by wineries that use, or have used, “favoured” importers. After Miller’s report, I am still hearing the same comment.
Miller’s report covered approximately forty-one pages versus Parker’s forty-four pages in the previous Australian segment, so on the surface he covered a similar amount of ground. Or did he? In the last Parker report Parker stated that 70% of the Oz wines tasted were not good enough to be included in the report. Parker tasted over 3,200 wines to write up approximately 800 wines. We have absolutely no idea how many wines Miller tasted and rejected.
By my count, Miller reviewed wines from one hundred and thirty-three wineries. Like Parker, he has a preference for South Australia, as the numbers show.
Barossa Valley/Eden Valley 43%
McLaren Vale/Langhorne Creek 23%
South Australia Blend 11%
Clare Valley 4%
Total South Australia 85%
Victoria 8% (Most fortified)
Figures are like sausages, it depends who makes them and that is exactly the case here. I can analyse the scores breakdown two ways. Firstly from the hard copy, which when analysed shows:
96 points or more 8%
90 -95 points 57%
89 points or less 35%
But based on someone else’s analysis, if you count all the scores including the extra wines available online, the results are as follows.
96 points or more 6%
90 -95 points 53%
89 points or less 41%
In the last analysis of Parker’s Australian scores (for hard copy published South Australian wines) his score break up was as follows:
96 points or more 7%
90 -95 points 58%
89 points or less 34%
If we compare Parker’s last SA scores to the Miller hard copy published scores, the percentages are remarkably similar. Based on that premise, it looks like Miller will wind up getting the same criticism about the generosity of his scores as Parker received.
Enough about percentages, time to examine the content of the report. Unlike Parker who gained immediate attention with his introduction, the last two of which were over a page and a half, Millers introduction is about a fifth of a page and does not have the attention grabbing attributes of Parker’s pronouncements. I had to marvel though at one comment he made right up front.
“2005 appears to have been uniformly excellent across this giant continent while 2004 and 2006 are a notch below. Of course it is impossible to generalise across such a vast landscape, but these three vintages are all excellent to outstanding.”
Whilst I agree all three vintages were generally strong, hasn’t Miller just made that massive and impossible generalisation?
Millers writing style is simple, generally clean and does not use an over abundance of flowery adjectives. It does not have Parker’s flamboyance which is understandable, but his notes seem to lack passion or soul. They seem factual, cold and impersonal. Many of the notes kick off with vine age, oak treatment and even cropping levels. Even some of the less expensive wines like this $16 Shiraz that is made in large quantities states, “The 2005 Shiraz spent 17 months in French and American hogsheads, 10% new.” What is the point when there is no mention of oak influence in the rest of the tasting note? It seems to be a formula question where the answer is included even if it has little relevance.
In a publication where space is a major issue, many of the notes seem to use a lot of unnecessary words. Here is a random example:
“The 2005 Shiraz was sourced from a 40 year-old estate vineyard cropped at 2 tons per acre. The wine was aged for 18 months in neutral American oak. Purple-coloured, it has a savoury nose of spice box, blackcurrant, and blueberry. Medium-bodied and made in an elegant style, flavours of blueberry muffin and liquorice emerge on the palate to add complexity. There is enough concealed tannin to carry the Shiraz for several more years of development. Drink it through 2020.”
That could have been condensed to:
Cropped at 2 tons per acre from a 40 year-old estate vineyard, the 2005 Shiraz was aged for 18 months in neutral oak. The savoury nose shows spice box, blackcurrant, and blueberry which flows through to the palate as blueberry muffin and liquorice. Backed by unobtrusive tannins, it’s medium-bodied, elegant and should reach its peak in 2010 and hold to 2020.
My example says exactly the same thing but uses about 20% less space. When reading forty pages of tasting notes, the less superfluous waffle the better.
When I saw Parker’s early reviews of Australian wines, I was openly critical of his projected drinking windows, feeling that many of them were far too generous. The first thing that struck me when glancing through Millers work was his projected drinking windows are also, in many cases, too long. Many wines that I would normally give 7-10 years, Miller is suggesting 15 years. Wines I would expect to be at the end of their window at 20, Miller is projecting will have 30 years of life.
Another subtle indicator of the ability to judge the Australian segment relates to fortified wines. In the early days, Parker regularly rated Liqueur Muscat ahead of Tokay. With time and experience, most journalists start to understand the nuances of rancio characters and their importance. They then realise that most Liqueur Tokays are technically better than their stable mate Muscats, as the Tokay usually have more aged material. From what I can see from the limited number of fortified samples written up by Miller, he is rating Muscats slightly above Tokays.
The big question is how do Miller’s scores compare to local experts like Oliver and Halliday? To get a handle on that question, I started off with some of the most popular, premium wines in Australia, the Penfolds Bin series. Of the seven wines used in the comparison, he was pretty close on four of them but there were some noticeable differences with the other three. However, what may look like a small difference in the numbers is not as insignificant as it may seem.
The Parker 100 point system and the 100 point system used by Oliver and Halliday are in fact different. Parker’s system actually awards 100 points to wines fairly regularly, but Halliday virtually never awards 100 points and rarely awards even 97 points. Out of 5,836 wines reviewed in his 2008 Companion, Halliday awarded 100 points exactly once and made no awards of 99 or 98 points. He awarded 97 points all of thirteen times. So 0.24% of wines received 97 or higher. Miller’s percentage at 97 points or higher was 160 times greater than Halliday’s (and Oliver’s would be similar to Halliday.) Basically the “Australian scribes” 100 point system stops at 97 points, so a 97 Oliver is close to 100 Parker/Miller. Conversely, a 92 Oliver is probably a 94 Parker/Miller. When you factor those numbers into the equation, Millers scores no longer look as close as they did at first glance.
After seeing the results of the Penfolds comparison, I went through (at random) and picked out a number of very well known brands for comparison. In all except two cases where the results were close, Miller rated the wines lower than Halliday and Oliver. None of the wines selected could be considered either fruit bombs, or made for the US market. This illustrates the very real difference between the stereotypical US palate and the stereotypical Australian palate. As Miller is theoretically writing for the US market, as long as his palate is aligned with his readers that is the main consideration.
Whilst examining the way we see things differently, here is a great example of the difference in two persons understanding of the same wine. Millers tasting note reads, “The 2005 Cuthbert is also 100% Cabernet Sauvignon but was aged for 24 months in 100% new Hungarian oak. It is much more interesting aromatically with notes of toasty oak, pencil lead, spice box, blackberry and black currant. This leads to a full-bodied, structured Cabernet that is currently lacking generosity. Five to six years of additional bottle age may round out this savoury cabernet. (89 points)”
My tasting note is as follows. “Kay Bros 2005 The Cuthbert Cabernet Sauvignon SASep2007 sells for $35 to mail order customers and is sealed under screwcap. The bouquet was incredibly tight and whilst it was hard to identify individual components, it was perfumed and varietal. Deep, strong, pure fruit is currently buried by a serious amount of tannins, but there is enough of everything to kick through eventually. A full-bodied, firm, solid wine that needs about 10 years before you even think about opening one, it should be very long-lived. Blackcurrant, blackberry, tons of coffee/mocha oak, and chocolate flavours, finish long. Rated as Highly Recommended with *** for value, the rating has a mile of potential to increase as the wine enters its peak drinking window in 2015 and beyond.”
If you analyse the components of the wine from the two tasting notes, we both found very much the same thing. The major difference is in the conclusions. Miller is sceptical that it will come together, whilst I have absolute confidence in the wines ability to age gracefully and go from an ugly duckling into a beautiful swan. I have seen enough Australian Cabernets in that mould to have a good understanding of what is likely to happen, and that’s another reason why there is no substitute for experience in the category.
This edition of the Wine Advocate has now been out for about three weeks so some early reactions have been seen. I contacted a number of my contacts in the business who are involved in the US market, both here in Australia and overseas, to find out what is happening on the ground.
Many of the highest pointed wines had sold out prior to the release of this edition, as serious consumers are starting to know which labels are likely to do well. As far as general subscribers are concerned, from what I can gather, there has been little reaction to Miller’s scores. Even those at 95 that would have caused a stir when Parker rated them, have not caused more than a gentle ripple with US retailers and consumers.
Based on information received, some US retailers have tried to create interest in Millers scores with their customers, but it has not yielded much interest or resulted in increased sales.
In Australia, retailers who rely on points to sell wine love high scores from anyone whose name consumers will recognise. When retailers used to say “Parker rated this 97 points” and consumers would ask, “who the heck is Parker,” there was a credible answer; “the worlds most influential wine critic.” They can’t say that with Jay Miller. Some have already used the phrase “Robert Parkers Wine Advocate Issue #173”, with or without Jay Millers name to try to “enhance” the score.
Australian retailers will have to rely on other reviewers’ scores to flog their wine and so Millers position will have no impact, as there is no shortage of local scribes.
In the US, the trend that started a few years ago will continue. Selling Australian wine will be hard work for all those involved in the category, especially with the US$ being in the gutter. However, the category is now much stronger and has a significantly greater penetration and acceptance in the US than it did before Parker fell in love with our big old vine Shiraz. And for that, the industry has a lot to thank Parker for, but now they have to stand on their own two feet.
In the case of Jay Miller, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Story Update that came to light after this had been posted. (3 December )
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Copyright © Ric Einstein 2007
Copyright © Ric Einstein 2007