Minisculism and the Pursuit of Balance in Wine
As is so very often the case, the New York Times has provided its readers with something fascinating and a story of wine that demands we wine lovers question how we understand wine. In this case, The Times has provided a portrait of a very distinct vision of what California wine either ought to or can be.
The focus of the recent “The Wrath of Grapes” begins with a focus on Rajat Parr, a sommelier and winery owner and one of the leaders of the “In Pursuit of Balance” contingent that wants to serve up examples of California wine that stress, well, balance and nuance. Early in the story, the following is related about Parr’s thoughts on wine:
“Sea Smoke’s top releases sell for more than $100, and its intensely flavored wines receive all manner of critical acclaim. But the winemaker who leases the Wenzlau vines next door — Rajat Parr, a former sommelier who is a co-owner of two wine labels, Sandhi and Domaine de la Côte — can’t understand why anyone would drink them.”
Parr is one of the most acclaimed sommeliers we have in this country and for good reason. But when I read that he “can’t understand” why someone would want to drink an “intensely flavored” wine the first thing I think is that Parr wasn’t accurately quoted. Surely a sommelier can understand why someone would want to drink an intensely flavored, rich, unsubtle blockbuster of a wine with higher alcohol and all its glyceriny goodness.
But it appears to be accurate:
“He believes that the grape (Sea Smoke grapes) are picked far too late, when they’re far too ripe, and that the resulting wine is devoid of both subtlety and freshness.”
Subtly maybe. Freshness. No. If you’ve tasted a young blockbuster California Cab one thing it does not lack is freshness, particularly when served at the right temperature.
Parr is the kind of person I like, whether I agree with him or not. He’s a serious man making serious wine and thinking very critically about what he does and about what the California wine industry does. He obviously has very strong opinions, is willing to voice them and is equally willing to defend them. That’s why it’s very good to have him leading a contingent of the California wine industry….whether or not he’s wrong about the “freshness” issue.
To illustrate Parr’s willingness to express a somewhat unresolved opinion in the service of an idea, consider this from further down in the story:
“He (Parr) hates the idea of blending top-quality grapes from different vineyards into the same bottle, which many producers do. Those wines might taste good, he admitted, but they lack depth and intrigue. “I don’t believe in the ‘best’ — that the best grapes from different areas come together and create the ‘best’ wine,” he said. “I think there’s more to wine than that.”
I read that and felt like I was personally be baited from afar.
A wine made with grapes produced in more than one vineyard lacks depth and intrigue? We know that the depth can be there in a wine that is blended from grapes grown in multiple vineyards. That isn’t even an issue, so I’m not even sure what Parr is talking about there. I presume I’ve misunderstood him. But what about this issue of “intrigue”?
I’m sure it’s true that Parr’s interest simply isn’t pique when he’s confronted with a wine made from grapes that don’t reflect a single parcel of dirt. I’m sure it’s true that Parr finds nothing of interest in Joseph Phelps’ Insignia, Failla’s Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir, Schramsberg’s J. Schram or the Evening Lands Vineyard Sonoma Coast Chardonnay is genuine.
Clearly others do find something interesting in wines blended from grapes grown in multiple vineyards. This isn’t in dispute. But more interesting than these wines is the idea that they could not intrigue someone simply because they don’t represent single vineyards. Put differently, it’s fascinating to think that the only intriguing wine could be one that represents a single plot of land.
The story asks us to consider this when it describes the meaning of Parr’s Pursuit of Balance organization:
“At its core, though, the debate is about the philosophical purpose of fine wine. Should oenologists try to make beverages that are merely delicious? Or should the ideal be something more profound and intellectually stimulating? Are the best wines the equivalent of Hollywood blockbusters or art-house films? And who gets to decide?”
Going back to Parr’s thoughts on single versus multi-vineyard wines, we might amend the question with this one: Should winemakers try to make a delicious wine or should they try to give meaning to (or, rather, elicit the meaning from) a piece of dirt and the climate that envelopes it? From the perspective of a lover of classical music, it’s akin to asking, “Should we value more the flute solo in Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf” or should be value the entirety of the composition?
Parr values the flute solo. It’s the promotion of an idea you might call “minisculism”.
Toward the end of this thoroughly interesting article, we see Parr’s devotion to minisculism in this passage:
“One (of Parr’s own Domaine de la Cote wines) seemed to taste more like minerals than fruit. Another was light and refreshing. A third seemed virtually flavorless, as if the wine wasn’t even ready to drink. It would be entirely possible for a customer to be entranced by one, yet find another actively unpleasant. Parr nodded his approval when I told him that, because it meant the vineyard sites were showing through in the wines.”
There is a debate to be had as to whether Parr’s wine, being “virtually flavorless”, is in fact a particularly good representation of the vineyard in which the grapes were grown. Would a better rendition of the single vineyard have been delivered had he picked his fruit at a very slightly higher brix level? We will never know.
What we do know is that in Parr’s view, there is nothing of interest in wine that does not reflect (in some way) a single plot of land. This is, in my view, a perspective that can only be achieved by wearing blinders and by observing the world from a very tall soapbox. However, I have not spent 20+ years intensely studying and serving wine as Parr has. Perhaps after spending so much time showcasing wines of so many different and varying styles, he finds more comfort clearing away the clutter of diversity and peering forward with a single, narrow focus.
This is one of the better articles I’ve read in years on this issue of balance in California wine. Read it slowly and thoroughly.
In an earlier version of this post I identified the author as Eric Asimov. In fact, Bruce Schoenfeld is the author of this extraordinarily good piece.
“Are the best wines the equivalent of Hollywood blockbusters or art-house films? And who gets to decide?””
RESOLVED: “There are Hollywood blockbusters that intentionally (or not) succeed as Great Art and there are art-house movies that fail miserably despite the best intentions and talent.” Pick a side.
Do I have to pick?
How to sell insipid wine in four easy steps:
Call it , “Natural” or “Terroir Driven” or “Balanced” (All three is best)
Emphasize it’s low alcohol, high acid, and de-emphasize its actual flavor (or lack thereof)
Form a Cool Kids Club, for the uncool kids, and sell access to it (IPOB)
If someone points out it is insipid, call them a Parker-ite and accuse them of promoting “Fruit Bombs”
This debate encapsulates the inherent problem of the expert vs. the consumer. Not all somms and writers and winemakers look for the sort of traits mentioned by Parr, but too many do when they have the luxury to do so (i.e., they have other resources). In any other trade it would be ludicrous that the producer is seeking qualilties other than what his buyers, by and large, seek. The ‘People’ should decide on quality (=deliciousness). And the great majority don’t want balance (=austerity). The Parrs of the wine industry do it and themselves no favor.
8 x 6 is 48 but your captcha does not agree and ate my comment.
Here is the short version. The notion that ripe wines lack nuance and balance is belied by thousands of CA wines and a large number of European wines as well.