November 2008

Fine wine reading for fine people

By Robert M. Parker
By Robin Goldstein
By Chris Hambleton
By Steven Koplan
Review by
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The 900-pound gorilla in the room—whose 1,600-odd pages give that term new weight—is Wine Advocate founder and national wine critic-in-chief Robert Parker and the seventh edition of his Parker's Wine Buyer's Guide. This edition, which happens to coincide with the 30th anniversary of the first mailing of what was then called the Washington/Baltimore Wine Advocate, focuses on wines currently available or expected to be released in the next two years and also puts a greater emphasis on value.

Parker's focus on accessible wines is echoed in the section of the introduction dealing with the issue of drinking wines young vs. cellaring them for long periods. It's satisfying (for those of us too indulgent to wait for more than a few years) to see Parker encouraging wine lovers to adopt a sort of carpe diem attitude, concluding that "only a small percentage [of wines] are more interesting or more enjoyable after extended cellaring than when originally released." Parker further puts himself on the side of the consumer by denouncing restaurants whose excessive markups discourage patrons from ordering good wine. And he displays an admirably democratic attitude toward price, valuing Penfolds Koonunga Hill line, one of its more inexpensive styles, as highly as some of the high – end releases. (Perhaps in a gesture of sympathy, Simon & Schuster is simultaneously releasing the "Guide" in paperback for a more affordable $35.)

However, it's a little less comfortable to find Parker taking aim at what he calls the "dark side" of wine production, especially "the growing international standardization of wine styles." This is arguably self-serving, as Parker's own 100-point scale is widely blamed for the bulking up of many classic wines. His pointing out that many of the wines in his cellars have scores of 87 or 88 likewise seems rather defensive, as many other wine writers (such as the author of our next book, Robin Goldstein) blame him for wine stores' increasing reluctance to stock any wine rated less than a 90. Nevertheless, the descriptions of wines and winemakers—some trenchant, some dismissive, some fulsome and some fully enthusiastic—are clear and absolute.

It seems likely that "Fearless Critic" food writer Robin Goldstein is hoping to get a rise out of the wine community with his myth-busting manifesto, The Wine Trials. Goldstein and co-conspirator/editor Alexis Herschkowitsch organized 17 double-blind tastings—mostly in Texas, where they're based, and New York—enlisting more than 500 wine professionals and amateurs to taste inexpensive wines and big-ticket bottles in a sort of viniferous smackdown. (One half-expects Bobby Flay to burst in and quaff a few glasses.)What they discover is that many of the tasters preferred the cheaper wines to the luxury versions, even when they would have predicted the opposite outcome. Goldstein attributes this result partly to psychological factors such as perceived value (we are still, of course, the most conspicuous consumer society in the world), manufacturers' expenditures on advertising and a set of rather distracting genetic speculations. He also points to the "Parkerization" of wines, which Goldstein feels leads to the homogenization of wines and their increasing in-your-face, jammy, high-alcohol style.

Eventually the book gets to listing 100 under-$15 wines of note, but having apparently exhausted themselves in trying to make the front matter "heavy," the authors go pretty light on the write-ups, spending nearly as much space on the label designs as the wine. Goldstein also seems to have a champion-of-the-underdog attitude, shrugging that while Dom Perignon "has a classic, expensive Champagne taste … a lot of our blind tasters didn't like that taste." However, the "smoothness of the bubbles" apparently trumps the metallic aftertaste of Freixenet. (Full disclosure: not the opinion of this Champagne freak.) It's a fun book and cheap enough for a stocking (or tucked in with a bottle), but should have been more focused.

Bold blends
Somewhere between the two selections above is the glossy, hefty 1001 Wines You Must Taste Before You Die—which, as it happens, describes Dom Perignon as "sublime." It seems to pander to the type of wine lover who is really a collector for appearance's sake, snapping up the right labels, the right vintages, etc. As a source of information for particular wines, it's very good, but as a "bucket list," it kicks.

It's a little hard to figure out The Wine Planner: Select the Right Wines to Complement Your Favorite Food by wine teacher Chris Hambleton, which is sort of a "Pat the Bunny" of wine and food pairings. It's a heavy spiral notebook with each page divided into four mini-pages, the top listing appetizers, the second main courses, the third desserts and the last cheeses. The idea is that you flip through looking for the food you want to serve wine with, and there's your drink recommendation and tasting notes on the flip side. But listing a specific Pinot Blanc for monkfish tacos or Zardetto prosecco di Conegliano for "peaches stuffed with cream cheese and walnuts," five vintages of the Chateau Lagrange St. Julien (at $50 plus) to dispense with "roast beef, roast lamb, or steak tartare" or (only) the 2005 De Ladoucette Pouilly-Fume for "salmon en croute, baked trout with almonds, or steamed bass" seems showy and somewhat arbitrary.

Top tier
The well-behaved dinner guest of the lot is WineWise: Your Complete Guide to Understanding, Selecting, and Enjoying Wine by Steven Kolpan, Brian H. Smith and Michael A. Weiss. These three wine educators from the Culinary Institute of America have produced a clear and useful (if not particularly unique) primer with descriptions of major wine-producing regions, wine styles, etc., with full-color photos and maps. There's also a surprisingly useful final chapter that lists all three critics' favorite wine bargains of all styles—more than 650, with most in the $15 or less range. Now that's timely.

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