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Our ellipses are sealed

In a typically ellipsis-ridden but less unreadable than usual post on his forum, Robert Parker took on a swath of his readers with a highly rhetorical non-question:

Can anyone offer a meaningful definition to the following:
1.Modern wine-making
2.traditional wine-making
3.high alcohol

…which he followed with a lengthy missive questioning, and dismissing, their use as characterizations of wine. But with the possible exception of “transparency” (I’m not a subscriber, and thus can’t search his tasting note database), I’m quite certainly Parker himself has used all these very terms to describe wines, and will do so again in the future. In fact, several respondents make that very point:

The Wine Advocate uses phrases like “traditional” and “old-style” in reviews all the time, including Parker’s. How come these terms are only meaningless when other people use them?

As recently as your classification of Châteuneuf-du-Papes (a very useful classification), you used the terms traditional and modern. What did you mean by them?

In light of this, I have a rhetorical question of my own: does anyone think Parker will actually respond to those questions?

To be sure, the quoted responses are only slightly less rhetorical than Parker’s initial volley, or the mildly snarky response I just typed. But they’re important. Not because I think Parker has an interesting answer for them – I don’t; I think he was just sniping at people with whom he disagrees, an all-too-familiar mode of communication from a critic who, given his position, should really be above such things – but because they raise a useful point about the language we use to describe wine.

As I’ve argued fairly recently, wine has its own vocabulary. The greater the population of that vocabulary, the more expressive the language. Putting aside debates about what each term may or may not mean (and I certainly have thoughts on that), does anyone really experience utter mystification at a wine labeled high-alcohol? Or two wines contrasted as more modern and more traditional? Are those terms absolutely, 100% meaningless to any and all readers? Yes, the borders are indistinct and personal, but isn’t that inevitable with as subjective a practice as wine commentary?

I note with pleasure that, in the thread under consideration, two of the Wine Advocate’s more thoughtful critics contribute searching responses on several of the terms, which is probably something the initial questioner didn’t expect. There’s value in their musings, but even more in the existence of such a discussion; isn’t a conversation, even one that ends in disagreement, better than the sort of derisive mocking in which Parker is engaging? And after all, the world’s most powerful critic does, in his heart of hearts, know better. For in the same post, he writes:

there is no need to dig a deep trench and denigrate everything that doesn’t fall within some tightly defined parameter bereft of any merit or careful examination

Indeed, Mr. Parker. Indeed.

Update: color me surprised. Then again, these aren’t the definitions Parker asked for from others, just an acknowledgment that he does indeed use some of the mentioned terms. In a way this makes his initial post worse, because as this followup makes explicit:

I asked for definitions from the USUAL SUSPECTS that constantly use them as frequently as our government is bailing out financial institutions…just wanting to see how they defined them…of course no revelations or significant substance has yet appeared

…Parker openly admits he has no interest in dialogue, but merely wants to mock everyone else’s.

You cannot be serious!

[caged bottles]

I got into a discussion the other day about the word “serious” in relation to wine. The person who used the word was setting it in opposition to what he termed “quaffable”; specifically, Beaujolais was the latter, while Burgundy and Bordeaux were the former.

There was some objection to both characterizations on my part — the best cru Beaujolais is hardly quaffable, while the worst mass-market Burgundy and Bordeaux are hardly serious — but it got me thinking about how I might actually apply the word “serious” to wine, were I to do so.

The first, and most obvious, use would be a characterization of the wine in the glass…a stern, solemn wine that lacks any sense of joy, frivolity or fun. And indeed, many a top Bordeaux might qualify. This isn’t to say that one can’t derive joy/frivolity/fun from such a wine (drinking will to that to a person), only that the wine itself doesn’t bring those characteristics to the party. Or any party. This sort of wine doesn’t party.

But that’s not what the person who originally used the word intended. He was talking about something else, a quality that might otherwise be identified as “noble” or “fine” vs. something more prosaic. I understand this use of the word, but I don’t endorse it, because it smacks of faith in hierarchies over intrinsic qualities. While I might agree that, on balance and for my palate, certain wines regularly reach greater heights than other wines, I think to imply that the best efforts among that latter group are somehow “unserious” is to unwisely and unfairly denigrate their qualities. I’m not arguing for vinous socialism, nor am I embracing the often-abused refrain “all that matters is what’s in the glass” as a way to take down the high and mighty of the wine world, I just think that to divide up the world of wine into “serious” and “unserious” categories is dangerously reductive thinking. The qualities of individual wines really do matter. “Serious” wines are to be found everywhere, not just where one expects to find them.

So if my interlocutor was using the word in a fashion I didn’t like, how would I use the word? For me, a serious wine is:

  • A wine made to the highest quality possible given the restrictions in place. These include terroir, cépage, climate, typicity…any or all of which may or may not be legally mandated…and more external concerns like available money, etc. The wine would be made without marketability or price point as the primary consideration, though this is not to say that they can’t be strongly considered; winemaking isn’t a charitable pursuit.
  • A wine that is “serious” in intent, made to be the best it can be and not something merely acceptable or only good enough for uncritical quaffing. This doesn’t, however, mean that serious wines can’t also be quaffable. For example, the best Bugey Cerdon or brachetto d’Acqui can be serious, if they’re made with maximum care and attention. Both are, obviously, “fun” wines. But they’re made with a seriousness of purpose and a laser-like focus on quality, not simply because winemaking is what Dad and Great-Great-Great-Grandad did for a living, or because any idiot can sell Central Coast pinot (not true, of course) given the success of Sideways, or because there happens to be a perceived market for a drinkable $10 Bordeaux and a supply of grapes to fill that market.
  • It’s also important to note that these requirements say nothing about style. A serious wine might be resolutely traditional or employ every modernizing trick in the book. Again, it’s the intent that matters.

The opposite term — unserious — would apply to wines that are made with a primary consideration other than the highest possible quality. This would include price-point wines, wines made with compromises (which is not necessarily a value judgment) along the way, and wines made simply because they’re fun, or experimental, or in any non-qualitative way entertaining (e.g. Marilyn Merlot).

There’s a need for both types of wine, serious and unserious, in our modern marketplace. Who wants to be serious all the time? But it’s important to understand what seriousness really is. It’s not a pedigree, or a shockingly elevated price, or a reputation, or a bunch of points, or even the chorused acclaim of the oenogeek masses. It’s an expression of passion and skill, fired by intent, and given birth in a glass.