Robert Parker Jr: "French wine remains the world's reference point."
The Wine Advocate, April, 2008
1. Mr Parker, you just come back from Bordeaux where you have tasted the vintage 2007 in Primeur. Could have we your general opinion about it?
The vintage presents itself better than I had thought it would, based on the miserable summer Bordeaux endured. The dry, warm, sunny month of September seems to have saved the vintage from being poor. Overall, the very best estates, where they had the financial resources to do extensive work in the vineyards and make a relatively strict selection once the wines were fermented, produced wines that are fruity, soft, very charming, and flattering to drink at an early age. Of course, the wines don’t have the density, structure, and power of the greatest vintages, but they do have finesse, elegance, and generally good balance. At the lower levels, which is where the bulk of the production is, the wines are much thinner, herbal, even vegetal, and largely disappointing.
2. If we should compare this vintage to another, which year would it be?
I suspect this could be considered a vintage somewhat like 1997, only better, or perhaps 1999.
3. In a working day during the Primeur, how much sample of wines do you taste?
I do tastings in three separate ways. There are days where there are 12 to 13 rendezvous with specific châteaux, there are other days where I work with professional groups, such as the Union des Grands Crus or the Circle of the Right Bank, who set up a centralized tasting at an address where I can spend all day working through the wines. And there are other days where I see specific négociants who have very broad selections of wines in all price categories that I taste. In general, many of the wines are tasted over the course of 10 to 11 days, two to four separate times in different circumstances.
4. Do you follow a particular training for that?
As far as training, I avoid going out at night, so I usually leave my hotel room between 7:30 to 8:00 a.m. and generally don’t return for 11 to 12 hours. I have very simple salad and mineral water for dinner, but do always take a relatively robust breakfast, which is my main meal of the day during these tasting trips.
5. Could you explain to the French people, what is a typical day for you ?
That is the typical day, whether I’m in Bordeaux, or the Rhône Valley, or elsewhere. When I’m in my office, I’m largely recording notes and editing, and I reserve one to two days a week for full-day tastings of wines samples.
6. Since 1982, you are the most famous wine critic in the world. What is your best souvenir in Bordeaux?
I have many great memories of Bordeaux. While Bordeaux is easy to criticize because there are so many famous chateaux and the wines are world-famous, there is a reason for their fame – they are the most consistently great wines made in the world, and those with the greatest longevity. There has been a veritable revolution in quality in Bordeaux over the least 15 to 20 years, and while Bordeaux often gets criticized because the most famous wines are very expensive and have become almost like rare objects of art, there is still an ocean of high quality wine at reasonable prices if consumers take the time to educate themselves and learn about it.
7. Between you and Bordeaux, it is like a stormy relation with a lot of passion. Each of your impressions and feelings are analyzed. Are you conscious of your influence?
I have never thought of my relationship with Bordeaux as stormy. My impressions remain very positive. Of course, there have been proprietors who have been upset with my reviews, but I fully understand and accept their sentiments with humility. Most producers are very serious about what they are doing and certainly resent the fact that any one individual could have so much influence over the potential marketplace or image of their wine.
That is not something that I ever desired. I am certainly conscious of that influence, but it is no pressure on me, and I have to remember, at the end of the day, I am drinking these wines just like my readers are, and I have to be loyal to myself and my readers, not to the people producing the wines. That said, I have enormous admiration and respect for them. Over the past 30 years, I have developed professional acquaintances who have given me a remarkable amount of knowledge and appreciation for their terroirs, their winemaking, their history, and their culture.
8. Is it a pressure for you?
To reiterate, there is no pressure, I love what I am doing, I am glad that people do pay attention to what I write about, and I don’t feel any real pressure other than the self-imposed pressure of being fair, working hard, and trying to present my ideas in as concise a manner as possible.
9. You speak French fluently. When did you discover France for the first time?
While my French is fluent, I have always retained a very strong American accent, which is hard to lose, I suppose. I discovered France for the first time in December of 1967, when I left the United States to visit a long-time girlfriend (now my wife) who was majoring in French and studying French at the University of Strasbourg. We met in Paris, and it was truly love at first sight for the wines, for the people, for the country, for its history and culture.
10. The market of the wine is now globalized. According to you, what will be its evolution in the next years?
The international wine market has been globalized, but this has actually been a benefit to producers, who are able to sell their wines in many more countries, as interest in fine wine and consumption of wine has become more popular. From a strategic marketing standpoint, I have paid much more attention to the evolution of taste and wine interest in Asia, which is beginning to show a remarkable boom in wine, just as the United States has over the last decade. As you may know, in recent public opinion surveys, wine has replaced beer as the most popular beverage in the United States, and this will only continue, as it is a beverage of elegance, finesse, and of course, it does provide a beautiful marriage with food. The Asians are just beginning to discover the world of wine, and this will benefit France enormously as they become more educated about the different kinds of wine and different regions.
11. You often asserted that France produced the best wines in the world. Do you think that it is always true?
French wines remain the points of reference for every other country that produces fine wine. Their greatness and intrinsic distinctiveness are how producers from other countries measure the quality and success of their wines. French wines today, in every appellation, are dramatically higher in quality and more consistent in quality, even in challenging vintages, than ever in the past.
12. Will France be a major actor in the future on the world chessboard wine?
Of course, France will always be a major actor. The Asians, more than the Americans, tend to appreciate the extraordinary history and culture of wine that France has, with hundreds and hundreds of years of practice, as opposed to the United States, which has just over a hundred years of wines history, broken dramatically by the period of Prohibition.
13. Is not this leader's place threatened by wines coming from Italy, Spain or even from the new world?
There will always be competition from other areas. Spain is making the biggest noise in terms of high quality wine, as that country has moved from a co-operative mentality to an artisinal estate-grown mentality. Southern Italy has exploded in quality, and both of these areas produce many great bargains and great wines. But the world is big, and the number of people who are demanding high quality wines continues to grow faster than the production of France, Italy, or Spain. It is all a matter of education and locating the markets for your product.
14. France has just discovered the screwcap while it is present in the Anglo-Saxon countries. Do you think that all the wines, even the biggest, will adopt this system in the future?
The screwcap is useful and desirable for wines designed for immediate consumption. I am against the use of screwcaps for fine wines that evolve for more than five years.
15. You are the owner of a vineyard in Oregon. Does it help you to understand better the work of a winemaker ?
I have owned a vineyard in Oregon with my brother-in-law since 1986. (Our first vintage was 1991.) It has given me a greater depth of understanding and appreciation of the risks, the decisions, and the difficulties that wine producers everywhere in the world must confront. The weather at harvest time in Oregon is much like it is in France – some years are fabulous, other years are very challenging – and that has made me appreciate just how conscientious the finest winemakers are.
16. In the past, the consumer seemed to prefer wooded taste. Is it still the truth?
I think it is a myth that consumers prefer a woody taste. I think this is one of the myths that is about my work, where I have been criticized for liking big, over-extracted, and over-oaked wines. Nothing could be further from the truth, and that is pretty obvious to anyone who reads my journals or books. I think the same time applies to consumers. Consumers are looking for pure, fruit-driven wines of character, and that will always be the case.
17. What is the dominant style today?
There is more diversity in wine styles today than there has ever been in the past. There has been a return of indigenous varietals that were previously ignored or sold off to co-operatives, and now quality-conscious young men and women are exploiting these areas – for example, in southern France, Spain, and southern Italy – so we have much more diversity than ever before. Of course, the media likes to look at issues in black and white and focus on one type of style, which they often call the international style, but in fact, there are many, many styles, wine quality is higher and higher, and wines today are characterized by their high qualities and distinct personalities, not by their flaws.
18. For you, what is your favorite food and drink?
It should not come as a surprise that my wife and I have been highly influenced by the culture and cuisine of France, and our food, whether it is simple grilling or whatever, reflects a respect for the quality of the primary product and keeping the flavors honest and simple. We drink wine every day and 95% of it is French wine, mostly Bordeaux or wines from the Rhône Valley. For dinner parties, we love to start the evening with Champagne and will often have a white wine course before a red wine course, and will serve whites from Alsace or Burgundy.
19. What is your present state of mind today?
Having turned 60 and just recovered fully from a knee operation and a major spine operation, I am certainly more aware of my age than I was 20 years ago. The fact that I have recovered fully has given me great confidence and renewed my enthusiasm for so many things. My recent trip to Bordeaux was the first one in at least 6 or 7 years where I was able to walk and stand with no pain or numbness thanks to very successful spinal surgery in January of this year.
20. And to finish, what is your favorite motto ?
There are many that come to mind, but perhaps my favorite one is, “The harder you work, the luckier you get.” Having said that, however, I am also a great hedonist, and I know the difference between when it is time to work and when it is time to play.
Thank you for having an interest in me. I hope my answers are of interest to your readers.
Robert Parker Jr.
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