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Jefford on Monday: The Gang of 100

Here's the plot. A forex day-trader with a Ferrari and a diamond stud in each ear happens to sit next to a printer from Maryland in a Washington DC bar. They share a few beers and talk about life. The printer says he's not rich, but if he had some capital, he could be very rich by next week. "Oh yeah?" says the day trader, stroking his goatee.

Three hours later in a nearby hotel room, the two are working over the electronic proofs of the forthcoming edition 199 of a wine-geek newsletter called The Wine Advocate. They shake hands on the split, then hit the phones to London. Over the next few hours, they buy every case of Clinet, Clos Fourtet and Smith-Haut-Lafitte 2009 they can find, and half-a-dozen others with bigger production levels, too. A week later, edition 199, with its all-important definitive scores, goes live. They sell. They quarrel about the details of the split. The day trader gets out a gun, which is when the printer’s girlfriend walks quietly up to the back door …

Ok, so far as I know it hasn’t happened, but stranger things have. I’ve been talking to those who understand the figures more comprehensively than I do, and considered opinion is that Robert Parker’s re-scoring of the 2009 Bordeaux vintage will have added at least £100 million to its ‘value’. In the two trading days which followed the release of the scores, both Berry Bros and Farr Vintners sold around £3 million’s worth of top 2009 Bordeaux. Some claim that Robert Parker’s influence is waning. They are the wine world’s equivalent of creationists: folk prepared to ignore all evidence because they wish it so.

But eighteen 100-point wines? And another eleven with 99 or 99+ points? (It would seem as if the Parker half-point is now a reality, particularly in the upper echelons.) While 2009 always looked more comprehensively like ‘the new 1982’ than either 1990 or 2000, Parker now defends his scores against the charge of inflation by saying that in his opinion 2009 is greater than 1982: “the greatest vintage I have ever tasted in Bordeaux”. He implies that no one else has been prepared to state this and stake their reputation on it. In point of fact, Decanter’s Steven Spurrier said that it was the greatest vintage of his lifetime after tasting 2009 en primeur – and Spurrier’s own vintage is 1941, whereas Parker has only been tasting in Bordeaux since the 1970s.

What is true, though, is that if you compare the actual scores and notes which Parker has given with those of other leading critics (easy to do, for example, on the Farr Vintners website), then Parker makes his peers seem cautious, bet-hedging and sometimes even mealy-mouthed. Moreover his notes tend to be longer, more coherent and bubble with articulate enthusiasm. This is why wine drinkers and wine producers the world over love him. He has been, and remains, the great galvaniser: inspiring producers to do better, and inspiring drinkers to engage with the wines he feels passionately about.  

He has always relished backing outsiders, and by beatifying 18 wines (including those which no one else found particularly saintly, like Clinet, Clos Fourtet and Smith-Haut-Lafitte) he has provided plenty of targets for his critics. “Are they better than Margaux, Lafite, Mouton?” queried Simon Staples of Berry Bros & Rudd. “I wouldn’t know anyone apart from Bob who might think so.” In a way, though, whether he is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ doesn’t matter. Wine appreciation is subjective, so if you don’t agree, you simply assign your disagreement to palate difference. Few drinkers, in any case, will ever get exposure to the full panoply of 2009s which a reasoned verdict about which 2009s are ‘perfect’ would require. (And in the case of Mouton and Lafite, we are talking about a mere half percentage point difference. Does it matter?)

What the scores do underline, though, is that Parker seems far readier to declare a wine perfect than his fellow critics. This is something which already attracted comment following his issue 195 vertical tasting of the Verité wines made by Pierre Seillan and Jess Jackson (which included seven 100-point scores).

For most critics (and for me, too), perfection is a summit — an Everest or a K2: something you may dream about, but rarely if ever encounter. Giving any wine a perfect score is packed with troubling philosophical questions about the nature of perfection. Can any wine be that good, other than momentarily: a particular bottle, on a particular evening and in a particular drinking context? What if the next one isn’t as good? How do you correlate perfection among different wines styles? And should it mean an accumulation of qualities (as in blockbuster), or their artful disposition (as in the enduring and graceful classic)?

For Parker, by contrast, perfection seems to be the Tibetan plateau rather than the summit of Everest. It is a snow-bright upland which certain wines attain, and beyond which any kind of marking scheme becomes irrelevant. That plateau, though, is within the reach of any truly fine wine, given ‘perfect’ vintage conditions and a ‘perfect’ human interaction with the raw materials. It is, if you like, a kind of democratic or practical perfection, as opposed to the almost unattainable ideal implied by the logical or mathematical understanding of perfection. It’s another aspect of Parker’s overall generosity as a critic, and of the remarkable width of his palate, too.

What, though, of the financial implications of all this? They may, as Staples puts it, “be writing songs about Bob in the foothills of Pauillac,” but what might it mean for drinkers and investors – and in particular for the wine funds, who haven’t even got around to buying any 2009 just yet? I’ll be thinking about that question next week.

Written by Andrew Jefford

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