Alice Feiring wonders herself if she should have written a screenplay instead. She might have come up with The Stepford Wives. Around the world, wines she used to cherish have lost their personalities and are all starting to taste the same. Why? To please their man of course; Robert Parker, the world’s most influential wine critic. Positive reviews can mean millions and the great wine regions will do anything to curl up in his lap and get a nice pat on the head. Even if it means abandoning time-honored natural methods in favor of artificial and mechanical manipulation.
Casting herself as heroine, Feiring begins The Battle for Wine and Love or How I Saved the World from Parkerization attempting to “return the vineyards of the world to those who know how to work them.” Her journey becomes Apocalypse Now, seeing vineyard insanity in country after country as she heads up river towards an inevitable showdown with Kurtz, er, Robert Parker, the madman who created the 100-point rating system and whose loyal troops, er, wineries now make wines solely for his palate: “jammy fruit bombs, all vanilla-almond crunched up, often tampered with, and styled by technology and chemistry.”
Her experience in Spain exemplifies the overall problem she also finds in France and Italy. A tasting in Madrid reveals no white Riojas, but tons of new Chardonnays; a grape she feels should not be even grown in Spain.
Students returning from wine school used the new techniques that they believe were superior to their grandfathers’. Winemakers who didn’t trust themselves hired wine consultants to measure the chemistry of a wine. Retired CEOs hired consultants to create status-symbol wines. Winemakers wanted Parker’s attention – and there went the neighborhood.
So what can be done about Darth Vader and the Attack of the Clones? Feiring admits Parker may be a reluctant villain, entitled to his own opinions and free to publish them. Is it his fault that he has the influence he does? No, but Feiring does want an admission from Bob that he has become something bigger than himself; and that this has not been good for the world of wines.
Parker has none of it. “There is no global palate,” he claims. “Myths about me get embellished, exaggerated. I have sixty-five thousand subscribers, but the Wine Spectator has what, four hundred thousand? You’re picking the wrong target here!”
In fact, Darth Vader seems a better analogy for wines than for Parker. Grapes with soul trapped inside machines that are manipulating them. So what is a wine lover to do? Feiring does list the holdouts in each country that make “real wines” and even an entire region, the Loire, which “Parker forgot to review” and thus escaped his influence.
Feiring peppers her travel stories with humorous observations about past loves, including Owl Man and Mr. Bow Tie. The real strength of her writing, though, is her ability to describe what she enjoys about wine and allow the reader see the world through her own palate. The Battle for Wine and Love is not a long list of wine reviews with a narrative thrown around them. It is an explanation of desire, which is quite the accomplishment on any subject.
Purchase The Battle for Wine and Love or How I Saved the World from Parkerization at the Organic Wine Journal Book Store.