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Three new books look at wine

Peter M. Gianotti
L.A. Times-Washington Post News Service
Special to the DailyWine writer and blogger Alice Feiring recently penned "The Battle for Wine and Love or How I Saved the World from Parkerization."
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– 72 2008 Opus Feiring: Light-bodied, aggressively herbal, quick finish.

– 79 2008 Treatise Rosenthal: Austere, elegant cru classe to respect more than enjoy.

– 80 2008 Tract Sokolin: Tough-textured, high extraction, needs time.

There it is.

Or would you rather read a 500-word review of three wine books, which feature the increasingly criticized critic Robert M. Parker Jr. as their shadowy anti-hero?

Parker, easily the world’s most influential wine reviewer, produces The Wine Advocate, a thick, opinionated newsletter that uses a 50-to- 100-point scale to rate wines.

When you see a number and “WA” in a wine ad or in a wine shop, that’s Parker and his crew’s calculation. Wine Spectator, a glossy magazine devoted primarily to wine, uses a similar point system. Its abbreviation: “WS.” There are others, too.

This shorthand in wine writing has overtaken the leisurely essays of the last century. And neither importer Neal I. Rosenthal nor wine writer Alice Feiring are happy about it.

Wine merchant David Sokolin’s perspective is different. He says just use those numbers, buy wine and try to make money on the deal.

Rosenthal’s leisurely, restrained memoir of the retail life is a sipper, reflecting on specific wines, vintners, meals, places, the evils of globalization. It’s all very civilized, in a polite PBS way, lamenting the demise of subtlety in wine and patience in winemaking, and the many injuries inflicted by Parker on the English language. Naturally, Rosenthal is upset by the report-card approach. He’s nostalgic.

I’ll drink to that. But Rosenthal’s yesteryear longings are a bit like trying to add venerated commentator Walter Lippmann to “The McLaughlin Group,” and doing so at a time when the nation’s highest-rated TV show stars Paula Abdul as a judge of vocal talent and reviewing movies is all thumbs.

Feiring, who writes the blog Veritas in Vino, is even more appalled by Parker than Rosenthal is. Like Rosenthal, she’s in love with terroir, or the sense of place evident in a wine. Feiring, of course, assails standardization, “bling wines” and the overuse of technology and chemicals. She manages to squeeze in references to Beckett and Conrad.

But when she terms Parker her “private Kurtz,” you know the narrative has gone too far upriver. Feiring seems more at ease describing Verona’s Bottega del Vino as “the Elaine’s of the wine world” or just chatting harmlessly, endlessly. Her self-conscious interview with Parker won’t age well.

Sokolin’s viewpoint is less romantic. He knows wine can be art, but that it’s mainly business. His advice: find reputable sources, consider buying futures, check pedigree, invest long-term and basically buy low, sell high. He provides charts.

The scores that Parker and others use to rate wines do have impact in the vineyard and in the shop. You can follow the upward spiral in price of his favored wines, starting with the 1982 Bordeaux. Lots of consumers understandably go by the numbers in a world awash with wine. Consider the numerical nods the SparkNotes of drinking.

Parker’s foes are concerned that winemakers gear their wines to please the Parker palate alone. But even Parker doesn’t treat his figures as absolute. The Wine Advocate advises that scores “do not reveal the important facts about a wine,” adding that “there can never be any substitute for your own palate.” Drink what you like. You know the score.


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