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Tempest in a Wine Barrel

TIMES WINE WRITER

When a wine reviewer writes that he or she tasted a wine in a winery’s cellar and loved it, I wouldn’t rush out to the nearest wine shop. That same wine will be quite a bit different when tasted much later, thousands of miles away.

Yet through an implication that something fishy was afoot in such a tasting experience, Robert M. Parker Jr., arguably the most powerful wine writer in America, has been sued for libel by Francois Faiveley, owner of the famed Domaine Faiveley in Burgundy. The lawsuit, filed in France against Parker and his publisher, Simon & Schuster, seeks unspecified damages for a phrase that appeared in the Third Edition of “Parker’s Wine Buyer’s Guide,” published last year.

Parker’s reviews of Faiveley’s 1990 Burgundy’s--published before all the wines were even released--were quite favorable. His average score for 32 of Faiveley’s 1990 Burgundies was 88.75 out of 100, a very high average.

It’s Parker’s comments that Faiveley objected to in the lawsuit. The offending quote: “On the dark side, reports continue to circulate that Faiveley’s wines tasted abroad are less rich than those tasted in the cellars--something I have noticed as well. Ummm . . . !”

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A story in the Wine Spectator magazine said that “sources close to the case” claim Faiveley “was upset because he felt the comment implied that he provided Parker, and his customers in his cellars, with higher-quality wines than those that were finally shipped.”

Faiveley is quoted as saying he filed the suit because “I want people to know that we are honest.”

Parker, who is an attorney as well as publisher of the Wine Advocate newsletter, hasn’t returned phone calls to his office in Monkton, Md. Simon & Schuster also declines to comment.

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The dispute strikes me as a bit odd. Anyone who evaluates wines in winery cellars, where the wines are so young--and in most cases not even bottled--must know that the wine when finally bottled and shipped will be different, often very different.

Winemakers with whom I’ve spoken say such wines are so young that anyone, including the person who made the wine, would be hard-pressed to be accurate.

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“When you taste wines that young, there is a lot of doubt that your evaluation will be meaningful,” said Richard Arrowood, winemaker at Arrowood Winery in Sonoma Valley. “You can like one wine one day and hate it the next. I’ve been fooled so often by my own wines.

“No matter how hard we try to learn (about barrel tasting), there are so many turns in the road. At this young age, the wines are not dependable. You can get a rough idea about how a vintage is going to go, but you don’t get much about specific wines.

“That’s why we don’t blend our wines until they have had a full chance to age in the barrel. Two years out of three, wines that we intend for our Reserve end up in our second-label wine.”

Arrowood said he hated doing barrel sample tastings because they are so variable. “I don’t think anyone can predict how a wine is going to turn out,” he says, “not even the winemaker. I can’t.”

Not only is barrel tasting very difficult to do with precision, but there have long been allegations that some wineries in California and other places keep selected barrels of wine for visiting wine writers.

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One Napa Valley winemaker, who asked for anonymity, was asked if he had ever served a writer a sample of wine from a single, hand-selected barrel and had represented that as the final product.

“Hey, you’re talking human nature here,” he said. “If we are going to go to a tasting and we have to take a sample of our wine, are we going to go to our worst barrel? Come on.”

Another major drawback of tasting wines so early is that after they leave the barrel, they change radically. Individual barrels are blended with dozens, hundreds of other barrels. Then the wine may be fined or filtered. In fining, a neutral agent is put into it to clarify it. Filtration further removes material that could hurt aroma, taste or texture. Filtration helps some wines, hurts others, and not even the winemaker can be sure.

After this the wine is aged in the bottle, again altering its aroma and flavor. Then it is trucked to a warehouse, usually not under refrigeration. If it is shipped during the day, did the driver leave the truck in the sun while he ate lunch? If so, the wine could deteriorate.

Then the wine is shipped by sea on a freighter, usually not in cool conditions. There it is jostled and bumped around until it reaches another warehouse. Later it is shipped to a retailer, who stacks the stuff on the floor of a wine shop that may be heated on cold days.

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It is clear that the farther a wine travels from its source, the more likely it is to change.

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Said Arrowood: “You can’t do this (barrel tasting) with any degree of accuracy. The wine is only a road map. There are no specific directions on which way it is going, or what it will be like when it gets where it’s going.”

Interestingly, in a recent Wine Spectator, staff writer James Laube reviewed 1993 California Cabernet Sauvignons--evaluating the wines some three months after harvest, two years before they will be bottled and perhaps three to four years before they will be released. (Laube’s rating of the vintage: “At this early stage, 1993 does not look like a great year.”)

Some day, I suspect, this rush to judgment may prompt a reviewer in quest of the very first review of the year to taste grapes on the vine and then predict when the resulting wine will be ready to drink.

Wine of the Week

1993 Folonari Pinot Grigio ($6.50) --Pinot Grigio grows well in the cooler areas of northern Italy, where it makes a delicately spicy, fairly simple white table wine. The widest-selling Italian Pinot Grigio in the United States, from Santa Margherita, sells for $17 and is rarely seen for less than $13. Prices like this are far too expensive. Some restaurants sell it for $30, an outrage. At less than half the retail price, the Folonari Pinot Grigio is a great value.

The aroma is delicate and spicy, with nuances of figs, fresh melons and citrus. The aftertaste is crisp, fresh and uncomplicated. The balance of this attractive wine makes it perfect for serving as an aperitif or with lighter hot-weather foods such as seafood salads or grilled fish or poultry. This wine will be seen discounted in some shops at close to $5.


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