EDITOR'S NOTE — A Change In PerspectiveSometimes I wonder if the taste preferences of wine critics have anything to do with body type. This is, after all, a strange business we’re in, tasting through an absurd amount of wines to select those we believe in.
Consider the battle of the Roberts, newsletter publishers who both got their start in the 1970s. Robert Finigan, who began publishing his Private Guide to Wine in 1972, was moderate in his build, a young Irish American business consultant with a twinkle in his eyes and a taste for elegance in wine. Robert Parker, whose first issue of the Wine Advocate came out in 1978, is a broad-shouldered, stocky ex-lawyer from Maryland with a taste for power.
They battled over the 1982 Bordeaux vintage, and most people assume that Parker won. Finigan questioned the balance in the wines; Parker sung of their hedonistic appeal and the market followed. Wine is pleasure, after all. Finigan’s newsletter began to fade in influence and he went on to other projects, including books, as well as a stint as the California critic for this magazine.
I hired Robert Finigan because I believed in his taste for elegance. That said, it’s much more challenging to find ways to communicate about elegance in wine than to describe power. And, perhaps, power has more immediate appeal to the people who can afford the great wines of the world. The appreciation of subtlety and equilibrium sounds rather effete in most circles, especially among self-styled masters of the universe.
But without subtlety and equilibrium, wine is mostly about sweet fruit, ripe tannins, warm alcohol and rich textures. Many wines from the 1982 Bordeaux vintage matured quickly and died, leaving only a few at the top of the hierarchy to hold their place in the cellar. Those are great classics. Recently, I had the chance to drink the 1982 Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande with the proprietor, Frédéric Rouzaud, over dinner at Blantyre, an inn in the Berkshires. The wine was impeccably balanced, without any of the hyper maturity that began to plague so many of its cousins eight to ten years after the vintage.
Today, the 1982 Bordeaux vintage looks like an early herald of climate change, and Mr. Parker the man who was able to articulate a new form of wine appreciation for a world in which warmer vintages are increasingly the norm. In the battle over the 1982 vintage, the lines were often drawn between the old guard and the new. But Finigan wasn’t the old guard; he was simply articulating a different taste.
Robert Finigan passed away this October and we will miss him, especially for his good cheer. His spirit and taste lives on, however, in how many of us try to connect with the curve balls nature is hurling our way. Some critics and winemakers make the point that ripeness is a feature of great terroirs, so more ripeness must be better. Others, as Peter Liem argues in his column on climate change in Champagne, suggest that styles and tastes will adapt. But the best wines will always retain a signature of their site.
Henry Davar, formerly the wine director at Del Posto, recently spent several months in Piedmont chasing down what he’d come to think of as Post-Modern Barolo. By getting his hands dirty in the vineyards and cellars, Davar came to a better understanding of what’s actually happening in great contemporary nebbiolo. The battle lines have shifted. It’s no longer old-school versus modern. Contemporary partisans split between hedonism and terroir expression. Finigan had it right all along: If a wine has elegance and balance, it can deliver pleasure and distinctive character at once. —Joshua Greene