17 March 2009

Our ellipses are sealed

In a typically ellipsis-ridden but less unreadable than usual post on his forum, Robert Parker took on a swath of his readers with a highly rhetorical non-question:

Can anyone offer a meaningful definition to the following:
1.Modern wine-making
2.traditional wine-making
3.high alcohol

…which he followed with a lengthy missive questioning, and dismissing, their use as characterizations of wine. But with the possible exception of “transparency” (I’m not a subscriber, and thus can’t search his tasting note database), I’m quite certainly Parker himself has used all these very terms to describe wines, and will do so again in the future. In fact, several respondents make that very point:

The Wine Advocate uses phrases like "traditional" and "old-style" in reviews all the time, including Parker's. How come these terms are only meaningless when other people use them?

As recently as your classification of Châteuneuf-du-Papes (a very useful classification), you used the terms traditional and modern. What did you mean by them?

In light of this, I have a rhetorical question of my own: does anyone think Parker will actually respond to those questions?

To be sure, the quoted responses are only slightly less rhetorical than Parker’s initial volley, or the mildly snarky response I just typed. But they’re important. Not because I think Parker has an interesting answer for them – I don’t; I think he was just sniping at people with whom he disagrees, an all-too-familiar mode of communication from a critic who, given his position, should really be above such things – but because they raise a useful point about the language we use to describe wine.

As I’ve argued fairly recently, wine has its own vocabulary. The greater the population of that vocabulary, the more expressive the language. Putting aside debates about what each term may or may not mean (and I certainly have thoughts on that), does anyone really experience utter mystification at a wine labeled high-alcohol? Or two wines contrasted as more modern and more traditional? Are those terms absolutely, 100% meaningless to any and all readers? Yes, the borders are indistinct and personal, but isn’t that inevitable with as subjective a practice as wine commentary?

I note with pleasure that, in the thread under consideration, two of the Wine Advocate’s more thoughtful critics contribute searching responses on several of the terms, which is probably something the initial questioner didn’t expect. There’s value in their musings, but even more in the existence of such a discussion; isn’t a conversation, even one that ends in disagreement, better than the sort of derisive mocking in which Parker is engaging? And after all, the world’s most powerful critic does, in his heart of hearts, know better. For in the same post, he writes:

there is no need to dig a deep trench and denigrate everything that doesn't fall within some tightly defined parameter bereft of any merit or careful examination

Indeed, Mr. Parker. Indeed.

Update: color me surprised. Then again, these aren't the definitions Parker asked for from others, just an acknowledgment that he does indeed use some of the mentioned terms. In a way this makes his initial post worse, because as this followup makes explicit:

I asked for definitions from the USUAL SUSPECTS that constantly use them as frequently as our government is bailing out financial institutions...just wanting to see how they defined them...of course no revelations or significant substance has yet appeared

...Parker openly admits he has no interest in dialogue, but merely wants to mock everyone else's.


Florida Jim said...

After noting that I had several questions for Parker while responding to another post on his board, Parker invited me to go ahead and ask them.
I did.
After doing so, several hundred responses were posted by other board memebers as well as several critiques of my question and a couple questioning my sanity and parentage.
Finally, Parker posted a response which was less than "responsive" but started off with words like "well, I guess everyone has pretty much said what I would have . . ."
It was a great lesson for me in the wineboard/internet format and the politics that's played there.
As you say, he has no interest in discussion but he has a substantial interest in quieting the "you know who you ares."

Whereas, I participate in a winebaord where critic Daniel Rogov is moderator. I have, on several occasions engaged Rogov in discussion about wine and our thoughts on assessing quality, etc. In each instance, he has been happy to present the point-counterpoint of our positions and to do it promptly, thereby all but eliminating other posters from entering the fray. We disagree about several things; we do so with civility; and we do so without the peanut gallery creating thread drift or attempting to slap either of us down.

I would compare the two critics by simply saying that one is secure and mature and the other lacks those qualities.

Thin skin is a tough play in the wine critic game. Arogance, even worse.
Best, Jim

thor iverson said...

Jim, this deserved a longer response, so it got one.