Tuesday, August 23, 2005

# Posted 12:11 AM by Ariel David Adesnik  

Both American wine and the American wine consumer continued to be regarded with condescension by the French in the mid-1970s, when the famous, or infamous Paris Tasting finally put them on notice that that America and the Americans might be more important than they had thought, even if they didn't speak French. The tasting pitted some of California's best wines against top French bottlings , and the American side won...

The tasting, on May 24, 1976, took place on the patio of the elegant and luxurious Inter-Continental Hotel...The whites were poured first, then the reds. As the [all French] judges swirled, sniffed, spit, and rated each wine on a scale of 1 to 20, some were quick to pronounce smugly on a wine's origins. "That is definitely California. It has no nose," exclaimed one about a wine that turned out to be a 1973 Batard-Montrachet from Burgundy. "Ah, back to France," sighed gastronome Raymond Oliver, owner of Le Grand Vefour, after a sip of Napa Valley Chardonnay.

The judges' confusion extended to the reds. One called a Napa Valley Cabernet "certainly a premier grand cru of Bordeaux," evidence of "the magnificence of France."

When the results were tallied and announced, several judges behaved badly, refusing to give up their notes, and one even tried to change his numbers before[the organizer] whipped away the scorecards...The French panel was aghast; their wine industry, no suprise, immediately declared the tasting unfair and denounced [the organizer].
It would be hard to imagine a story that more perfectly confirms the conservative stereotype of the French elite as ignorant chauvinists who resent the United States simply because it is better than them at just about everything.

The story above is taken from The Emperor of Wine: The Rise of Robert M. Parker and the Reign of American Taste by Elin McCoy, an American journalist. The book is a biography of Parker, the most powerful wine critic in the world and the quintessentially American self-made man.

Parker isn't self-made in the sense that he grew up economically deprived, but rather, one might say, culturally deprived. Aside from a few bottles of mass-market swill, Parker never tasted real wine until he travelled to France as a college student.

While working his day job as a lawyer in a provincial Maryland bank, Parker began to publish a newsletter about wine in his spare time. Eventually, the newsletter became successful enough for Parker to quite the law and become a full-time critic.

According to author McCoy, three factors accounted for Parker's unrivaled success. First, his ability to taste wine quickly and accurately. Second, his Ralph Nader mentality, that led him to blast other wine critics (especially Europeans) as beholden to financial interests, either their own or those of the vineyards and distributors who lavished them with expensive wine and food. From the get go, Parker presented himself as an independent crusader dedicated above all to saving the American consumer from wasting his hard-earned money on overpriced but low quality wines.

Finally, Parker became the first critic with an absolute devotion to rating wines numerically. He wasn't the first to use numbers, but the most succesful. These days, vineyards stand to gain or lose millions or even tens of millions of dollars on the basis of whether Parker gives their wines an 85, a 90 or a 95 out of 100.

According to one book critic, McCoy's overly positive account of Parker's rise is the alcoholic equivalent of jingoistic, flag-waving propaganda. Yet even though McCoy's account of the 1976 Paris Tasting might warm the hearts of those who prefer their burgers with a side of freedom fries, her book should leave no doubt in any reader's mind that the French are still the masters of wine, a status they have earned because of their centuries of devotion to the wine-making arts. After all, an overwhelming majority of the rare wines to which Parker has awarded a perfect 100 are, in fact, French.

In spite of certain priceless anecdotes about French arrogance, the real message of McCoy's book is that Parker's rise has facilitated a sort of trans-Atlantic symbiosis that has been of tremendous benefit to the French as well as the Americans.

The Americans have benefitted primarily in cultural terms. Parker's discovery of wine as a young traveller in France was typical of the critics of his generation, who taught millions of (mostly upper-middle class) Americans to appreciate a beverage of tremendous subtlety and complexity that was once considered the exclusive reserve of the super-rich elites. By learning from the French and their ancient tradition of wine-making Americans in California and elsewhere have begun to produce some of the world's finest.

The benefits for the French have mostly been financial. Although sophisticates on both sides of the Atlantic denounce the absurdity of ranking wines by number, Parker's method has given millions of American consumers the confidence necessary to spend increading amounts of their income on wine. Thus, every year those millions of Americans spend billions of dollars on French wine, whereas once they spent almost nothing.

Toward the end of her book, McCoy spends many, many pages recounting widespread criticism of Parker for unilaterally imposing his narrow preferences on the global wine market. Much of this criticism confirms French stereotypes about American bluster as much as the story of the Paris Tasting confirms our stereotypes about their arrogance.

According to his critics, Parker favors only those wines with the most obvious flavors and which reach their peak tasteability the soonest. In contrast, the French have the patience necessary to appreciate subtle wines that take time to mature. Thus, the whole idea of rating wines on a 0-to-100 scale is not just absurd, but tres Americaine. After all, you wouldn't give Monet a 94 and Degas a 97, now would you?

The bitterness with which Parker and his critics (both American and French) denounce one another is strangely reminscient of the ferocity with which Bush and Chirac's advocates lashed out at another in the months before the invasion of Iraq. And yet there were no soldiers lives' or grand princples of international law at stake. Only money and wine.

Yet underneath it all was a continuing symbiosis that brought great benefits to all particiants in the debate. Although one should not infer too much about international politics from a book about wine, I think that McCoy's work serves as a powerful reminder that democratic nations have a remarkable to both cooperate and resent one another at the same time. Thus, even at the height of the conflict over invading Iraq, the Americans and the French continued to work together closely on counterrorist operations.

There are lessons here for both liberals and conservatives. The former should not see even our nastier conflicts with our European friends as an indication that the "postwar international system" has begun to crumble as a result of American unilateralism. And the latter should not react to anti-Americanism in Europe as if it were nothing more than an attenuated form of the violent and irrational anti-Americanism of the Arab "street".

Instead of "Jihad vs. McWorld", the real conflict may be Jihad vs. Merlot.
(1) opinions -- Add your opinion

Nice article on French wine
Unfortunately, the French wine makers face competitive New World wines. Things are not what they used to be. Even the young generation is not very fond of wine.

Rocket French
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