Why the Robert Parker brand is irrelevant in India

This post is in response to an article which appeared in the delWine website a few days ago. While it eruditely laid down the hype and commercial implications of wine ratings, the selective role of Robert Parker as a wine critic emerged as one of the highlights of the piece. This gives us an opportunity to find out what India thinks about the emperor of wine and what does his ratings mean to the Indian wine business?

Robert Parker Jr. is probably the most celebrated wine critic of all times. Photo courtesy Wikipedia
Robert Parker Jr. is probably the most celebrated wine critic of all times. Photo courtesy Wikipedia

It is inevitable that whenever wine ratings are discussed, Robert Parker, by default, becomes the focal point, and it is no different in the mentioned article also. No one in the knowledge of the world wine industry can deny the influence of his ratings on the trade. I have personally written and spoken about this at different forums, particularly his expertise and fascination with a few chosen wine regions and their wines (Bordeaux and California happen to be on the top).

To understand Robert Parker’s eminence as a wine critic, one has to study the man’s rise following the pronouncements of 1982 Bordeaux vintage. He was probably the only expert who stuck his neck out in conviction about the quality of  this vintage when most others wrote-off the year as average. The fact that it turned out to be one of the best vintages of  the century in subsequent tastings, was a vindication of his unquestionable tasting abilities. Incidentally, most who disagreed with him in the beginning had to fall in line with his ratings. This was not only the start of the making of ‘Robert Parker brand’ but also a sign of things to come for the future – the emergence of the ultimate wine critic in true sense, a cult-like figure who possesses a unique ability to affect wine price indices with a single whiff, sip and stroke of his pen.

Like most critics, in addition to a large army of dedicated followers, he has his fair share of detractors too, who feel that ‘Parkerization’ of the wine world has done more harm than good to wine’s cause. While many call him biased and manipulative, there are also those who feel that he is the best thing that could have happened to the modern wine world.

But in spite of Parker’s standing as one of the tallest authorities of wine ratings in rest of the wine world, his influence in affecting drinking habits and the trade in India is almost non-existent. The Parker effect, if any, happens indirectly and outside the country’s boundaries where prices are decided as per his ratings. Inside India, so far there has been no indication of any significant impact of his ratings and reviews.

Why Parker and his ratings are not important in the current Indian wine scene:

1.)  We are not a fine wine consuming nation, which happens to be Parker’s strongest domain. The consumption of wines rated 90+ and more by him is limited to a miniscule part of the wine drinking community in this country (price and availability being the two main reasons). Although there is no data to suggest how small this segment might be, it can be safely assumed that it is in the sub-zero percentage, when compared to the overall price brackets.

The same is true when it comes to collectible and investment grade wines.

2.)  Overwhelming majority of Indian wine consumers do not know the break-up and significance of the 100-point rating scale. Therefore  all the talk about a wine’s placement in the market just based on Robert Parker’s scores does not make any difference. At the most, it is nothing more than a numbers game which only the wine importers like to highlight as strong selling  propositions to the top hotels

3.)  One of the major areas of Parker’s influence is a category which belongs to the futures trade (En Primeur). Since this segment hardly features in the Indian trade, his ratings of these wines are of little or no consequence to the market in the country

4.)  In contrary to suggestions made in the article, even the hospitality industry does not consider it necessary to factor-in Parker or Wine Spectator ratings when selecting wines for their portfolio. Appellation, vintage and brand recognition play much more significant roles in wine selections. Therefore, the reason a 2000 Chateau Petrus ends up in a luxury hotel’s wine list is because the name has a tremendous brand value, belongs to a famous Bordeaux Right Bank appellation (Pomerol) and is from a great vintage. The fact that Parker scored this a perfect 100 is most likely to be a mere coincidence. Now, please don’t suggest that 2000 turned out to be a great vintage because of Parker’s ratings!

Why is this so? Simply because the role of critics in our drinking habits is negligible, to say the least. Ask any sommelier in the country and they will confirm that wines are never sold or selected based on critics’ ratings.

Now coming back to the article in question, and why I was tempted to express my views on the subject. Here are two examples from the article:

Example 1.

delWine1

I feel, this is just over the top! There was a time when this statement would have been true to a large extent but to suggest that he ‘single-handedly controls the wine rating system’ is unreasonable in today’s context. Thanks to many other equally capable (if not more) critics and credible wine review sites, it is no longer a one man show. Nowadays, many serious wine consumers and fine wine investors refer to multiple reviews and ratings before choosing their wines.

Leading wine websites like Wine-Searcher.com have realized this fact and it is becoming more and more common to find multiple ratings for a particular wine:

Based on consumer demands, it is common to find multiple ratings for wines on top wine websites like Wine-Searcher.com
Based on consumer demands, it is common to find multiple ratings for wines on top wine websites like Wine-Searcher.com

Example 2.

delWine2

The statement above is only partially true. No doubt that such scores are likely to add to the wine’s commercial value, but there are many wines scored 90 and below by Parker which are considered great value for money (better quality to price ratio). Additionally, there are also those which receive better scores later, following a period of bottle-aging. Generally, Parker mentions about the likely evolution of certain lower scoring wines into better products, in his tasting notes.

The rise and influence of the wine critic in conventional wine cultures is best exemplified by Robert Parker. An institution in himself, he has re-written the rules of the game which, many believe, will be the cornerstone of wine critiquing business for a long time to come. But as new wine cultures are born and new market dynamics emerge, Parker’s legacy may not have the same relevance. India is one such market where the man with ‘The Million Dollar Nose’ is yet to make a mark. Only time will tell if the Parker brand is able to mesmerise the Indian wine lover in times to come as it has for decades in other parts of the world.

Cheers,

Niladri

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Demystifying the palate war

Ever wondered what separates the Americans from the Europeans (especially the British), apart from their accents, the ways of spelling English words and of course, the Atlantic Ocean? It’s their palate; for wine. If you are not already familiar with this (somewhat hush-hush) reality, it may come across as bizarre and even amusing. The fact that a wine’s taste, and hence quality, can be perceived so differently among two demographics, makes this a gripping topic to analyse. This post is an attempt to do exactly that without sounding blatantly dramatic and based on a well-reasoned and informed assumption that such a division does exist in the wine world.

So, what is the basis of this whole debate about American palate vs. European/British palate? Is it just a media created hype or is there real substance to this differentiation? Does an element of  ‘wineupmanship’, so often witnessed in the wine world, accentuate this rift? If the division is for real, how glaring are the difference of opinions?

Questions like these have provided plenty of food for thought to wine commentators since this phenomenon appeared on the world stage, most noticeably in the form of a very public spat between two of the world’s most prolific tasters and highly regarded wine critics, Robert Parker Jr. and Jancis Robinson. The wine in question was the 2003 Chateau Pavie from Saint-Emilion, a super-ripe, rich, concentrated and fruit-forward example which defied the very essence of a classic, quintessential Bordeaux – elegant, food-friendly wines known for their balance (between acidity, sugar, tannin and alcohol) and ability to age for a long period of time. Parker, the American, showered high praises on the wine during his routine En Primeur tastings whereas Robinson, a British, dismissed it as an “unappetising and ridiculous” wine. What followed was a clear emergence of style preference of the two camps and an all too visible polarisation, not only within the expert/critic community but also in the way wines were produced in many traditional wine-growing regions around the world.

Although many in the wine industry have dismissed it as nothing more than a mere ‘storm in a wine glass’, it will be unrealistic not to accept the fact that there are indeed two schools of thought when it comes to tagging a wine based on its taste profile. Simply stated, most Americans tend to prefer wines with vibrant fruit falvours, softer tannins, lower acidity, comparatively higher alcohol and an overall richer concentration. This preference could be related to the general California styles where growing conditions more or less favour more exuberant wines.

The British, on the other hand, have often inclined towards more traditional and classic Old World style of wines where the catch word is ‘balance’. Anything over the top and the Brits are the first to press the alarm button, which is not surprising as wine drinking in the country has always been very Europe-centric, where wine styles tend to be rather restrained albeit complex and classy with an expression of the place they belong to (terroir, in other words). This, by no means suggests that terroir has no role in American wines…in addition to the overall growing conditions, winery operations in the USA (like many other New World producers) have a big role to play in deciding the final outcome.

Now, that brings us to the crux of the matter – why so much fuss about how people choose to enjoy their wine? In my view, there are two possible explanations for this. The first and foremost relates to economics. What sounds like a trivial issue relating to perceptions of taste would not have mattered much if it did not have a profound effect on the global wine business, especially at the top, ultra-premium level. One has to simply look at the transformation of the Bordeaux Right Bank (St. Emilion & Pomerol, mainly) to understand this theory. Robert Parker’s tremendous influence on wine prices has resulted in the adoption of an almost signature style by the majority of this part of Bordeaux. No wonder that some of the wines from this region (the likes of Le Pin, Lafleur, Valandraud et al) consistently demand higher prices than most of their more illustrious Left Bank counterparts. This certainly defies logic if one still considers the 1855 Classification as the benchmark for quality and price (not many people do…aren’t we in the 21st century now?).

The second, and probably more of a subjective issue seems to be that both the sides feel that by letting the rivals have the last word, their own wine identities could be at stake. Looks like the custodians of each of these identities have decided not to let the other dictate how their followers want to enjoy drinking wine. After all, it is a known fact that influencing evolving wine taste buds does not take a huge effort.

Although a comparatively recent discord within the larger wine world, the entire palate debate has definitely added punch to the already heady mix of opinions and the more the industry evolves the more this matter is likely to gain attention. We may have just seen the beginning!

Cheers,

Niladri

WikiLeaks busts major fake wine racket in Asia

Okay you guessed it right, nothing as dramatic has happened (as yet)…the headline is just a figment of my imagination, in fact a blatant attention-grabbing stunt! But just imagine waking up one fine morning to a similar breaking news :-). Would you be surprised? Read on…

Although this is an apolitical blog dedicated to wine (and only wine), I could not think of any other appropriate title to discuss the growing menace of fakery in the wine world. This, admittedly tongue-in-cheek approach with an intended pun, is also keeping in line with the latest buzz surrounding WikiLeaks, the online whistle-blower and the current undisputed star in investigative journalism.

Fraudulent practices in the wine industry is not a new phenomenon. In fact they are going on for centuries in some form or the other but thanks to the ever-vigilant media (aided by a collection of hyper-viral social media), these incidents have become increasingly overt in present times.There have been numerous revelations in the recent past including the infamous Red Bycyclette incident, the unearthing of a major Italian fake wine syndicate and the high-profile case involving the American billionaire William Koch and the auction house Christie’s, to name a few.

With the rapid globalization of wine and the corresponding popularity of the beverage in new and emerging markets, the risks involving possible malpractices have also increased significantly. The interesting point to consider is that fakery in the industry is not only limited to fine wines anymore and that is what makes this issue more complex and widespread. But nowhere the menace of new-age counterfeit wines is more striking than in China. According to one report quoting a Chinese government agency survey a few years back, more than 70% of imported wine sold in restaurants and hotels in the country’s major cities is fake. It also claims that the process may simply involve filling up bottles with cheap local wines and labeling them as though they are imported! More recently, this trend has also been substantiated by a slew of exposés across the world wine media. There are too many to list in this post – here is one, for example.

Now this brings us to the crux of the matter; what if this burgeoning wine market becomes a real victim of the multi-billion dollar organized Chinese fake goods industry? One does not need a great deal of imagination to understand the possible repercussions. According to Vinexpo, the country will become the seventh largest wine consumer by 2013, a staggering  32% increase compared to 2009. This equates to roughly 1.25 billion bottles. As the demand for imported wines keep on growing, a large chunk of this number will undoubtedly be the well-known names from conventional markets as well as the New World countries. If the present scale of counterfeiting goes unchecked it will surely prove to be a huge setback for the industry as it looks east in its quest to explore alternatives to the more or less stagnant western markets. Instead of being the driving force, as it has come to be known as, the Chinese may end up setting a bad precedent for other emerging wine economies too in addition to causing a big dent in the overall market sentiments.

Here’s a quick snapshot of everything discussed above (see the image on the left). Mind you there is nothing clandestine about this example which raises the question that if such (funny?) counterfeiting is taking place in the open, what might be transpiring ‘behind the scenes’?

Note the brand name: ‘Bordux Carstel‘ which sounds like a corruption of ‘Bordeaux Castle’ (Castle happens to be the english translation of Chateau!). A quick search of this name on Google only brings up Chinese results…..surprised?

The image of the Chateau itself resembles one of the Classed Growths.

Note the grape variety: ‘Syrah’. In Bordeaux? Unless the AOC rules have made special provision keeping in mind the Chinese market!

Note the appellation: ‘Grand Vin de Bordeaux’. Very prominent.

Note the real appellation at the bottom: A VDP from Southern France. In small fonts.

Apart from such apparent labeling manipulations, a recent trend of using translated names of well-known brands has also come in light. The phonetic translation for Lafite becomes ‘Luxurious’, for example! An ingenious approach indeed, to add extra value to an already iconic name.

China, with Hong Kong as its flag-bearer, provides an enormous opportunity to the world wine business and will continue to be a lucrative destination in the future, although the country’s notoriety in faking everything commercially popular may prove to be its biggest stumbling block in the long run. A collective effort involving consumer awareness and education may ultimately prove to be the most potent weapon to fight this menace. Needless to say, there are also lessons to be learnt for other up-and-coming markets like India.

Cheers

Niladri