Fresh and subtle wine vs overripe ones

La Cote vineyard, where Mr Rajat Parr wanted specifics such as the shale in the soil to be evident in the wine.
La Cote vineyard, where Mr Rajat Parr wanted specifics such as the shale in the soil to be evident in the wine. PHOTOS: DOMAINE DE LA COTE, ST FILE, RAJAT PARR/FACEBOOK
La Cote vineyard, where Mr Rajat Parr wanted specifics such as the shale in the soil to be evident in the wine.
Mr Rajat Parr, co-owner of two wine labels, on harvesting early to get wines full of aromas and flavours
La Cote vineyard, where Mr Rajat Parr wanted specifics such as the shale in the soil to be evident in the wine.
Mr Robert Parker, wine critic who created the scoring system to award high marks to wines that tasted the way he believed good wines ought to taste

A small group of vintners in California challenges influential tastemaker Robert Parker

On the steep hills of Central California near Lompoc, on a slope that runs along Santa Rosa Road, two vineyards lie side by side.

To all appearances, the Sea Smoke and Wenzlau properties occupy one continuous parcel of land. The vines grow in the same soil and get the same sunlight. Nevertheless, grapes planted only a few feet apart end up in bottles of pinot noir that have little in common.

Sea Smoke's top releases sell for more than US$100 (S$135) and its intensely flavoured wines receive all manner of critical acclaim.

'Our wines are fermenting in barrels, we've gone home and they haven't picked a berry yet'

Mr Rajat Parr, co-owner of two wine labels, on harvesting early to get wines full of aromas and flavours

But the winemaker who leases the Wenzlau vines - Mr Rajat Parr, a former sommelier who is a co-owner of two wine labels, Sandhi and Domaine de la Cote - cannot understand why anyone would drink them. He believes that the grapes are picked far too late, when they are far too ripe, and that the resulting wine is devoid of both subtlety and freshness.

He says: "Our wines are fermenting in barrels, we've gone home and they haven't picked a berry yet."

Sugar content, which determines alcohol levels, rises as fruit ripens.

'People say you can never give a wine 100 points. I disagree completely. I'm very proud I gave it 100 points. It's as good as it gets'

Mr Robert Parker, wine critic who created the scoring system to award high marks to wines that tasted the way he believed good wines ought to taste

Mr Parr's wines are full of aromas and flavours that admirers compare to things you would never think to connect to wine, like the leaf-strewn ground in a forest. To him, and a growing number of like-minded colleagues, such nuance becomes impossible to achieve when the wines are too alcoholic.

He prefers an alcohol concentration below 14 per cent and often far lower, as opposed to the 15 per cent and higher that is common in California. So he harvests his fruit iconoclastically early.

Early one morning, he took me to La Cote vineyard, several kilometres inland from the Pacific Ocean. As we hiked past stick-figure vines, he explained that he wanted the specifics of the place - the shale in the soil, the cutting Pacific wind - to be evident in the taste of the wine itself. He hates the idea of blending top-quality grapes from different vineyards into the same bottle, which many producers do. Those wines might taste good, but they lack depth and intrigue.

"I don't believe that the best grapes from different areas come together and create the 'best' wine. There's more to wine than that," he said.

Most California winemakers are trying to produce something more like Sea Smoke's than Domaine de la Cote's.

Before Napa Valley's emergence in the 1980s, highly regarded wines were made in regions - mostly in France - where cool, wet summers tended to undermine agricultural efforts. The standout vintages were from the warmest years, those infrequent occasions when grapes reached full maturity before being picked.

In California, where sunshine is abundant, fully ripe wines are possible just about every year.

If ripe wines are considered good, many California producers reasoned, those made from grapes brought to the peak of ripeness should taste even better.

That logical leap has created a new American vernacular for wine, a dense, opaque fruitiness well suited to a nation of Pepsi drinkers. More sweet fruit, more of the glycerol that makes wine feel thicker in the mouth, more alcohol. And by extension, more pleasure.

For three decades, the tastes of American wine drinkers have been shaped by the preferences of one man, Mr Robert M. Parker Jr.

A 2013 inductee of the California Vintners Hall of Fame - as a reviewer - The Atlantic Monthly calls him "the most influential critic in the world".

He has made a career out of championing exactly the style of wine that Mr Parr and his colleagues disdain.

In 2011, in a reaction to an American marketplace that they perceived to be dismissive of California wines made in anything but the super-ripe style, Mr Parr and Ms Jasmine Hirsch of Hirsch Vineyards in Sonoma County began soliciting members for a loose confederation of pinot noir producers called In Pursuit Of Balance.

The group, which charges a US$900 annual fee, conducts what amounts to a political campaign on behalf of viti- cultural restraint. Most of its 33 members, located from Anderson Valley to Santa Barbara, make between 40,000 and 60,000 bottles a year, and do not have much of a marketing budget. But by joining the group, which stages tastings around the country (and sometimes abroad), they are able to reach the consumers who are most likely to appreciate their wines.

In recent months, many of these have started appearing in shops and on wine lists. At some restaurants in Brooklyn and San Francisco neighbourhoods, theirs are the only domestic wines available.

The success of this non-conformist group has prompted invective-filled exchanges on Internet bulletin boards, blogs and Twitter feeds.

At its core, the debate is about the philosophical purpose of fine wine. Should oenologists try to make beverages that are merely delicious? Are the best wines the equivalent of Hollywood blockbusters or art-house films?

Standing at the rear of an atrium in TriBeCa in Lower Manhattan one morning in February, Mr Parr looked out over more than 1,000 wineglasses, each partly filled with pinot noir.

This was the fifth annual In Pursuit Of Balance tasting in New York, held for perhaps 100 retailers, journalists and sommeliers and a few consumers who paid US$125 each to hear dialogues about sugar levels and crop thinning.

Mr Parr, 42, spent nearly two decades serving wine and putting together wine lists for some of America's most highly esteemed restaurants.

Born in Kolkata, India, he became an American citizen but never embraced American wine. In the early 2000s, he recalls, he drank a syrah from the Rhone Valley in France. It impressed him with its hints of roasted meat, freshly turned soil. He liked how the wine felt in his mouth, crisp rather than weighty. He knew these were hallmarks of bottlings from the finest regions of Europe. When he wondered why similar wines were not made in California, another sommelier said it simply was not possible.

Mr Parr says: "California is a big place. How was it not possible?"

In Pursuit Of Balance is controversial in wine circles. The name seems to imply that those outside its ranks do not mind if a single attribute of their wines dominates the rest.

Aware that being on the intellectual side of a debate against pure pleasure tends to make his group look severe - the "anti-flavour elite", as Mr Parker calls them - Mr Parr took the stage to spread good feelings. "It's not a movement. It's just a discussion among friends," he says.

Group members say Mr Parker's influence has been so strong that he has altered winemaking techniques. Producers needed access to the American market. And to get that, they needed Mr Parker.

In 1978, he started a newsletter called The Wine Advocate. The name played off his occupation as an attorney, but it meant more than that. He created a 100-point scoring system and then wielded it like a truncheon. He awarded high numbers to wines that tasted the way he believed good wines ought to taste. He punished others with scores in the 70s and 80s and biting commentary.

Today, The Wine Advocate, which has about 50,000 subscribers, provides detailed descriptions of wines it rates. Nevertheless, by attaching a precise score to the commentary, Mr Parker, 67, gives the impression that he is not merely communicating his personal reaction to each wine but quantifying its intrinsic value.

For American consumers, the idea that the quality of various wines can be compared as easily as batting averages has proved irresistible.

"People would walk into wine shops with the name of a wine and Parker's rating, and not one word about the style or character of the wine," says Mr Michael Mondavi, whose father, Robert, is largely responsible for spreading the fame of Napa Valley wines across the US. "Just because of the two digits he'd assigned to it, they'd buy it."

The day after the Balance event in New York, I flew to London to attend the Taste Of Greatness Masterclass, held at the Great Hall of the Royal Courts of Justice. This, along with a separate US$2,500 dinner at a restaurant with two Michelin stars, was the European portion of The Wine Advocate's Grand World Tour, an inter-continental series of events in which Mr Parker bestows his wisdom to well-heeled wine drinkers.

Ten wines, deemed perfect or near- perfect by Wine Advocate reviewers and validated by Mr Parker's palate, were poured for about 500 attendees, who paid the equivalent of US$700 to taste them.

The wines represented a broad stylistic range; nobody could complain that Mr Parker appreciates only overly alcoholic, unsubtle wines after sipping the 2011 Latricieres-Chambertin of Lalou Bize- Leroy or the 1982 Cos d'Estournel. Napa Valley's Dominus, on the other hand, was undeniably dense.

"People say you can never give a wine 100 points," Mr Parker said. "I disagree completely. I'm very proud I gave it 100 points," he said. "It's as good as it gets."

He recently sold control of The Wine Advocate to investors based in Singapore, but remains its undisputed voice. He has reacted to the growing popularity of wines with modest alcohol, less intense flavour and occasional faults with undisguised aggression.

Not long ago, Mr Parr served me dinner at his home in Santa Barbara. He opened a succession of rarefied bottles, including a 2000 Chateau Magdelaine Bordeaux and a 1985 Pio Cesare Barolo. All were imports from Europe.

After we ate, he poured his own wines. The Domaine de la Cote releases struck me as so diverse that I never would have known they were made by the same winery. As a business model, it seemed perverse. Selling the wines for US$45 to US$90 a bottle, he could hardly expect consumers to use trial and error to figure out what they liked. How, I asked, could anyone have any idea which style he might prefer?

"We don't make these in any style at all," he said. "They are what they are."

He took a sip and I waited for him to continue. Louis Armstrong rasped his way through Mack The Knife. He took another sip. While I waited, I did, too. After a while, I realised that he had finished thinking about the question. He was not going to say any more. The wine was the answer.

Adapted from an article that appeared in The New York Times Magazine

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 29, 2015, with the headline 'Fresh and subtle wine vs overripe ones'. Print Edition | Subscribe