I believe in the Tolstoy theory of history: great men don’t really influence nations, but surf a tidal wave of societal change that was coming anyway.

Thus it is with Robert Parker. Wine lovers spend a fair amount of time complaining about his malign influence. We want things he ignores, such as wines with the ability to age.

When Parker announced he was pulling back from reviewing California wines and, even better, appointing an Italian (Antonio Galloni) to review them, there was much rejoicing. Surely now we will return to a time when Cabernet Sauvignon was made to be purchased unready to drink and stored at the purchaser’s cost for several years.

Sorry folks, that era has gone like the era of intentionally oxidized white wines and undetected TCA in wineries. Undrinkability upon release is seen the same way by the marketplace—as a flaw. And that’s not going away.

I got to thinking about this last month at Bern’s Steak House in Tampa, which has perhaps the best wine list in America. You want first-growth Bordeaux or Domaine Romanée-Conti from your birth year? Single-vineyard Madeira from more than 100 years ago? You got it. Current-release cult Cabernets? You can have those too.

People go to Bern’s to spend money on wine. Legendarily, Van Halen bought a $5,000 Cab (I’ve never heard which) and passed it around like a joint, drinking from the bottle.

On the first night I dined there, the sommelier informed me that he had four separate football tables: the Buccaneers’ owners, Colts’ owners, some Bucs’ players and some Colts’ players. Fortunately the restaurant has more than four rooms, all decorated in a prim art-gallery motif—with a red-velvet waiting room that reminds me of Poe’s Masque of the Red Death—that seemed fancy/formal in the 1950s.

The football owners drank modern muscle Cabs; what else? One group of players had a flight of Robert Mondavi Reserve Cabernets from the 1990s. Sports fans always blame the players in labor disputes—I keep correcting strangers that it’s an NBA lockout, not a strike—but the players are almost always right philosophically, and no wonder, as they drink better.

Those early-90s Cabs were the oldest wines I saw sitting on anyone else’s table, and I looked. Bern’s list has so many California wines from the 70s and 80s that I entered paralysis shortly upon opening it. But it’s OK, they’ll still be there when I get back.

You might know a charming little bistro where folks drink Hermitage Blanc and Franciacorta and the Barolo list from the 60s is one of the highlights. But Bern’s is where America goes to splurge. And the go-to wine for splurges in this country is still recent-release Cabernet, whether from California or Bordeaux.

There was a prescient joke in the Steve Martin movie The Jerk (1979). A pretentious sommelier asks Martin, “Would Monsieur care for another bottle of the Chateau Latour?”

Martin says, “Yes, but no more 1966. Let’s splurge. Bring us some fresh wine. The freshest you’ve got. This year’s. No more of this old stuff.”

In 1979, the joke was on Martin. But this is the way people today think about wine, and economically it’s hard to disagree with them.

I am, financially, an idiot. I have three wine refrigerators in my apartment and I rent an offsite storage unit, all so that my wine can get older.

Lately I’ve been opening some of the California wines I put away five years ago. Most of the time I am not rewarded. I keep pouring down the drain bottles that were once fruit-forward and delicious. In many cases I chose the wrong bottles to store, sometimes deliberately, because I wanted to see what would happen. But other times, I put aside bottles I expected to get better, and they haven’t.

So I’m paying for my wine, quite often, to get worse. And I know a lot about wine, more than I know about money (sigh).

The reverse is true for most people who splurge on wine—they earned MBAs, run companies, understand investment and the cost of capital and that storage doesn’t come for free.

It just doesn’t make economic sense to buy expensive wine and sit on it. It makes sense to buy the wine you want and drink it right away. That equation is never going to reverse, Robert Parker or not.

Sure, maybe a ’64 Côte-Rôtie is a beautiful wine (to me). But why should I buy its current equivalent, a 2008, and wait 40 years to drink it? I won’t even be alive.

Ageability, to consumers who understand money, just isn’t a quality worth having. You don’t want a wine that’s going to die overnight because you might not get to your wines right away. And if a cult Cabernet you bought in 1997 is flabby and undrinkable now, that’s your fault for not better managing your inventory, not the winery’s fault for making a low-acid, soft-tannin wine.

Robert Parker, a lawyer by trade, foresaw this. His initial reviews played by the established rules of wine writing, in which ageworthiness matters. But the longer he did the job, the more confident he got that because an ’89 Bordeaux would most likely be drunk by 1994, the best ones would taste good by then. He didn’t create the wave. There were more factors than I can touch on here, including globalization of wine buying that diminished the importance of France and democratization of consumers who no longer feel the need to be talked down to by sommeliers.

Parker is right, and we who like age-worthy wines are wrong; the market has spoken. A modest reward, good only for the rest of our lifetimes, is that older wines continue to be devalued, except for wines seen as investments, and nobody who knows more about wine than money drinks those anyway. If I had a ’61 Lafite-Rothschild, I’d be foolish not to sell it and buy two cases of great, non-investment grade wine.

But you can drink a ’64 Côte-Rôtie as a daily use wine these days if you go to the right restaurants, and it’s just as well that your neighbors with the more expensive ’07 Cab think you’re the one who’s crazy.

Wine writer W. Blake Gray is Chairman of the Electoral College of the Vintners Hall of Fame. Previously wine writer/editor for the San Francisco Chronicle, he has contributed articles on wine and sake to the Los Angeles Times, Food & Wine, Wine & Spirits, Wine Review Online, and a variety of other publications. He travels frequently to wine regions and enjoys coming home to San Francisco.

20 Responses

  1. David Larsen

    There is another style of wine – one that is drinkable on release and will age well also. This is the style of Cabernet-based blends we make. A better known example are the Cabernets from Quilceda Creek winery. So you can have your cake and eat it too!

  2. Uwe Kristen

    It sounds like the “no one” of your article title refers to “people who understand money”. But it should rather have been “people who don’t understand wine”. A missed chance, too bad.

  3. Tom

    I couldn’t disagree more as a commercial winemaker. Low acid/soft tannin wines actually don’t taste good to me and typically make feel horrible the next morning, nor do I think they pair well with food. Count me in the minority who isn’t interested in growing into some cult for football players and celebs. I want simply to make wines that are complex, graceful and balance the flavors of different foods. If that means my sales grow slowly and only the “purists” drink my wine, so be it. At least I can live with myself and be proud of my product.

  4. SUAMW

    “great men don’t really influence nations, but surf a tidal wave of societal change that was coming anyway.”

    another way of saying that is:

    “Parker did nothing new; he did not change anything nor did he really influence anyone. He merely validated the taste preferences of many people with money”

    • Blake Gray

      SUAMW: Parker did do one thing very new: the 100-point scale (Oh God, I opened that door.) I would also argue that at the beginning of his career he paid equal attention to non-historic estates, something few if any were doing at the time. However, the second of those two was going to happen soon, and probably the 100-point scale as well.

      I definitely agree with your last sentence.

      Tom: Keep doing what you’re doing. Ageworthy wines are a niche market, but there’s a living to be made in serving niche markets.

      Uwe: Sorry, but I don’t agree. I have met plenty of people — and Parker is one — who know wine extremely well, yet they like low-acid, drink-now red wines. There are plenty of people who don’t know anything about wine who like those two, but not all rectangles are squares.

      David: A lot of the older wines I pour down the drain are ones that were supposedly dual-purpose as you describe. It can be done, for sure. But often it isn’t done as successfully as the winemaker thinks when he makes it.

      Do Quilceda Creek wines age well? Does anyone know? I don’t know anyone who drinks them but well-heeled Parker sycophants.

      • David Larsen


        Our Soos Creek winery was founded in 1989. Our wine from that year and most other Cabernet-based wines we have made since then have aged very well. So wines that are drinkable on release and those that age well are not mutually exclusive. To age well, a wine needs adequate structure from tannin and/or acid, concentration and balance. Even though I am not a Parker sycophant, I have tasted most of Quilceda Creek’s wines made from the mid 80’s. To get other opinions on their and other older vintages, you only need to read consumer reviews at Cellartracker.com

      • SUAMW


        I would pose a somewhat rhetorical challenge to your statement: “people — and Parker is one — who know wine extremely well,” – if he knew wine, would he not: recognize brett as a flaw, stop talking nonsense about filtering and recognize that low-acid wines are neither age-worthy nor microbiologically stable?

        (Aren’t you glad I didn’t say the 100-point scale is a disservice to wine culture because it advocates only for Parker’s palate, creates a stylistic creep and is meaningless because he does not follow ANY consistent pre-determined criteria for assigning points other than his preference and the impact a particular wine makes in a particular line-up, at a particular time?)

      • Blake Gray

        Yes, I’m glad. But about Parker and wine knowledge: The man has been doing nothing but tasting, talking about wine, and meeting most of the world’s most famous winemakers for about 25 years, not to mention sommeliers, wine buyers, you name it. No matter what level of wine knowledge he started with, he’s an expert now.

        David: I admit my feelings about Quilceda Creek are heavily influenced by the sycophants who I used to read when e-Bob had a free comment board. Whenever anyone in any media wrote anything about Washington state wine, they would crow, “He left out Quilceda Creek!!!!!!” (exclamation points theirs). Maybe they are great ageworthy wines; I don’t know. I do know I don’t like their fan base.

      • SUAMW

        “tasting, talking about wine, and meeting most of the world’s most famous winemakers for about 25 years, not to mention sommeliers, wine buyers” only lets you amass whatever info they want to pass your way (correct or not) – as evidenced by his comments about filtration or rating Brett-infected wines highly.

        There is a story (perhaps only a joke) floating around where a wine writer walks into a winery and looks at a contraption next to the door. The assistant winemaker walks up to him and says: “That’s the filter Parker doesn’t know we use”

  5. randy

    One of the major definitions of world class red wine is AGE-Ability… when layers and complexities slowly unwind over three, five ten years… Otherwise we are simply drinking a California Cocktail… Parker and these types remind me of the corporate slave handlers and corrupt politicians in todays age… They think they know best when they (WE, WS and RP) have never made a god damn barrel of wine themselves… NOT ONE. What the hell do these men know about wine… seriously… OCCUPY ROBERT PARKER!!!!!

  6. Evan Dawson

    Blake – This is a fine piece, astute as usual, with one exception in my eyes: You write, “Sorry folks… undrinkability upon release is seen the same way by the marketplace—as a flaw. And that’s not going away.”

    That line stands out as a giant straw man. Who are the “folks” (which is a word that almost always comes off as condescending) who are pushing so hard for wines that are “undrinkable” upon release? I haven’t read this, and I’ve read plenty of folks who don’t prefer Parker’s favorites. Instead, they argue for a different profile of wine, one with lower alcohol, more acidity. More balance, they’d say. That allows the wine to either age gracefully for many years or even improve with bottle age. That does not, however, imply the wine is “undrinkable” upon release.

    Occasionally, we lament the revolution in Piedmont that has softened our beloved old-school Barolos. But even still, I don’t hear the lament that it’s too bad we can consume Barolos at a young age.

    Where are you hearing that people want undrinkable wines?

    I very much enjoyed the thoughtful point you raise regarding Parker’s ostensible impact. If Parker had remained an attorney and never dabbled in wine, wouldn’t we still have seen the technological advances and stylistic changes that brought about low-acid, high-alcohol, super-extracted wines? My guess is that we would. Parker made it more fashionable to do so in a very short amount of time.

    • Evan Dawson

      Following up and am a tad annoyed to have my comment echo around in cyber-space, utterly ignored…

      The title of this piece is misleading, to say the least. Blake is not saying no one wants age-worthy wines; he’s saying no one wants wines that REQUIRE aging. He knows very well, as does Parker, that a big chunk of the market likes to lay wines down and wants wines that are age-worthy, even if they don’t have the will to keep them very long. That’s a very different discussion, of course, than the one Blake initiates here.

      • Blake Gray

        Evan: In cyberspace nobody can hear you scream, that’s why people turn ON THE CAPS LOCK AND COMPLAIN ABOUT THE DAMN GOVERNMENT AND MY NEIGHBOR’S CAT WHO LISTENS TO SCHUBERT.

        I get and agree with your second point, but am not sure I understand your first point. I think it might be semantic: nothing’s truly “undrinkable,” as I can tell you after testing some yeast in fruit juices this week. But young Napa Cabs picked at low sugar levels aren’t really supposed to be drunk close to release any more than most young Bordeaux. If you drink most Fronsac upon release, you’re making a mistake. But it’s not “undrinkable.” Heck, if you’re in a plane crash in the Andes, even urine isn’t “undrinkable.”

        You may reread my point as “wines that are not pleasant when drunk upon release” if you prefer.

      • Evan Dawson


        Got me on the getting off my lawn. Unreasonable grouchiness; guilty as charged.

        As I see it, the wines you describe as a “mistake” to drink young have changed, in many cases. By that I mean, even a Giuseppe Mascarello Barolo can be pleasantly consumed rather young without obstreperous tannins dominating the affair. Winemaking has changed enough so that tannins tend to be rounder, softer, even in wines meant for bottle age. But otherwise, you’re right, I think we’re not far apart here.