What we want - ideally - from our American vintners

(Essdras M Suarez/ Globe Staff/File 2002)
By Stephen Meuse
July 6, 2011

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

Your article has been sent.

Text size +

Robert M. Parker Jr., that colossus of contemporary wine criticism, is a high-skilled taster with a prodigious memory for the flavors and aromas that cross his palate. His bimonthly publication, the Wine Advocate, has a relatively small subscriber list, but endless influence. It’s often said that if Parker gives a wine less than 90 points (on a scale of 100), it can’t be sold, and more than 90, it can’t be found.

But Parker’s true genius may lie in having intuited, more than 30 years ago, just what Americans who were new to wine wanted to experience in the glass. Upon the blank slate that was the American palate of the early 1980s, the Maryland-based former lawyer chalked the image of the Ideal Wine: super-ripe, rather sweet, with heavily extracted fruit, high alcohols, and silken texture.

David Darlington’s new book, “The Ideal Wine: One Generation’s Pursuit of Perfection - and Profit - in California,’’ is not the first to take up the subject of Parker’s quasi-omnipotence, but it may be the first to address the issue purely from the point of view of its effect on a California wine industry that was just taking off in the period after the Vietnam War, and to do so in the unguarded voices of the players themselves.

Structured much as a documentary film might be, the book has affinities with Jonathan Nossiter’s 2004 film, “Mondovino,’’ in which we watch Robert Mondavi behave like an ass, simply by being himself. Except that there’s no trace of snarkiness here, and no one really comes off as an ass. Instead most of the characters appear to be sincere seekers after some elusive goal - though whether it is the Ideal Wine of the title or something grubbier, you will have to judge.

The cast is large, and although many names will not be familiar, some will surely ring a bell. The three who get the most ink are Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon fame; Mike Benziger , whose family created the Glen Ellen line of inexpensive varietal wines in 1980, sold the brand for $140 million to Heublein, and dived into biodynamic viticulture; and consulant Leo McCloskey, in some ways the most interesting of the trio.

McCloskey’s company, Enologix, exists to take the mystery out of earning those coveted 90-plus scores by identifying the key chemical properties that produce the effects Parker loves. Winemakers who can afford the $20,000 annual fee get help making the tweaks that draw the big scores. You get the feeling that for McCloskey - who has a doctorate but does not seem particularly reflective - the search for the Ideal Wine ends right here.

At the other end of the axis, Randall Grahm, onetime philosophy student and University of California-Davis misfit whose name is synonymous with bargain-priced blends and a series of cringe-inducing, pun-laden labels (Critique of Pure Riesling; Cardinal Zin) is deeply conflicted. He dreams of making transcendently beautiful wine, but seems spellbound by one goofy marketing escapade after another, strongly defending additives with names like MegaRed and MegaPurple, and technical interventions such as reverse osmosis, spinning cones, and something called “flash detente.’’

At the heart of this complex narrative is the struggle of winemakers to reconcile their early idealism with the often desperate struggle to make a profit, the wearying quest to keep pace with the fickle desires of American consumers, the powerful appeal of technical winemaking, and the siren call of a radical naturalism.

“We’re all complicit,’’ says Grahm toward the end of the book. “[Y]ou can blame almost everything on Parker if you want, but the whole world has brought us here. It’s the effect of globalization. It’s not just the wine industry - every industry is massively competitive.’’

It’s all more than a bit neurotic, as the determined pursuit of any ideal is bound to be. After a while one does begin to wonder why these tormented souls don’t retire to a plot of ground somewhere and, like so many small-scale, nonconflicted Europeans, just make the wine that makes them happy.

Clearly, for them, it’s not that simple.

Stephen Meuse can be reached at


One Generation’s Pursuit of Perfection - and Profit - in California

By David Darlington

Harper, 356 pp., $26.99