How To Write About Wine Like Robert Parker Jr.

What’s the dillio with all the RPJ slaggin’, yo?

He’s never called women sluts like Rush Limbaugh; he’s never referred to black people as ‘little monkeys’ like Howard Cosell and (as far as I know) he’s never publicly announced a nocturnal emission as did the revered Martin Luther King Jr. in his oft-quoted ‘I Have A Wet Dream’ speech.  And he’s certainly never claimed that the Soviets have zero influence in Eastern Europe like Gerald Ford.

Parker Jr. is just a guy who drinks wine and writes about what he thinks about the wine he just drank.  If the rest of the world wants to raise or lower the price of Bordeaux futures based on the kind of day he’s having, and if French winemakers decide to change their styles from sharp and austere to fat and oaky, that’s their problem.

Me, I couldn’t care less.

If Parker thinks that Trinchero Haystack Cabernet ’08 smells like cassis rather than crème de cassis, and if he thinks Côtes du Rhône-Villages Séguret Tradition 2003 smells like crème de cassis instead of cassis, bollocks for him.

See, that’s the beauty of wine writing.  There’s no fact-checker looking over your shoulder with a career-ending scimitar.  If I write that Bo Diddley wrote the Magna Carta, chances are that some English history numbnut is going to call me on it.  If I claim that the New York Yankees have lost more World Series than any other franchise in history, my credibility will disappear quicker than an eightball up Lindsay Lohan’s nose.  If I announce that Obama intends to deliver the State of the Union address wearing rodeo clown makeup and hoop earrings, tomorrow I won’t even be able to score a mail-sorting gig at The Onion.

On the other hand, if I say that a Vidal-Fleury Côte-Rôtie smells like raspberries and molasses, and you think it smells like burnt tobacco and bacon fat, guaranteed you’re gonna keep your mouth shut—or at least, you won’t call me a liar.  Even though, as it happens, I am lying, and I agree with you, not me.

This is the beauty of subjective subjects journalism.  You’re always right and never wrong.  Why in the world would anyone go into anything else?

‘I do not want what I haven’t got’

So, from the outset, Robert Parker Jr.—who did more than anyone in history to make wine criticism a legitimate profession instead of another ratchet in the toolbox of distributors—gets a lifetime pass for anything else squirrely he might do.  And in any case, regardless of ‘Parkerization’, it’s his writing style, not his rating system, that interests me—mainly because I can no more afford a ‘57 Domaine de la Romanee Conti than I can a ‘57 Les Paul Custom Black Beauty—at $5 k, both are roughly the same price.  And ultimately, I spend about as much time drooling over a 100-point Advocate wine as I do over Zoë Kravitz’s equally inaccessible ladyparts—which is to say, no time at all.

But as a guy who writes about wine, I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time reading other (readable) wine writers, and among them, there’s only a handful who can manage the odd je ne sais quoi alchemy that turns word to image and phrase to flavor.

Parker Jr. is right up there with the best.

That said, I have most certainly noticed the substantial level of repetition in his descriptors, which may or may not be an acceptable reality based on the fact that a lot of the wines he reviews are, frankly, quite similar.

More importantly perhaps, there are inescapable limitations inherent in writing in English.  The Oxford English Dictionary lists approximately 300,000 main entries, which is really not a shitload (http://oxforddictionaries.com/definition/shitload) considering that, as a word count, this web site easily contains that many.  Shakespeare is said to have had a vocabulary of about 25,000 words, about the same as a 21st century college grad, although that doesn’t include different senses, inflected forms and compounds.  So, for each, maybe 60,000 in total.

I have no idea how large RPJ’s vocabulary is, or how many wine words he’s written over the centuries—but I do know that he has a tendency to use the same ones over and over and over and…

But That’s A Good Thing, People! 

Why?  Because it places within your very grasp the literary prowess of the single most influential wine writer in the history of everything.

Below, as a free service to anyone with the stoicism to read this far, I’ve listed a number of Robert Parker Jr.’s favorite terms and concepts along with what they mean and how frequently he uses them.  Tag any or all onto your own wine descriptions, in any order whatsoever, for whatever bottle you want, because, remember, kids—you’re a wine critic, not a baseball statistician, and therefore… nobody can call bullshit!  (http://oxforddictionaries.com/definition/bullshit?view=uk )

And if all else fails, go with bacon fat.

 

In Alphabetical Order:

*Usage = Number of times RPJ has, over his career, used this particular description in the written commentary accompanying his wine ratings.  

The elusive acacia in its native habitat.

Acacia Flowers (usage = 12,845):  Acacia grows throughout less than half the United States, and certainly not up here in the Great White North.  So, whereas I’m sure acacia flowers smell scrumptious, whenever I see this characterization—which is endlessly—I think, ‘Whatevs…’

Black Currants (usage = 106,966 ): Sometimes the description dangles as ‘currants’, and sometimes they’re white or red instead of black, but either way,  I couldn’t identify a currant if it was arsenic blue.

Briery (usage = 3,380):  Our friends at Oxford again: A wild bush with thorns.  All righty, then.  Can’t say as I relate to such a taste on any level whatsoever, but what the hay—some people like Nickelback.  ‘Briery’ is, nonetheless, often used to describe zinfandels.

Cassis (usage = 19,651):  Oxford: A strong sweet alcoholic drink made with (wait for this) black currants.  Versus Crème de Cassis (usage = 26,004):  A strong sweet alcoholic drink made with black currants.

Cedarwood (usage = 9,767):  Cedarwood is like ‘tunafish’.  Is naming the genus along with the species really necessary?  Yes, we know that cedar is a wood just as we know that tuna is a fish.  Now, excuse me while I go feed my golden retrieverdog.

Chablisean-Styled (usage = 1,567):  Again, pour quoi the superfluous letters?  For the record, the term indicates a crisp, generally oak-free chardonnay, but I swear Parker made up ‘Chablisean’.  And why?  To be weird?  I mean, isn’t Chablis-Style an easier concept for Jane and John Middle America to grasp?

Chewy (usage = 17,324):  Obviously he’s not referring to Chewbacca flavors, because for all he knows, Wookie tastes like nookie.  So, it’s got to have something to do with tannin.  In any case, if you insist on chewing your wine, do it at least ten times before you spit it into the tasting bucket.  And please?  With your mouth closed.

Crushed Stone (usage = 29, 274):  In common wine descriptors, you’ve got your crushed stone, your wet stone, your slate, your gravel, your flint… Christ, if this keeps up we should be able to repave the Appian Way by Christmas.

Drink It Over The Next 10-15 Years (usage = 75,468):  Robert knows best, but this strikes me as an awful long time to leave a bottle of wine open.

Graphite (usage: 37,345 ):  Hey!  We can use the graphite to draw up the blueprints for the Appian Way project!

Hitting On All Cylinders (usage = 826):  Just as you may make up words like ‘Chablisean’, as a wine writer you may also make up idioms like ‘hitting on all cylinders’—even if they end up making less sense than the genuine expression, which is ‘firing on all cylinders’.

‘My armpits smell like Keenan Chardonnay, 2005.’

Lanolin-Like (usage = 2,455):  Nice alliteration, RPJ, but WTF??  Lanolin is the crap secreted by the sebaceous glands of lambs—it’s thick, greasy ruminant sweat.  I’m no Prohibitionist,  sister, but trust me on this: Lips that touch sheep ooze will never touch mine.

Lemon Zest And A Hint Of Citrus Oil (usage = 132 ):  Since citrus oil is basically smooshed-up lemon zest, any palate that can pick out a quantity of one and just a ‘hint’ of the other is truly amazing.  Although here’s my ‘hint’:  I’m not buying it.

Licorice (usage = 56,934):  Good ‘n’ Plenty, Good ‘n’ Plenty.  In fact, this is a fleeting, but distinct ‘nuance’ flavor in tons of red wines.  A lot of it comes from the oak used in aging, but the Spanish grape cariñena shows this odd, savory flavor quite prominently by itself.

Mocha, Espresso Roast, Chocolate (usage: 97,118):  Since mocha is, of course, a blend of espresso and chocolate, is there any real need to use all three if you are not being paid by the word?

Road Tar (usage = 16,433):  This is another descriptor that makes me go ‘huh’?  ‘Tarmac’ or ‘asphalt’ don’t really sound more appetizing than ‘road tar’, but at least I can think of them without free-associating an image of Fido splattered from here to the next fire hydrant.

Roasted Herb (usage = 9,383):  I don’t roast herbs, do you roast herbs?  I roast beef and pork and chicken that are festooned with herbs, but then the room smells like roast beef or roast pork or roast chicken.

Pain Grillé (usage = 11,513):  Dude, you’re not from Aix-en-Provence, you’re  from Baltimore, so if you mean ‘toast’, say ‘toast’.  If I have to go to Babelfish to translate a friggin’ wine review, you are making me work way, way too hard.

Palate Penetration (usage = 3,824): Does not refer to Linda Lovelace, and is  generally preceded by the word ‘excellent’, but if it is preceded by ‘extremely painful’, it may refer to a canapé toothpick that somehow fell into your glass.

Saturated (usage = 103, 782): In RPJ-speak, anything can be saturated—colors, aromas, fruits—even blouses in the latter stages of a tasting—especially among folks who insist on chewing wine with their mouths open.

Spice Box (usage = 48,760):  A nice blanket term that covers a variety of pie-type spices; sometimes, you’ll see these wine flavors listed as ‘pumpkin pie spices’ instead.  Obviously, this would cover cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and allspice.  But, as in ‘mocha’, if you’re being paid by the word, splurge and lay them all out on the table.

Spring Flowers (usage = 96,256):  When I trained as a sommelier, we were not allowed to say ‘black fruit’ to describe a wine, we’d have to get all specific and say blackberry, black cherry and yeah, well, black currant.  Likewise, ‘stone fruit’ wasn’t good enough: It was either peach or apricot or some other damned drupe.  So, I looked up ‘spring flowers’ on Wiki, and found references to approximately forty million individual flower species that bloom in the spring.  Come on, Parker—get with the program.

Sweet Leather (usage = 4,212):  Two words that have absolutely no reason to be paired together; the Lyle Lovett/Julia Roberts of wine descriptions.

Tannins:  Can be dusty (usage = 5,099), well-integrated (usage = 18,549), grainy (usage = 22,466), velvety (usage = 35,403), ultrafine (usage = 13,766) or elevated (usage = 4,376).  Lots of shite you can do with tannins, apparently.

Tobacco Leaf (usage = 87,233):  What’s bad for the lungs is apparently good for the Pessac-Léognan.

Truffles (usage: 51,489):  This hideous-looking fungus is  used soley as a model to describe expensive reds.  The cheap stuff is said to have the bouquet of button mushrooms that fell out of your Kroger bag and sat for a week in the boot of your car.

*

Note to RPJ legal team: Don’t try to sue me over the exactness of my ‘usages’ count, because the per-billing-hour time you’ll spend getting a more accurate one will be worth more than I’ve earned in my entire lifetime.  Besides, if you’re off by a single one, I’ll sue you back.

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6 Responses to How To Write About Wine Like Robert Parker Jr.

  1. SAHMmelier says:

    What a fun piece. Glad to read that I am not the only one with repetitive descriptors. And grateful that no one is scrutinizing my writing. ;) I may have to “borrow” one or two of these. Cheers!

  2. A very nice article!
    But for me: Robert Parker is just a man….and he has a good palate… nothing more…
    So he’s no wine god for me!!!

  3. winecouver says:

    Great article. But you seem to overlook the fact that “smell” is only one of Parker´s writing facets. He is a lawyer by training (shows through his writing) and is the whole narrative style he developed that is so impressive and makes him appear “authoritative”. In fact, that is one of the adjectives he uses for wine that sounds so funny, yet effective. great blog, by the way.

  4. Elizabeth says:

    Hi Chris, Great article! We would like to reprint it in our magazine Memphis Cork iT. We are very time sensitive right now so please email me if you are interested. Our website is memphiscorkit.com.

  5. Pingback: Wannabe Wine Snob ~ Learning to Taste | Juxtaposition

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