Friday, July 12, 2013

The Genesis of The Spanish Artisan Wine Group & the Documentary Robert Parker's Bitch or Why Critics Should Not Determine Wine Styles


* * * * * 

Although this remarkable documentary,  Robert Parker's Bitch: The Movie, was widely circulated in 2009, the film is not only still very relevant today, it has turned out to be prophetic and is a must see. It goes a long way towards explaining what kind of wines that The Spanish Artisan Wine Group wineries are pointedly trying NOT to emulate.  

 Our winemakers are not making wines that "the market is asking for" nor wines that are made to please the palate of any critic in particular and certainly not the Parkerista-style palate. The wines of The Spanish Artisan Wine Group are made by people trying to reflect the own terruño, or as the French call it, terroir, a sense of place: the unique combination of native grape varieties, soil and climate transmitted through the prism of each winemaker's palate.
Before wines began to be fabricated or fashioned to fit that supposed "what the market is asking for" profile, the wines of France and Italy, but also in some parts of Spain, were made primarily by artisan winemakers working with their own vines.  Obviously, in every region more commercial, negociant-style wines were made to hit a price point and fulfill a market need for cheaper Burgundy, Chianti, Rioja, Mosel, etc., but the reputation of the wines was made originally from the wines of quality artisan producers. 

 In the early days of the modern post-Prohibition wine importing era, Frank Schoonmaker set standards for selecting wines that would become the model for the next several decades.
 "It was obvious to Schoonmaker that prohibition would someday be repealed; the question was when.  First, he needed a network of suppliers. In France, by the late 1920s he had made a valuable ally in Raymond Baudoin, editor of La Revue du Vin de France in Paris. Baudoin had shaped this scholarly publication into an influential review, which eventually played a major role in creating the appellation contrôlée laws of 1935-36. . .
Schoonmaker traveled around France with Baudoin several times, and visited many winegrowers, particularly in Burgundy’s Côte d’Or. Baudoin introduced him to some of the best, and Schoonmaker soon followed Baudoin’s lead in selecting only certain lots, or casks, of a particular cru in a given vintage – writing everything down methodically in a little black notebook. In addition, Baudoin was emphatic in getting the growers to bottle their wine themselves and sell it under their own label, as opposed to the traditional method of selling it in cask to the shippers in Beaune for blending, under their label." -- Frank Schoonmaker, A Visionary Wine Man by Frank E. Johnson, Frank Johnson Selections.
Schoonmaker's style would prove to be the model followed by other French wine specialists such as Alexis Lichine, Frederick Wildman, Robert Haas, Gerald Asher (an Englishman who began importing his wines and like Schoonmaker and Lichine became well-known as a wine writer) and Henry Cavalier (another transplanted Englishman).  Asher's well-crafted and beautifully written Gourmet magazine articles were a benchmark for serious wine writers and for wine aficionados.
The Spanish Artisan Wine Group - Gerry Dawes Selections was founded on the principles of the aforementioned pioneer wine importers.  I never knew Frank Schoonmaker, but I always admired the fact that he greatly appreciated the wines of Spain (he spent several years in Spain during WWII as an undercover O. S. S. officer). Schoonmaker died in January 1976 at his home at 14 E. 69th St. in New York City, shortly after I arrived in New York City, after having lived in Spain for the previous eight years.  Ironically, a few months after Schoonmaker died, I went to work for another of the giants of wine importing in America, Frederick Wildman & Sons at 21 E. 69th St.  I worked at Wildman with Henry Cavalier, a Gerald Asher disciple who soon became a friend who taught me a lot about fine wine.
My employment at Frederick Wildman & Sons ended when I left to join the former President of that firm, Anthony J. Sargeant, and Paul Draper of Ridge Vineyards in launching Havelock Gordon.  That company was short-lived, so I moved on to Mosswood, whose president was Gerald Asher, then I did a decade long stint as a restaurant wine specialist at the then fledgling company, Winebow, one of whose partners was Vineyard Brands owner Robert Haas, who was originally a Frank Schoonmaker disciple himself.   After a brief period with another New York distributor, I left to pursue my career as a writer on Spanish gastronomy, wine and travel.
Like Schoonmaker, Asher (and my friend, Frank Johnson), I am a wine writer who, during the course of traveling for material for article, also discovered a lot of small wine producers. Last year, quite by chance, I found an interested party with an import license and I decided to bring some of these jewels to the United States. I brought in two containers of selected wine to unprecedented critical acclaim.  Unfortunately, the partner was into chicanery more than growing a wine company, so we parted ways, none too amicably, after a year.
The style as defined by Frank Schoonmaker, Frederick Wildman, Robert Haas, Gerald Asher and Henry Cavalier over decades was to go to a wine producing region, seek out the best producers available from that region, many of which were small production jewels, bring them to market in the United States and tell their customers why each wine producer and wine was special.  Except for a few wines that they imported for volume sales (very dignified wines such as Robert Haas Vineyard Brands La Vielle Ferme Rhône Valley wines from the Perrin family of Chateau de Beaucastel fame and even then the interventionism was minimal), they did not encourage their producers to make wines "that the market is asking for."
Instead, they represented unique producers making the best wines that their grapes, their land, their wine cellars and their palates could produce and brought their wines and their stories to market. Those ideals are what The Spanish Artisan Wine and Spirits Group - Gerry Dawes Selections hopes to revive and carry on with wines from Spain.
The following documentary illuminates a style of wine that is anathema to the original ideals of those great winemen—Frank Schoomaker, Frederick Wildman, Robert Haas, Gerald Asher and Henry Cavalier.

 * * * * *
Robert  Parker's Bitch: The Movie

"I was asked to speak at the American Wine Society conference in Sacramento (November, 2008). I'm not much for giving Powerpoint speeches, so instead I decided to make a documentary about a controversial topic: The wine media's influence on winemaking styles. --Tina Caputo, author of the 2009 Documentary, Robert Parker's Bitch: The Movie

Do Critics Still Determine Wine Styles?  by Tim Elliott on March 14, 2009

Josh's T-shirt

By way of Josh Hermsmeyer, I found Tina Caputo’s fantastic self-produced short film, “Robert Parker’s Bitch.” The basic premise is that wines today are big, bold, and over-oaked designed, ‘…to taste and spit,” and not savored with food. The question on the table is if Robert Parker and Jim Laube largely determine today’s wine styles or are winemakers trying to reflect the terroir of their region?

While both sides are presented via interviews with winemakers, industry commentators and winery owners, it’s clear what side of the argument the filmmaker is on. But it’s great to see such a controversial issue presented with such transparency.
Bravo, Tina!