The Moral Equivalent Of Playboy

Growing up, there was a point at which I discovered my Uncle’s old Playboys in my Grandparents’ attic. They were from the mid-sixties to early seventies- the golden age of the swinging Playboy lifestyle. It was a special little stash, and provided a useful education in its way.

Today, of course, such a thing is an anachronism; the Internet has taken care of that. Now I’m no prude, and have no problems with depictions of nudity or sex of any kind as long as all parties are consenting adults. That’s not where I’m going here. The main problem is that so much of it is contrived and awful, but specifically that between the implants and shaving most of the women look more like inflatable dolls than live human women. And I believe that in large part the fault for this is Hugh Hefner’s.

He gets and deserves props for helping to open up society, defeating attempts at censorship, and relaxing people’s attitudes about sex. But once the boob job was invented, he squandered an opportunity to come down on the side of good taste by declining to publish pictures of surgically enhanced women, instead enthusiastically embracing (and embracing, and embracing) women with implants. His imprimatur meant that the girl next door quickly morphed into the stripper next door, and today’s synthetic aesthetic derives directly from that choice; pre-internet he was the world’s foremost erotic tastemaker and thus had huge influence. Now, of course, he doesn’t, and Pandora’s box is waxed and wide open.

I’m not saying it’s all his fault; I’m just saying he had a chance to use his powers for good at a time when it could have made a big impact, and he didn’t. And his unfortunately immature taste no doubt played a big part in that decision.

Bear with me; this is going somewhere. Here’s an excerpt from a great recent post on Peter Liem’s blog that got me started on this rant:

While surfing the web recently, I ran across Robert Parker’s review of the 2003 Côte-Rôtie La Turque by Guigal, a wine to which he awarded 100 points. Parker writes, “This is a prodigious effort that may eclipse any other vintage Guigal has ever produced! It possesses similarities to the 1999, but it is even higher in alcohol, more unctuously textured, thicker, and longer. Encapsulate the character of this single vineyard in a top year, add more depth, intensity, alcohol, and power, and this describes this freakishly rich 2003.” Lavish praise for Parker, but to me, freakish is the operative word here. He goes on to say, “This is the stuff of modern day legends. As for what it actually tastes like, just take my notes for any of the great vintages and add more power, glycerin, alcohol, tannin, and concentration… that about defines this 2003!”

This review made me think of the third wine of our evening’s trio, the 1979 Hermitage by J.-L. Chave. The Chave estate is still one of the appellation’s greats today, but the wines of that era and this one are markedly different, and it’s hardly a surprise as to where my preferences lie. Of the magical, heartbreakingly sublime 1979, I could write, “This is the stuff of legends, a glimpse of a bygone age. Just take my notes for any of the great vintages of the modern day and add more finesse, elegance, subtlety, delicacy, complexity and grace. Take away glycerin, power, tannin and excess concentration, and subtract two percentage points of alcohol to create an even more weightless, hauntingly ethereal expression of the Hermitage hillside. That about defines this 1979.”

My taste in wine continues to evolve, and I have much to learn. But the one constant in the evolution of my taste has been steady divergence from Robert Parker’s. Prompted by his effusive raves, about 5 years ago I went through an Australian wine phase, drinking it with great pleasure. Now it makes me gag. Much New World wine does too, and the “modern” style of winemaking that is overtaking Europe leaves me cold and working overtime to find producers who reject the Parkerization of the business.

The wines he appears to like best are as fake and unbalanced as the most egregiously enhanced porn star. Top-heavy, alcoholic, reeking like candy-flavored makeup, they have abandoned Nature to become ghastly, exaggerated über-wines with too much of everything jammed into an untenably forward-leaning silhouette- all in the service of getting the big RP point score and moving more product. Whether they have any aging potential depends on where and how they are made, but in my experience many of them fall apart pretty quickly.

Parker defends himself by saying that he’s brought a higher standard of winemaking to many winemakers and regions that were sloppy and underperforming, and it may well be true; he certainly has pushed many producers away from fining and filtering. But as the first super-critic of the global wine era, he wields far too much power over producers and consumers alike. And, like Hefner, that power is in the service of a distressingly adolescent aesthetic. I have no doubt that he likes what he likes, and I have no doubt that he could crush me 1000 times out of 1000 in a blind tasting of wines from anywhere in the world. But I also have no doubt that as great and knowledgeable a taster as he may be, he has bad taste. Like Hefner, he prefers the easy lay who leads with her tits.

The best wines are marvels- the apotheosis of collaboration between us and Nature- and the best wines have pleasure to offer for the length of a human lifetime. They also capture some of the mortality that makes life so precious; when there’s a whiff of decomposition intertwined with the flowers and fruit it makes us savor the fleeting beauty of both wine and life. And that tangy, funky, earthy quality is sexy, and thus delicate. It needs to harmonize with the more hedonistic attributes, not be buried beneath them. Over time, in a great wine these two extremes- Heaven and Earth- fuse together into a sublime, holographic tapestry that comes as close to actual equivalence with our own humanity as any of our creative endeavors ever gets.

I like my wine with natural curves, some pubic (and even armpit!) hair, and a heart-shaped ass I can really sink my teeth into. I like wine that gets better, wiser, gentler, and more elegant over the course of many decades. And I like wines that are different from other wines from other places, whether they’re simple or utterly mind-blowing. The ubiquitous technological techniques like reverse osmosis and micro-oxygenation- often done secretly by high-end consultants and firms- have robbed many wines of their sexy, unique regional accents and made them into boringly similar television pageant contestants.

I now make a deliberate point of ignoring Parker ratings on wine. I buy no Bordeaux made after 1995 (not that I buy any Bordeaux any more, but that’s just a taste thing) since that’s the year that all the spoofulation machines rolled into town like a Panzer division. And I tend to look for lower-alcohol wines (though in the case of California pinot- another wine I pretty much ignore- more and more producers are artificially reducing their alcohol.) I don’t have any illusions about my influence, but I do know that there are a lot of people who feel similarly, and share my passion on the subject. For the rest of you, I will condense the full extent of my accumulated wine-drinking experience into one convenient sentence you can take with you like a wallet card next time you go to the local wine mart, and which sums up my entire problem with both of these men and their impact on their respective fields:

You can fake the tits, but you can’t fake the ass.

26 comments to The Moral Equivalent Of Playboy

  • Heather

    Holy fucking shit. This.

    This was worth waiting for, my friend. If I weren’t on my phone right now, haplessly poking at a touch-screen, I’d elaborate, but for now I’ll just say “yowza.”

  • cookiecrumb

    Quoting Teri Hatcher on “Seinfeld”:
    “They’re real. And they’re spectacular!”

  • Seb

    It’s hard to disagree with anything you said in this post. However, I’d point out three things:

    1. Parker’s influence is on the decline. The fact that there are (thriving) wine stores that intentionally shun bottles that Parker has rated highly (Chambers, Terroir SF, etc.) means that there is an active, vocal wine community out there that doesn’t need his decrees.

    2. I think Parker probably knows this. That’s why he’s employed people like David Schildknecht, who has a very, very different palate, to review Germany, Loire, and Burgundy for the Wine Advocate. The Wine Advocate is almost worth purchasing for his reviews alone.

    3. As wacky as prices are due to Parker’s influence, I’d much rather live in a world where the demand for Pavie and Cos d’Estournel priced them out of my budget, rather than a world where Trimbach Frederic Emile, Mugnier Chambolle, and Huet Petillant tripled in price after release.

  • cook eat FRET

    i’ve no idea if you’re right or wrong but that was a fucking great post. excellent writing.

    (i just assume you’re always right, peter)

  • Maryann

    Fine writing :)

  • peter

    Blanche: You were probably driving, too, right?

    CC: “There was shrinkage! There was shrinkage!”

    Seb: Thanks for your thoughtful comments (and welcome.) I agree right back with you:

    1. It’s true. There is real pushback, and the blogs are helping big time.

    2. The operative word there is “almost.” And it makes me mad that his Burg reviews were for shit for such a long time before he got around to replacing himself.

    3. I’m right there with you. My only fear in this regard is that when the market recovers, all the new zillionaires are going to move past Bordeaux and start driving other regions into the stratosphere.

    Claudia: You’re too kind. Can I interest you in some slightly used credit default swaps?

    Maryann: Thanks.

  • Zen Chef

    Holy Jeebus! What a fine piece of writing! You should get it published somewhere. It reminds me of the Mondovino documentary but with more of an edge. Must be the last sentence. hehe.

    All i want now is uncork something good (and unparkerized) and let it all sink in. Thanks for giving some direction to my Sunday afternoon.

  • The Spiteful Chef

    Okay, but what if, say…maybe you were born with an ass but unremarkable tits? Could you buy some? Or what if you have kids and your tits go south? Are you allowed to lift them? Or what about if your wine has crooked teeth or something? Is it allowed to wear braces? I’d say there is a time and a place for smooth, aesthetic, sexified wine. And people. And then there are the times that you want it rough and unedited. But what’s important is that there is a place for both, and that women never have armpit hair.

  • bb

    Great post Peter, and couldn’t agree more. Having a wine store that serves (enables?) the public their due ration of alcoholic indulgence, I am all to familiar with the Power of Parker (and willingly admit to using it for my benefit….I am running a business after all). But my palate is right there with you. Which is why I’ll drink any number of Barberas, Burgundies, and any number of well-made Oregon pinots by those in our local wine community who haven’t bought into the “bigger is better” that way too many producers have succumbed to (think Cameron, Evesham Wood, St. Innocent and others here). Remember when we all loved those big zins and Aussie wines? Thank god those days are over. Now try and pair those over-alcoholized wines with any decent dinner and watch your efforts in the kitchen go down in flames….probably from the stratospheric alcohol contents!
    Oh, and Seb…from my experience, don’t count on #1 being true. Sadly.

  • peter

    M. Zen: My pleasure. Thanks for reading. What did you open?

    Kristie: You misunderstand; the wines which are not artificially enhanced ARE the smoothest, most beautiful, sexy wines. The over-messed with ones taste tacky and gross. All good winemakers have lots of techniques to help get the most out of what Nature provides every year without having to resort to tawdry excess. There’s nothing rough or unedited about good wine.

    It’s a free country. I just wish that more tastemakers actually had taste.

    BB: It’s true; those giant alcoholic fruit bombs destroy all food in their path (yet leave the dishes miraculously intact.)

  • lisa

    I agree with what you’re saying, but I admit I’ve enjoyed a big boobed wine here and there. Those bursting at the seams zinfandels have lured me in, but a subtle burgundy is a truly lovely thing. Have you seen the documentary MondoVino? A quick explanation of it: American market became biggest importer of wines = ‘American’ (Parker) style of wine took over.

    http://www.mondovinofilm.com/

  • peter

    Hi Lisa- Those wines are good gateway drugs. I have seen Mondovino; I love how Michel Rolland is always saying “micro-oxygenate” no matter what the problem is.

    And I’m making those root latkes tonight.

  • We Are Never Full

    “I like my wine with natural curves, some pubic (and even armpit!) hair, and a heart-shaped ass I can really sink my teeth into.”

    you really need to get this post publish somewhere. who else but you could connect real boobs and pubic hair to your feelings about wine?

  • We Are Never Full

    i hate when i make a mistake in posts/comments…

    i meant “pubelished”, you should get this piece PUBElished, not publish. sorry for the mistake.

  • peter

    Amy: Maybe the Wine Masturbator would pubelish it.

  • Brittany

    I just don’t know what to say to this, except for I am forwarding the link to this post to like everyone I know…

    Oh yeah-
    And now my pasta is overcooked

  • Zoomie

    Now, that’s a rant worth reading! I know next to nothing about wines but I learned something from your piece and enjoyed the heck out of your examples! You go, guy!

  • Birdman

    Think Heff would object to being compared to Parker?

    No doubt that Parkerization is real, but aren’t we ignoring a couple things:

    (1) Parker is far from the sole cause. Rolland and others have weilded similar influence on the front lines, although without as much general notoriety among the general public.

    (2) Many wineries and winemakers are going to give people what they want – they’re trying to sell wine. Hallelujah there are many who make what they make without following trends, but to a large degree we the people are getting what we’re asking for. Keep buying the artifical bombs at artificially inflated prices, and we’ll keep seeing bad tit jobs that taste of kids candy. Buy from those that make the wine first and then worry about the marketing and we’ll be a step closer to world peace (or at least better wine).

    BB: Are you throwing Russ Raney, John Paul and St. Innocent into the Parkerized camp? Far from it IMHO, but maybe I’ve just been really lucky? Either way, who (else) in the Willamette Valley tops your list of non-Parkered wines?

  • Mary

    I agree with what you say (except about Parker influencing the fining and filtering bit). However, there is a new wave of terroirists in the Barossa – I spent a good deal of time seeking them out – starting with Torbreck and Dutschke and Rusden – will expound more in my next offering.

  • peter

    Brittany: I am very sorry about your pasta.

    Zoomie: Aw, shucks.

    Birdman: (if that is your real name)

    1. True dat. Parker is the public face.

    2. Also true, and that’s why it’s so heartening to find other people who are trying to support the better producers.

    Mary: Howdy, stranger. The last Torbreck I drank ($130 bottle) tasted like Twizzlers and Milk Duds.

  • JS

    We are at a cultural point where we insist on having “experts” explain things to us that we are too lazy to research and explore ourselves. Not only do we want these experts, we then endow them with knowledge far beyond anyone’s actual IQ. It’s comforting, just like closing our eyes when we are scared.

  • Peter

    I think that’s true, and it extends into all areas of the culture. There’s something in us that makes us want to like things that other people like, whether it’s wine or art.

  • Here’s my reductionist / pragmatist view on wine:

    Wine is produced to consume with food. When the “experts” taste and rate wine, they’re not doing it while eating dinner or lunch in your suburban home. So, drink what tastes nice with your food, experiment with different varietals, and make friends with people who can cook and have tasted lots of wine.

    Vince from Scordo.com

  • [...] this food. It’s not wine I like at all by itself (and don’t even get me started on its part-owner) but in this instance the fat, jammy, high-alcohol caricature of real Pinot Noir had what was [...]

  • stick with Oregon Pinot Noir.. for the most part you’ll be safe, although Parker has his nuts dangling in our pool with some of the more expensive brands being made to his taste.

Yours Truly



I'm a painter who happens to also spend a lot of time growing, making, and writing about food. I'm particularly interested in the intersection of frugal peasant cooking techniques and haute improvisation. And I have a really great personality.

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