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.
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.