Fifteen candidates are on the ballot for possible induction into the Vintners Hall of Fame next February. This total is important to keep in mind because just one candidate - wine critic Robert M. Parker Jr. - is generating buzz. This is his third time to be nominated, and, as the saying goes, the third time is apt to be the time he adds this charm to a bracelet already heavy and loud with acclaim.
I've no strong feelings one way or the other about whether Parker should be a member of the Class of 2013, which I suspect he will be. He's an influential and contentious character. While some praise his astute and embracing palate, others criticize him negatively for his popularization of the 100-point scale of wine rating and for what often is perceived as his single-handed impact on wine styles, an influence that is overstated and for which he isn't solely responsible. (If elected, in his acceptance speech will be acknowledge the role played in his standing by wine merchants, sommeliers and vintners who have surrendered their own judgment and instinct to Parker?)
Parker has been generous with me over the years, and his critiques of wines and wine regions deserve more discussion and reflection than his popular 100-point scale, but my concern is that the current debate over whether he should or shouldn't be in the Vintners Hall of Fame is distracting from the 14 other candidates who share the ballot.
It's important to note here that the Vintners Hall of Fame, which is housed at the Napa Valley campus of the Culinary Institute of America, should actually be thought of as the California Vintners Hall of Fame. Its intent is to honor the men and women who have had a profound and lasting impact on California's standing in the wine world, whether as grape growers, winemakers, educators, merchants, writers and so forth. That Parker has helped popularize California wine is without question, but on the world stage I think his impact has been more dramatic and lasting in his writing of Bordeaux, Burgundy and the Rhone Valley, none of which is a California appellation.
In past elections, the five to seven top vote recipients have been inducted into the Vintners Hall of Fame. Given that record, and given the strength of this year's ballot, Parker's election isn't guaranteed. A quick scan of the ballot reveals at least half a dozen other candidates whose contributions to the development of fine wine in California have been no less significant than Parker's, even though their names might not be as readily recognized as his. They include Vince Petrucci, a professor of viticulture and enology at Fresno State for 45 years, during which he helped educate no less than two generations of California winemakers; Cesar Chavez, the non-violent labor leader largely responsible for improving the working conditions and pay of the state's farm workers; Gary Eberle, the grape grower and winemaker who not only introduced syrah to the state but was instrumental in creating and popularizing the Paso Robles appellation; Merry Edwards, a highly successful pioneer in Sonoma County's Russian River Valley, revered for her pinot noirs and sauvignon blancs; Jerry Lohr, who while closely indentified with his wineries and vineyards in Monterey County, Napa Valley and Paso Robles has long worked diligently, quietly and successfully on public-policy issues, marketing strategies and cutting-edge research for the entire California wine trade; and Jed Steele, who as a winemaker for 44 years has shown that both unhearalded wine regions and relatively obscure grape varieties deserve a place at the table.
Parker isn't the only writer on this year's ballot, and even in that niche he faces formidable competition. One other candidate is Frank Schoonmaker, who successfully persuaded the country's wine trade to use varietal identification rather than regional designation for domestic wines and to adopt educational back labels to better inform a largely non-wine-drinking population. The other candidate is Bob Thompson, who over the past 40 years authored or co-authored several books on California wine, and who was one of the nation's first wine writers to be given a regular column in a major American newspaper, reporting on wine with authority, candor, warmth and wit; to randomly open and scan a book by Thompson, even at this far remove, is akin to running across the movie “The Godfather” while surfing TV channels - no matter where you come in, you can’t leave - each paragraph, like each scene, unfolds with compelling insight and nuance. Well, I guess that gives away where one of my votes is going.
Ballots, incidentally, are sent to around 200 wine writers and previous inductees into the Vintners Hall of Fame. For whatever reason, fewer than half the recipients return a completed ballot. I wonder if they are the same commentators who carp about this or that candidate not being inducted.