A Whopper of a Day 10 min read

There are no great limits to growth because there are no limits of human intelligence, imagination, and wonder - Ronald Reagan


Today was a big day. No, not due to the Super Bowl, sorry sports fans, (in fact I would go as far as say big “f…ing” day as our fierce leader of a VP once so poignantly stated.)


u-s-president-ronald-reagan_100385480_hToday is President Ronald Reagan’s 100th Birthday.


As I was retrieving a birthday cake in his honor from Whole Foods bakery, I inadvertently caused much angst (and possibly few extra months in therapy) to the organically certified staff. Not only did I ask them to write “Happy Birthday Ronald Reagan.” The bakery lady giggled quite a bit at the unusual request but didn’t know how to spell “Reagan.”  She was so traumatized that she asked twice for spelling assistance, then I asked for an exclamation point at the end to boot!


Yummy, fully calorie-loaded chocolate whopper of a cake in hand, I proudly marched home to pair it with my favorite Napa Cabernet (more on that later).   However, the realization of last night’s letter send by Robert Parker to his subscribers hit me hard and took some pep out of my step… Like the Great Communicator and Storyteller before him, Parker single handedly rearranged the wine world, one newsletter at a time. And now he is no longer a California reviewer, relinquishing those duties to a colleague. The news was difficult to swallow and absorb.


A Big Sigh Heard Around the (Wine) World


Last night was pretty tough. As the hangover of last night’s revelation slowly began to sink in, I was flooded with thoughts and emotions.  As many of you know, and despite his repeated professions of being a Francophile; in many ways I consider Parker an American Patriot and a champion of American Spirit. Clearly Parker has been a transcending, transformative force in the wine world at large and California wine in particular and I felt momentarily orphaned…


In the fragile ecosystem of the wine world, the balance can get upset rather easily.  RP’s instrumental role can simply not be underestimated; nor the unintended consequences of his departure from CA wine reviews be quantified.


His curiosity and passion for New World wines was contagious enough to rearrange many a palate (and a checkbook!)


Unlike some, I am not looking forward to any replacement; not due to change it signifies, but for an entirely different host of reasons.


Reagan is irreplaceable. So is Parker. I won’t bother qualifying my statement with how his colleague is “a fine writer”.  I am sure he is.  It just simply isn’t the point.  Parker is unique in the same sense as Reagan was. There is nothing interchangeable about great leadership.


Rescue Me


I never thought of myself as the type that needed rescuing; but apparently, I did. Not once but twice.  First I was rescued from the clutches of rampant tyranny of the New World order, then, ironically from the Old World puritanical restraint.


I never thought that I would speak of Reagan and Parker in the same year let alone the same sentence, and certainly never aspired to compare or correlate the two in any way. However as fate would have it, both played a pivotal role in my life and the similarities that emerged as they were gradually revealing themselves were downright eerie.


I cannot express enough what Reagan’s presidency meant to me personally and how profoundly it affected my life. I would have never had a chance to become who I am in a true sense of the word had it not been for his personal courage and brilliant policies.


I also would never have matured into the kind of wine geek I am proud to have become if it wasn’t for Parker’s passionate portrayal of boutique California producers who strive for excellence and authenticity.


Both men were and continually are crucified for daring to carve the path of their own, and for doing the right thing. Both went against the politically correct, fashionable rhetoric of their day.  Both stuck to their guns. Both will go down in history (one of them has already) for being right on a great deal of crucial matters. In fact they are both heroes for championing individuality and embracing diversity, and encouraging us to carve the painful yet wondrous path to ourselves as the only sustainable journey. They both believed in one’s goodness, creativity, drive and individual abilities as the only genuine solution to virtually any problem.


Finding Your Religion


1parkerA wise Pastor once said that values define character and character is what defines a man. Reputation, on the other hand, is merely other people’s attempt to define you.


Parker’s reputation certainly precedes him.


A great many of us fell in love with his stories and points of view and many built their cellars around them. Others were about a different sentiment entirely, in fact some wanted to save us from “Parkerisation” a dubious if not entirely ridiculous undertaking, (not to mention the elitism it’s predicated upon and the obvious hypocrisy of nominating oneself to the task).


I, for one, would rather be saved from their arrogance and presumption.


Envy, and resulting vicious attacks, on extremely successful and popular public figures are nothing new (yet never ceases to annoy).


As the background noise swelled (evoking the old adage “the dog barks, caravan keeps moving”) the RP ever evolving popularity gave much ammunition to nay-sayers. Typical, and nauseatingly redundant, (if I had a dime for every “over-extracted,” “overhyped”, “overblown”… I would have a large enough fortune to be tempted to convert it into a small one in the wine industry.)


He evoked and stirred a spirit of something deep within and much-needed. The wine world is chock full of enough politics to demoralize many. Parker provided a breath of fresh air; he represented a new, real, agenda-free approach. He may have been miscast, alternatively ravaged and revered, but say what you will, he was and continues to be his own man. No one can claim his reviews are about pandering to any palate, point of view or perspective.  His character is revealed thru his words and actions; they are not only distinct but in fact interchangeable and therefore credible.


When California wines broke the ranks, Parker legitimatized them. Until then, it was all about European establishment that often is a drain on the wallet and too often winds up going down the drain. RP saw what ripe fruit can offer, properly managed and harnessed, recorded it and offered it for the world to experience and noodle over and hence became the world’s foremost Palate Master.


Single-handedly changing a whole generation of wine drinkers (no small feat in the category of beverages he is reviewing) he set a powerful standard. He captured the yearnings of a group of wine drinkers who want to be counted, who genuinely fell in love with New World wines and who previously were, frankly, greatly under-served.


Remarkably unassuming and free of dogmatic point of view he helped us “un-mask” our own palates and peel away the puritan guilt. He taught us how to embrace the unadulterated pleasure we so often seek yet can never clearly define.


Whether he consciously realizes it or not, Parker is a leader. He didn’t conform or look over his shoulder for approval. He believes in what he says and is unapologetic in his points of view, true leadership qualities. He is a true force to be reckoned with, the one that comes from deep within called “authenticity”… yes that remarkably overused term that holds true today and always will.


“Mr. Gorbachev, Tear Down This Wall.”


I never met (the “Gipper”) Reagan (well, I was in the same building with him once, during Gorbachev’s visit), but I feel that I know who he was, as in what his values are. I know his life’s mission was to protect and preserve liberty and empower the Individual. (There are those that insist on attempting to cloak themselves in his cloth yet it is plain to see how naked they truly are as without solid values of their own.)


In his arguably most famous speech, he asked Gorbachev to tear down a wall that symbolized the horrors of tyranny, an eternal enemy of liberty.


A mere mention of the speech still sends shivers down my spine and often makes me think of the walls we erect ourselves… in our lives in general and wine lives for that matter.


I don’t believe Reagan initially saw himself as a defender of freedom and liberty, nor did he deliberately seek that role, yet in a manner worthy of George Washington, he fully embraced his mission as it revealed itself. Somehow Parker’s seems to have inadvertently wandered onto a path that was on the collision course with the “establishment”, the status quo and he found himself in the unlikely business of challenging walls.


I did meet (the “Palate”) Parker on a few occasions. He is gracious, plain-spoken, pretense-free.  I didn’t detect any “Jesus complex” (perhaps since the full allocation went in to Camille Grammer there wasn’t enough left for the rest of us) or any hint that some divine intervention gave him palatal superpowers.


I did get a sense that he believes that we all are endowed with Palates, (and my hunch is that only some of us use our own instead of his or other critics) he happens to use his to tell stories from the very source.


Wine is in many ways is his religion, with palate being his greatest asset second only to his strong sense of self.


That is what made Parker a lasting phenomena. His message was framed with genuine affection and fundamental belief in individual talent and tenacity, not rooted in dogmas and empty ideology. That is what makes his message resonate. It is not a bag of tricks.


At the end of the day, many of us don’t have sufficient confidence to pick out our own dress shirt let alone a bottle of wine… we feel some primal need to run to some self-appointed “king or queen of all social media” for sage advice. We follow trends and keep trivial scorecards. And we miss what truly matters.


The Thrill Is Gone?


Authenticity isn’t a mere flash in the pan, it is a sustained effort, staying true to one’s values through thick and thin. Unlike Monsignor’s Matthews “thrill up the leg” moment that proved to be rather superficial, not to mention fleeting, it is an intentioned, daily, if not hourly struggle to maintain tried and true, to not be seduced by the easy and populist demagoguery.


I still get a real thrill out of Parker’s CA reviews after reading them for 12 years… and without him that thrill may be gone.


At the risk of sounding pessimistic (my role model Reagan was a true optimist!) and with a dollop of “wistful” trepidation, I am hopeful for the bright critical future. However, what I eagerly and continuously look forward to is what California wineries and winemakers are about to accomplish with or without Parker’s watchful eye. In the end that is what matters most and I am confident is paramount to both Parker and Reagan’s general philosophies. Their optimism was rooted in deep seeded belief in the goodness of human nature and the immeasurable talents of individuals. There is an abundance of that in California viticulture.


Wine and Cake


The cake paired beautifully with one of my all-time favorite bottles of California Cabernet, (and coincidentally, one of Parker’s favorites as well.) It was a 1997 Shafer Hillside Select that I have been saving for a while.


My first glass was raised… for the Gipper.

Ilona Thompson

Ilona Thompson is Editor-in-Chief at PalateXposure, a destination site for oenophiles, gourmands and luxury travelers. She also recently launched #Wine, a site dedicated to wines and spirits reviews, and #Photography, a site devoted to high-quality wine, food, and travel related photography.

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