It’s lunchtime and Jay Miller is halfway through his third and final day of tasting 550 Chilean wines. The man who has earned Robert Parker’s full confidence over the course of 30 years and a thousand tastings is relaxed as he picks at a bit of smoked salmon and confesses that yes, he likes to eat well, but often on these trips eager hosts ply him with enormous meals that leave him groggy and overfed. And he still has another hefty round of wines to work through in the afternoon.
Miller—or rather Dr. Miller—bucked a long career in clinical psychology for the allure of the wine world, and he is often asked if he ever regrets it. “It was the best thing I ever did,” he responds categorically. “I spent years telling my patients that if they didn’t like what they were doing, they should do something else. Finally it was time for me to take my own advice.”
Miller caught the wine bug in 1978 while still in college. He worked in a Maryland wine shop where Robert Parker was a customer. Parker, then an attorney, was just starting his now influential publication, The Wine Advocate, and would invite Miller to join him in his tastings. Today it is Miller’s voice-or rather nose and palate-that pronounce the Parker ratings for wines from Chile, Argentina, Australia, Spain, Oregon, Washington, and on occasion, vintage Ports. “Fortunately for me, these are the areas that make the kinds of wines that I like.” He’s clearly a contented man.
On Tasting Technique
What are you looking for as you taste and score wines?
I look for what’s good. Winemakers tend to look for flaws, and wine competitions favor clean, pristine wines rather than wines with personality. I’m looking for pleasure. I’m looking for the Wow factor, for something extraordinary. A 100-point wine is an experience, a Zen concept—words only diminish it—but when it happens, you know it.
Why don’t you taste blind?
It’s just not practical for the number of wines I taste per session. I taste by producer, and go through line by line, which is more efficient for making my notes.
When you taste wines, are you thinking about their place with food?
No, not really. Sometimes I get a clear idea of a good food to pair it with, but I’m not necessarily thinking about food when I’m tasting. I’m looking for pleasure in the wine itself.
You’re winding up your marathon tastings in Chile, what conclusions are you coming to?
Cabernet Sauvignon is strong, with a wide range of wines and price points and good quality throughout. Chilean Cabernet owes more to Bordeaux than it does to California. Thankfully there are not as many fruit bombs here. And the icons deserve to be icons. They’re great and evolve beautifully. Take Don Melchor, for example, or Antiguas Reservas-I recently tasted Antiguas Reservas back to the 1968 vintage and they were splendid!
There have been dramatic changes in Carménère in recent years, and when it’s good, it’s really good! The $8–$10 range is now much better and no longer green at all. On past trips I’ve given the highest scores to Terrunyo Carménère, and yes, I’m a fan of Clos Apalta.
Chile makes very good Syrah, and handles the different styles well, although commercially it’s difficult to sell in the US, where Cabernet is still the King. Sure, people know Shiraz, from Australia, but don’t understand that Syrah is the same thing.
Pinot Noir was a surprise for me when I came for the Wines of Chile Annual Awards in 2006, and I continue to be pleasantly surprised.
Chilean Malbec was also a nice surprise. It’s very different from Argentina’s Malbec, with more red fruit, more claret-like.
Chilean wine has long been known for its excellent value for money ratio. Now that the economic crisis is upon us, what effect do you see this having on Chilean wine?
Wine drinking has gone up since the crisis began. Although restaurant sales are down 30%, retail sales are up in volume. People are staying in and drinking at home. Retail sales are quite strong now in the USD $10–$20 range, and now, instead of buying 1 bottle, people are buying 2 or 3. This is an excellent opportunity for Chile and record sales are predicted. Chile is perfectly positioned for today’s economic situation.
Chile, land of diversity
Chile has a very broad range of wines and styles, and its entry level wines are solid, so it’s easy to get customers to try something new and to move up to a better wine. Countries such as Australia and Argentina have made the mistake of concentrating too much on one varietal at the expense of diversity. Australia’s cheap “critter wines” have hurt its credibility, and consumers are reluctant to invest in a more expensive bottle. In Argentina’s case, people associate it with Malbec and nothing else, so it has locked itself into a niche.
** Interview and photos by Margaret Snook for Wines of Chile, March 2009