The Family Shiraz


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Flying to Jacksonville this afternoon for the COVD meeting, I had the chance to catch up on the type of reading that one most appreciates with a head in the clouds.  The wit and wisdom of Adam Ehrlich Sachs (who studied atmospheric science at Harvard) contained in his first book, Inherited Disorders, was captivating — Parable 66 in particular:

A Barossa Valley winemaker, whose prized Shiraz was consistently awarded 98 points by the influential wine critic Robert Parker, was laid low last year with a herniated disc, at which point he reluctantly relinquished control of the vineyard to his son.  For over a decade the winemaker had been promising that the vineyard would pass one day to his son, but only now, with the herniation of his disc, did he finally follow through on that pledge.

His reluctance was justified: his son instantly instituted changes at every stage of the winemaking process, from growing to bottling.  The famed family Shiraz was altered beyond recognition.  The son assured his father that the changes were for the better: they were “innovations”.  The father, on the other hand, who had been making Shiraz his way for thirty years, was certain that his son was making unnecessary changes simply to “make his mark”, to demonstrate his autonomy.  And the wine, he believed, would suffer for it.  

But they awaited the final judgment of Robert Parker’s newsletter.  A 99 or 100 would vindicate the son.  A 97 or below would vindicate the father.  And another 98 would reveal to them the ridiculous, almost ceremonial  aspect of their intergenerational conflict, a ritual that had little to do (or so a 98 Robert Parker scored would indicate) with the actual quality of the wine.

The newsletter arrived.  They opened it nervously, but were perplexed to find in it no numbers at all.  A note explained that control of the newsletter had passed from Robert Parker to his son, David, who had replaced his father’s outmoded numerical rating system with an updated star-based system.  “There is no basis of comparison” he wrote, between my dad’s numerical rating system and my star-based system.  Our systems are fundamentally incommensurable.  There is no common measure.  They cannot be converted, they cannot be translated.  They do not communicate.  Each constitutes its own self-contained, self-consistent, sealed-off world of wine opinion.”

The prized Barossa Valley Shiraz was awarded seven stars by David Parker.  How that compares to a Robert Parker score of 98 is unknown.  The father and son have no one else to appeal to in order to adjudicate their dispute.

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After reading this, one of the first conversations that I had with Laura & Justin Knapp came to mind.  When we entered into serious discussions about her purchasing the practice, Dr. Knapp (and Justin, who would serve as the CFO) were very clear about one thing.  They noted:  “You’ve built a wonderful practice – we don’t want to change a thing, particularly at the outset.  We want you and Miriam to mentor us as we build on your legacy.”  It was the antithesis of The Family Shiraz.

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