Books: How Robert Parker Overthrew the Wine Establishment

April 30, 2011 | By | 2 Replies More

The Emperor of Wine: The Rise of Robert M. Parker, Jr., and the Reign of American Taste

It’s hard to overestimate Robert Parker’s influence on the wine we drink. Best known for developing the 100-point rating system, Parker’s Wine Advocate newsletter became so influential that winemakers consciously made wines to suit his taste for big, high-alcohol wines with power and intensity. Consultants that he was known to like were in high-demand by wineries, and wines that he praised in the Wine Advocate could sell out almost as soon as they arrived in stores.

There’s a lot to admire about Parker. He started his newsletter at a time when reliable information about wine was almost inaccessible to the average person, and reviewers were a bit too chummy with the vintners they wrote about. Parker never forgot what he learned from history professor Gordon Prange (the same Gordon Prange who wrote At Dawn We Slept) about writing simple declarative sentences that used everyday words. Thus, a wine he particularly disliked was described as “having the finesse of a horny hippopotamus,” while wines he loved might be referred to as having “oodles of fruit,” one of his signature phrases. He also refused the freebies that were common in the industry, maintaining instead the independence and objectivity that are the hallmarks of good journalism.

And yet, as Elin McCoy amply illustrates in The Emperor of Wine, Parker was controversial. He believed his palate was infallible and that he could taste a wine once and accurately determine its proper score (although he tasted each wine a second time before assigning the score). Given that he tasted hundreds of wines a week, that might have been a business necessity. But wineries who fell short on Parker’s ratings protested that no one could determine a wine’s true merit based on a single taste.

The problem goes deeper, however, involving the very idea of a 100-point system. Is it really possible to detect single-point differences in wines? Is any amount of tasting adequate to discern whether a wine is worth 93 points rather than 94? Is anyone’s palate that precise?

Certainly mine isn’t. If you’ve read the “about me” entry on this blog, you may recall my lament that I lack Parker’s nose and palate, as I suspect is true of most people. Even distinguishing between varietals can sometimes be difficult when tasting blind, but if a Master of Wine can discern hints of a dozen different flavors, from dark cherry to cassis, in a single wine, then I feel fortunate when I can find more than two. However, I still enjoy the ritual of tasting, of swirling, sniffing and sipping in the hopes of finding all of the subtle characteristics the wine possesses.

The final beef of Parker’s critics is that he remade the wine business to suit his own tastes, and there is some truth to that. A Parker score could make or break a winery, so few could afford to ignore his ratings. (Someone once said that a wine rated below 80 couldn’t be sold at any price and one rated over 90 would be too expensive for most of us to afford.) So winemakers who wanted the 90+-plus ratings studied Parker’s palate and tried to make the big, fruity high-alcohol wines that consistently won his highest ratings.

What I actually found more interesting was Parker’s admonition to some wineries to make wines suited to the terroir of their region. In a famous dispute with Tim Mondavi, who Parker believed was trying to emulate the subtlety and elegance of France instead of making true California wines with lots of fruit, he wrote that the Mondavis were “going against what Mother Nature his given California.”

For better or worse, and in my mind it was mostly for the better, Parker’s influence on the wine business was almost revolutionary. He deflated the industry’s big egos, upset the established order, and brought reliable information about wine to the masses. Whether you think the 100-point scale, which has since been emulated by the Wine Spectator and others, makes sense, it clearly makes it easier to decide whether a wine is worth what it costs and whether you’re likely to enjoy it. I personally find it easy to use and pay more attention to the five-point gradations, which tell me that a wine scored between 85-89 is “very good” while one rated between 90-94 is “outstanding.”

And my own bottom line is this: while I fell in love with wine long before Parker wrote his first newsletter, I never would have discovered so many good wines without him and the many wine critics who followed in his footsteps.

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Category: All Posts, Books about wine

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