Wine's World

The Wino in Winter

Robert Parker’s influence is on the decline.

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Parker: The emperor in decline 
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Parker: The emperor in decline

The world’s most celebrated boozer, wine critic Robert Parker, finally has his Boswell. The Emperor of Wine: The Rise of Robert M. Parker Jr. and the Reign of American Taste was published in late June by Elin McCoy, a longtime wine journalist who now writes for Bloomberg. Parker, who compiles his reviews in a bimonthly journal called the Wine Advocate, has always had his detractors, but the debate over his influence has become especially vituperative in recent months, and McCoy’s biography, though evenhanded, has only ratcheted up the acrimony. But this new wave of disdain for Parker is oddly timed, because in many respects his influence has already peaked. He’s still the world’s most powerful wine critic, but his palate doesn’t quite command the authority it once did.

McCoy doesn’t acknowledge that the Parker era has entered its twilight, but it is an understandable omission: After all, she has a book to flog. In every other respect, though, The Emperor of Wine is terrific—meticulously researched, well written, and balanced. McCoy has captured Parker in full: He comes across as a man of uncommon enthusiasm, integrity, egoism, and prickliness. In McCoy’s view, Parker has done the wine world much good, but he’s also done real harm. She rightly points out that the 100-point scoring system, his most important innovation, is an absurdity that, as she puts it, “turns wine into a contest instead of an experience.” Parker’s legacy, she concludes, will be a checkered one.

The Emporor of Wine

Parker and his loyalists are not particularly enthusiastic about the book. For once, however, it is the Parker bashers rather than the Parker worshipers who have been driven to excess. The writer Tony Hendra, reviewing The Emperor of Wine for the New York Times Book Review, chided McCoy for going easy on her subject and offered readers his own splenetic take. By Hendra’s account, Parker is a loathsome figure who has succeeded in spite of himself because many consumers share his thirst for exuberantly fruity wines and because he has the “energetic support” of the American wine industry. (Never mind that the American wine industry is dominated by plonk-peddling corporations, most of whose wines Parker does not review.)

Hendra tossed a Molotov cocktail onto a bonfire that had been lit two weeks earlier by a fellow Brit, the eminent wine writer Hugh Johnson. Decanter magazine’s Web site published several Parker-trashing excerpts from Johnson’s forthcoming memoir, Wine: A Life Uncorked. In the book, Johnson draws a tortured and unfortunate analogy between Parker’s approach to wine criticism and George W. Bush’s approach to the world. “Imperial hegemony lives in Washington,” Johnson writes, “and the dictator of taste in Baltimore.” (Parker lives in Maryland.)

The Hendra and Johnson screeds followed closely in the wake of Jonathan Nossiter’s documentary Mondovino, which also misfired badly, portraying Parker as a genial devil who homogenizes wine and destroys tradition wherever his feared palate wanders. There is, of course, much to criticize about Parker—I’ve taken a few shots at him myself. But in flailing so wildly at him, Johnson, Hendra, and Nossiter have made Parker seem even more important than he actually is.

To be sure, Parker continues to enjoy influence unparalleled among wine critics. The Wine Advocate remains the holy book when it comes to the cabernet- and merlot-based wines of Bordeaux and Napa. But in other places and with other grapes, its clout is diminishing. The Wine Spectator, for instance, has done much more than Parker to herald the coming-of-age of California pinot noir—arguably the most important recent development in American winemaking—and has generally been quicker to identify the best new sources of California pinot.

In Europe, too, Parker isn’t the force he was just a few years ago. Burgundy was never Parker’s strong suit—the reds, at least, are generally too delicate for his taste—but his views nonetheless carried considerable weight at one time. That is no longer true. In 1996, Parker hired an assistant, Pierre Rovani, to cover Burgundy (a move in some ways forced on Parker, who evidently found himself increasingly unwelcome in many cellars). This decision, coupled with the emergence of Allen Meadows, who publishes a quarterly newsletter called Burghound, as the go-to Burgundy critic, has rendered the Wine Advocate largely irrelevant in what is arguably the world’s second-most important wine region after Bordeaux. Parker recently also outsourced his Italy coverage, and the Wine Advocate now seems to be suffering a similar loss of influence with Italian wines.

In addition to Burgundy, Parker has given Rovani responsibility for the Loire, Alsace, New Zealand, and the Pacific Northwest, important wine regions all. And just yesterday came news that Parker has enlisted the gifted David Schildknecht to take over the Wine Advocate’s coverage of Germany and Austria. Parker’s portfolio is growing smaller in part because the universe of review-worthy wines has grown so much larger during the last decade. But it may also be a concession to age: Parker is pushing 60 and will presumably be pruning his tasting and travel schedule over the next decade. Indeed, with the Schildknecht hiring, it seems clear that Parker is now laying the foundation for a Parker-less Wine Advocate, and as he slows down, his influence will decline accordingly.

This process may be hastened by the atypical trajectory his palate seems to be following. Many oenophiles, as they get older, tend to gravitate toward more subtle wines, but Parker appears to want them even brawnier and bawdier. His growing predilection for freakish wines (Australian Shirazes with 15 percent alcohol and the consistency of sludge) and freakish vintages (the 2003 Rhones, the product of a lethal heat wave that nearly turned the grapes into raisins) has raised eyebrows even among some of his most slavish followers.

In short, the Parker problem is proving to be a self-correcting one. Parker was the product of a unique set of circumstances. He made his name by being one of the first critics, and certainly the most insistent, to proclaim the brilliance of the 1982 Bordeauxs. As it happens, 1982 also marked the start of a 20-year bull market in the United States, which enriched scores of Americans and gave them an interest in the finer things, including fine wine. All these aspiring connoisseurs naturally wanted guidance, and Parker, unequivocal in his opinions and armed with a drink-by-the-numbers scoring system that conveyed the illusion of scientific precision, made himself their guru.

But two decades on, many people who once drank only wines that bore Parker’s stamp of approval have grown more confident in their own judgments. In addition, there are now many more sources of informed wine criticism (thanks in no small part to the Internet). While the number of “Parkerized” wines (lavishly fruited, lavishly oaked) has unquestionably exploded, there are still plenty of winemakers unwilling to cater to one man’s palate, and I still find plenty of subtle, distinctivereds and whites on my local retail shelves. If these wines and winemakers managed to survive the Parker ascendancy, they will surely survive his decline.

McCoy ends her book on exactly the right note: “There will never be another emperor of wine.” Parker agonists should read The Emperor of Wine content in the knowledge that his crown has already begun to slip.