By: Olga Stepina
Wine is an intriguing beverage that gives pleasure through its exceptional variety of aroma, flavor, structure, and remarkable compatibility with food, giving a light, growing sense of euphoria. This is what makes wine an ideal beverage, perfect for those who just want to enjoy a meal in a cultured milieu.
We present to you a study of the work of Robert Parker, the most famous wine critic of our time. His 50–100 point quality scale, introduced in the late 1970s in The Wine Advocate, has created a new way of perceiving wine in consumers, and Robert Parker’s high scores have become synonymous with success and profitability. Over time, his reputation had grown so great that winemakers all over the world began striving to create wines that Parker would have liked. The term «international wines» was coined, describing wines with a pronounced fruitiness.
More sophisticated and discreet wines made in the classic style, which require a certain amount of adjustment, have become less common on the market. Parker’s democratic approach has helped the development of the global wine market and expanded the confines of those who want to understand what taste is. But with time, some obvious drawbacks became apparent: in the course of versatilization and democratization, wine began to be perceived in the utilitarian aspect, almost exclusively as a drink to accompany food, and not as a product that dominates the table or something that expresses culture and tradition, and is able to give people the most sublime experience.
Robert Parker, the Legend
For a market that has developed certain standards, stereotypes, and approaches over the decades, it takes something extraordinary to undergo a fundamental change. Whether it be an arbitrary decision of a particular individual, or the higher powers for some reason decide that the time for change has come, it does not matter. What does, though, is the fact that, back in 1978, this was done by then little-known Robert Parker who published the first issue of The Wine Advocate, done on cheap newsprint, without any pictures, expert reviews, or advertising.
He sent it free of charge to 6,500 wine traders across the country, and after a while, 600 of them sent in requests for a second issue of the survey. That is how the Wine Advocate began parading the planet.
The name of the magazine was a perfect example of ambiguity in meaning. Parker himself had at the time been a lawyer for ten years. Partly reflecting this, the new magazine unearthed another meaning: Parker had declared his position in the world of wine not as a professional, which he objectively was not at the time, but as an amateur, studying the world of wine in its entirety and acting as an advocate of consumer taste.
Since then, much water has passed under the bridge and a lot of things have changed, both in the wine world and in people’s way of living, but we can certainly say that the past 40 years of the wine industry are inextricably linked to the name of Robert Parker, the wine critic.
Like the Moon, Parker has two obvious facets: light and dark. It might well be the fate of all great people who initiate serious changes in some areas. So, what should the wine world be thankful to Robert Parker in the first place?
When he started his wine bulletin, Parker was the first in the world to go beyond the language of the experts; he was not aiming at experts, but rather using democratic language accessible to the regular consumer.
At that time, there was indeed a big gap between the seller and the wine consumer: wine descriptions were full of abstract, grand comparisons devoid of any practical information about what the drink tasted like; the pieces were invariantly praiseworthy; there were no established criteria for assessing the taste of wine, which prevented the creation of a comparative map of wines and wine estates.
Parker decided to predicate his assessments not on price, estate’s status, or commercial perspectives, but rather on the wine’s organoleptic properties: flavor, taste, color, saturation, aftertaste. Another assessment concerned the potential for the development, or aging, of wine.
Trying to bring everything into a single system, Parker created a 100-point scale, where the final score summarized the conclusion regarding all criteria in a particular wine. Parker rated wines as: outstanding (90–100 points), excellent (80–89), good (70–79), average (60–69 points), and bad (50–59 points). To reduce the element of randomness or subjectivity, Parker would taste the same wine several times, confirming or correcting his initial findings. Another prerequisite dictated that the tasting be conducted strictly alone, uninfluenced by any other person.
Indeed, it can be said that Robert Parker used to and continues to work like a man possessed: as a young man, he got neck-deep in the search for professional publications on wine and winemaking and got down to analyzing all kinds of known notes on wine vintages over the years; he also took creative writing classes.
He planted a small vineyard near his house where he studied all the steps of working with grapes. To this day, he still works hard: Parker spends three months a year tasting directly at wineries, and the rest of the time he conducts tastings at home.
This involvement level allowed The Wine Advocate to become, according to People magazine, «the only voice in the wine world worth listening to» by 1982. After Robert Parker, defying expert opinions and climatic conditions, had declared the 1982 harvest to be excellent and recommended that wine connoisseurs invest as much as possible in these wines, his reputation became simply untouchable.
Parker never sought to make a secret of his knowledge and observations. He detailed everything in his books («Bordeaux,» «Burgundy,» «Wines of the Rhone Valley,» «Wine Buyer’s Guide,» etc.). His works would instantly become bestsellers, working as educational material. Robert Parker developed a peculiar language to describe wines: to-the-point descriptions go hand in hand with entertaining figurative accounts forming an all-encompassing «feeling» of wine. His vocabulary is rife with such eccentric epithets as «rubbly,» «chewy,» «muscular,» «thoughtful as caramel-coated autumn leaves,» «melting asphalt,» etc.
Naturally, the biggest fan of Robert Parker was all of France, whose wine image he had raised to high heaven. It is thanks to Parker that French wines these days are somewhat of a reference point or a benchmark. In 1995, Robert became an honorary citizen of the Northern French city of Rouen, the capital of Normandy, and then he was named a Knight of the Order of Merit and the Order of the Legion of Honor, the highest award in France.
Dark Side of the Moon
However, many disagree that Robert Parker has been a unilaterally good phenomenon in the wine world. Opponents of the world’s most famous critic accuse him of subjective taste, commercialization of assessments, exerting pressure on the wine market, and refusal to lend many worthy wines and small estates a chance to be «heard.» Even the term «parkerization of the wine world» was minted, implying the creation of wines in a new «international style,» born of Parker’s personal preferences and the style of the wines he values highly.
Regarding Parker’s preferences, it is well-known that he tends to extol thick, rich wines with a bright aromatic structure, or «fruit bombs,» to use his own phrasing. This makes many French winemakers tune their wines in such a way that the great critic would like them. Some of the more complex wines with a restrained nature that require a conscious effort to adjust and perceive them right rarely attract his attention, let alone top grades.
Some of the common reproaches by winemakers include allegations that Parker can underestimate or misevaluate new wines, or that he fails to study or represent wines of certain regions, because of which they remain unreasonably obscure and less in demand in the market, or that he sticks to his personal loves and hates, etc.
Quite often appeals are made to Parker to realize his responsibility to the market, as his positive and negative assessments can lead to legitimate ups and downs of the wine market, both in the current year’s harvest and in the field of long-term wine investments. Wine producers often do not have the courage to judge their own wine and price it only after it has been tasted by Robert Parker.
There is definitely some truth here. These days, Parker’s 100-point wine grading system is the absolute benchmark in the world of wine. The firmness of these points can only be compared to universal scales, such as a reference kilogram or kilometer, Greenwich time, etc. Many foreign authors, both wine world insiders and cold-minded journalists, have come up with ironic quips at Parker, as Michael Steinberger did in his famous piece titled «The Great and Powerful Shnoz. Does the emperor of wine have any clothes?» he had written for Slate, where he stated the following:
«Every wine merchant in America can attest to the Parker effect—customers who drink only what he has sanctioned, clients who buy a wine, hate it, and then come racing back to purchase an entire case of the wine after Parker blesses it. (Skeptical? Spend an hour in a wine shop on a Saturday afternoon.) In wine chat rooms, participants openly fret about whether their palates are sufficiently in synch with Parker’s. Nor is this behavior confined to the United States. In an interview several years ago, Jancis Robinson, the hugely popular British wine writer, recalled the distress caused her friend the novelist Julian Barnes when he learned one day that a wine he adored had been panned by Parker, which therefore meant he was a fool to have liked it.»
Unfortunately, it is also obvious that long years of generous, loud praise have also led to the critic starting to overestimate himself. He has repeatedly stated that he remembers the taste of every wine he tastes—and, according to him, it is no less than 10,000 samples a year. However, in 2005, at a blind tasting of 15 top wines in Bordeaux, Parker failed to identify a single one correctly. Worse still, he confused the wines from the left and right banks of the Garonne River repeatedly.
In the late 2000s, David Shaw of the Los Angeles Times offered Parker a tasting of six wines, to be repeated the next day. The offer was refused, and this was the comment: «I’ve got nothing to gain and everything to lose.»
Speaking of the scale of Parker’s influence and that of his evaluation system, it is suffice to say that, in 2002, Parker refused to write a review of Bordeaux wine barrel samples, and because of this fact alone, estate owners were forced to significantly slash their prices. One of the suppliers of Bordeaux wines told Elin McCoy, the author of the critic’s unofficial biography, that the difference between 85 and 95 points of Parker would cost an estate some 6–7 million euros! And should a bottle snag 100 points, it allows the producer to drive its price fourfold. It is known that, in 1998, after one French wine had been awarded 92 points, its price soared from 100 to 125 francs in half a day.
Despite the fact that Parker himself had repeatedly stated in his publications and books that his activities were based on high ethical standards of independence and impartiality, that he worked for the benefit of the regular consumer rather than businesses, evidence suggests that the critic had sometimes acted in the interests of certain winemakers or wineries.
Early into his activity, Parker had lambasted the stiffness of the French wine evaluation system and spoke up for talented beginners and pioneers, but in due course, he himself became a rigid figure and a market dictator. Many oenologists and wine researchers today also reproach Parker for disregarding the latest scientific data on the impact of climatic conditions, terroir, and wine production technology and sticking to his subjective taste assessment.
Parker’s Influence and the Future of Winemaking
These days, we can talk about Parker as a brand, or even a corporation: his recommendation is like a magic seal of approval guaranteeing high prices and crazy sales, and the Parker team already includes six critics, each studying and representing a certain wine region of the planet.
Robert Parker has come a long way from the scarce pages of The Wine Advocate to tens of thousands of official subscribers and millions of readers around the world; from the first wines he used to make his initial steps into studying the world to tens of thousands of tastings done to this day; from a little-known provincial lawyer to a French wine trendsetter; from an excitable young man fascinated by the world of wine to a pundit whose sense of smell and sensory memory are considered to be the benchmark. By the way, Parker’s nose and palate are insured for one million dollars.
Perhaps there was a stroke of luck involved in this; if it had not been for the young Robert’s love for his former classmate who had been sent by her parents to study at the University of Strasbourg, he might never have made it to France. If he had not tasted the French wine he was so impressed with in Alsace, he would not have grown interested in the subject. If Parker’s friends and relatives had managed to convince him to continue his pursuits in law between 1975 and 1978, as they believed that writing about wine field could only be a low-profit hobby, he would probably have become more or less successful in another field. If this niche had not been so wide open in those years, Parker might have well fallen to the competition. And finally, if he had not risked his reputation in certain periods of his life, betting on his intuition and information that he himself had found and analyzed, the world would not have proclaimed him a legend and a trendsetter of wine fashion.
All of this is probably true to a certain extent, but years of hard work, ambition, and Robert Parker’s sincere love for the amazing gift of the earth and the sun, the magic drink of Dionysus, are likely the bigger reason for his success. Of course, he was uniquely gifted by nature, too, what with his ability to instantly focus on the aroma, to perceive three dimensions of wine (texture, aroma, taste), or to virtually merge with the wine in a sort of meditation…
And yet it is gratifying to see that in recent years, more and more wine researchers and critics have been gaining prominence in the wine world. Ones further develop Parker’s ideas, and the others travel parallel courses to those, and some of them may one day become the brain and heart of new changes to come in the wine world.