Does the emperor of wine have any clothes?

June 17 2002 3:57 PM

The Great and Powerful Shnoz

Does the emperor of wine have any clothes?

Illustration by Robert Neubecker

It is frequently proclaimed and unquestionably true: Robert Parker is the world's most powerful wine critic. He is to chardonnay and merlot what Jim Jones was to Kool-Aid; that is, when Parker says drink, his followers drink. A glowing review in his bimonthly journal, the Wine Advocate, will set off a buying stampede; a thumbs-down and a bottle will collect dust. Scores of wines are now custom-designed to titillate his taste buds (he favors wines that are deeply colored, high in alcohol and oak, and low in acidity—"hedonistic fruit bombs," in the Parker vernacular).

Michael Steinberger  Michael Steinberger 

Michael Steinberger is a free-lance journalist.

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.

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Clearly, this is not a normal critic-consumer relationship, but then, wine unnerves many people. Maybe it's the foreignness of it; maybe it's the cost. Or perhaps this anxiety just reflects the subject's complexity: If you care to give any thought to what's in your glass, there is actually quite a lot to think about. Harry Waugh, the late British wine merchant and writer, was once asked if he had ever mistaken a Burgundy for a Bordeaux. "Not since lunch," he quipped. Because Americans have only recently taken to it in large numbers, they seem especially self-conscious about wine. This wine phobia has been Parker's ticket to fame and fortune. In any group tasting, the strongest opinion inevitably carries the day, and this, writ large, is what Parker has done. Other critics are appropriately cautious; they recognize that fermented grape juice and human sensory organs can be fickle. In contrast, Parker's tasting notes bristle with certitude; sure, he may change his mind about a wine or vintage years after first sampling it, but that initial appraisal seldom contains even a hint of indecision.

Parker also smothers with detail. Most critics focus on the essentials: Is the wine balanced, and how long should you wait to pull the cork? Parker, by contrast, all but drinks the chardonnay for you. He lists every aroma and flavor he thinks he detects; often, his descriptions are fanciful bordering on parodic ("caramel-coated autumn leaves," "concentrated meat essences," "crushed seashells," "melted asphalt"). He frequently includes the exact number of seconds a wine's aftertaste lingers. All of this is, of course, subjective and entirely frivolous information, but it makes an impression on the impressionable. For the average wine drinker, to whom red wine smells like, well, red wine, Parker appears to be a freak of nature, and the natural impulse is to defer to him.

Parker very much wishes to be seen as a freak of nature. Despite sampling over 50 wines a day and some 10,000 to 15,000 annually, he says he never suffers palate fatigue. He also claims to recall literally every wine he has ever tasted. Call me cynical, but I seriously doubt that if I slipped him a glass of an $8 Chianti he reviewed in 1993 he would nail it (in an adulatory profile several years ago, David Shaw of the Los Angeles Times tried to test Parker's consistency, which he touts as his greatest asset, by asking him to do a blind tasting of six wines twice over consecutive days; tellingly, Parker refused, saying, "I've got nothing to gain and everything to lose").

One of Parker's more lamentable traits is his habitual disparagement of other wine critics and his portrayal of winemakers as a shifty, thieving lot. He hasn't merely prospered off of the public's wine phobia; he has fed it, by drumming home the message—in reviews, commentaries, and interviews—that dark forces are conspiring to put overpriced plonk on our tables. Sure, he might say a kind word about an individual writer, but he misses few opportunities to impugn the ethics of wine critics in general. There is no question that some critics are too cozy with the trade, nor is there much doubt about Parker's integrity: He accepts no advertising in the Wine Advocate and pays his way everywhere he goes. But most critics are not consciously pushing bad wine on the consumer, yet Parker has tarred them all with the same brush.

Likewise, he has peddled the view that winemakers exist to gouge the unsuspecting drinker. Take his dismissive attitude toward the concept of terroir—the notion, dear to the French and increasingly embraced by winemakers on these shores, that a wine should somehow reflect its place of origin. Parker seems to think terroir is mainly just propaganda used to flog mediocre wines. He prefers a style in which the terroir is all but obliterated (his homogenizing influence is one reason the French have come to see him as the very embodiment of globalization).

What has really given Parker his stranglehold over the wine industry is the 100-point rating system he employs. Other critics have embraced this approach, but Parker pioneered it, and no one has used it to greater effect. Simply put, it is a device that creates the illusion of scientific rigor. It is one thing to award a wine an A, or five stars; this leaves some room for interpretation. However, to say that a wine merits 88 points indicates a level of precision that just cannot be achieved, except in Parker's own mind.

For instance, Parker bestowed 89 points on the 1995 Haut-Batailley. Why 89 and not 90? He might answer that he found the finish to be a bit attenuated. Does that mean the aftertaste endured only 19 seconds when he thinks it should have dwelled in his mouth for 25? How many points are deducted because of the 6-second gap? Moreover, who's to say how long the flavor should linger, and even if there were an agreed-upon duration, is this something that can be reliably measured? And just how important is the finish to a wine's performance, anyway? You get the idea—the slightest amount of poking quickly brings the 100-point concept collapsing in on itself.

And yet this method has proved to be a masterstroke. Consumers no longer buy wine, retailers no longer sell it; instead, they buy and sell scores. A wine rated 90 or above will fly off the shelf; below 85 and it is headed for the close-out bin. For winemakers, the difference between a prosperous year and a so-so one is often just a handful of Parker points; as a result, a lot of time and energy is invested into making sure that Parker leaves the tasting room satisfied. The most extreme examples of this are the California "cult" wineries and the Bordeaux "garagistes." These are producers who craft microscopic quantities of turbo-charged, ultra-Parkerized wines that, not surprisingly, tend to fetch his highest scores and sell for hundreds of dollars a bottle.

Parker's grip on the wine world may be starting to loosen, however. It used to be that only the Burgundians, who make minute quantities of highly coveted wines and therefore have little need to placate the press, had the courage not to kowtow to Parker (indeed, he is now a persona non grata in Burgundy and recently handed over coverage of the region to an assistant). But other winemakers are beginning to speak up. Last year, for instance, Parker was publicly slammed by the Mondavis, the first family of American wine. He had alleged, in print, that the Mondavi winery was slipping because it was not fashioning the kind of blockbuster Cabernets that are currently Napa Valley's stock in trade (and that Parker loves). The Mondavis pointedly replied that their aim is to craft elegant, food-friendly wines, not critic bait. More interestingly, the buzz at this year's annual Bordeaux barrel tastings was that several prominent winemakers known for turning out turbocharged wines have now renounced that approach and are embracing a more traditional style that emphasizes finesse over power.

The ever-sensitive Parkerati point out that he is not putting a corkscrew to anyone's head. They insist that the cultlike devotion he commands is a function of honesty, industry, and all-around superiority. No question, his sheer profligacy—in addition to the newsletter, he has written books about Bordeaux, Burgundy, and the Rhone and occasionally puts out a 1,000-page buying guide—is another reason for his enormous reach. Parker has also done the consumer many favors. His battles against excessive crop yields and filtration (a practice that removes suspended solids from wines but often strips them of flavor and character, as well) were enormously helpful. And it is true that many people share his predilections.

However, it is also true that a huge number have simply made his preferences theirs or have substituted his for theirs. Parker has spawned a generation of lemmings. This may not have been his intent, but it is his legacy: Untold thousands of wine drinkers have come to believe that his judgment is more trustworthy than their own.

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