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Robert Parker

Parker in Las Vegas, 2005
Born Robert McDowell Parker, Jr.
July 23, 1947 (1947-07-23) (age 62)
Baltimore, Maryland
Occupation Wine critic
Nationality American
Subjects Wine
Notable award(s) Chevalier de L'Ordre de la Legion d'Honneur

Robert M. Parker, Jr. (born July 23, 1947) is a leading U.S. wine critic with an international influence. His wine ratings on a 100-point scale and his extremely descriptive tasting notes, published in his newsletter The Wine Advocate, define modern American wine criticism and are a major factor in setting the prices for newly-released Bordeaux wines. Despite occasional controversy surrounding his reviews and scores, he continues to be the most influential fine wine critic in the world today.

Contents

Biography

Parker was born in Baltimore, Maryland. He is an honors graduate of the University of Maryland, College Park, with a major in History and a minor in Art History. He continued his education at University of Maryland, Baltimore, graduating in 1973 with a Juris Doctor degree. For over ten years he was an attorney for the Farm Credit Banks of Baltimore; he resigned in March 1984 to devote full attention to writing about wine.

In 1975, he began writing a guidebook to wine. Taking his cue from the consumer advocate Ralph Nader, Parker wanted to write about wine free of the conflicts of interest that might taint the opinions of other critics who also make a living selling wine. Three years later in 1978, he published a direct-mail newsletter called The Baltimore-Washington Wine Advocate, which became the The Wine Advocate in 1979. The first issue was sent free to mailing lists Parker purchased from several major wine retailers. For its second issue in August 1978, the magazine had 600 charter subscribers.

Parker received worldwide attention when he "called" the 1982 vintage in Bordeaux superb, contrary to the opinions of many other critics, such as San Francisco critic Robert Finigan, who felt it was too low-acid and ripe. The debate about whether 1982 is a vintage for the ages continues, but but on the wine market the prices of 1982 Bordeaux remain consistently higher above other vintages.

More than twenty years later, The Wine Advocate has over 50,000 subscribers, primarily in the United States, but with significant readership in over 37 other countries.[1] While other wine publications have more subscribers, The Wine Advocate is still considered to exert a significant influence on wine consumers' buying habits, particularly in America. New York Times wine critic Frank Prial asserted that "Robert M. Parker Jr. is the most influential wine critic in the world." [2]

A lengthy profile entitled "The Million Dollar Nose" ran in The Atlantic Monthly in December 2000. Among other claims, Parker told the author that he tastes 10,000 wines a year and "remembers every wine he has tasted over the past thirty-two years and, within a few points, every score he has given as well." [3] Yet in a public blind tasting of fifteen top wines from Bordeaux 2005, which he has called "the greatest vintage of my lifetime," Parker could not correctly identify any of the wines, confusing left bank wines for right several times.[4]

In addition to writing and tasting for The Wine Advocate, which is published six times a year in Monkton, Maryland, Parker has been a contributing editor for Food and Wine Magazine and BusinessWeek. He has also written periodically for the English magazine The Field and has been the wine critic for France's L'Express magazine, the first time a non-Frenchman has held this position. [5]

Impact of Parker on the world of wine

Parker is considered to have had a noticeable impact on

  • the profession of wine critics, by stressing the need for independence from the wine business
  • consumers' buying habits, by introducing his now famous 100-point rating system
  • the quality of the wines produced
  • the prices of wines sold on the market
  • the style of wines produced
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A new role for the wine critic

Until the seventies, wine criticism was usually a complementary activity to the production or trade of wine. The possible ensuing conflicts of interests were accepted by consumers interested in gaining an introduction to the world of wine, not in getting good value for money. Hence pre-Parker wine critics almost always had some links to the production or trade of wines. [6]

However, two wine critics stood out on some aspects that would later play an important role in inspiring and defining Robert Parker:

  • Robert Lawrence Balzer for his charisma. Like his contemporary fellows, Balzer rarely wrote negative statements about wines. He even once published under his name a book that had been written by a wine grower named Paul Masson.[7] But Balzer will remain known to the world of wine for two contributions: he was the first to organize a blind tasting (before the famous Paris judgment) and the first to talk with such empathy and love about wine.
  • Robert Finigan can be considered Parker's precursor on many aspects. In the monthly Robert Finigan's Private Guide to Wine, launched in 1972, Finigan aimed to offer pro-consumer and independent wine criticism, just as Parker did some years later [8]. Finigan aimed to help consumer decision-making by developing standard evaluation criteria; his qualitative comments were straightforward and understandable, and each wine was positioned on a quality scale (exceptional, above average, average, below average). To maintain his independence, Finigan bought all his wines in retail stores and always tasted them blind.

According to Elin McCoy, Parker is a consumer advocate who admires Ralph Nader and has been critical of most wine critics, who traditionally have been part of the wine industry and have had vested interests. According to statements Parker has made in his own publications and to the press, he considers his commitment to be to his readers rather than to producers, and he believes that a producer’s reputation and prestige is unimportant compared to the wine in the glass.

According to Mike Steinberger,[9] Parker has inadvertently made becoming a wine critic in the future almost impossible since (partly due to his scoring system's success) it is now prohibitively expensive to taste the very wines one should criticize. If it behooves a critic to understand, say, Lafite 1982, 2000, 2003 and 2005 before assessing the latest vintage, this requires the critic to have drunk wine worth tens of thousands of dollars before he or she can even begin, in a way that was not true when he himself became a connoisseur in the 1970s.

Parker's 100-point rating system

One of the most influential and controversial features of Parker's wine criticism is his 100-point rating system, which he popularized with his friend Victor Morgenroth. The system was designed to counter what Parker believed to be confusing or inflated ratings by other wine writers, many of whom he accused of a conflict of interest, as they often had a financial interest in the wines they rated. The scale, since widely imitated in publications such as the Wine Spectator, ranks wine on a scale from 50 to 100 points, on color and appearance, aroma and bouquet, flavor and finish, and overall quality level or potential. Therefore, 51 rather than 100 different ratings are possible. Although some argue that the quality of a wine is too subjective to be assigned a numerical rating with such a high degree of implied precision, similar 100 point scoring systems are widely used by American reviewers, while many British reviewers still prefer a 20-point system, such as Jancis Robinson and Clive Coates.

It is common for retailers in North America to mark wines with Parker's point scores on printed cards on the shelves. Large numbers of consumers, collectors and investors, especially in the increasingly important United States wine market, make purchasing decisions based on the scores that Mr. Parker awards based on his taste. Parker himself cautions that buyers should read the tasting notes to determine the wine is made in a style they will like, as he states on his website,

Scores, however, do not reveal the important facts about a wine. The written commentary that accompanies the ratings is a better source of information regarding the wine's style and personality, its relative quality vis-à-vis its peers, and its value and aging potential than any score could ever indicate. ... [T]here can never be any substitute for your own palate nor any better education than tasting the wine yourself.[10]

Parker argues that he scores wines on how much pleasure they give him. He and others have said that it is the obscurity, corruption, and other problems of the appellation system that made his consumer-oriented approach necessary and inevitable. For example, the Bordeaux Wine Official Classification of 1855 was based entirely on recent wine prices of that time. However, in the many decades since, many châteaux sold much of their vineyards, others bought additional vineyards far away, and the original winemakers have been long dead. Parker says this has created injustice for consumers because the traditional classifications cause mediocre wine to be sold for too much, and good wine to be sold for too little. He says the 1855 classifications "should be regarded by both the wine connoisseur and the novice as informational items of historical significance only."[11]

As to what the different scores mean, particularly for the finest wines, Parker has admitted--contrary to the seeming objectivity of the 100 point scale--that emotions do matter: "I really think probably the only difference between a 96-, 97-, 98-, 99-, and 100-point wine is really the emotion of the moment." [12]

A common criticism of Parker is that his tasting methodology is fundamentally flawed. Parker, himself, stated on 60 Minutes that a wine tells him everything he needs to know in five seconds. This philosophy combined with mammoth tastings in which Parker will run through between fifty and one hundred wines in quick succession, have led critics to conclude that in such tastings the only thing that can stand out is excessive levels of oak and alcohol. A long standing criticism of this tasting philosophy has also been that fundamental chemical flaws in a wine tend to be seen as positives, as they help a wine stand out as distinctive among the scores of wines given their five second evaluation in quick succession. In fact, over time, Parker has shown a pronounced affinity for wines displaying excessive levels of brettanomyces and volatile acidity. This has been derided as the inevitable "smelling salt effect" of Parker's tasting and evaluation methods.

Impact on the supply: the "Parkerization" of wine

Another controversy revolves around Parker's impact on the style of fine wines. Parker is highly critical of "industrial wines with little flavor and no authenticity" [13] and he believes that there are still undiscovered regions and wines that can successfully challenge the wine establishment. Critics such as Golo Weber claim that Parker likes less-acidic, riper wines with significant amounts of oak, alcohol, and extract. If indeed something like the "Parker taste" exists, it may be less the result of Parker's own preferences than of a trend initiated by Émile Peynaud the French oenologist and father of the so called "international wines" [14]. In the seventies, wine makers avoided the harvesting late, when the grapes were mature, in order to avoid the risks of end-of-season rains. Peynaud proposed instead that wine makers should wait until the grape was really mature or even over-mature. He also insisted on a control of malolactic fermentation through the use of stainless steel vessels.

This new approach to wine making led to changes in viticulture and wine making practices, such as reducing yields by green harvesting, harvesting as late as possible for maximum ripeness, not filtering the wine, and the use of new techniques such as microoxygenation to soften tannins.[15] These widespread changes in technique have been called "Parkerization," also sometimes known as "The International Style," and have led to fears of a homogenization of wine styles around the world, as Parker's "tastes are irrevocably changing the way some French wines are made".[16] Indeed, certain low-producing "boutique" wineries, among many others, have received high scores from Parker for wines made in this style. Parker himself disputes the notion of growing homogeneity and argues for the opposite: "When I started tasting wines, in the 1970s, we were on a slippery slope. There was a standardization of wines, where you couldn't tell a Chianti from a cabernet. That's pretty much stopped now."[17].

Because of his powerful influence, his experiences have ranged from having two chateau owners offer him the sexual favours of their daughters to receiving death threats.[18] On one occasion the manager of Château Cheval Blanc, Jacques Hebrard, was outraged at Parker's evaluation and asked Parker to retaste. Upon arriving, Parker was attacked by Hebrard's dog as the manager stood idly by and watched. When Parker asked for a bandage to stop the bleeding from his leg, Parker says Hebrard instead gave him a copy of the offending newsletter. Hebrard denies that Parker was bleeding.[18]

Wine critic Prial says "The Bordeaux wine establishment feels threatened by these new-style wines...and is engaged in an increasingly bitter fight against Parker and his influence." [2]

Impact on the market

Impact on prices

There are several evidences that Parker's rating scale had a dual effect on prices and sales:

  • Many customers buy only wines he rates at 90-95 points ("outstanding" in Parker's system) or above: this drove the prices for 90+ wines very high, and also made wines rated from 75-79 ("above average") or even 80-89 ("very good") hard to sell, even though some of these may in fact be excellent bargains. The saying in the wine trade is that if Parker gives a wine a score of below 80 it can't be sold at any price, but if he gives it a score above 90 it becomes too expensive for most customers.
  • With great reviews for the 2000 & 2005 Bordeaux vintages, many châteaux raised their prices to unheard of levels.
  • When Parker declined to review the 2002 Bordeaux vintage in barrel, they were forced to drop their prices to previous levels.
  • According to one Bordeaux shipper cited by McCoy, "the difference between a score of 85 and 95 [for one wine] was 6 to 7 million Euros" and a "bottle rated 100 can multiply its price fourfold" [19].
  • Château Quinault, which used to have hard time selling its wine at 100 francs a bottle, saw its 1998 vintage go up in half a day to 125 francs after Parker rated it 92 [20 ].
  • According to a 2005 economic analysis [21], Parker's scores would inflate the prices of already highly rated wines but, for the less good ones, it would not decrease their sales nor even increase their prices [22].

Whatever his influence, Parker alone cannot impact the market price for a wine if he is alone against the mainstream. The famous controversy around the Château Pavie 2003 is an example of this: despite Parker's positive ratings, the wine in bottle sold 30% cheaper than en primeur.[20 ]

Creation of new market segments

More than on prices, Parker has had a definite influence on the creation of garagistes wines.

Limits to Parker's influences

Parker is an avid fan of Bordeaux, and some of his critics observe that his world of wine is largely limited to France. However in recent years, he has taken on additional staff for The Wine Advocate which has enabled the publication to expand in such areas as Greek & Israeli wine. However there can be no question that Bordeaux, California & the wines of the Rhone are where his influence is mostly keenly felt.

Burgundy proved much more difficult to Parker than Bordeaux, in particular because of the Faiveley case. In the third edition of his Wine Buyer's Guide (1993), Parker reported rumours according to which "the Faiveley wines tasted abroad would be less rich than those one can taste on the spot [...]" [23]. In other words: Faiveley would be cheating. In February 1994, Parker was requested to appear in front of the Paris "tribunal de grande instance". Even though the case was settled outside court, it left a bitter taste, as a number of Burgundy wine makers supported Faiveley's defense against Parker. The latter never really managed to get into Burgundy: this is probably why he delegated this region to Pierre-Antoine Rovani as of April 1997.

Controversy

Parker has stated very clearly, both in The Wine Advocate and his books, the high ethical standards on which his advice stands: independence and impartiality constitute his two most important values. By abiding by them, Parker seeks to guarantee that his valuations will be pro-consumer and not pro-industry. McCoy, Agostini & Guichard allege several examples where Parker's independence and impartiality might be called into question:

  • McCoy mentions [24] a positive article written by Parker in the second issue of The Baltimore/Washington Wine Advocate on MacArthur Liquors and its manager Addy Bassin. However, in that article Parker does not mention that it was the same Addy Bassin who sold Parker the mailing list of customers who received the first issue of The Baltimore/Washington Wine Advocate.
  • In issue 164 of The Wine Advocate, Parker writes a long article on Jeffrey Davies, a wine trader based in Bordeaux. As Agostini and Guichard point out [25], what Parker did not mention was that he has tasted wines with Davies, not merely alone, as he has repeatedly stated an impartial wine critic should do. Davies advised Parker not to publish his comments on the 2004 Bordeaux in issue 164, as Parker had planned, because they would have suffered from their comparison with the much better 2003 and 2005. Parker followed Davies' advice and published those comments in the following issue.
  • The second issue of The Baltimore/Washington Wine Advocate informs the reader that "Robert Parker has no interest, direct or indirect, financial or any other, in importing, distributing or selling wines" [26]. This changed in the early nineties, when Parker invested with his brother-in-law in an Oregon vineyard: les "Beaux-Frères".[27] Robert Kacher is in charge of distributing half of the production of the Beaux-Frères vineyard. Parker does not assess the wines of this property for "obvious deontological reasons",[28] and promised in the The Wine Advocate never to review any wines produced there.[29]
  • It has been charged that two of Parker’s four tasting crews had or still have an interest in the distribution or the sale of wines. Until January 1, 2007, David Schnildknecht spent half of his time importing and distributing wines, and the other half critiquing wine for The Wine Advocate. Today he is a full-time critic for The Wine Advocate.[30] Kevin Zraly is the vice-president of Smith and Wollensky Restaurants, a group of 17 restaurants with an impressive list of wines on the menu.[31]
  • It has been pointed out that Robert Parker is godfather to Alain Raynaud's daughter, Marie.[32] Alain Raynaud is the co-owner of Château la Croix-de-Gay in Pomerol, former owner of Château Quinault in Saint-Émilion and was the President of the Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux (Bordeaux Great Growths Union) between 1994 and 2000.

In 2007 the Yale University professor, econometrician and lawyer Ian Ayres wrote about Robert Parker's conflict with Orley Ashenfelter (www.liquidasset.com) in his book Super Crunchers. Ashenfelter devised a formula for predicting wine quality based on weather data (rainfall, temperature), which has been vigorously opposed by Parker. Ayres points out in his book that "Both the wine dealers and writers have a vested interest in maintaining their informational monopoly on the quality of wine". Ayres goes on to point that Ashenfelter's predictions have proven to be remarkably accurate and (Ayres claims in his book) the wine critics' "predictions now correspond much more closely to his simple equation results".

Books

Parker has written eleven books on wine that have been best sellers in the United States and in translation in France, Japan, Germany, Sweden and Russia.

  • 1985 - Bordeaux (revised and expanded, 1991) Received the Glenfiddich Award as England's top wine book of 1986. The 1991 revised and expanded edition was the winner of the IACP Award (International Association of Cooking Professionals) as the top wine book of the year in 1992. The 1994 French language edition spent three months on France's "Best Seller" list. The German language edition won that country's top prize for books on wine and gastronomy, the "Goldene Feder."
  • 1987 - Parker's Wine Buyer's Guide (New editions were published in 1989, 1993, 1995, 1999 and 2002) In 1997/1998, Le Guide Parker (the French language edition) spent 27 weeks on France's "Best Seller" list. (ISBN 9780743271998, 7th edition, 2008)
  • 1987 - The Wines of the Rhône Valley and Provence Received the Tastemaker's Award in 1989 as the top wine book of the year published in the U.S. and The Wine Guild's Wine Book of the Year Award in The United Kingdom. ISBN 9780684800134
  • 1990 - Burgundy
  • 1997 - The Wines of the Rhone Valley, ISBN 9780684800134
  • 2005 - The World's Greatest Wine Estates, ISBN 9780743237710

Awards and recognition

Robert Parker is one of only a handful of foreigners to have received France's two highest Presidential honors and is the first wine critic to have received such recognitions in France and Italy.

See also

Sources

  • Agostini, Hanna and Guichard, Marie-Françoise (2007). Robert Parker, anatomie d'un mythe; portrait non autorisé du plus grand dégustateur de tous les temps (in French). Paris: Scala
  • Echikson, William (2004). Noble Rot. New York: Norton.  
  • Hadj Ali, Hela, Lecocq, Sébastien and Visser, Michael (2005). The impact of Gurus: Parker Grades and en Primeur Wine prices, study presented at the Royal Economic Society annual conference. Nottingham University, March 22, 2005
  • Hughes, Samuel. Taste: The wine advocate and his empire. Pennsylvania Gazette, October 25, 2005. [1]
  • McCoy, Elin (2005). The Emperor of Wine: the Rise of Robert M. Parker, Jr. and the Reign of American Taste. New York: HarperCollins.  
  • Prial, Frank J. (2001). Decantations: Reflections on Wine by the New York Times Wine Critic. New York: St. Martin's Grifin.  
Footnotes
  1. ^ Robert M. Parker, Jr.
  2. ^ a b Prial, Frank J. Decantations: Reflections on Wine by the New York Times Wine Critic. NY: St. Martin's Grifin, 2001.
  3. ^ Langewiesche, William (December 2000), ""The Million-Dollar Nose"", The Atlantic Monthly: 42–70, http://www.erobertparker.com/info/milliondollarnose.asp  
  4. ^ Colman, Tyler (October 2, 2009), ""Blind tasting is tough – tasting Bordeaux 2005 with Robert Parker"", Dr. Vino, http://www.drvino.com/2009/10/02/blind-tasting-bordeaux-2005-robert-parker/  
  5. ^ About Robert M. Parker, Jr.
  6. ^ Agostini & Guichard, pp. 54-58
  7. ^ Agostini & Guichard, p. 60
  8. ^ Agostini & Guichard, p. 61-5
  9. ^ Steinberger, Mike, The World of Fine Wine (March 2008). "Everyone a Critic. The Future of Wine Writing" (PDF). http://www.finewinemag.com/docs/SteinbergerWineWriting.pdf.  
  10. ^ Robert M. Parker, Jr. The Wine Advocate Rating System. eRobertParker.com. http://dat.erobertparker.com/info/legend.asp
  11. ^ Robert M. Parker, Jr., Bordeaux (2005), French version, p. 1184
  12. ^ ""The lone wolf: A conversation with wine critic Robert Parker"", Naples News, January 25, 2007, http://www.naplesnews.com/news/2007/jan/25/wine_festival_lone_wolf/?wine_festival  
  13. ^ Gazette | All Things Ornamental: The Arts
  14. ^ Agostini and Guichard, (2007), pages 195-6.
  15. ^ Taber, George M. Judgment of Paris: California vs France and the Historic 1976 Paris Tasting that Revolutionized Wine. NY: Scribner, 2005.
  16. ^ "Wine competition pits France v US". BBC News. 2006-05-25. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/5013910.stm. Retrieved 2007-12-18.  
  17. ^ Langewiesche, William (December 2000), ""The Million-Dollar Nose"", The Atlantic Monthly: 42–70, http://www.erobertparker.com/info/milliondollarnose4.asp  
  18. ^ a b McCoy, pages 159-160.
  19. ^ McCoy, Elin (2005)
  20. ^ a b Agostini, Guichard (2007), p. 185
  21. ^ Hadj Ali, Lecocq, Visser (2005)
  22. ^ Agostini, Guichard (2007), p. 186
  23. ^ Agostini and Guichard (2007), page 209, translated from French: "[...] les vins de Faiveley dégustés à l'étranger sont moins riches que ceux que l'on peut goûter sur place [...]"
  24. ^ McCoy (2005), p. 73
  25. ^ Agostini and Guichard (2007), pages 82-3
  26. ^ Agostini and Guichard, page 80. Translated from French: Robert Parker n’a pas d’intérêt, direct ou indirect, financier ou autre, dans l’importation, la distribution et la vente de vins.
  27. ^ "Beaux-frères" means "brothers-in-law" in French
  28. ^ The Wine Advocate's standard introductory paragraph
  29. ^ Elson, John. TimeThe Man with a Paragon Palate (December 14, 1987)
  30. ^ Agostini and Guichard (2007) page 84
  31. ^ Agostini and Guichard (2007), page 85
  32. ^ McCoy (2005), page 155

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