The Emperor of Wine. The Rise of Robert M. Parker, Jr. and the Reign of American Taste
Ecco, New York, 2005, 352 pp.
Reviewer: Mark Heil
Few, if any, personalities can rival the dominance exerted by Robert M. Parker, Jr. in his field today. Like Tiger Woods and Bill Gates, he occupies the rarefied air of the modern superstar. Superstardom has its price, however. His many accolades notwithstanding, his work has been punctuated over the years by outraged winemakers, defamation lawsuits, canine attacks, and even death threats.
Elin McCoy, a long-time wine writer and editor of Food and Wine magazine, skillfully weaves these and other tales into the first biography of the man who’s career has been defined by all things vinous. Her thoroughly researched account includes many interviews with subjects spanning the chain from wine producers to final consumers, including Parker himself. The result is a highly informative book that reads like a novel.
While Parker remains the central figure, the story is embedded within the context of a global wine revolution. It is marked by the emergence of robust consumer and producer markets in the U.S., growing importance of New World production, and the relative decline of French consumption and production. As the author tells it, the long arm of Parker’s influence may not have spawned the revolution, but it propelled and helped shape it into what it is today.
The book makes two main contributions. It outlines the developmental path that led to Parker’s career in wine, and it marks the many ways his power has impacted the field.
Wine enthusiasts know that Parker is a towering figure and often a polarizing one. Few lack an opinion (often strong ones) about the man. Yet, the author does an admirable job in treating her subject even-handedly. Her approach is to let the facts and experiences of others tell the tale.
While not deeply psychological, the portrait lends readers useful insights about the development, motivations, and self-image of her subject. Raised in small town Maryland, he became the first from his family to earn a professional degree. As with many American families in the 1950s and 1960s, Parker grew up with soft drinks – not wine – at the dinner table. His first real exposure to wines came as a college student, when he followed his sweetheart (now wife) to France on vacation. This experience sprung his passion for wines, and he quickly immersed himself through extensive reading, forming tasting groups, and taking wine vacations. This process improved his knowledge and educated his palate.
Then in 1977, while working as a lawyer, he made a life-altering decision to launch a wine newsletter, the Baltimore-Washington Wine Advocate (later, the regional focus was dropped). The newsletter became a platform for wine reviews and his philosophy on wines, and contrasted with wine writers of the day with its energetic, unvarnished wine descriptions. Influenced by Ralph Nader, he saw himself as a consumer advocate for wine drinkers. At the time, it was common for wine critics to receive free wines, lavish dinners, travel packages, and payment from winemakers and distributors – a clear conflict of interest. Parker saw himself as offering a fresh perspective, unencumbered by commercial obligations, and a promise to “call them like I see them.” He has never accepted gifts or compensation from vested interests. While he has his share of detractors, few question his objectivity and outspoken willingness to declare his impressions of wines.
An early defining moment came with Parker’s reviews of the 1982 Bordeaux vintage. Still a lawyer, he had not yet found widespread acclaim as a wine critic. Numerous American and European wine writers were more popular and successful. Upon returning home from barrel tastings in Bordeaux in early 1983, Parker could scarcely contain his enthusiasm for what we saw as one of the greatest vintages in memory. His gushing assessment of the vintage in the newsletter urged consumers to buy as much as they could afford of what he called “wines destined for greatness.” The established wine writers were more reserved – the vintage would be a good one, but lacked the sophistication of 1981 and may not be age-worthy. Parker was floored at hearing these critiques, and thought that “they don’t know what they’re talking about.” As he continued to extol the ‘82s, often with vividly descriptive, almost over-the-top exuberance, he gained the attention of American wine distributors, merchants, and consumers. Retailers in particular realized that his reviews pumped up the interest of American consumers, which was very good for business. His direct style and 100-point rating scale made wines accessible to the masses that previously ignored them, thereby expanding the market. In essence, Parker put his reputation on the line with the 1982 vintage, which in retrospect, has attained greatness, as has its biggest supporter. The missed call of the same vintage by other wine writers, most notably Robert Finigan, marked the beginning of their decline. The vintage won him enough readers that by 1984, he retired from law in order to devote his full energy to wine writing.
The second key contribution of the book is its discussion of his impact on the wine world. This topic is controversial. His supporters claim Parker has wielded profoundly favorable effects on the quality of wine production worldwide, on the growth of the American wine market, and on the pleasurable enjoyment of wine consumption everywhere.
He long has railed against the use of underripe grapes that can result in excessively acidic and vegetal wines, and against filtration of wines that may strip away flavor and character. His penchant for exposing underperforming wineries has likely forced greater accountability; producers can no longer rely on their reputations and expect continued success. By most accounts, the rising quality of wine is attributable in part to these efforts.
Likewise, the American market for wines has grown rapidly during Parker’s reign. This surely has many roots, including his influence. While his predecessors wrote in restrained, somewhat stuffy styles, his colloquial, excitable reviews and simple scoring system welcomed newcomers to the wine experience. McCoy points out that his “muscular” lexicon, using terms as “massive”, “aggressive”, “potent”, and “prodigious”, may have the effect of making wine consumption more acceptable to American men, who may previously have viewed it as an effete practice. And Parker consistently has emphasized that wine should be a pleasurable sensory experience, which heightens its appeal to average consumers.
His opponents see his influence as more pernicious. They charge that Parker has simply grown too influential, such that his opinions hold excessive sway over the entire global wine trade. His disapproval or ignorance of a wine, a region, or a vintage can severely depress sales, and translate into millions in lost revenues. Conversely, his raves and 90+ scores for newly “discovered” wines, can transform a struggling operation into an overnight sensation. Distributors and retailers jockey to obtain the limited supply of anointed wines, knowing that favorable Parker reviews dramatically boost sales and revenues. Leading auction houses as Christie’s indicate that Parker’s ratings directly affect prices, and essentially are the only ones that matter.Upon publication, his reviews consistently sway markets in New York, Paris, and Tokyo. This power has earned him the derisive nickname Wine Dictator.
Part of the critique maintains that Parker’s outsized influence results in a homogenization of wine styles. It is widely acknowledged (including by Parker himself) that his tastes favor the bold, fruity, and concentrated wines that have proliferated in the last 20 years or so. Winemakers seeking to appease a market defined largely by Parker increasingly are shaping their wines (“Parkerizing” them) to suit his tastes, in hopes of earning a high score to propel sales. Even a growing number of vintners in tradition-steeped regions as Bordeaux and the Piedmont are playing the game. Those who resist the tide may see their market shares decline and their survival endangered. The 2004 film “Mondovino” poignantly captured this dynamic and deplored the loss of diversity of wine styles. Wines that show finesse and terroir – a unique reflection of the soil, the sun, the weather, and legacy of the particular place where the grapes are grown – are waning as legions of wine drinkers seek jammy, hedonistic blockbusters.
For these and other reasons, the French in particular have a love-hate relationship with Parker. Many French wine insiders tend to be the most vehement of Parker-bashers. Yet he is also revered as an avid promoter and lover of great French wines and estates. This latter point was fully acknowledged when President Francois Mitterrand awarded the nation’s greatest prize, the Legion of Honor, to Parker in 1999. This relationship with the French highlights the complexity of capturing the full reality of the Parker phenomenon.
In many instances, it would have been helpful to include footnotes to document assertions made by the author. From an economist’s perspective, more complete analytic evidence of Parker’s market power would have been more satisfying, as McCoy’s statements on that topic are anecdotal in nature. Research on the subject would be a welcome addition to future editions of this journal. One, perhaps inadvertent, feature of Parker’s 100point scale is that it readily lends itself to quantitative analysis of wines and vintages. This quantification of “sensory” wine characteristics contrasts with the assessment of “objective” ones (e.g., vintage, weather, appellations, etc.), yet it is likely that both types of information can help explain the dynamics of wine markets. In some cases, objective characteristics have shown remarkable explanatory power, including predicting vintage quality in Bordeaux (see Ashenfelter’s Working Paper on the AAWE’s website). Other work highlights Parker’s scores’ (sensory data) direct influence on the price of wine futures (see the Working Paper by Ali et al. on the AAWE’s website).
All told, The Emperor of Wine paints a rich picture while avoiding an academic style in order to appeal to a broad readership. It represents an important new treatise in the field. Any wine lover would benefit from reading it, and should enhance the experience by savoring a favorite bottle to aid in contemplation of the man who changed the course of the modern wine world.
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)1
1) The views expressed in this review are my own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the EPA.