Robert Parker has been the most influential man in the wine industry for over 30 years, and in this exclusive interview with db, he pulls no punches when it comes to Bordeaux, blind tasting and perfect scores.
People with power always attract criticism. Be they political leaders, celebrities, or any high-profile personality, their influence invites comment, particularly the negative sort, and especially in Britain. So it’s no surprise that Robert Parker, undoubtedly the world’s most influential wine writer, should be scrutinised for his every remark, note or score. Nevertheless, there’s an inexplicable undercurrent of derision for a man who has done nothing more controversial for the last 37 years than review wines. What, exactly, has Parker done wrong?
Having read his work over the years, it is easy to poke fun at the “crushed rocks”, “burnt embers” and “boysenberries” that appear in his tasting notes, but strangely, his descriptions do make one want to drink his favoured wines – much more effectively than the austere structural analysis promoted in wine education manuals.
As for scoring wines like figure skating, whatever your view on giving a numerical rating to a beverage, Parker is far from alone in this endeavour, although he is the pioneer of the 100-point system. While he has always stressed that his scores should be allied to the descriptions, even where they are reproduced in isolation, they prove a useful touchstone for quality.
Then there’s his influence on winemaking. Among his detractors, Parker has invoked a globally standardised, overripe style as cellar-masters “Parkerise” their produce to appeal to his palate, which supposedly likes only luscious, alcoholic reds. But, if anything, the wine world after almost 40 years of Parker is more diverse and stylistically varied than before, while the make-or-break power of his reviews has accelerated advancements in quality, particularly in the classic fine wine regions that attract his focus. Unfortunately, with this, he laments, have come significant price rises.
Finally, one should consider Parker’s personality. He is not flamboyant, combative, or condescending, and prefers to shun the limelight. Descriptions that more readily come to mind among those who know him well are generous, humble, and pleasingly hedonistic. Such is the freedom he gives his employees, one could add trusting to this list of attributes, and possibly a little naïve: a trait highlighted in 2011 when it emerged that The Wine Advocate reviewer Jay Miller had allegedly received money for winery visits.
Parker may be studious and articulate, but he’s not the product of a highbrow academic background – indeed, he freely admits he comes from a farming family that never drank wine.
He’s also rich, having sold a majority stake in his publication and website, The Wine Advocate, for a reputed US$15 million (HK$116m) in 2012 to a Singapore-based investor.
The Wine Advocate reviewers: (left to right) Stephan Reinhardt, Monica Larner, Jeb Dunnuck, Lisa Perrotti-Brown MW, Robert Parker, Neal Martin, Mark Squires, Luis Gutierrez
In essence, Parker has achieved something unusual. He has remained fiercely independent and made a fortune out of wine. But Parker is also 67 years old, overweight, and reliant on walking sticks while he recovers from recent back surgery. He says his liver is in good condition, and mentally he appears as alert as ever, but it’s clear his body is causing him pain.
Such physical constraints are doubtless one reason why Parker announced in February this year his decision to give up reviewing Bordeaux en primeur after 37 years. He is handing over the “huge responsibility”, and “exhausting job” to the UK’s Neal Martin, although Parker will continue to score the region’s wines in bottle. This decision followed his move in 2013 to pass on the Rhône, his most treasured area, to Jeb Dunnuck, whom Parker describes as a young version of himself. Indeed, since hiring his first assistant in 1996, Parker has gradually farmed out responsibility, appearing to enjoy bringing little-known talent out of the wine world’s woodwork. And speaking at a press conference in February to talk through the changes at The Wine Advocate, he warmly described the publication’s seven reviewers as “very independent-minded, very knowledgeable, and very gifted.”
He also stressed that he is not retiring. Aside from retaining his tastings of Bordeaux in bottle, he will continue to assess Napa – which is still a six hour commute by plane from his home in Maryland. “I’m either going to die on the road or keel over somewhere,” he said, adding, “I love tasting. However much you learn, you are always a student.”
Looking back, Parker admits he’s been lucky. He trained as a lawyer and discovered wine in the ‘60s while studying in France – “it was cheaper than Coca-Cola” – which encouraged him to start The Wine Advocate in 1978. “I came along at the right time, at the right place – within five years of starting The Wine Advocate the ‘82 [Bordeaux] vintage came along.” While a number of writers panned the harvest, ending their careers, Parker, who picked up on its quality, made his.
So, to turn to the original question, what has Parker done wrong? He’s been lucky and made money, both things that undoubtedly elicit envy, but beyond that, there’s little to suggest this reviewer has had an adverse effect on the world of wine – let alone an urge to deliberately damage the trade.
Nevertheless, you can judge him for yourself based on his responses to our questions below.