Larger than life: Profiling Parker
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.
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.
You’ve been reviewing wine since the early ‘70s; have your tastes changed?
I don’t think my taste has changed. I’ve always looked for balance, which is very important, and I want wine to have character, some sort of magnetic pulling power so it pulls me back to the glass. People say, “Parker just likes big, bombastic, intense wines”, which is not true. Yes, some of those I do like, but I give plenty of good reviews to elegant wines that rarely do I get given as much credit for. But, basically I have been very consistent in my palate and one of the strengths in my career is that I have been very consistent… I know what I’m looking for and I’ve stuck to that very strictly over 37 years.
Can you provide examples of elegant wines you rate highly?
Well I’m best known for Bordeaux, which tends to be a relatively elegant wine, certainly if you compare it to Barossa Shiraz, Napa Valley Cabernet, or Malbec from Argentina. Bordeaux tends to have a lower alcohol level, even though over the 37 years I’ve done it the level has gone up from 12.5-13% to 13.5-14%. Also, there’s Burgundy. I’m not considered an expert in Burgundy, but I actually worked in Burgundy for a month every year between 1978 to 1993, until I spilled too much blood and left [Parker was sued for libel by the region’s Domaine Faiveley]. Then there’s the entire gamut of Loire valley white wines, and German Riesling, Austrian wines. I love them all.
And what have been the surprises?
I think the quality of Argentine Malbec, Chilean Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay – and Carmenère has been surprising. When I started no-one had heard of Carmenère, and even 10 years later they still hadn’t. It was a grape that did not flourish in Bordeaux, much like Malbec, so that is surprising. There has also been a proliferation of regions that were completely unheard of. For example, when I started the only thing really known [in the US] from Spain was Rioja. Even Vega Sicilia was relatively unknown, and now appellations like Toro, Jumilla, Priorat… these are terrific areas with old vines. Or Italy, from Rome south, through to Sicily, and southern France through Languedoc-Roussillon to Corsica – there have been revelations in terms of the quality that has emerged from those areas. I’ve seen, especially in Spain, the transformation from a co-op mentality based on treating a vineyard like an industrial plant to more estate-grounded concepts where quality is important.
If you were starting The Wine Advocate today would you choose the same places to specialise in?
For any young up-and-coming writer, it’s like literature, you have to understand the classics. You can’t appreciate how good, for example, Argentine Malbec is or Spanish Tempranillo unless you understand the best Bordeaux, or the best Pinots from Burgundy, or best Champagnes, best Nebbiolos, best Sangioveses. I do think a grounding in the classics, and an understanding of why these regions became famous and why they are still renowned and cherished among so many wine lovers, is essential to understanding the new emerging regions. So for any aspiring wine critic you still have to start with the classics. But it’s a great time to be to be in the wine business. I started because I loved wine, but I realised looking back how tiny the wine world was. I thought I could cover it for myself, and I didn’t do a bad job for a while, but it has expanded so dramatically that today specialisation is the way to go. But if you are going to specialise in Burgundy you should at least have a feel for what, for example, Bordeaux, Napa or Australia is about.
But aren’t the great wines becoming too expensive for aspiring wine critics to taste?
This is a very legitimate problem and a concern. I remember when friends and I had a tasting group and we went out and bought a 1957 Lafite-Rothschild for US$25 (HK$194). That for us was an enormous amount of money, but today even if you bought an off-vintage of Lafite-Rothschild, it would probably cost you $200-300 (HK$1550-2325). I think this is a problem; it means a lot of people are shut out because basically we have a caste system of wine. The really desirable high-end wines, whether they are Burgundy or Bordeaux, or Californian wines, have become so expensive that people just can’t afford them so they look elsewhere. This is having a negative effect on the younger generation, and I think this is why we are seeing more and more interest in boutique and craft beers and spirits in the USA. I enjoy tasting some of these boutique beers because they are really good, and well-made, and you can buy a 4-pack of high-end, highly rated beer for $15-20, and you are still in the budget category for wine at that price. So there is no question that wine prices are way too high and I think Bordeaux has to have a reckoning soon about their pricing. Burgundy is a bit different. Bordeaux is big properties, with a large production. In Burgundy, with premier or grand cru then you are talking about 200 cases per producer. They don’t have enough wine. But I do agree that it’s a major problem. And you could segue from that problem to the fact that restaurants apply such incredibly high mark ups that they are making wine look like an elitist beverage, when really it’s not. Wine is a fungible, consumable product; it is meant to be consumed and not to be admired and squirreled away in some museum-like wine cellar.
And what about your role in such price appreciation?
Of course, I’m part of the problem by giving high scores, but the point is you have to review the wines and you have to review the great wines. You just hope that by praising the best wines it encourages others to aspire to make great wines, and maybe get a better price without creating an extravagant, overpriced wine.
What do you mean when you say ‘Bordeaux needs to have a reckoning’?
Well, I have been going there since 1979 and 1982 en primeur was the threshold event in my life. But the point is you could buy futures of 1982 in 1983 at remarkably fair prices. And by the time they came onto the market they were at a higher price. And that [price appreciation] continued for two to three to four years. But then the châteaux started raising the prices higher and higher, so you were being asked to pay prices for unbottled wines two years before you received them – prices that will essentially be the same when they come out. And they could actually even drop. We’ve seen this trend for the last 20 years. I always told the Bordelais that I have no problem if you are going to charge an extraordinary price for a great vintage – we know 2005s, 2009s, 2010s are great – but when you have a so-so vintage, this is when you can really build market share, and they have lost market share. They’ve lost consumers and restaurants. You go to an American restaurant now and there is very little Bordeaux on the list. 2011 was a mediocre vintage that was overpriced, 2012 was a little bit better vintage that was still overpriced, 2013 was generally a poor vintage and was overpriced, and now we have 2014, and I think they recognise they have a backlog of unsold Bordeaux. I think the en primeur market, except in a great, great vintage, is largely moribund, largely dead, for now. If prices would drop 20-30% across the board, then I think interest would be rekindled, but they won’t like to hear that.
People refer to wines as “Parkerised” – how does it feel to be a verb?
It’s amusing. There’s part of it that’s gratifying, and there’s a part that sees people judging your work without reading your books or your publications, judging you in emotional black-and-white terms – “Either you like him or you don’t like him”, “He’s too powerful”, and so on. I see it as part of the territory. And Parkerised, the general meaning of it is negative in connotation. My daughter certainly laughed at it, but there was a cartoon book done on me, called The Seven Heady Sins of Robert Parker, and it was well done, and actually quite amusing, but I ended up being found guilty of all seven and sentenced to drink Riesling for the rest of my life.
You’ve said in the past that they build you up so they can bring you down. Is that true?
That’s true with anybody. That’s part of the culture in any country. First you are a discovery, then you’re a young buck and you’re doing something different, and you’re passionate, energised, then you have a lot of success, and then people start to say you are overrated, that you have too much influence, and then they start to pigeon-hole your taste. I totally agree with that. I do the same thing with people. For instance I make my own conclusions about Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie and yet I’ve never met them.
Are you frustrated that the châteaux-owners have consistently increased their release prices, ignoring your advice that they should raise them only in “great” vintages?
From the very beginning I’ve been a wine consumer, independent of the wine trade, and I’ve always said that in order to succeed in this business you have to have a long-term vision. It’s sad that I’ve beaten these themes into so many people that I know well, that I consider professionals and acquaintances. I have enormous respect and admiration for what they achieve in the vineyards and wineries, and yet when it comes to pricing their wine they totally ignore that. They certainly recognise that I’m a person who travels the world, and understands the Chinese market, the Japanese market, the Korean, European, American market, a person who has a perspective that has been gained through 37 years, and yet they dismiss that because they don’t want to sell their wine at a few euros less, or half a euro less than their neighbour. That doesn’t make sense, but they’ve been doing it, and the chickens are going to come to roost unless they really drop prices in 2014.
Considering your influence, you must have been offered many bribes over the years, but what’s been the most extreme?
No-one has ever blatantly asked for high scores, but early on in my career I had a guy come down and offer me an antique Napoleonic music box, but I don’t want to mention who that was. But more often, you are at the château, and a young woman is sent over, and they seem overtly flirtatious, and they know nothing about wine, so what conclusion are you supposed to reach?
And what about threats?
I had death threats. I had an answering machine in the office, and from September to early November 1990 I had 10 different messages with death threats. I called the authorities and they put a trap on the phone and they traced it to a retailer in New York where there was this guy who was mad at me because he had underpriced the ‘82s.
In terms of scoring, what’s the difference between a very high score and a perfect 100-point score?
To me the difference is the emotions of the moment – the wine must evoke emotion – just like art or music or beauty, there should be an emotional response, and great wines should be emotional. And when the wine in your mind is the best example you have ever tasted of this particular wine, you have an obligation to give it a perfect score. Now, with more experience I felt more confident [giving perfect scores] more frequently, because once you’ve tasted across the field of play multiple times, year after year, you have a sort of encyclopaedic memory of what great wines are and how good this wine is. I realise that when you give 100 points, whether you are a movie or theatre or restaurant critic, the expectations of the readers are almost impossible to fulfil – you are almost setting them up for disappointment; I understand that. But, at the same time, I balance that out with the sense that if I really think this is best I’ve ever tasted of Pichon-Lalande for example, or Chevalier-Montrachet from somebody, then I’ve got to put that stake in the ground and be held accountable. I also think it creates it excitement, and I think that the person who can’t give 100 is really dodging responsibility, because there’s no way they haven’t tasted a wine that is the best example they have tasted from this producer, the best example they could ever think of. I think it’s irresponsible not to give a perfect score if you think the wine is perfect.
Are you ever disappointed by your own perfect scoring wines?
You mean how often do I go back and re-taste a wine that I gave 100 points and repeat the score? Probably about 50% of the time, but most of the time – and there have been a few exceptions – I can understand why I did see it as perfect at that time.
Are you planning to retire any time soon?
Well, Neal Martin was hired for taking over tasting en primeur Bordeaux. He’s a young guy, but he’s got 18 years experience [tasting en primeur], but no I’m not retiring; I think retirement is a formula for death. I can’t imagine stepping out of the wine world completely. The key at my age is to pick and choose what you want to do. So I’m going to continue to do Bordeaux from bottle, and I’m going to continue to do northern California, and vertical tastings, and whatever I want to write about, and I think that’s a more manageable, but there’s no question that stepping away from en primeur is a huge transfer of responsibility and authority.
Considering how much you love the wines from Rhône, why did you give up reviewing the region?
The reason is Jeb Dunnuck. He is a young Robert Parker. He is energetic, we have very similar palates, and I think he’s a natural. If he hadn’t been out there – he already had a publication called The Rhône Report that he was doing even though he was a programmer for NASA – I probably would have kept it because I do love the Rhône and I still love the Rhône. So yes I miss it, but when I read Jeb it’s like I’m reading myself.
You must have regrets from your career. What are they?
Sure there are always regrets, and I think the biggest mistake was when I was younger and doing Burgundy that I was too belligerent and aggressive with the Burgundians. I stepped on too many toes. I wasn’t trying to get them to change the way they made wine but to recognize some of the issues with their wines once they left Burgundy, for example, why weren’t they shipped in refrigerated containers? Or why did they have mobile bottling plants that were filtering the hell out of the wines – why weren’t they using less bruising techniques? But I’ve learned through age that we all can make those points much more diplomatically. I made them way too bluntly, aggressively, and was often probably rude, and I think part of the problem was that my French – which is very good now – at that time was sort of basic travel French, and I think when you talk to someone with just an elementary knowledge of a language then you can’t express subtleties or nuances. So my very blunt, direct French wasn’t well received, and of course the fact that it was coming from an American made it even worse.
What’s your view of blind tasting? Is it a better way of assessing wines?
I’ve done blind tasting, but now most of the tasting I do is not done blind. Certainly people who make a big deal of it say that if you can’t judge what’s in the bottle disregarding rarity, pedigree, history, price – all those wonderful things – then you shouldn’t be doing it. I do blind follow-up tastings, just to correlate what I was tasting, and I’ve never really seen any discrepancies. Of course you are going to miss wines all the time, and yes I’ve been humiliated. But I don’t think blind tasting leads to better critiquing of the wines; I don’t think it leads to worse. But I question, though, if you are going to barrel taste, how are you going to blind taste? Most of the first growths or “Super Seconds” require you to be there, they are not going to send samples, so how are you going to handle that? It already sets up an arbitrary prejudicial system to those ones that will let you taste them blind.
And finally, if you were tasked with saving one bottle from your collection, what would it be?
Either it would be a 1961 Hermitage La Chapelle from Jaboulet or it would be a 1947 – my birth year – Château Lafleur from Pomerol. And the sad thing is that I can’t afford them now anyway.
Biography: Robert Parker
Auspiciously born in one of the most revered Bordeaux vintages in recent history, 1947, before entering the wine world Robert M. Parker Jr worked for a decade as an attorney in Baltimore, leaving law in 1984 to become a full-time wine writer. His passion for wine was ignited in the late ‘60s during a visit to Alsace, which spurred him to produce his own consumer wine guide. The first issue of The Wine Advocate was sent out in 1978 free of charge to fewer than 600 people from mailing lists bought from major wine retailers. Today, TWA has over 50,000 subscribers in 37 countries. Described in a 1999 LA Times profile piece as “the most powerful critic of any kind, anywhere,” Parker made an early call on the 1982 vintage, which did much to propel him into the limelight as the go-to Bordeaux critic. Having become popular for his 100-point scale, which is still slavishly followed, during the ‘90s and early noughties his influence over the wine world was so great, certain winemakers were accused of making wines to deliberately suit his palate, which is believed to favour bold, rich, ripe flavours. In 2001 Parker’s nose and palate were allegedly insured for US$1m. In late 2012, he sold a major stake in TWA to Singaporean investor Soo Hoo Khoon Peng for a reported US$15m (HK$116m) and stepped down as editor-in-chief, appointing Lisa Perrotti-Brown MW as his successor. Parker handed over assessing Bordeaux en primeur to Neal Martin in February this year, but continues to cover Bordeaux in bottle and northern California for TWA and erobertparker.com. He lives in Maryland with his wife Patricia, daughter Maia, and troop of basset hounds and English bulldogs.