After Parker: Wine in the ‘Age of Re-Discovery’

With Robert Parker officially hanging up his quill last year, Roger Morris asks if predictions about the critical landscape in his absence have come to pass – or if something else has instead.

Over the past few years, American sports fans have become obsessed with the acronym GOAT – the ‘Greatest of All Time’ – and argue about who that athlete is for each sport.

Basketball? Michael Jordan was long considered to be a shoo-in as The Goat, but lately it looks like LeBron James might block his shot at immortality. Golf is a tough one – Jack Nicklaus or Tiger Woods? Tom Brady, still active, wins hands down when it comes to The Goat of American football quarterbacks. In professional tennis, three 30-something guys are still out there on the court, volleying for the honour.

Among serious and amateur wine collectors, sommeliers and beverage managers, winery owners and wine sellers, there is no doubt that the recently retired Robert Parker Jr. is “The Goat” when it comes to wine criticism. His presence could suck the air out of any cellar.

Wine lovers born after 1985 missed out on the flourishing fine wine scene during the 1990’s, a time when Parker was at his most dominant and when a Parker score in the high 90s could mean instant financial success for a winery. At that time, French consultant Michel Rolland was seen as Parker’s ‘whisperer’, the one person who understood the critic’s taste and could thus coax wineries he consulted to achieve great scores. I recall the two men, at the height of their collective influence, deep in conversation as they hurried off to address a packed symposium at Vinexpo Americas in New York in 2002. “All the wineries, not only where I consulted, were looking for scores,” Rolland wrote to me recently, agreeing that, “Maybe a few I worked with had been more successful at this time.”

Yet when Parker announced in May 2019 that he had written his last review, was he going out with a bang or a whimper? It’s a question worth pondering – in fact, a question that raises a series of questions and observations. Among them:

A generation of prominent wine critics in America and Europe is vanishing. “The question is not only Parker, but my generation of critics, all of whom more or less agreed on what make great wine – extract, alcohol, oak, etcetera,” says Steve Heimoff, himself a retired wine critic at Wine Enthusiast. “These people are retiring or dying off. Will they bring their tastes with them?” Indeed, future historians of the wine industry may end up calling the period between 1980 and 2010 as one representing ‘The Rise & Fall of the Wine Critic’.

Not only are these wine oracles fading away, so are their traditional forums. “It’s becoming more difficult for wine journals to stay afloat, particularly those with the model of not selling advertising,” says Allen Meadows, editor of Burghound. “At the same time, generalist publications are struggling as well, because it’s hard to provide serious in-depth coverage of many deserving wine regions that serious collectors want.”

Instead, wine criticism today is like the Tower of Babel – many people are talking, but fewer may be listening. Twenty years ago, there was a handful of serious wine critics, those writing for daily newspapers or a few specialty publications that covered wine. Today, anyone can be a wine blogger, and literally hundreds are. But few bloggers have very large audiences, and fewer still can move that audience to buy. Even those with a following find it difficult to actually make money as a blogger.

Allen Meadows is an anomaly and is likely to remain so. In November 2011, just after Parker announced he was cutting back on his reviewing, not yet retiring, I surveyed several people in the wine trade for an article in this publication about what the future would look like “after Parker”. One hypothesis was that regional gurus might emerge as Meadows had for Burgundy with Burghound. It hasn’t happened. No similar authoritative voice has risen to speak for Bordeaux, Napa Valley, Champagne or the Rhône.

Why is that? “It’s important to point out that my model isn’t really replicable beyond a few wine regions,” Meadows says. “There remains very strong interest in both Burgundies and Pinot Noirs. Part of this is the fact that I offer the most in-depth coverage of these two sectors than any other journal, and part of it is that many of the upper level wines have become so expensive that most collectors believe that they need quality advice. As one subscriber put it, ‘Without your reviews, I feel as though I’m going to a gun fight with a knife!’”

While there are few entry barriers for young critics, he says, “there are very few who have the breadth of experience to offer quality advice,” explaining, “the conundrum lies in exploring how does a would-be critic obtain the necessary perspective when so few young writers have the wherewithal, or contacts, to taste mature examples of the greatest wines?”

Before we concede there will never be another Robert Parker, natural law may beg to differ. Heimoff muses about a phenomenon often seen in business. “On the one hand, we see the fracturing of wine criticism with many different viewpoints,” he says, “[but], on the other hand, there seems to be a natural tendency for consolidation.” In other words, if there is too large a void, something – or someone – will fill it.

Points still count in varying degrees. New York-based Arvid Rosegren, who won the Best Sommelier in the World 2016 competition, says: “I don’t think anyone [in the wine trade] would outright say they don’t buy wines that have scored high, but I’m certain that a vast majority of today’s serious buyers would say that they don’t pay attention to scores. In general, when I started out in the business, guests would often ask about the scores of wines, or order by looking at cheat sheets. That never happens anymore.”

Phil Bernstein, general manager at MacArthur Beverages in Washington, D.C., agrees – sort of. “People don’t pay as much attention to scores as they once did,” he says, “except when the Wine Spectator’s Top 100 comes out. With shelf talkers, points are still the easiest way to sell.” Rolland says that points are still important to his clientele, but now there is confusion on the playing field. “So today, there are a lot of consultants, a lot of new critics with their own tastes, obviously different, and the poor châteaux are looking to seduce all – mission impossible!” he says. Jamie Ritchie, head of Sotheby’s global wine business, concludes: “Points are no longer driving sales, but they are still a factor,”

After going through a lost generation, wine merchants are regaining their historic status. Before Parker and before other independent critics, wine writing after World War II was the province of experts in the wine trade, people who had the opportunity to taste a wide variety of wines and meet with winemakers – Lichine, Bespaloff, Simon, Schoonmaker, Broadbent, Wildman, Waugh. Today, younger aficionados are again giving attention to the palates and expertise of people who sell wine – sommeliers and wine shop personnel. “The role of the wine merchant that was absconded is coming back,” Richie says. “Young customers want our recommendations,” Bernstein agrees, “although they may then look at their phones for the crowd reactions.”

As long as there is testosterone, and people still drink wine, there will be collectors. Most wine collectors have always tended to be white-collar men who have reached ‘an age’ where they have disposal income yet are still young enough to be hyper-competitive with their male peers.

Wine Access, an American online, direct-to-consumer wine retailer with a half-million members, reports that its orders from Gen X customers (currently 37-52 in age) on average was 13% higher in dollars over the past two-year period than Baby Boomers (53-71) or Millennials (21-36). And guess what? Xers are considerably more likely to buy Cabernet Sauvignon, especially from Bordeaux, the historic bedrock for collectors, than Millennials. “Gen Xers are more likely to make purchases based on their established tastes,” says Wine Access’ Vanessa Conlin, “while Millennials tend to buy in correlation with industry trends.” Baby Boomers, it appears, are smart enough and frugal enough not to continuing buying wines which will outlive them.

Authenticity is important – but does anyone know what it means? “Our customers are passionate about authenticity and creativity,” says Shannon Coursey, SVP and national sales manager for American importer-distributor Wilson Daniels. Others echo this customer desire. Yet who can define why one wine is ‘authentic’ and another is not, or what makes a wine ‘natural’? People who demand authenticity are a bit like the American Supreme Court judge who admitted he could not define pornography, “but I know it when I see it.”

Social media is just the latest iteration of peer influence. Wine lovers today are influenced by the same people their parents were – friends, acquaintances and experts whose taste they trusted. The only difference is today there are more voices, and they are heard through a different medium.

The new generation is different, but not radically so. “The younger demographic is growing, and it may not have the patience to wait for wines to mature as did older generations,” Ritchie says. “And they are more adventuresome in their consumption.” But, he notes, they generally find their way eventually back to the classic regions. “France leads the way, especially with Champagne and the Rhône.”

Bernstein says his shop still sells Bordeaux futures, which many merchants abandoned some time ago, “but people are buying bottles now, not cases.”

Producers who have earned respect the hard way still dominate the fine wine market. As Ritchie points out: “People are now paying more attention to the producer and the vintage than just the region.” William Davis is director of education for Wilson Daniels, which represents such stalwarts as Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, Biondi Santi and Royal Tokaji, not surprisingly agrees. “The most powerful indicators of greatness are consistency in excellence combined with historical importance in a respective appellation or wine style.” Post-Parker, there will most likely be fewer overnight winery legends.

The trade continues to hail Caesar, even after he’s gone. Although many people in the wine business vehemently disagreed with his palate, most are willing to concede Parker’s contributions. “Parker’s also been an easy target,” says Rosengren. “Did he have too much influence? Yes, but he’s not to blame for that, and I respect what he built from scratch. A lot of wine growers, if not whole regions, owe a lot to him.”

I asked Rolland: Do you and Parker still keep in touch, perhaps reliving old times? “Not at all,” he replied.

So what will we call this new age of wine? Physicians will tell you there is a disappearing generation of patients who were compliant and obedient, seldom disagreeing with a diagnosis or treatment regimen, while today’s patients are more interactive, asking ‘why’ and searching out second opinions, if from nothing more than online sources.

Wine drinkers of all ages are increasingly like that today, wanting expert advice but not hesitant to ignore it. However, that does not mean they will reject all of the old standards, the time-honoured verities of Burgundy and Bordeaux; it just means that they will take their own time and find their own paths in getting there, most likely using Waze and not Google Maps.

But, at the same time, regions like Bordeaux, which embraced the lusher fruit and higher alcoholic preferences of Parker and his generation of critics, may yet return to their historic, more-structured, leaner styles of wine which are now in favor with sommeliers and many wine lovers. Learning should be a two-way street.

And so, whether we are consumers, producers, merchants or writers, we now all seem caught up in an exciting new era of wine – ‘The Age of Re-Discovery’.

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