Robert Parker and the rise of the great American taste bud

written by Michael Oudyn

Robert M. Parker is still the  most influential wine critic on the planet.  His power  is mind-numbing.  “When Parker spits, the world listens.”   So, where does the secret lie? His personal traits? Chance historical events? “The spirit of his times”?  I pulled Elin McCoy’s The Rise of Robert M. Parker, Jr. and the Reign of American Taste off the shelf  looking for answers and this is exactly what McCoy, international wine judge and wine columnist of Bloomberg Markets,  explores.

She portrays Parker, both the man and the myth, as typically American.  Raised on meatloaf and soft drinks in Monkton, Maryland he doesn’t drink wine for anything except a cheap drunk until, as a college student he follows his future wife to Paris. There his supernatural nose  “the oenological equivalent of Einstein’s brain” experiences fine wine for the first time and the rest, as they say, is history.  In a telling anecdote his father claims he can tell the breed of a dog by sniffing it.  And his son, it seems, inherits his extraordinary gift; his mythical schnoz is both superhuman and profoundly of the earth. Later Parker studies law and falls under the spell of his hero, consumer-advocate Ralph Nader; he names his wine sheet “The Wine Advocate,” refuses all advertising, and buys all the wines he tastes.  As a wine critic he sees himself as a kind of “Long Ranger,”  a fearless idealist who “waxes indignant over retailers price gouging,” gets exasperated with winemakers for “sloppy practices” or indulging in “intentional wine fraud”, and thumbs his nose at the gentlemen thieves of the established wine authority, a dig at dominant British writers of the time.  When rich and famous he continues living modestly in small-town Maryland, watching college basketball games on TV, close to his roots and far from the corrosive influence of the NY wine writers, whom he slams as “hacks“ and “charlatans“ and “too cozy with the industry.”

The event which catapults him to fame is the now famous 1982 Bordeaux vintage.  Mc Coy minutely chronicles how Parker throws caution to the wind and in his typical manic tasting notes pronounces this vintage “prodigious, heavyweight, incredible” and encourages his readers to “buy as much as you can afford” and you will have “liquid gold in your cellars.”  Parker proves right and so much American money follows his advice that 1982 becomes known as “the American vintage”.  The third great age of Bordeaux” is ushered in.  In one of the many ironies of his career the self-proclaimed champion of the average consumer makes it big by selling the super-expensive Bordeaux, the international aristocrats of fine wine, to wealthy Americans who often buy them as trophy wines or as mere investments.  Plain talking Parker is the ideal salesman.  Many of these “masters of the Universe” are nouveau wine drinkers with that endemic American fear of being snookered by debonair Frenchmen or the smooth-talking British. But they trust their fellow American, the straight-talking incorruptible country boy with the super-human nose.

Ms. McCoy details the intense passions Parker has aroused.  To his numerous detractors he is a shameless self-promoter who insures his nose for a million dollars, a boastful and dogmatic ego-maniac, and a border-line paranoid who responses to criticism him with vindictiveness.  Those who dare disagree with him are mere malicious midgets “motivated by jealousy,”  quite possibly corrupt.   To the anti-Parkerites he is the major cause-and the ultimate personification-of the most toxic recent trends in wine.   His 100-point system, they say, reduces the mystery and poetry of wine to a mathematical formula.  They deny that anyone can “objectively” evaluate wine, but Parker sees himself as just the man for the job.  They bemoan the evil effects of his 100 points on the whole industry. If a chateau gets a 100 they simply multiply their prices by four which is exactly what Chateau Mouton did in 1982 with its wine futures after Parker bestows his blessing of perfection.

All admit that Parker knows what he likes and that he can flawlessly sniff it out.  He goes for “blockbusters”–big-fruit, big-alcohol, soft tannins. But his critics claim his preference for this style is dogmatic and that he haughtily rejects other wines as just plain inferior.  And this, they say, has lead to “Parkerized” wines. In their pursuit of lucrative Parker points, winemakers around the world are crafting wines for the great critic, making wines they themselves neither like nor drink.  And this in turn has led to a globalized wine style to the detriment of local grapes, eccentric styles, and subtlety. His defenders are not so intense; they usually admit that his power is excessive and unhealthy and that he has been responsible for some unfortunate globalization.  But they insist that he is rigidly honest, hardworking, and supremely talented and has contributed substantially to the broad overall rise in wine quality over the last couple of decades.  Is it his fault that he is so influential?  Their message: don´t get hysterical, get a grip,  get over it.

The second part of the book deals with the  new “reign of American taste.”  Some Parker criticism seems part of  a  British-American wine-culture clash, perhaps inevitable as America replaces Britain as the world’s most important market.   For some Parker embodies the unsophisticated tastes of the common man and the self-absorption of the me generation. According to the unflattering stereotype we Americans seek  the massive, the powerful, the mindlessly hedonistic.  We love “plush, easy, and somewhat obvious flavours…you don’t have to work hard to get.”  The wealthy new American wine drinkers were seeking luxury products and trophy wines and Parker’s “super rich, opulent, dramatic wines” were just the ticket.  And we certainly prefer his simplistic 100-point number system to the more scholarly and subtle approach of British critics who are often Masters of Wine who usually write with care.  We cannot deal with  subtlety in wine writing anymore than we can deal with subtlety in wine itself and so prefer Parker’s overblown hyperbolic tasting notes.  We also are suckers for gurus and Parker is our natural leader.

Mc Coy is not  in this camp but she does explicitly explore Parker’s dark side in her “warts-and-all portrait.”  A supremely self-confident man with a “dogmatic certainty that he is always right”, Parker goes to Italy a total of three times in 20 years and famously says he “understands Barolo wine better than the people who have actually been making it for several generations.”  He publicly scolds fellow American icon Robert Mondavi for ignoring his advice by trying to achieve “euro-elegance against what is natural in California”, his big “blockbusters.”  He carries on a running feud with most of Burgundy proclaiming their wines over-rated and heretically dismissing terroir, which is gospel in Burgundy, as “a hazy, intellectually appealing notion”– more marketing hype that reality.  Then he gets himself sued by the highly the respected Domaine Faiveley when he allegedly “dishonours” the Burgundy icon by implying that he is giving critics different wine than what he is putting in the bottles.  In his turn hyper-sensitive Parker threatens to sue California Red Zeppelin over a wine label which reads “The Emperor has no nose” and has a picture of Emperor Bob III.  The winemakers laugh it off and declare this wine “The Emperor’s Reserve”.   He gets into a cat fight with Jancis Robinson over garagiste wines in Bordeaux.  These public scandals and personal feuds, serious business or high farce depending upon your point of view, are  some of the most entertaining parts of the book.

McCoy paints Parker as very much a man of his time and place; the go-go big-money America of the ‘80s and ‘90’s, the era of “sensation, luxury, and sex”.  So, did “The Great Man” mould the taste of the times?  Or, was he a creature of it, his following due to his perfect embodiment of the emerging American taste bud? In either case, the pendulum seems to be swinging back, both against Parker himself and his style of wine.  Maybe Parker and his exuberant blockbusters just don’t fit restrained economic times. If we must live within our means, so must our wines.

First published in 2005, The Rise of Robert M. Parker, Jr. is hardly hot-off-the-press.  But it does seem to be aging well.  True, Parker has mellowed a bit and is not the overwhelming force he once was.  But this is still a must read for anyone curious about the colossus or for those who just wants to take a peek at the passionate cultural and personality clashes of the not-so-distant past.  Some have seen this book as a Parkerized rollover by a star-struck writer.  I don’t agree.   Mc Coy has done meticulous research and presents both sides fairly.  She doesn’t really explain the Parker phenomenon to my satisfaction, but then probably nobody could;  It seems as freakishly mysterious as Parker’s famous nose itself.  We have a dramatic plot line with flamboyant personalities and bitter personal feuds, but McCoy’s writing is measured.  She shies away from alcoholic vitriol and her occasional fruity sentimentality is balanced by her muted acids. We are not dealing with a “galumphing blockbuster”. If it were a wine Parker would probably pan it.  But I like these muted tones-in wine and books-and I’ll give The Rise of Robert M. Parker, Jr. and the Reign of American Taste 92 points.

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7 Responses to “Robert Parker and the rise of the great American taste bud”

  1. Oscar Quevedo Says:

    Hi Mike, nice article, now I know a little bit more about the most powerful person in the wine business.

  2. The Ceci Sipper Says:

    It’s official … Im registered for next year’s EWBC … so will we be bus neighbors again? =)

  3. ryan Says:

    Here’s Elin’s Talk: http://vimeo.com/16639737

  4. ljjl Says:

    Please do not buy wine recomended by Robert Parker if you have a different taste! So buy one bottle with a high ranking and find out if his taste is yours. Robert Parker interest is money, not you.

  5. Esteban Says:

    Hi Mike,

    Really excellent article¡¡¡ l had a good time through it¡¡¡

    See you soon¡¡

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