The Emperor of Wine: The Rise of Robert M. Parker, Jr. and the Reign of American Taste by Elin McCoy. Ecco, 342 pages, $25.95.
It’s true, you can now buy first-growth Bordeaux from Costco. Thank the
much-discussed wine boom of the past few decades—the emergence of the idea that
wine is something every American should enjoy—for changing everything. But also
thank the fanatically savvy and majestically well-informed wine consumers who
have sprung up over the last decade, led by their hedonistic Virgil in matters
of the vine, a hefty former lawyer from Maryland who has insured his
miraculously sensitive nose for a million bucks.
We’re talking about Robert M. Parker Jr. here, the marathon force behind The Wine
Advocate, a newsletter published for a devoted subscribership of energetic wine
geeks—some of whom also lead the planet in net worth. (In recent years, Mr.
Parker has also begun to preside over a Web site, eRobertParker.com, and he has
produced numerous large and profitable books.) He’s an extraordinarily
controversial figure. Adored by his admirers, vilified by detractors, when it
comes to Robert Parker, there is no gray area.
Mr. Parker and his ascent are the subject of Elin McCoy’s well-researched if
under-scintillating hybrid biography, The Emperor of Wine: The Rise of Robert
M. Parker, Jr. and the Reign of American Taste. That title is a land grab of
the sort that would impress any Napa Valley wine burgher. Yes, Mr. Parker is
the biggest deal in booze. Unfortunately, Ms. McCoy, wine columnist for
Bloomberg, confuses volume with insight. In attempting to offer both a learned
perspective on Mr. Parker’s monumental influence and deliver an ecce homo on
“the God of wine,” she does a fine job of mapping Mr. Parker’s career against
the democratization of wine in the 1970’s and 80’s. She also captures the
essence of American taste—we like our wines rich and fruity—as it evolved in
that period. But she never tells us whether we should trust Mr. Parker
(although she more than suggests that many others don’t). And, ultimately, she
fails to drill down into the core of Mr. Parker’s character and personality.
Why, after a visit to France with his soon-to-be wife, Pat, would this rural
underachiever have decided to so obsessively devote himself to the vineyard
madness that he would spend the next three decades sipping, spitting, making
notes on and—most importantly—scoring thousands of wines?
It’s not a faint query. By anointing himself the Holy See of wine tasters, Mr.
Parker has become the most powerful critic in the history of criticism
(emphasis on critic—Mr. Parker is famous for detesting the whole toffy idea of
wine “writers,” whom he considers, not without some justification, to be a band
of freeloading hacks illicitly enmeshed in the trade). Ruskin pondering Turner
was small potatoes compared to Mr. Parker’s brooding consideration of a glass
of Château Haut-Brion. Yes, wine is a consumer product. But wine is also a
cultural product, every bit as fraught with significance—especially for the
French—as a national-treasure painting or the latest bit of celluloid from
Martin Scorsese. As many have lately bemoaned, however, critics in most fields
have been rendered powerless by the forces of capitalism. Not so Mr. Parker,
whose rise perfectly coincided with the emergence of an international wine
market. He is in fact the first true critical child of contemporary capitalism,
the American baby boomer who saw an opening and seized it.
Ms. McCoy gives us the essential Parker timeline. The epiphany in France at age 20;
the scruffy early years, grinding out legal details for Farm Credit Banks in
Baltimore; the overspending on his new hobby; the first tentative steps toward
publishing The Wine Advocate, inspired by the crusading example of Ralph Nader;
the creation of the buyer-friendly 100-point scale; the triumphant thumbs-up
call on the 1982 vintage in Bordeaux, now considered to be a modern benchmark;
the decline of the snooty, pre-Parker generation of Europhile critics; the
duels with Marvin Shanken, publisher of the competing Wine Spectator magazine
(my onetime employer); the storied tasting jaunts to France and snits with
various winemakers; and the seemingly inexorable emergence of Maximum Bob, the
Emperor of Wine, a figure of such monumental import that “[t]here will never be
But come on, really. Does the Emperor have clothes? The fact is, Mr. Parker has
three things going for him: He loves wine and has bonded this love with his
adoration for his wife (you still get the sense that he’s doing it all for
Pat); he’s a member of a lucky wine-drinking generation (by now, top wines have
been priced well out of reach of country lawyers, due to Mr. Parker’s impact);
and he is, as the French philosopher and journalist Bernard Henri-Lévy has
characterized George W. Bush, an almost definitive example of the “provincial
narcissist,” a willful rube who’s convinced he has the stuff to play in the big
leagues. But he doesn’t just want to play: He wants to transform it into a
league of his own.
Ms. McCoy settles for driving home the well-worn point that what made Mr. Parker so
immediately attractive to a newly moneyed generation of insecure American wine
consumers was that he’s “a regular guy.” He was not some pinstriped English
sophisticate who judged wine the way an Oxford don would study enjambment in
Milton. He was a big sloppy dude who lived reclusively in a house inherited
from his wife’s parents, where he plowed through the output of the world’s
greatest vineyards, as beagles snoozed at his feet and Neil Young warbled
through the stereo. Yeah! Take that, Michael Broadbent.
But understanding the Parker phenomenon demands some deeper insight. He hated being
a lawyer, and although you get the sense that he was competent, you also feel
that he thought he was a little too grand for that scene. Unlike Mr. Bush, Mr.
Parker doesn’t have a list of failures in his past (unless you count a dust-up
involving a French employee who fell into a fraud scandal a few years ago).
What he does have is a stunning set of cojones. At some point, he decided that
he wasn’t Bob Parker, bumpkin attorney and passionate amateur oenophile, but
rather Robert M. Parker Jr., the one man on Earth who tells the truth about
Mr. Parker is supposedly a modest person who still goes to work every day because
he loves what he does. But I just don’t buy it. I think Mr. Parker sits alone
in his tasting chamber and daily sips at the source of his chief addiction: the
glorification of the palate of Bob. Each new pour is a small reflecting pool in
which Mr. Parker can gaze upon the possessor of a self-declared talent.
I’ve always considered the Parker mythology to be equal parts hysterical
over-devotion and rampant opportunism. In the early 80’s, American wine
drinkers needed somebody who could make it easy for them. And the trade, after
a decade in the doldrums, needed a marketer. Mr. Parker was ideally suited to
both roles. The instantly familiar 100-point scale was genius (as Ms. McCoy
rightly points out) and will be used long after Bob Parker has gone to that
great vineyard in the sky.
But honestly. This is just one man! Wine, which was often dreadful in the years
before the boom took hold, would have improved without him; there was just too
much talent out there. What he did was make it O.K. to spend a lot of money on
wine (a habit that he now routinely attacks in The Wine Advocate, decrying the
high cost of the beverage). As his reputation grew, he became an essential
guide for the deep-pocketed debutante. Fortunately for everyone else, he
empowered a redistribution of wealth that benefited winemakers worldwide. Two
Buck Chuck, the quaffable $1.99 budget wines sold at Trader Joe’s grocery
stores, would have been impossible without Maximum Bob enthusing over Château
Pétrus. By renewing faith in the elite, he enabled vastly improved wines to be
sold to the masses.
In the end, it doesn’t matter much if Mr. Parker’s unique pathology is a force for
good or evil. The market has voted. When he’s gone, what will we do without Bob
Parker to tell us what to drink? Well, we’re human, aren’t we? We’ll just keep
Matthew DeBord is the author of The New York Book of Wine, and Wine Country USA, both