A Very Vine Mess: Oenophile Overlord Robert Parker Has a Short Finish

Where did Mr. Parker, a kid from rural Maryland with a law degree, get the moxie to tell the world what to drink? He may love French wines, but his self-confidence is distinctly American. Quite simply, he got there early and made himself an expert before anybody knew enough about the market to argue with him.

Mr. Parker’s life, like many before his, was changed by a girl. He fell in love with Pat Etzel while a student at University of Maryland, College Park in the late 1960s, and followed her to Alsace when she went to study abroad. Worried that she’d take up with a Gauloises-smoking Frenchman, Mr. Parker cultivated a taste for wine. He brought his Gallic palate back home to the University of Maryland, started a tasting club and, oui, held onto the girl (to this day).

The Parkers went to Europe every summer, saving money by eating peanut butter sandwiches. Nor did they splurge on heat; the newlyweds kept their apartment at 55 degrees because Mr. Parker had heard it was the ideal temperature at which to store wine. Between jaunts to the French countryside, Mr. Parker went to law school and Mrs. Parker began teaching French.

In 1978, Mr. Parker started his newsletter, originally intended as a consumer resource, with just $2,000 and 6,500 subscribers whose names he reportedly got from a retail list at a wine store. His scoring conceit caught on quickly; the ratings made it easy for merchants to use Mr. Parker’s reviews in their own promotions, which further fueled the Advocate’s authority.

“The usage of Parker reviews by stores were what made Robert Parker into a household name,” said Elin McCoy, wine columnist for Bloomberg News and the author of The Emperor of Wine, a critical biography of Mr. Parker. “The reviews were used in full-page ads in places like The New York Times.” The publicity helped the fledgling newsletter find footing and credibility, so that by the mid-’80s, Mr. Parker was able to stop practicing law and focus full time on his newsletter.

According to his detractors, and there are many, his influence grew so great that winemakers began to tailor their wines to Mr. Parker’s palate. Ms. Feiring, who favors biodynamic wines made as simply as possible, argued that Mr. Parker’s popularity, or what she calls Parkerization, has led to an increasingly globalized palate, with wine being produced on a more massive scale to get consistent results—often, results that correspond to Mr. Parker’s preferences.

Patz and Hall, a winery in California, was saved from near bankruptcy when Mr. Parker gave its white wines high scores. Other wineries have similar stories. “In Bordeaux, a 10-point difference between an 85 score and a 95 score meant six to seven million euros for the winegrower,” said Ms. McCoy.

It was a sign of Mr. Parker’s stature that Burgundy wine producer Francois Faiveley sued him in 1994 for libel after the wine reviewer wrote, “On the dark side, reports continue to circulate that Faiveley’s wines tasted abroad are less rich than those tasted in the cellars—something I have noticed as well. Ummm …!” The winemaker won a token amount, and the lawsuit demonstrated the power that Mr. Parker wielded.

A Very Vine Mess: Oenophile Overlord Robert Parker Has a Short Finish