Before Robert M. Parker Jr., nobody knew what terroir or tannins were, and mouthfeel wasn’t something you discussed in mixed company. White wine was for seafood, but chardonnay or Pouilly Fuissé was anyone’s guess. Chianti? Sure, the bottle makes a groovy candleholder.
Until Mr. Parker and his newsletter helped demystify wine for the masses with an easy peasy 100-point system, America was a Bud and white Russian kind of place.
“Robert Parker deserves credit for Americans getting excited about wine,” said Michael Steinberger, Slate’s wine columnist. “Before Parker, there was anxiety about choosing wine, and Parker and his point system helped take away the fear. No critic will ever wield the kind of power that he wielded.”
Thanks to Mr. Parker, Americans who didn’t know a Bordeaux from a Burgundy learned how to swirl and spit like the pros. We started going to wineries on day trips, and became first-name buds with the owner of our local wine boutique, another Parker-era outgrowth. And now that we’re all dropping descriptions like “wet dog” and “tobacco,” the grand master of muscadet is beginning to retire his mighty pen.
Wine experts say Mr. Parker’s powers were already on the wane when the news broke in December that he was selling the majority stake in his 34-year-old newsletter to unnamed Singapore-based investors, and was relinquishing all reviewing, with the exception of his beloved Bordeaux and Rhône wines. Currently, the newsletter has 50,000 subscribers who pay $75 a year for six issues.
The setting of the sun on an oaky empire was heralded by the announcement that the magazine would cease print publication (that part was later retracted), and that The Advocate would start accepting advertising (as long as it wasn’t wine-related) and would sponsor tastings. All while focusing on the emerging Asian luxury market.
Mr. Parker said he was turning over The Advocate’s editorial oversight to his Singapore-based correspondent, Lisa Perrotti-Brown. A Colby grad with a degree in English lit, Ms. Perrotti-Brown worked as a seller in London and a wine buyer in Tokyo before going to Singapore and getting her Master of Wine certification (the Ph.D. of the wine world) in 2008. Mr. Parker later said that the Singapore office is to be a second outpost where the investors and the new editor in chief will conduct business and editorial operations, but the headquarters will remain in Monkton, Md.
Whichever the case, Mr. Parker’s willingness to formally relinquish his scoring rubric is a sign of his diminished power—a trend that is likely to continue, according to wine writer Alice Feiring. “He will always be a cultural figure, but once you license a brand, it gets watered down.” Ms. Feiring is the author of a 2008 book, The Battle for Wine and Love, or How I Saved the World from Parkerization.
“No critic can sell more product,” said New York Times wine critic Eric Asimov. “But the days that he can advise are over. He has lost a lot of influence over the past few years. Many people have decided that they don’t need a leader.”
The wine sector has seen 17 years of consecutive growth, and last year Americans officially began consuming more wine by volume than the original winos over in France. We’ve also made wine our own. Supermarket aisles are stocked with bottles of Fat Bastard, Mad Housewife Chardonnay, Yellow Tail, Arrogant Frog Ribet and Elephant on a Tightrope. While Mr. Parker and his disciples are still quaffing Chateaux la Fifi, those with less-refined palates—the vast majority—reach for the niftiest label.
“The 100-point culture has consistently rewarded high-power, high-priced wines,” William Tish, the managing editor of Beverage Media Group, a trade organization, told The Observer in an email. “And yet, these wines are way too strong and rough for the basic wine drinker. The hottest (as in sales and buzz) wines today are outside that mold. Moscato, $10 red blends like Apothic Red, Cupcake Red Velvet and Prosecco are affordable and actually taste good to most people.”
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.
When Ms. McCoy wrote her unauthorized biography of Mr. Parker in 2005, he was a feared presence. “Parker’s power was still so great that people were worried about talking to me on the record,” she said. “Importers would say, ‘I still have to put my kids through college.’”
Although a lot of critics use some sort of rating system, the 100-point system comes under fire because it gives the illusion of a scientific method where none exists. “It’s misleading unless you can replicate it in a blind taste test,” Mr. Steinberger explained. “That has become an almost theological dispute in the wine world.”
As in many fields, the hope for a paradigm shift is being pinned on youth. The newest generation of wine drinkers is said to value the advice of trusted sources (you know, Facebook) rather than expert opinion.
“Millennials are considered far less likely to follow critics, more likely to follow peers and to buy by label or simply try something new,” Mr. Tish said.Besides, the young’uns are too busy brewing their own beer and figuring out what to do with those rhubarb bitters to care whether a 65-year-old lawyer gave a bottle of 2005 Quinta do Noval Cedro a 90 or an 80 (for the record, he gave it a 90).
Smaller stores in New York and San Francisco and probably Portland may have thrown the point system out with the chardonnay in favor of specialized recommendations that don’t rely on the prestige of a third party, but then again, not everybody lives in a metropolitan area near a cute little wine shop.
“Discount stores, chains and large online retailers still use the Parker point system,” said Ms. McCoy, “and that probably isn’t going to change.”
Nor is the ratings obsession that Mr. Parker has spawned, which has given rise to many imitators and, recently, a tempest in a tempranillo in the unlikeliest of places.
In early December, Canadian wine blogger Natalie MacLean was accused of plagiarism after she lifted wine notes from behind the paywalls of respected publications (including the Advocate) and put them on her own subscription-only site, rankling the wine writer community after Palate Press, a wine blog, broke the story. Many in the wine writing world weren’t convinced that Ms. MacLean was anything more than an eager blogger with a fondness for wine who had amassed a significant subscription base.
Of course, a novice ascending to power purely on enthusiasm and chutzpah is hardly new. Robert Parker got his start by distributing his own newsletter, not by reviewing wines for the glossy pages of Gourmet. “Parker was like the first wine blogger,” Mr. Steinberger said.
And now he is in the process of cashing out. Soon we’ll be on our own, left to sort out an increasingly complex global world of albariños, assyrtikos and macabeos. It’s enough to drive someone to drink. Does anyone have a beer?