Robert M. Parker Jr is the 37th entrant to Decanter’s Hall of Fame – or, more accurately, the 39th, since in 1985 and 2014 the award was shared by two recipients. He may well be the most controversial.
Decanter itself, to the best of my knowledge, never formally adopted a position of antagonism towards Parker and his work, but Decanter contributors and readers often have, notably in the Letters forum. Hostility to the man from Maryland focused on his use of points scores, the trenchancy of his verdicts, the undiplomatic asperity of his responses to criticism, his peremptory dismissal of the wine-tasting skills and scholarship of others, the effect of his scores on the price of fine wines, and what were perceived to be his stylistic penchants.
Now that Robert Parker has hung up his tasting glass for good and The Wine Advocate sits in the Michelin portfolio, readers may be wondering why Decanter has chosen this moment to recognise his achievements.
Well, here’s why…
Whole new level
Robert Parker is the only rock star the wine world has ever produced. By that metaphor I mean a figure whose reach and influence is global, and whose name had a resonance beyond the confines of wine traders, enthusiasts, geeks and nerds. He not only expanded that circle of enthusiasm colossally, but he altered and lifted the aesthetic parameters of what was possible in every wine-producing region around the world. He did this directly in some cases, notably in Bordeaux, in California and in the Rhône Valley, but indirectly in other cases – simply by generating excitement and thrills about great wine itself.
He brought untold wealth (millions of dollars or euros) to the community of wine producers by championing their individual efforts, but he also dragged whole regions into a new, lustrous light they had never known before via a circuit of uplift. His writing increased regional sales, boosted prices and raised expectations; that in turn encouraged quality increments. He made the tasting, drinking and collection of wine a sexy, aspirational and culturally rewarding activity for many around the world who had formerly considered it locked beyond their reach, the preserve of a wealthy European bourgeois elite or of snooty intellectuals.
His contagious enthusiasm (and those famous RP points) was a kind of plasma jet, igniting and illuminating interest in wines wherever it reached. You may agree with his assessments or you may not, but his critical energy, his work rate and the sum of his achievement between the launch of the Baltimore-Maryland Wine Advocate in August 1978 and his gradual retirement over the last decade was utterly phenomenal, unparalleled by any individual before and since, and probably unattainable in the future (since the complexities of wine now impose specialism). If any individual alive today merits a place in the Decanter Hall of Fame, it is Robert M Parker Jr.
He has received the highest civilian honours offered to individuals in France (an Officier of the Légion d’Honneur, bestowed by President Chirac), Italy (a Commendatore in the National Order of Merit, bestowed by Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and President Carlo Ciampi) and Spain (the Gran Cruz de la Orden del Mérito Civil, bestowed by former King Juan Carlos I). His achievements are perplexingly unrecognised back home in the USA, where his only honours outside the wine world have come from the state of Maryland and its academic institutions: meagre tribute for a great American who dominated his field around the world for three decades.
Robert M. Parker Jr at a glance
Born: July 23 1947, Baltimore, Maryland
Parents: Robert “Buddy” Parker Sr, farmer, later businessman; Ruth “Siddy” Parker, homemaker
Education: Hereford High School; University of Maryland, University of Maryland Law School
Family: Wife Patricia Etzel (high-school sweetheart), daughter Maia Song Elizabeth
Interests: All genres of music except rap; photography; snorkeling; English bulldogs and basset hounds
Out of the blue
How did it happen?
He was brought up in a wineless household by a teetotal mother and a spirit-drinking, cigarette-smoking father. He got unpleasantly drunk on Cold Duck (sweet, cheap sparkling wine) on his 18th birthday. He won a sports scholarship to University; he was a 6’1” soccer goalie. He smoked a few joints. He became a lawyer for the Farm Credit Banks of Baltimore. He married his school sweetheart in 1969. There was no wine at the wedding.
In December 1967, though, he visited Paris for the first time; his future wife Pat was at that point studying in Strasbourg. ‘She took me to a low-budget bistro near the Eiffel Tower. I would’ve preferred to drink Coca Cola but my future wife said a bottle of Coke was more expensive than a carafe of French wine. Moreover, I was in France and had to try their cuisine – the freaky looking mussels and snails, which I devoured; maybe it was all the butter and garlic. I’d consumed plenty of liquor in college, mostly cheap booze blended with fruit drinks to encourage some bravado to act like an ass around girls at parties. So a beverage low in alcohol, with an alluring perfume and vivid red and black fruits was a revelation. Maybe an epiphany. The measured, incremental euphoria was unlike anything I’d experienced. The fact that it seemed to enhance the food and make me more articulate were additional merits. I was hooked.’
He became a wine geek himself, and one so committed that he kept the apartment he shared with Pat in Maryland at 55°F (under 13°C) through the Maryland winter – so that his nascent wine collection wouldn’t be damaged. Indeed he claims that the main reason for starting a wine publication was so that he and his tasting companion, Victor Morgenroth, could keep buying colossal amounts of wine without going bankrupt and thus ‘avoid losing our wives because of our obsessive behaviour’.
‘Margaux `73 was ‘a terrible wine … thin and acidic with a dull, damp bouquet and taste.’
‘I drew a lot of my formative wine education,’ he recalls, ‘from British wine writers such as Hugh Johnson, Michael Broadbent, Harry Waugh, Edmund Penning-Rowsell, Serena Sutcliffe, the French-English writer André Simon, and the American Alexis Lichine. Before I started The Wine Advocate in 1978, I had read all of their published works and, in many cases, re-read them, and their importance in my formative years and to the foundation of The Wine Advocate was significant, although I ended up taking a completely different focus.’
To the point
That ‘different focus’ was inspired by the work of fellow-lawyer and consumer advocate Ralph Nader. Parker’s mark on his own lawyer’s office had been a systematic attempt to render legal documents into plain, comprehensible English and not legalese. When he charged into the wine world, it was with a plain-speaking, Naderite mission – to unearth and enumerate great value, and to call out mediocrity, no matter how lofty a wine’s origins might be.
Like a goalie hurling himself at a penalty shot, he was neither polite nor respectful to what at the time were often very shoddy ‘fine wines’, notably those of the 1973 Bordeaux vintage which he reviewed in the first issue. I’ve always relished his assassination of Léoville-Poyferré 1973 (quoted in The Emperor of Wine by Elin McCoy, p.71) as an ‘atrocious wine devoid of any redeeming social value’, not least because I love the idea that a great wine might have social value. These were remarks that politer and duller European writers, most of whom knew and dined with the proprietors, would never have made. Margaux `73 was ‘a terrible wine … thin and acidic with a dull, damp bouquet and taste.’ It was given 55 points out of 100, and the ‘atrocious’ Léoville-Poyferré 50 points.
The critic’s scores
‘He was the first critic to give the punters what they really wanted.’
The appearance of Parker’s newsletter in 1978 marked the birth of ‘wine criticism’ as distinct from ‘wine writing’: rigorous, thorough notes on wines complete with a suite of descriptions and allusions, some historical context and, where appropriate, comparisons with other wines and other vintages. While never literary, his standard of note-taking remains unrivaled for these qualities – and for its communicable enthusiasm, its sense of sincerity and authenticity, and its sheer gusto. ‘He was the first critic to give the punters what they really wanted,’ observes Stephen Browett, of Farr Vintners, the UK’s most successful fine wine broker and trader, ‘which was strong, concise and clear opinions on what was good and how much better it was than another vintage or another producer. His scores were very precise and logical and became gospel.’
The distractions of features, profiles and extensive background information – ‘wine writing’ – never interested him. It’s also worth noting how unpompous and unpretentious the texture of Parker’s writing is – in contrast to many before and some since. Since he didn’t have to answer to editors and always (remarkably in the wine world) paid his own way, he could call it as he saw it. And he did.
Off the scale
Newsletters containing reviews were already in existence at the Advocate’s birth in 1978, and the most celebrated of these in the USA at the time was Robert Finigan’s Private Guide to Wines, first published in 1972; Decanter, founded in 1975, also carried reviews and ran tastings – and used scores out of 20 for major tastings. The Wine Spectator was founded in 1976, and acquired by Marvin Shanken in 1979. Scores as such were not a Parker innovation; the use of the 100-point scale (by which his own college essays had been marked) was.
‘I was dissatisfied with the 20-point system,’ he told me in March 1995, ‘because it didn’t give me enough latitude, and the 20-point system as formulated by the University of California Davis just takes points off for faults and defects, and I just didn’t like that kind of system. I felt that wine criticism had to be both analytical and hedonistic, and I would lean more to the hedonistic. It is a beverage of pleasure, let’s never forget that.’ Scores may be philosophically untenable but they are, in the practice of wine assessment, inevitable; Parker just used them more successfully, consistently and systematically than anyone else. He turned them into a universal short-hand for wine quality, though he always emphasized that the words were more important than the scores.
Parker began bi-annual trips to Bordeaux from 1978. When he acclaimed 1982 as a great, historic vintage while Finigan described the wines as ‘disappointing’ and ‘oafish’, his reputation was made. The first ever wine-trade lunch I attended was with Portuguese wine creator Cristiano van Zeller, at that time running his family’s Quinta do Noval in the Douro, in 1988. Someone mentioned ‘Bob Parker’, a new name to me back then. ‘Bob Parker?’ rapped Cristiano. ‘You mean God Parker, don’t you?’
After 10 years of reviewing, Parker’s influence was already unique in shaping and making markets. It didn’t stop until he did.
Parker on Burgundy
There were failures as well as successes – perhaps inevitably; no palate can be equally adept at assessing all wine styles. ‘I do think,’ he now reflects, ‘that we end up with certain preconceived notions of what a great wine or a classic wine possesses and tend to stay within those parameters. There’s no question that I don’t like high acid or austere wines, but I don’t think any of the wines or vintages that possessed those characteristics were ever considered great by any writer of consequence.’
‘I’ve never been that much in love with Pinot Noir.’
His only regret, he says, concerns Burgundy. ‘I’ve never been that much in love with Pinot Noir, even though that sounds like heresy to many wine lovers. I do think, if there was one category I never really could fully grasp or comprehend, in terms of evaluating, it had to be Burgundy. I’ve thought a lot about that. I certainly have Burgundies in my cellar that I pull out. I’ve tended to buy the riper vintages, such as 1985, 1989, and 1990, and I’m pleased with how the wines have evolved, but it’s often the lighter vintages in Burgundy that actually have a staying power and longevity that I could never fully grasp or appreciate when I was tasting them young.
‘My biggest regret was just how vociferous and crude my criticism of the Burgundians tended to be in the period 1978 to 1993. I think part of it was my French – in the early years, while fundamentally sound, it was basic and simplistic. I was too eager to criticise them on all matters, from overproduction in the vineyard to excessive filtration and manipulation in the cellars, to not demanding that their wines be shipped in temperature-controlled reefer containers. All of those were legitimate complaints. However, this criticism could have been made constructively.’
In personal terms, ‘the horrors of 9/11 hit me hard, and I thought wine journalism and criticism would die. It didn’t. As for the personal lowlights, the death of my father in 1998 followed by my mother’s death in 2002 was difficult. I’m an only child, and when they passed, there were lots of mixed emotions. Had I been a good and loving son, had I ignored them too frequently? Now, as I’m getting older, the loss of some wine producers and wine writers I admired (most recently Michael Broadbent, and in Spain, the passing of Carlos Falcó to Covid-19) reminds me of the fragility of life, but also brings back some wonderful memories that I shared with them.’
He is now in full retirement ‘because my body was breaking down. I had a failed spinal fusion in 2013, a hip replacement, and multiple knee operations. The last few years of working full-time were increasingly difficult from a mobility standpoint. Navigating airports, those decrepit steps that you know exist in many wine cellars of the world, and just walking long distances were both painful and challenging. In addition, after nearly 40 years, I couldn’t really accomplish much more, so the decision to retire and sell The Wine Advocate was easy in view of my declining physical health.’
He says he has no plans to write an autobiography. ‘It would be somewhat of a vanity project. Also, I’m not sure younger generations have any interest in the journey I took in the wine world.’ I think he’s wrong in this, and he says that his mental capacity remains ‘very acute’ – but ‘there are no plans to write that book’.
This wine lover (and reader of wine writing) greatly misses his presence in the wine world, his championing of outsiders and his straight-talking directness and outspokenness. Too much wine writing is respectful, timid, unambitious and PR-friendly, and too much wine criticism since his departure, though effusive, seems to lack zest and cut.
He has continued to be outspoken into retirement, attacking the ideological blinkers of the ‘natural wine’ movement, the ‘narrow agendas’ of some wine bloggers and the ‘phoney’ low-alcohol movement – though he says he remains proudest of having championed underdogs rather than swung left hooks at what he saw as abuses and deceits.
‘I’m exceptionally proud of the fact that I championed what were considered unheralded regions of the wine world, particularly the Southern Rhône, Alsace, Oregon (which, of course, is now very popular and chic), California’s Central Coast, backwater appellations of Spain beyond Rioja, such as Ribero del Duero, Priorat, Jumilla, and Toro, and also Central and Southern Italy as well as the wines of Sicily. There’s a long history of that, simply because I always thought I was an underdog, coming to wine writing from no formal wine education and as a complete outsider. Living in the boondocks – the rural countryside of Maryland – as opposed to a large urban area, such as London, Paris, New York or San Francisco, where most of the wine writers tend to be domiciled, gave me a certain edge or something more to prove.’
‘I think wines should have a personality, but reflect their place of origin and be as natural as possible.’
Much of the criticism of Parker’s work has been small-minded and partial when it didn’t descend to out-and-out caricature, and he vigorously rejects allegations that ‘Parkerisation’ meant aesthetic standardisation, or that the ‘Parker palate’ was a reductive set of requirements for ultra-ripe, obvious, lavishly oaked wines.
‘I think wines should have a personality, but reflect their place of origin and be as natural as possible. When you think about some of the causes that I fought for and have written about extensively, against excessive manipulation, excessive filtration, acidification, manipulation, reverse osmosis and so on, ironically most of these fall right in-line with what advocates of natural wine call for. No question the wines I loved the most were the richest, most opulent, most concentrated, and, to me, the most classic in their age-worthiness, but I don’t think there’s ever been a vintage of merit that was given fabulous ratings by any wine critic based on its austerity, high acidity and herbaceousness.
‘I know I was also accused of liking wines that were over-oaked, but if this allegation is examined, it’s one of the great falsehoods of my career. I love fruit in wine, and if you can’t taste that because it’s marred by an overlay of new oak, to me that wine is an undrinkable, ill-made product. My love of the Rhône Valley, especially the Southern Rhône, is because these wines largely see no oak whatsoever, and if they do, it’s in ancient barrels or foudres where there’s absolutely no oak influence.’
Far from being the ‘emperor’ or dictator of taste he is often made out to be, Robert Parker is, in personal terms, direct, sunny, accessible and straightforward, a man who chooses to describe himself on Twitter as a ‘Hedonist of Life & Wine’, whose palate is broad and appreciative as well as astonishingly acute, whose sensual memory bank for both wine and food is almost peerless, and who has by dint of colossal efforts made an unrivalled career from his palate and what he thinks of as ‘an unfiltered talent for wine writing’. He is highly intelligent and completely unintellectual, unpretentious, plain speaking, courageous and unintimidated. His stupendous success, as he himself admits, was ‘one of those phenomena of being the right person at the right time, just before the internet and social media, just as a generation of post-World War II baby boomers were thirsting for the European lifestyle and embracing the consumption of wine’.
Good timing, then – but this year’s Hall of Fame laureate also elucidated the wine world for millions, inspiring them to nurture and pursue a passion for wine; and empowered wine producers around the world to try harder and create ever finer wines when nature gave them the chance to do that.
No one individual before or since has changed the world of wine as dramatically, or as beneficially, as Robert M. Parker Jr.