Robert Parker’s first flight to Europe was a disaster, and his first sense of the continent was the stench of horse urine under the Coliseum in Rome.
The world’s most eminent wine critic has just published the 25th anniversary issue of his quarterly journal the Wine Advocate, along with a mini-autobiography in which he talks frankly about his formative years as a wine writer.
‘At age 20 I left the University of Maryland…to pursue my first true love – a girl studying in France as part of her college’s junior year abroad program,’ he begins.
Pat, who went on to become his wife, is extolled as the single greatest influence on his life and career. It was she, Parker recalls, who ‘forced’ him to drink a glass of wine in Paris when he would have preferred Coca-Cola, and who supported his decision to leave the security of his job as a lawyer (which he hated) for the uncertainties of wine writing.
Parker (pictured in 1978, courtesy Pat Parker) describes his first ‘excrutiatingly painful’ flight to Paris in 1967 when two drinks knocked him out, he thought he had missed his stop (to the amusement of the stewardess), and he was diverted to Rome where he spent the night in a cheap hotel close by a gypsy encampment – and the reek of horses.
The article is peppered with quotations from his musical heroes – Neil Young, Bob Dylan and Bob Seger. One example, from Young, is knowingly apt: ‘Seems like that guy singing this song been doing it for a long time…Is there anything he knows that he ain’t said?’
‘I find it a useful way for me to make a statement: musically inspired, but with wine implications. I hope these gifted artists enjoy wine,’ he writes.
Parker has never missed a chance to rock the boat, and here he tells the story of how he made his name with the Bordeaux 1982 vintage, which was panned by every major critic apart from him, and Michel Bettane of the Revue du Vin de France.
After that the established wine press, ‘deemed me an increasing threat’ he remembers. He’s also offended some worthy figures in Burgundy, and says – only half-jokingly – that he needs a bodyguard when he goes there.
But he has been awarded both of France’s highest decorations, the Legion d’Honneur and the Order of Merit. ‘I had never expected to win any popularity contests,’ he notes drily, and wonders how the nomination, originating in Pomerol, had made it through the approval process.
As well as his wife, the critic honours his mother (‘I think of her every day’), his secretary Joan Passman (‘a dream employee’), his Burgundy partner Pierre-Antoine Rovani (‘incomparable’) and many others.
He ends by thanking his readers for saving him from the fate of being a lawyer.
‘It is a ghastly thought, but without the extraordinary support I have enjoyed from wine consumers, I would still be a lawyer. A million thanks!’
Written by Adam Lechmere