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THE ESSENTIAL ROBERT M. PARKER

A PARKER 100 POINTER

Meet Mr. Robert M. Parker, the recently retired Grand Poobah of wine reviewers for the past four decades. A more influential, and controversial character there has never been in the world of fine wine. To set the stage for his story, check the Tahoe Weekly on-line archive for my three-part series earlier this year about the 1976 Judgement of Paris, where the underdog California wines whipped up on their French counterparts at a public blind-tasting of France versus California wines. From that tale you may conclude that the public outing of the travesty that was wine reviewing, was then put straight. Au contraire Mon Fréres et Soeurs, as the bought-and-paid-for wine critics went right back to their shenanigans.

And that my friends, is where Robert M. Parker arrived with his rapier, wit that is, and made the concepts of fairness and objectivity, at least part of the game. This all happened gradually, and is best presented in chapters.

The Man, The Myth, and yes The Legend!

CHAPTER ONE            THE RISING                                                                                                                                                      In the early 1970s,The Amazing Mr. P was a lawyer in the Washington, D.C. area who had become obsessed with fine wine, and traveled the world immersing himself in all facets thereof.  Realizing he had found his true passion, along with an amazing palate and a skill for turning a phrase, he saw a grand opportunity. He dtermined that the sweet spot for an erudite wine-freak, was in the role of wine writer/critic. That was the birth of The Wine Advocate, his wine newsletter that combined his entertaining wine reviews with a travelogue of far off mystical wine regions and personalities.

Mr. P also understood the game, which as to get influential enough to get “sponsored” by the wealthy wine producers, which meant writing non-specific but always flattering reviews, leading to invites to all the best events, and perhaps a case or three of their high-priced juice may mysteriously end up in your trunk when you leave the chateau.

Rejecting the fraud of that path, Mr. Parker was very clear that he would take no bonus wine, and except for barrel-tastings, purchase all the wines he reviewed.

Purchasing wines at retail meant that producers could not give him ringer-bottles that were superior to, what the consumer might get. When barrel-tasting a wine that had not yet been bottled, he would not allow himself to be led to a specific barrel in the cellar,  led to rating the wine a consumer would actually taste. This all created transparency.

This did not put Mr. Parker in the good-graces off the high-end wine producers of France, and it took a seminal event for him to gain fame and credibility. That story is the beginning of part two, and an absolute revolution in the wine-world.

Chapter 2: The Golden Years

As we left the inimitable Mr. Robert Parker in our last episode, we noted his ascendance to become the first truly influential wine critic and commentator to offer unbiased and fair wine information.

Many also know that he is the father of the now gold-standard 100-Point rating system, but what has been forgotten is that he has always been adamant the points are only a part of his wine ratings. We will address this in detail in a minute, but first I want to address the seminal moment in not only Mr. Parker’s career, but in the entire direction of wine styles since that moment.

It is 1983 and although he now held some status as a wine expert, Robert was far from the top dog. It was time for wine critics to taste the 1982 Bordeaux from barrel and forecast its present and future quality and therefore its pricing.  To a person, all of the other top poseurs…I mean experts, rated the ‘82’s as average at best. The Wine Advocate, however, declared one of the finest vintages ever for Red Bordeaux. Most considered this quite a folly, and possibly the end of Mr. Parker being taken seriously as an influencer in the wine world. Well, the rest is history, as when these wines were released they were, and still are, universally lauded, and A Star Was Born!

Back to The Wine Advocate rating system, and in the words Mr. P himself, “Scores, however, do not reveal the important facts about a wine. The written commentary that accompanies the ratings is a better source of information regarding the wine’s style and personality, its relative quality vis-à-vis its peers, and its value and aging potential .”

I can attest, after decades as a Sommelier, Wine Director and Writer, that very few either read or pay heed to any of that. When wine reviews are discussed by consumers, points are the ONLY thing that counts. Even wine professionals mostly lean on a wine’s point-rating when deciding to buy or giving recommendations.

This is most impactful in the case of the most expensive wines. Consider top Bordeaux, Burgundy and Napa Cabernets. Especially with high-end Bordeaux not understanding the taste profile differences between and other top Cabernet-based wines such as Napa’s best is a recipe for buyer dissatisfaction. Most top Red Bordeaux also have fickle time windows where they  show well, so the commentary that accompanies a point score is absolutely essential information if one really cares how the wine tastes as opposed to just impressing one’s self and others.

All that being said, a high RP rating is gold, and 100 points, well as Pink Floyd wrote, “You’re riding the gravy-train.”

Chapter 3: The Circle is Full

Part Trois of the Robert Parker story finds our protagonist at the top of the wine-guru heap. The former “experts” had been revealed as spin-doctor-lackeys of the elite wine producers, and the wine-passionate masses were looking for a new source for their information. Mr. Parker, with his ethics, entertaining writing-style, and penchant for identifying new superstars, such as the aforementioned 1982 Bordeaux vintage that he alone rated correctly as one of the best ever, was the logical and worthy choice to be crowned as wine-savant and savior.

Yes, all was peaches and cream, and we all lived happily ever after…Well, almost.

For a good 15-20 years The Wine Advocate’s wisdom was pretty much unquestioned, and his legion of followers grew in both number and zealousness. His ratings were make-or- break for producers both established and new.  Many Parker-made stars, such as Napa’s Screaming Eagle, still benefit greatly from the high ratings they received, as they are still only available for the fortunate few, and trade for multiples of their retail prices as soon as they are available.

 But as we all know, when one is on top, there are many who are happy to see them fall. The first round of shots came from critics who had lost their lofty placement as experts. They began to rumble that Mr. Parker was not a true wine expert because he only favored one style of wine; Full-Throttled, Big-Bodied,  High-Alcohol beauties. Whether this is actually true or not, what cannot be argued is that a big score from The Wine Advocate equaled big-bucks for the winery, leading to many producers moving to producing blockbuster style wines. This “Parkerization” of wine style offended the delicate sensibilities of said commentators, although they did not seem offended when they had been getting payola for always approving of the wines from their previous benefactors.

One thing is for sure, the majority of consumers of expensive wines, loved the wines that Robert M. loved, and really what is more important than satisfied customers?  

Among the systemic changes was the popularization of blind-tasting, where the taster/reviewer cannot see the bottle of the wine poured into their glass. While not unheard of previously, it was now the gold-standard in rating wine.

The other great change was the 100 piont rating system, which is a specific metric, that along with the narrative description, gives consumers an objective comparison of wines.

Also, The Wine Advocate bought wines at retail whenever possible. This prevented the winery from submitting, shall we say “ringers.”

Mr. Parker, now retired, was a dynamic game-changing ethical force, as well as a powerful taste-maker in the world of fine wine, and for fans of fairness, a hero.

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