The Emperor Falls

By the time the “Emperor of Wine” was published in 2005, Robert M. Parker Jr. had amassed enormous power.  He could make or break prices of Bordeaux futures.  Importers flocked to him, in the hope he would “discover” one of their wines.  California wineries with pricy Cabernets to sell arranged deluxe tastings, yearning for his blessing.

But where is the emperor now?

Robert M. Parker Jr. hasn't exactly disappeared.  He still writes articles for the Wine Advocate, speaks at wine events, and hosts elaborate tastings.  Yet, his pervasive influence has receded — markedly.  

No longer are his views a hot topic on Twitter.  Authors like Alice Feiring ("The Battle for Wine and Love: or How I Saved the World from Parkerization,” 2009) find no impetus for fresh attacks.  It has been years since “The Hosemaster of Wine” last mocked Parker.  The “emperor” is apparently not a worthy target.

Like all empires, Parker’s turned out to be difficult to defend.  Greatly expanding wine coverage probably appealed to most of his readers, but also diluted the power of his name and gave him less control over the publication.  Controversy and staff departures followed.  The appropriation of his 100-point scale by others made the Wine Advocate just one of many publications.  His very success in educating wine drinkers meant they needed him less.


This year is a watershed for Parker.  He will turn 70 this summer.  He recently ceded the Wine Advocate’s Bordeaux “beat” to Neal Martin.  Recall that Parker’s pronouncements on the 1982 Bordeaux vintage was his stepping stone to fame.

The final words on Robert M. Parker are yet to be written, but it is not too early to look back and consider his legacy.

When the Wine Advocate launched in August 1978, American wine criticism was a fledgling enterprise.  There certainly were professionally minded critics (e.g. Robert Finigan, Robert Lawrence Balzar, the “Connoisseur’s Guide to California Wine”), but most wine writers were “amateurs with a passion” and the “concept of journalistic ethics or the problem of conflict of interest simply didn’t apply to wine writing then…”  Parker (himself a lawyer and avid amateur) thought that most wine writers were “hacks and charlatans.”  He intended to work very hard, to become the honest exception, a sort of Ralph Nader for the wine world, pulling the fuzz from consumers’ eyes.

Conditions were certainly opportune.  There were very few wine shops that could give consumers good advice.  The general population’s wine IQ was low.  Would-be wine enthusiasts needed someone to tell them what to drink, and Parker knew it.

In the beginning, Parker purchased all the wines he tasted.  Doing so was a measure of his integrity — and he was selling integrity. But the expenditures for wine were large, and his wife Patricia was not happy about their finances.  It didn't take much to open the door to a change in policy.  Importers began to visit him in Maryland, bringing along cart loads of wine to taste.  Bordeaux vintners organized tastings for him.  Bottles began to arrive on his doorstep.  With a voracious appetite for wine (and wine knowledge), Parker could not resist a tasting, any kind of tasting.

Parker’s influence expanded as retailers recognized the power of his numerical ratings, and the ability of his “scores" to sell wine. Wine shops and Parker developed a relationship that was happily symbiotic.  His new wine “discoveries” helped stores sell wine, which lead to more and more publicity for the Wine Advocate, in turn fueling subscription growth.  The 100-point scale may have been Parker’s inadvertent invention (he didn’t think it was especially important in the early days), but it proved to be crucial to his success.

As his influence burgeoned and his empire expanded, criticism was inevitable.  The 100-point scale was attacked as falsely scientific.  Parker’s tasting methods were lambasted (“a wine a minute — and he didn’t retaste”).  His penchant for fruit and oak seemed to devalue more subtle and engaging wines.  Worst of all, perhaps, wine makers and consulting firms began to tailor wines to suit Parker’s palate.

Today, the market has vastly changed.  A proliferation of point scores and wine publications has greatly reduced Parker’s influence, making the Wine Advocate just one player among many.  The internet and the relaxation of wine laws makes it possible for consumers to talk to each other, and directly to wineries, bypassing critics altogether.  A counterreaction to Parker’s palate has also had an enormous impact, giving more power to the burgeoning sommelier community and independently minded wine shops.

Right now, can we say whether Parker’s legacy has been positive or negative?

I think so.  Looking back, with all the squabbles about his palate, his 100-point scale, and his great influence safely behind us, one cannot question Parker's enormous educational influence.  Especially in its early days, the Wine Advocate was a boon to stores and wine drinkers, educating both, helping to open up the vast wine world to a much larger audience.  Just as important, Parker’s publication proved there was a broad untapped market for professional wine criticism — it stirred many writers to join the field.  If his acolytes and imitators often fall short, he is not to blame.

Parker certainly inspired me.  My veneration of point scores and Parker's palate may have lapsed long ago, but his early ideal — objective & independent wine journalism -- lives on in my writing and that of others.


Note: All quotes from “The Emperor of Wine: The Rise of Robert M. Parker Jr. and the Reign of American Taste,” by Elin McCoy, published 2005.

© Douglas Hillstrom 2014