IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Robert Parker: How his palate changed wine

A new book details the rise of the world’s most powerful wine critic. Jon Bonné takes a peek between the covers.

It is hard to drink wine without running into Robert Parker.

With his often-imitated grading system, Parker is indisputably the world’s most powerful wine critic.  His influence within the wine industry is akin to Alan Greenspan’s sway over financial markets: When Parker talks, wine people tend to listen.

Now after nearly three decades, someone has turned the looking glass on him.

Wine writer Elin McCoy tackles the Parker phenomenon, warts and all, in her new biography, “The Emperor of Wine: The Rise of Robert M. Parker Jr. and the Reign of American Taste” (Ecco, $25.95).  Hers is the first book to fully appraise this kingmaker, and she does so with precision and insight.

Parker’s power lies not merely in an ability to choose good wine from bad (though he can do that with remarkable skill with his uncannily precise palate, which, yes, is insured for $1 million, one of many Parker legends detailed in the book).

It’s his unique mix of outspoken advocacy, self-promotion and straightforward advice that helped make him a star. And his celebrity is one primarily fostered by American wine drinkers, whose ranks are growing: a Gallup poll released last week found that more Americans now consider wine their favorite drink (39 percent) than beer (36 percent).

In turn, he’s used his prominence to advance a taste for big, powerful red wines — to the point that he has globally reshaped the taste of wine and molded countless drinkers’ palates.

At least, that’s what McCoy believes (as do others, including me). Parker views himself in a far more modest light: as the consumer advocate he set out to be, exposing bad, overpriced wines.

“I don’t think generally that he takes responsibility for having changed the taste of wine,” McCoy says in an interview, “even though I think he has.”

The wine world changesBorn in 1947, Parker grew up on a farm in Monkton, Md., in a family that kept soda and Bourbon on the table, not wine.

His future fancy was inspired by high-school sweetheart Patricia Etzel. He first tasted wine (Cold Duck, specifically) at Pat’s house, and found a passion for all things viniferous during his first visit to France (to travel with Pat as she studied there). Fluent in French, she would serve as his translator and her charm would gain the young couple entry to taste at prominent wineries like Château Latour. He and Pat married, and frequently returned overseas to eat and drink their way through the Old World. (One trip also included a Moroccan detour for “some good hash.”)

Parker went to law school and became a lawyer for a Baltimore bank, but as McCoy details, he devoted his weekends to patrolling the aisles of wine shops around Washington, D.C.

In the mid-’70s, as Parker toyed with starting a wine newsletter, the wine world struggled with major upheaval. The already-popular market for Bordeaux wines overheated amid speculation and retailers’ hype. At a now famed 1976 Paris tasting, a Stag’s Leap Cabernet proved California’s potential when it bested two top Bordeaux growths.

Parker found himself shocked by frequent discrepancies between price and quality; he reviled the sea of lackluster Bordeaux on the market and championed California upstarts. He loathed most wine writers for their often misguided reviews and what he saw as flimsy ethics.

He drew inspiration from another self-righteous lawyer: Ralph Nader. If Nader could put G.M. on the hot seat, Parker figured he could be a one-man wine crusader. In 1978, he unveiled the first issue of his Wine Advocate newsletter, pledging that his “objective” stance would separate great values from overpriced swill.

“It’s a compelling story,” McCoy says. “He characterized himself early on as the Lone Ranger.”

All about scoresIt’s also a story that won Parker thousands of devoted readers. But equally important was Parker’s 100-point rating system, which appeared in the very first Wine Advocate. 

He was the first to use such an approach (it would be widely copied) and though he saw the numbers as a rough guide to accompany written descriptions, those scores rewrote the rules of wine sales, becoming many stores’ most significant selling tool, the one thing that could move wine off a shelf.

While Parker downplays their significance, he has never been willing to use scores anywhere but in the Wine Advocate — even in articles he wrote for McCoy when she was his editor at Food & Wine magazine in the 1980s.

Other events solidified the Parker myth. He offered unequivocal raves about the 1982 Bordeaux vintage, exhorting subscribers to buy early. When 1982 Bordeaux was crowned a legendary vintage, Parker’s prescience placed him at the top of the critics’ ladder. (He soon quit his day job.) 

Parker also rewrote the language of wine with his effusive descriptions, which McCoy carefully analyzes. And in McCoy’s opinion, Parker’s talk about “gobs” of fruit and “hedonistic fruit bombs” did more than leave wine lovers salivating.

“Parker has actually shifted the way people talk about wines,” says McCoy, “and because he’s shifted the way people talk about them, he’s shifted what people look for, the frame they look through.”

McCoy, who says she recorded 35 hours of interviews with Parker and read every issue of the Wine Advocate, chronicles the fine print of his career — including such controversies as the lawsuit against him by Burgundy negociant Faiveley. (The suit contributed to Parker’s persona non grata status in Burgundy, where tastings are now conducted by Parker associate Pierre Rovani.)

‘My alleged power’Through his office, Parker declined comment on McCoy’s book, though in an April post on his Web site he said “several stories in the book are completely false, and I told Elin so, but she printed them anyhow.”

“The good news is that this book should finally exhaust all future attempts to write about me and all of my alleged power,” he continued, “and I look forward to that happening, and hopefully getting as far under the radar as possible ...”

Doubtful. McCoy not only defines Parker’s big-man role, she demonstrates how the wine world continues to bristle about it. She lists entire categories of wine that Parker has little interest in: New Zealand sauvignon blancs, fresh Loire reds. Wine luminaries such as importer Joe Dressner step forward — a bit hesitantly — to poke back at Parker: “It’s as if a theater critic only liked Shakespeare. He shouldn’t mistake his predilections for objectivity.” 

Parker’s biggest shortfall, in her view (and, again, mine) is that his tastes gravitate toward wines most of us can’t afford (and certainly not once he awards them 90 points or more). His consumer-advocate soul now plays in a rich man’s realm; McCoy estimates his annual income well over $1 million.

In other words, it’s Parker’s well-heeled world, and we merely get to drink in it — and then only if we have very deep pockets.  This is not a Nader-esque role. And as McCoy tells it, Parker can’t even see how his long, successful career has transformed him.

“Now he eats at Daniel and he goes to three-star restaurants and he's on Page Six,” she says. “He's a different person. But he still holds on to that image of himself as a consumer advocate.”