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The myth of Robert Parker

The myth of Robert Parker – Brief Article

Russ Bridenbaugh

(Note: The observations, analysis and conclusions in this article are based on a 1999 interview of Robert Parker by Decanter Magazine’s John Stimpfig, a December 2000 interview for Atlantic Monthly “The Million Dollar Nose” by John Langewiesche and Parker’s own words in his various publications.)

Myth (mith) n. 1. an imaginary or fictitious thing or person. 2. an unproved or false collective belief that is used to justify a social institution.

Random House Dictionary of the English Language, 2nd Ed.

One can hardly pick up a wine publication these days without seeing those “Parker Numbers,” the final word on the quality of the wines reviewed. They are so ubiquitous that when it comes to buying expensive fine wine, they are virtually impossible to avoid. The power of these numbers seems to exist independent of the man–Robert M. Parker, Jr.–who is responsible for bestowing them. As we will see, they can often have effects far more profound than they should and, may in fact, have exactly the opposite effect of what was intended by their creator.

If you have never heard of Robert Parker then welcome to earth, from your long stay elsewhere in the cosmos. Parker is a writer and critic of wines. He essentially has no peer and therefore rises to the level of an institution. His pronouncements on wines appear in his newsletter “The Wine Advocate,” in the many books he has written on specific geographic winegrowing areas of the world and finally in his “Wine Buyer’s Guide.” He has no peer because no one is crazy enough to do what he does: taste and analyze 10,000 wines a year. Putting that figure in context, imagine getting up every day and walking into the kitchen where 27 bottles of wine are lined up for you to taste each day, every day of the year. And you had to pay for most of these wines, too.

One doesn’t have to delve too far into Robert M. Parker and what he does to run across some significant contradictions–some of them his doing, some not. But for all of Parker’s attempts at elucidating what he does, he still remains an enigma to many.

He began it all in 1978 with the first publication of the newsletter, “The Wine Advocate.” At the time his real job was as an attorney in Baltimore. As Langewiesche points out, Parker laid the basis for his philosophy of wine in issue #2 of his newsletter, criticizing California wineries for bland, sterile and manipulated wines. (He recently did an about face and accused the Robert Mondavi winery of the same sins a little over a year after the Decanter interview, in which he listed winemaker Tim Mondavi as one of the “world’s top winemakers.” Contradiction?)

If Parker’s tastes can be summed up in a sentence, it would be with words (as from a typical description in the “Advocate”) “impressive,” “opulent,” “complex,” “muscular,” “harmonious,” ” expansive” and “full-bodied.” Compare that to how he described Mondavi’s wines: “…increasingly light and to my way of thinking, indifferent, innocuous wines that err on the side of intellectual vapidness…” (“Wine Advocate” #132, 12-23-00).

This philosophical bent toward big and bold, as we will see, is now, some assert, revolutionizing the entire wine world. But how can one man with one newsletter hold such an influential position in the wine industry where he did not come up through the ranks? Parker had no forma training in wine. His method, like many people’s, was trial and error. Above all, he considers himself to be a crusader for the consumer and therefore the only real voice that ca express the absolute truth on wine quality. (Though one could argue that “truth” in the matter of a subjective sensory experience is an impossibility.)

Parker clearly laid out his vision of the wine critic in his “Wine Buyer’s Guide,” 5th ed. In the introduction, “The Role of a Wine Critic,” he says, “…the critic should be blessed with the following attributes: Independence. (He goes on to say that he buys 75% of the wines he tastes and “…I have never requested samples.” Apparently he forgot the time about 10 years ago when HE called the people at Napa Valley’s Summit Lake Winery and specifically requested samples of their Zinfandel to see how they aged over time. They agreed to send him 15 vintages. At no time did he offer to pay, was never billed and never did pay.) Courage. He defines the “democratic tasting” or it’s what’s in the bottle that is the only basis for his opinions. “Underachievers should be singled out for criticism and called to account for their mediocrities.” (A la the spat with the Mondavis.) Experience. “It is essential for a wine critic to taste as comprehensively as is physically possible.” (Whether it is “physically possible” to t aste 10,000 wines a year and maintain the highest standards that he sets for himself is open to debate.) Individual Accountability. “Judgments by committee tend to sum up a group’s personal preferences.” He says that committee opinions tend to reward mediocrity and that “blandness is elevated to the status of being a virtue.” For Parker there is no greater sin than “blandness.” Candor. He admits here that “tasting is a subjective endeavor” and that there is no substitute for the consumer doing the actual tasting. However, no mention is made in this section of his numerical ratings which certainly suggest a contradiction with the quote on the “subjectivity” of tasting wine.

Almost from the beginning, Parker has wielded remarkable influence over wine buyers and the wine industry itself. In the early 1980s he said the 1982 Bordeaux vintage was “great” and not to be missed by the cognoscenti. The rush was soon on and everyone had to buy ’82s even though many of the lesser lights of the Medoc were not so great. (Certainly the classified growths were very fine indeed but thanks in large part to Parker, 1982 was probably the last reasonably-priced Bordeaux vintage.)

In the early years, Parker concentrated on France to the exclusion, in large part, of California wines. His 1985 book Bordeaux was never followed by one entitled California. (Bordeaux is a fine piece of work and should be in every wine lover’s library.) He followed it in 1987 with The Wines of the Rhone Valley and Provence, which was another first-rate endeavor. Parker clearly understood the wines of Bordeaux, and the Rhone and American readers ate up both works.

The heart of Parker, Inc. however is his newsletter, “The Advocate,” a bi-monthly review of hundreds of wines and running to over 50 pages usually. His circulation is reportedly around 40,000 worldwide. A year’s subscription is $50.

The very first thing readers see on the front page is an explanation of the “Rating System,” followed by a long explanation of the methods of tasting and the subsequent scores.

There are a number of contradictions in this section, including disclaimers that the numbers aren’t all that important even though they are the first thing you see on the page. Additionally, he says “…wine is no different from any consumer product,” but then later refers to wine that will “evolve and change, which makes it quite different than most consumer products.

Further muddying the waters, he goes on to equate the “ranges” (i.e., 70-79=Average) with alphabetical equivalents–A, B, C, D and F. Inside, most of the wines reviewed have absolute numbers (i.e., 89) but ranges abound too (i.e., 92-94). Add to that the fact that he will from time to time throw in a plus (+) and you have at least three types of ratings. In bold letters in the explanation of the ratings is the admonition: “There can never be any substitute for your own palate nor any better education than tasting the wine yourself” (emphasis mine). What better reason for not reading Parker’s “Wine Advocate”?

And while he advises that “Scores, however, do not reveal the important facts about a wine” (my emphasis) he also states elsewhere that “scoring permits rapid communication of information to expert and novice alike” (my emphasis). But apparently that “information” is “unimportant.” In fact, as we will see, it’s all about Parker’s numbers, even though the commentary in the text is very good. Here’s how he described a recent white burgundy: “The 1999 Montrachet was vinified and aged in a 57-liter barrel, as well as a 114-liter barrel. It reveals sweet, creamy, vanilla and spice cake aroma. Medium bodied, rich, deep and plump, this velvety-textured wine displays loads of spice and minerals in its personality, as well as in its exceptionally long, pure and smooth finish. Projected maturity: now-2010.”

That quite adequately describes the wine for a Montrachet fan while the info on barrels probably doesn’t mean much to the average consumer, the rest of the description gives a nice snapshot of the wine. Taking his advice (at least one version) the reader would be well-served to ignore the score (90-93). If there is a fault with the text, it is the same all we wine writers suffer from: a tendency to repeat the same words and descriptors. It’s not a problem, however, and every issue of “Wine Advocate” is chock full of relevant, useful information on vintages, regions, winemakers and such.

Probably Parker’s ideal subscriber is Dr. Greg Kasza, a professor at Indiana University in Bloomington. He has faithfully subscribed to “Wine Advocate” for 15 years. He reads every issue from front to back. He is a wine collector and travels widely throughout the world. For him the “Advocate” serves a useful purpose. “There is limited access out here to tastings and it’s good to have someone with access to the best wines.” However, he is not solely dependent on Parker. “It’s one piece of data. I prefer experiencing the wine itself. If I have tasted the wine, I read Parker for information on the vintage.”

And he does read the numbers. “Yes, but with a grain of salt. Anybody grading wines has to have a system–mine is 1 to 10, and I convert Parker’s to mine. If he can’t give you a solid number, then he gives a range.” Kasza is bothered by Parker’s power however. “It works both ways–if he scores a wine poorly then the price is likely to come down. But if he rates it really high, especially in the high 90s, then it drives the price way up and the wine is impossible to get.” And that is another contradiction. The consumer advocate is often responsible for skyrocketing prices and driving coveted wines into the hands of a few collectors. But Greg Kasza is a Parkerphile. “He’s a good thing as an institution. He’s a nice piece of the puzzle–has integrity and is consistent. I’ve been reading him for 15 years, so I think I know his palate. He’s super on Rhones, but he likes big, husky wines. He doesn’t do subtlety and finesse.”

Parker is not popular with winemakers–both foreign and American. I have often heard him belittled by California winemakers until he gives one of their wines a 90 or better and voila, out come the press kits trumpeting what Parker said and proudly displaying the number. This is inevitably followed with neck ribbons for the bottles on store shelves. For the moment anyway, Parker is forgiven.

One winery that thinks highly of Parker is Ridge Vineyards in Cupertino, Calif. Although they like Parker they don’t use his numbers even when they are 90+. Donn Reisen, Ridge’s vice president, puts it succinctly: “We feel that if people really want to know the wine, words are more effective than numbers. We don’t use anybody’s numeric scores.” And what does he think of Parker? “I think of him as a prince among scoundrels. He’s a hardworking, straightforward, honest guy.” While he likes Parker, he is awed by what Parker does and marvels at the human effort it must take to taste and rate so many wines.

Parker’s numbers end up everywhere and usually without the accompanying commentary. Pick up a Wine Club newsletter and there are the rows of wines sporting their unadorned Parker numbers. This has become a marketing tool unto itself and is apparently all that is necessary to sell wine these days. Parker decries this but nevertheless is largely responsible for this very practice.

The 100-Point Scale

At the heart of the controversy is the 100-point scale for rating wines. It is actually a 50-point scale since no wines ever score lower than 50 (in reality never lower than 60) and get an automatic 50 points for just showing up. On the front of the “Wine Advocate,” Parker breaks his 50 to 100 points up into categories: “80-89=A barely above average to a very good wine etc. As noted above, he also gives categorical analogies to letter grades in school (i.e., A, B, C, D & F). He then breaks it down even further: As stated before, each wine gets 50 points for showing up, then “the wine’s general color and appearance merit up to five points. The aroma and bouquet merit up to 15 points. The flavor and finish merit up to 20 points. Finally the overall quality level or potential for further evolution and improvement-aging merits up to 10 points.” Despite these rather rigid categories, Parker refers to his system as “flexible.”

Most top wine publications also use the 100-point scale (except for Wines & Vines–Ed.) and their description of its use is even more stretched. Here is the explanation of the scoring of one of those magazines: “(Our) judges are asked how much pleasure, on a 14-point hedonic scale, they find in the glass. With this approach, tasting good is more important than tasting correct or typical. Medals are determined by normalizing the scores, the low score is discarded, the remaining scores are averaged and then they are converted to the 50-100 point scale. The typical margin of error is plus or minus two points. This means that products scored within four points of each other should be considered tied.” I am not making this up.

At least Parker, the one-man show, admits to no margin of error. He concludes his front-page explanation of scoring with this statement: “No scoring system is perfect, but a system that provides for flexibility in scores, if applied by the same taster without prejudice can quantify different levels of wine quality and provide the reader with one professional’s judgment” (emphasis mine).

Now compare that to what the late Maynard Amerine of the University of California at Davis said of the 40-point scale in his 1983 book, Wines: Their Sensory Evaluation: “It is impossible to differentiate between 40 levels of quality when it comes to wine.” Amerine was probably the most knowledgeable man on the planet when it came to wine scoring mechanisms.

The tortured contortions one must go through to justify the 100-point scale apparently does not faze those who have come to rely on it to avoid having to think for themselves. The widespread use of numbers alone followed by the initials of “RP” or the name of a national wine magazine are everywhere in thousands of retail newsletters across the country. As stated before, Parker has many times objected to this, but has done nothing beyond those objections to stop it. He senses, correctly, that it is a fault to print only the numbers. And we can assume therefore that the fault exposes an inherent problem with the 100-point system.

Essentially, the 100-point system is all about the last 10 numbers–90-100. Observe any wine buff opening a new issue of the “Wine Advocate or a national wine magazine and their eyes immediately scan the numbers, looking for those all important scores in the 90s. If you doubt this, then consider your own psychological reaction to two wines–one rated 89 and just below it one rated 90. Which one will get your instant attention? The psychological difference between 89 and 90 is vastly more than one single point.

No one can fault Parker for consistency and he is probably right that a single individual, experienced and dedicated, is superior every time to shifting tasting panels and “hedonic scales.” As anyone who has ever judged at a national wine competition knows, tasting panels though ostensibly scoring in defined numerical categories, will often increase or decrease the score through politicking and personality. I once observed a tasting panel reduce a score and deny a medal to a wine because one member of the four-person panel practically held her breath until one other judge agreed to lower his score. The obstinate judge objected to the wine’s aroma. Initially, no one else on the panel did. One suspects that this kind of thing goes on routinely in tasting panels for national wine publications.

Parker’s one-man show, however, is not what it seems. In 1996 he took on an assistant in the form of PierreAntoine Rovani who now covers certain wine areas of the globe for Parker. So it is not “one professional’s judgment” now, but two. This tacit admission that he needs help to cover the enormous world of wine is understandable but also calls into question everything he says about one man’s integrity, dedication, experience, etc. We know Parker is honest and hardworking. Rovani is probably the same, but the addition of Rovani necessarily dilutes the Parker mystique. After all, Parker said it himself in the Decanter interview when talking of the scores he gives: “…it is just an individual point of view backed up by an explanation of how I arrived at the 100 points” (emphasis mine). And on the front of the “Wine Advocate” in his explanation of the tasting notes and ratings, he refers exclusively to “I” and not “we.”

What scares people the most about Parker is the direction he seems to be leading the world when it comes to preference of wine styles. Parker’s tastes, rightly or wrongly, are perceived to be toward bold aromas and prominent flavors. It is fair to point out that tasting 10,000 wines a year, these are precisely the types of wines that would stand out. Also to be fair, reading Parker’s notes, there are frequent references to subtlety and finesse. But as widely read and powerful as Parker is, even the perception of Parker’s tastes running to bigger, bolder, darker wines, is bound to have an effect on the consumer if not certainly winemakers.

In the Decanter piece Parker says, “I am not trying to tell a winemaker how to make wine.” But in fact he has been outspoken on the subject, decrying filtration, high yields and trumpeting the “artisan” approach to winemaking. And he certainly is telling the Mondavis how to make wine.

For the consumer this is basically a good thing, as it leads to wines that are purer and reflections of their geographic influences or terroir, to use that overused word. On the downside for consumers is the fact that Parker’s championing of wine like Turley and Grace Family have driven them effectively out-of-reach of most consumers, not to mention priced them into the stratosphere. It is the same with the “garage wines” phenomenon, pointed out in the Langewiesche article. Garage wines are extremely small productions in Bordeaux literally made in garages from purchased grapes. The wines tend to be in Parker’s style– big, dramatic and intensely colored. He praised them lavishly and now they are the highest-priced wines in the Medoc. At the same time, Parker laments the high prices in Bordeaux. Contradiction.

Conclusion

Robert Parker is without peer as a critic and wields an enormous influence in the world of wine. What he does is remarkable in that his two-man show covers an incredible amount of territory. Some would say too much territory and too much power. If there are fault lines forming in Parker, Inc. then they would be fairly easy to predict. For instance, he would have to have help (Rovani); he would make more mistakes (his issue 133 had nearly half a page of “Errors and Omissions”); he would start to feel more and more defensive (his problems with Bordeaux and Burgundy are legend); and finally, his dependence on the once unchallenged and mighty 100-point system would require modification (his stretching it to the limit with range, hard numbers and now pluses).

No one can fault him for being honest and hardworking. However, he can be faulted for the mass of contradictions that haunt Parker, Inc. He can be faulted for trying to do too much. He can be faulted for his industrial-size tasting technique, frequently topping 100 wines a day.

No one critic should be able to close a Broadway show, shut down a restaurant, ruin a winery or winemaker, or destroy an artistic career. Parker regrets that his influence is so great, but does nothing to reign it in. And in the increasing Parkerization of wine, surely the march is on from there to globalization which will lead, not to more individuality in winemaking, but to a worldwide homogenization of wine. Still another contradiction.

The myth of Robert Parker is that he is perceived as so vitally important to wine. This false collective belief that none of us can do without him has lead to over-dependence and a lack of responsibility on the part of consumers. It will inevitably lead to the subconscious Parkerization of worldwide tastes in wine. Its effects are already with us. Perhaps the myth most appropriate to Parker is that of Atlas, condemned to forever hold up the sky with his shoulders. The sky is wide and the shoulders needed to support it need to be king-sized. It’s an awesome responsibility being king of the numbers game. And in the end it is only a game and there are lots of willing players.

(Russ Bridenbaugh is a wine writer in Indianapolis, Ind..)

How Parker Affects Prices

Parker gave the 1989 Ch. Beausejour Duffau a score of 88 points. It sold at California’s Wine Club for $130. Parker rated the 1990 Beausejour 100 points. It sold at The Wine Club for $400. That’s a 307% increase from the ’89 to the ’90 vintage. (Source: The Wine Club.)

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