Sunday, 26 January 2014

The Wine Critic's Critic: Robert Parker, The wine industry’s Godfather. 88/100 points


"Have a look at the banner at the top of his site advertising the “Grand World Tour”. He is about to swoop in, like a vinous-breasted eagle, to a venue near you headlining at events called ‘Gala Hedonist’s Dinner’, ‘Up Close and Personal’ (oh hello) and ‘Masterclass’. These wine events aren’t for the faint hearted – the food will be rich, the wines rare and expensive and the prices high. Good on those (or me, maybe, possibly if I can squeeze the expense past my scrutinising wife) who have the good fortune to attend".


Venerated by his followers across the world, he is the omnipresent, all-powerful Godfather of the industry. His large, stuttering frame towers over it like a monument, his influence undiminished and his status rarely challenged since he made his mark in 1982. In spite of his elevated position, he hasn’t historically sought a high profile even if he’s had one. He has slowly and discreetly built his status (and undoubted financial success) on the back of painstaking independence, commitment and attention to detail. Mario Puzo (the author of that masterpiece The Godfather) would have appreciated Parker’s stature and influence.

Some say that Parker pioneered the whole wine-critic industry. That he was responsible for raising the public’s interest in wine and putting many producers on the map, and he certainly has a point of view which interests wine lovers the world over. He is also a man who clearly loves wine and the people who make it. This passion comes across in spades and a reason why I have respect for him and affection for his site.

But he is also a figure who polarizes opinion. There are many who dislike his influence, tasting notes and scores, and who feel they have a damaging effect on the industry.

Have a read of his recently published article on January 18th when he explodes into a stream of pent-up vitriol against the “perpetration of myths, half-truths, innuendoes and at times outright falsehoods”. The article is the literary equivalent of an inebriated wino after a long day's tasting, ‘wind-milling’ with both arms against all those who have challenged and offended his way of thinking over the last 35 years. By the way, I do think it is odd that he boasts about his “35 years of wine-tasting experience” when he is 66 years old (i.e. 53% of his life). What was he doing for the other 31 years? I am 46 and have been drinking wine for about 30 of those (i.e. 65%), starting with Blue Nun back in the 80’s when I was growing up in Bath, UK. Does that make me a greater expert than him? Yes, I believe it does…

As this article and some of his tasting notes illustrate, he is often criticized for the absoluteness of his opinions and his unwavering self-confidence which have an undue effect on how people make wine. I hear that some of the ovine Bordelais producers fawn obsequiously (allegedly) before the Parker brand when he or one of his entourage comes into town, such is their subjugation to his eponymous business. This is clearly not Parker’s fault but one of the unintended consequences of his success.

His (unintended) influence on wine prices can be significant and there are (allegedly) growers who alter the flavor of their wines to win better scores (destemming, cold maceration, over-extraction, excessive oak) and therefore gain higher prices. Some believe that Parker has a habit for marking styles of certain wines higher than others (e.g. big ripe, oaked Rhones compared to a lighter style of Loire red).

The term “Parkerisation” of wines has been coined which is a term to describe how wines have been stylized to suit Parker’s palate which creates very polished, standardised flavours across the world, weakening a wine’s identity and place of origin. Some feel that he has turned a symbol of individuality, community and culture into an insipid, bland, homogenized, homeless product.

I am sure that some myths about Parker are embellished. I am also sure that he never set out to achieve this or fame or fortune. He set out to transform the whole wine critic approach because he felt critics were biased and benefiting from the largesse of the industry.

It was Parker who started writing extensively about wine without an interest in selling it and he created the 100-point scale which is now used widely by may critics. He took the contrary view about Bordeaux’s 1982 vintage which he rated highly and he proved to be correct.

His and his team’s output is prolific. They produce an issue every 2 months which consists of 2500+ wine reviews and tasting notes from wines right across the world. Their notes are extensive as is his knowledge of the regions and growers. This accumulation of knowledge must mean that Parker’s site has to be the most extensive database on earth.

That his site and information source are impressive is not in doubt. What I do question is the ability of his team to carry on the mantle and influence which Parker has built and exerted over 30 years. Like any business (particularly knowledge-based ones) or family with a dominant figurehead, transition to a new leader will be very difficult and fraught with risk. Parker is a product of his time and when he goes, then his brand can’t possibly retain its exalted status and influence, can it? I don’t think people place nearly as much importance to the opinions of his colleagues’ notes (this is based on anecdotal evidence rather than anything scientific) and this could reduce further as he grows older and his influence in the business wanes. It would take 30 years and the repeat of a unique (by definition, not possible) set of circumstances for another wine critic to achieve what Parker has achieved. I don’t think it isn’t going to happen.

Parker has recently sold part of his business to external investors and brought on some new reviewers, presumably with a view to scale the business, reduce the reliance on Parker and make some money for themselves. Call me a cynic but having worked at the hard edge of business for nearly 25 years, that is what investors will want, whatever they say now.

It remains to be seen how successful this strategy will be, and whether people will keep re-subscribing as Parker’s contribution reduces, or whether they will have to change the business model. What the site does have it a huge database of old vintages tasted and written about by Parker, and these will always be of interest to a serious wine lover. At $99 pa, it is pretty good value.

Have a look at the banner at the top of his site advertising the “Grand World Tour”. He is about to swoop in, like a vinous-breasted eagle, to a venue near you headlining at events called ‘Gala Hedonist’s Dinner’, ‘Up Close and Personal’ (oh hello) and ‘Masterclass’. These wine events aren’t for the faint hearted – the food will be rich, the wines rare and expensive and the prices high. Good on those (or me, maybe, possibly if I can squeeze the expense past my scrutinising wife) who have the good fortune to attend. 

Two things strike me from reading their website:

1.     These have the finger prints of Parker’s new investors all over them. Extending the ‘Parker brand’ and maximizing revenue will be right at the forefront of their minds.

2.     Parker must have a seriously strong constitution, able to withstand enormous quantities of rich food and fine wine. Each stage reads like a month-long, continuous bachelor party. He will need a serious detox after this tour.

The irony of Parker is that while he set out to stop the largesse of the industry by being the independent ‘voice of the consumer’, he has inadvertently had some opposite effects. He has become such a powerful critic his high scores raise prices, making the producers more money. This is turn makes them unaffordable to the majority of the very consumers Parker set out to protect in the first place.

He clearly didn’t set out to achieve this and he guards his independence and principles fiercely but it is what the economists would call an ‘unintended consequence’. Nothing in life is simple is it?

Whilst many complain about his influence, I still very much enjoy his website and reading about some of the greatest wines the world has ever known. I love his passion and communication and writing style because he makes me want to taste the wines and visit the growers. Conversely to JancisRobinson.com, I do spend a lot of time surfing his web site.

In addition to his database, his site offers daily wine news (via a link to winebusiness.com), weekly wine buys, best buys and wine education. The also uses video to communicate its knowledge although this is still fairly unsophisticated and not at the level of jamessuckling.com.

His tasting notes do use some flowery language but they are clear and easy to read. Like Molesworth, even if the writer is guilty of over writing, they are easy on the ear. Here is an example of Beaucastel’s Chateauneuf du Pape Roussanne Vieilles Vignes, 2009:

It is a staggering wine of extraordinary complexity and richness. Aromas of rose petals, exotic fruits such as mango and nectarine intermixed with peach marmalade, honeysuckle and crushed pineapple emerge from this full-bodied white along with good acidity and lavish amounts of fruit and glycerin. It offers a nearly out of body wine tasting experience.

Here are my scores for Robert and robertparker.com:

Robert Parker and erobertparker.com
Generalist web site suitable for the trade, expert amateur and enthusiastic amateur.

Criteria
Score
Comments
Web site look, functionality and ease of use: up to 15 points

13
Very impressive. It has some useful distinct features such as bulletin boards, results of public tastings and restaurant reviews.

Ability to inform the consumer (keep them up to date on news and events): up to 15 points

13
The site linked to winebusiness.com to provide this information on a regular basis.

Ability to educate the consumer (provide depth and breadth of content): up to 15 points

13
The site has excellent depth and breadth of content. It is right up there with the best sites although its use of video is quite weak. Not quite as strong as WS or Jancis for breadth. Due to the limited time I have read them, I am also not yet convinced by the quality of the new critics who have joined Parker recently.

Ability to entertain the consumer (so the information and education is easy
to assimilate and enjoy): up to 15 points

12
This site is more about educating and informing than entertaining although Parker’s writing style is excellent and easy to read. It uses all the media (articles, blogs, videos) in a simple way so is capable of communicating effectively. It could improve a lot on its use of videos – quite limited and not very slick.

Quality of tasting notes: up to 15 points

14
Parker writes very eloquently and has incredible knowledge.

Overall impression: ability to communicate with target audience, using both online and print media: up to 25 points

23
It is a very impressive site and source of information.

Total
88
A grade


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