Robert Parker goes toe-to-toe with his critics

Nobody threw rotten tomatoes -- until after Robert Parker’s speech at the 10th annual Symposium for Professional Wine Writers in Napa Valley last week, when the twittersphere erupted in snarky comments. One person encouraged him to go away forever. Another accused him of having a wooden "palette" and closed with "#RIP Wine Advocate."

The once-most influential critic in the world, who has held the wine world in his thrall and subject to his 100-point rating system almost since he started in 1978, agreed to give the keynote speech at the conference in Napa Valley, his first such ever. Already, though, those assembled had divided into camps. Some had never met the guy. Others were convinced he was the enemy.

Granted, he’d fanned the fires with a supremely cranky diatribe on his website, eRobertParker.com, which started off mildly civil and then went full-tilt hostile.

“In the wine world, crusaders would have wine consumers believe that the only wines of merit are something completely indefinable but which they call ‘authentic’ or ‘natural’,” he wrote. “They are quick to accuse some renowned wine producers -- oftentimes those to whom I as well as many others have given favorable reviews over many years -- of practicing industrial bulk wine techniques, adding artificial color, and even artificial tannins -- something that is virtually never done by the sort of producers whose wines appear in this publication or in most serious wine publications.”

And then he went on to write regarding wine bloggers: “Few ... make a living from their sites, largely because many of them are 1) lazy, 2) have narrow agendas, 3) offer little in the way of content and substance, 4) appear to be constantly whining about the failure to monetize their sites, or 5) are the antitheses of consumer advocates.” He called them “false prophets of doom” and the low-alcohol movement “essentially a phony anti-California, anti-New World movement by Eurocentric, self-proclaimed purists.”

Whoa. Not a great way to endear yourself to your audience, especially coming from someone who has made a princely living from writing about wine. At last year’s conference it was revealed that only a handful of those present were making even a modest living at it. But Parker has been very gainfully self-employed for 35 years, turning out his lengthy Wine Advocate newsletter every two months, each issue of which holds hundreds of detailed tasting notes -- and those all-important ratings.

He arrived at the symposium walking with two canes due to back surgery. And he proceeded to be just as provocative in his address as he had been on his website. David White at the Terroirist blog published the exchange between Parker and San Francisco Chronicle wine critic Jon Bonné, author of “The New California Wine.” Bonné just wrote up his own account. And Richard Jennings of RJ on Wine wrote up a well-considered summary on his blog. 

Jennings applauded Parker “for coming to face a room full of fellow wine writers, including many of us who had written attacks on various things he has said or written in the past.”

Reading through the speech, I couldn't help but notice a note of sadness as Parker says he looks around the room and sees “a tiny number of people here that I have met. That’s sad. I am out in the boondocks, and I am alone a lot while I’m traveling.”  There’s an awkwardness to his comments, a defensiveness and a touch of  regret or bitterness as he expresses the hope that the wine writing profession doesn’t wither away on his retirement. (He recently sold the majority share of Wine Advocate to a group of Singapore investors. But he’s still on board.)

He also said: “The advantage we have as Americans is that we can be fair; we tend to be more open-minded about different styles of wine.” The perception, though, is that Parker is not that open-minded. He would beg to disagree, feeling his palate has been mischaracterized. 

I’ve never been a fan of point-ratings or fruit bombs. Or humongous comparative tastings where the boldest wines can’t help but obliterate the subtler ones -- in his heyday Parker could taste hundreds of wines at a sitting.

But I’ve always marveled at Parker’s stamina. And at his ability to communicate what he thinks about each of those hundreds of wines.

His enthusiasm and genuine passion for wine has won over not one, but two, generations of wine drinkers and brought a new audience to wines of the Rhone Valley and Burgundy. He’ll admit he’s a Francophile and made his reputation on his assessments of Bordeaux vintages. So? He’s been lucky enough that scads of wine drinkers, as well as those in the trade, have wanted to pay up every year to read what he had to say about the new Bordeaux vintage, a new winemaker in Cornas or that big bold new California Cabernet with an aspirational price tag.

He didn’t force anybody to read Wine Advocate. He didn’t force wine shops to post RP points next to wines. He didn’t demand that winemakers change their ways. They did it on their own. And if anybody created a cult around Parker, it was his fans. Some poseurs were even known to proclaim that they never bought or drank a wine rated below 95 points on the Parker scale. Bully for them.

While some Parker fans simply wanted to drink some good wine and didn’t have the time -- or the expertise -- to figure it out for themselves, it’s certainly true that others were in it for the bling or the boasting factor. If they opened a 100-point wine, you can be sure their guests knew it -- and also were informed just how many other such gems they had stashed in their cellar.

That sort of blind devotion seems to have driven other wine writers mad. That and Parker’s affection for big bruiser wines, the fruit bombs that he’d wax poetic about in his newsletter time and time again. Subtler and more delicate wines were often ignored.

And his opinions carried a lot of weight. A 100-point score could make a winery overnight -- as it did for Manfred and Elaine Krankl with their first release of Sine Qua Non. And if you could keep getting those scores? You had a cult wine and a guaranteed sell-out.

The anti-Parker movement has been there all along. In 2005, Elin McCoy took him on with her book “The Emperor of Wine: The Rise of Robert M. Parker Jr. and the Reign of American Taste,” but Alice Feiring’s 2009 book, “The Battle for Wine and Love, or How I Saved the World From Parkerization,” struck a chord just as the natural wine movement, championed by Feiring in another book, “Naked Wine,” was just taking off.

Snark, snark, snark. I read through the Twitter feed for #WWC14. Maybe the emperor is on the way out. But what a ride he’s had. The frustration that Parker’s voice has been so loud for so long, that other voices aren’t being heard, is boiling over.

Where is wine writing going? How will anybody make a living now that everything is on the Internet -- and much of it free (though a number of publications with track records -- Wine SpectatorBurghound, and, of course, eRobertParker.com -- are able to charge).

But it’s also true that there is a generational and philosophical shift toward subtler, less alcoholic and more nuanced wines going on. And in California, as Bonné points out so effectively, a new generation is charging forth with a new paradigm of winemaking.

Even Parker agrees: “What’s happened in California in the last 25 years is remarkable. I see Chards and Cabs that can rival France’s best. And keep in mind I’m a Francophile -- everything I learned about wine I learned in France.”

It may be that members of this generation are more sure about their own tastes. Wine is no longer exotic, no longer the signifier of the sophisticate, but an everyday part of the well-lived life. And wine drinkers are happy to discover wines on their own -- through tastings, their local wine shop, travels and yes, boning up by reading many of the writers in revolt against Parker.

But occasionally, they still might want to just peek in at eRobertParker.com and see what the old man has to say.

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