He Sips and Spits--and the World Listens
On a chilly early fall morning in the Napa Valley, the Most Powerful Man in the World of Wine--unseasonably attired in a short-sleeved shirt and shorts--stands next to his white rental car in the parking lot at the Meadowood Resort. There’s a boyish half-smile on his lips and a small, inch-thick notebook in his left hand. At 51, his Rabelaisian love of food--and 25 years of drinking two bottles of wine a day--have added 80 pounds to his 6-foot, 1-inch frame. He now weighs 265 pounds, and his walk is beginning to resemble a waddle--a reasonably fast waddle, to be sure, but a waddle nonetheless. Indeed, he looks more like a successful Midwestern plumbing contractor on the final week of his summer vacation than a man who inspires worldwide respect, affection, gratitude, fear, resentment, jealousy, lawsuits--and at least one death threat.
Robert M. Parker Jr. has written 10 books on wine, produced 120 issues of his bimonthly newsletter, the Wine Advocate, and launched a one-man crusade that has at times made him seem like the love child of Mae West and Ralph Nader. A sensualist, a passionate lover of wine and a fierce champion of the wine consumer, Parker is largely responsible both for the vastly improved quality of wines made throughout the Western world and for the exponential growth in the interest, knowledge and sophistication of those who drink wine, especially in the United States.
Parker is controversial, though. Detractors say he’s played a significant role in skyrocketing wine prices and in what they see as the homogenization of many of the world’s wines into a single dense, overly concentrated “international style.” These wines, they say, lack elegance and finesse, don’t age well and sacrifice the individual and indigenous character of many vineyards and winemakers.
Today, nearing the end of a marathon, two-week tasting tour, Parker will visit four wineries and evaluate about 50 wines. That sounds like a lot of sipping and spitting, but it’s actually a bit lighter than his normal regimen. Perhaps 40 or 50 times a year, he will taste more than 120 different wines a day; in a typical year, he will taste 10,000 to 15,000, ranging from the cheapest plonk to bottles whose prices exceed the annual per capita income in many Third World countries. In a field long notorious for freeloading, he is as incorruptible as he is indefatigable, and the expertise and influence born of his prodigious performances have led scores of wineries, from the valleys of Napa and Sonoma to the hills of Piemonte in northwestern Italy to the Rioja and Ribero del Duero regions of Spain and the fabled vineyards of Burgundy and Bordeaux in France, to change their winemaking styles.
Parker rates wines on a 100-point scale, and winemakers know that if he gives them a ranking in the 90s--or, the Holy Grail of winedom, a perfect Parker 100--that number will appear in wine shop ads, mailers and shelf displays in stores large and small; vineyard owners will be able to raise their prices and sell their wines to all those consumers whose insecurity about their own judgment leads them to slavishly follow Parker’s recommendations. These “Parker sheep,” as they are called on one online bulletin board, embrace his ratings so uncritically that--well, Steve Wallace, proprietor of Wally’s Liquor in Westwood, remembers a customer buying a case of a California Chardonnay, returning 11 of the 12 bottles because he didn’t like it, getting a refund . . . and then returning two weeks later to buy another case of the same wine. When Wallace asked why, the man shrugged and said, “Parker just gave it a 95.”
Although Parker is scathingly dismissive of wines he doesn’t like--he likened one to toothpaste and another to Janitor in a Drum--he is better-known for lavishing rapturous praise on wines he loves. He called one $100 California Cabernet “prodigious . . . diaphanous . . . spectacular . . . celestial . . . close to immortality in the glass.” But he can also cause a marketplace stampede for modestly priced wines (often less than $10 a bottle), 647 of which he rated in his last annual issue on the “World’s Greatest Wine Values.”
“When Parker spits, the world listens.” That’s the message embroidered on a pillow his literary agent gave him several years ago. It’s testament to his being not just the most important wine writer anywhere but also the most influential critic in any field, anywhere. The drama critic for the New York Times may be able to close a Broadway play with a bad review, but he has no effect on theater in Paris or Rome; Parker influences how wine is made, bought and sold in virtually every wine-growing and wine-drinking country on Earth.
When he went to Italy to taste wines last fall, local and national newspapers published stories and photos about his visit, and winemakers brought their bottles to him like sacrificial offerings--and asked to have their photos taken with him. When he went to Japan, Hong Kong and Singapore, television news crews followed him around, and his events drew capacity crowds. The Wine Advocate has only 40,000 subscribers (at $40 a year apiece), but they live in more than 40 different countries, and in France--which has long produced many of the world’s greatest wines--he has been given high honors by the president himself. Parker is known there as le Pape du vin (the Pope of wine), and his encyclopedic Guide Parker de Vins de France is referred to as “Le Bible.”
‘Tasting Is a Matter of . . . Mental Discipline’
Parker pulls out of the Meadowood parking lot, headed for the Arrowood Winery in the Sonoma Valley, eager to talk about how he approaches his job.
“I figure I can always learn something by talking with the people who make the best wines,” he says, “so I sent faxes to most of them--California’s reference point wineries--a few weeks ago, arranging a schedule and telling them what I want to taste.” He pauses.
“That’s what I do. I’m a taster--and tasting is a matter of focus, of mental discipline. When a wine is in my mouth, I can taste it and smell it in all its dimensions--the full range of flower, plant, vegetable and earth, of red and black fruits. I don’t let anything interfere. I love coffee and garlic, but they’re very strong flavors, so when I’m on a tasting trip, I don’t have any of either.”
He reaches into the compartment next to his seat and pulls out a small can of saline spray. “I use this to keep the membranes in my nasal passages moist and clear. Probably 80% of anyone’s appreciation of a wine is really olfactory, you know--smell--even though we perceive it as taste. Taste is actually a very crude instrument. Sure, you have to be able to taste the texture and the weight and harmony in a wine, the purity of the fruit and the equilibrium, but every wine I’ve ever given 100 points to, I could sense it was worth that the second I smelled it. And with a lot of the bargain wines I try, one sniff tells me they’re so pathetic I don’t even taste them; they never touch my lips.”
As soon as he reaches the sign for Arrowood Winery--several minutes before he has driven up the narrow, winding road and parked--Parker unfastens his seat belt and hunches forward, fidgeting, straining, like a racehorse in the starting gate. It’s this enthusiasm that enables him to spend four months a year on the road, often tasting from early morning until past nightfall; it also helps explain both his overwrought prose and the extremes of his scoring. (Compared to his major competitors, his high scores tend to be higher and his low scores tend to be lower, even when they agree on the general quality of a given wine.)
When Parker steps out of the car, Dick Arrowood, the winemaker and proprietor, greets him warmly and escorts him into his tasting room. Empty glasses are lined up on white cardboard place mats atop a long wooden table. Parker begins tasting immediately.
“The wines are a little too cold,” he says. “When they give me wines like that in France, it sometimes means they’re trying to hide the flaws in the wines--usually too much acid.”
Arrowood starts to protest but Parker waves him away.
“I know you wouldn’t do that,” he says.
Parker is known as a fast taster. Jorge Ordonez, whose Fine Wine Estates from Spain is one of the leading American importers of Spanish wines, says he has “never seen anyone able to pick the best wines out of a ‘flight’ of 50 or 60 as quickly.”
Parker looks at each wine, sniffs, swirls, sips, sucks air into his mouth and gurgles. (The swirling and gurgling help aerate the wine and give a sense of how it’s likely to develop in the glass.) Then he spits it out. Each wine is in his mouth for maybe four or five seconds.
If his first taste suggests that a wine is not worth at least 80 points, he won’t taste it again. “Why bother?” he asks. “You might just as well take your clothes off and say, ‘Beat me, beat me.’ ”
But any wine that initially seems to merit 80 points or more is tasted twice, maybe three times in succession before Parker determines its final score. He doesn’t linger or ponder. It’s as if he has a small, carefully calibrated computer embedded in his palate: Wine in, judgment out. As soon as he spits, he scribbles several lines of descriptive material in his notebook, adds a precise score for a bottled wine or a narrow range of scores (say, 88-91) for a “barrel sample"--wine too young to have been bottled yet--and moves on to the next.
Parker tastes 21 Arrowood wines in little more than an hour--whites and reds from 1995, ’96 and ’97. Here, as at most wineries, he tasted the ‘95s and ‘96s last year, too; the ‘95s were already bottled then, the ‘96s were barrel samples. Now the ‘96s are also in bottles, and the ‘97s are “from the barrel.”
Between wines, Parker sips sparkling water--"the bubbles seem to get between your taste buds and cleanse the palate better than plain water"--and chats with Arrowood, complimenting him on his wines, but never divulging the scores.
Isn’t it difficult to spit out all this good wine? Doesn’t he want to swallow some of it?
“Absolutely,” he says. “When you’re tasting great wines, it’s the equivalent of having a beautiful, naked woman stroking the back of your neck; you want to stay right there and cancel the rest of the day. I can’t make that a habit. Too much work to do. That’s one of the reasons I’ve gotten ahead. There may be other people who can taste as well as I can, and there sure are people who write better than I do, but no one works as hard as I do. Wine is a beverage of pleasure, and I’m a hedonist, but when I’m tasting, I’m working, and I won’t be able to taste well by the end of the day if I drink as I go.”
‘I Used to Argue With Him’
Parker hasn’t always liked Dick Arrowood’s wines. When Arrowood was executive vice president and winemaker at Chateau St. Jean in the 1980s, Parker wrote that his wines were “a little bland . . . not very concentrated.”
“I used to argue with him about it,” Arrowood says.
Parker has strong feelings about how wines should be made: He calls himself a “fruit fanatic--the taste of the grapes is all-important"--so he insists that grapes should be fully ripened, on vines that are properly spaced and cropped, and vinified with minimal intervention by the winemaker. He also thinks certain strongly concentrated wines--those made from Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot as well as some Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Syrah--should be aged in new oak barrels.
But some winemakers pick their grapes too early, either because they don’t want to risk overripe grapes, with insufficient acid to give them structure and protect them against bacteria, or because they are afraid that if they wait too long, the grapes might either dry out or be damaged by cold, rainy fall weather. Some winemakers may ferment wines in old, sometimes dirty barrels, either because it’s cheaper than buying new ones every year or because they do not like the taste that new oak imparts to the wine. Some winemakers add acid to their wines and pump them through filters and engage in other vigorous technological processing because they think this will yield healthy, stable, age-worthy wines, free of any contaminating bacteria or even natural sediment--tiny particles of grape skin residue that some wine drinkers find unattractive. Worst of all, in Parker’s view, many winemakers harvest too many grapes for the size of their vineyards, figuring that more grapes per vine and more vines per acre mean more bottles in the market.
Winemakers who engage in these practices generally produce “emasculated, pathetically neutral and uninteresting . . . non-wines,” Parker has written. Although modern technology enables wineries to produce better wines, he complains that a “continuing obsession with technically perfect wine is unfortunately stripping wines of their identity and distinctive character. . . . It’s increasingly difficult to tell an Italian Chardonnay from one made in France or California or Australia.” Winemakers and winery owners, especially those in America, he says, should “take more risks to preserve the individual character of their wines.”
Many winemakers have done just that. Most belong to a new generation. Better educated than their forebears in the science of viticulture and vinification, they benefit from modern technology but also believe in more natural production methods. Many no doubt would have changed their winemaking procedures even if there were no Robert Parker. For a significant number, though, his influence has been substantial.
Arrowood, for example, filtered wines when he was at Chateau St. Jean. The winery was producing 300,000 cases a year by the time he left in 1990--he produces only 27,000 cases now at his own winery--and he used to invoke the sheer volume of Chateau St. Jean’s production in “trying to justify” what he was doing.
Parker’s approach to winemaking requires careful, personal attention and involves some measure of risk. Both are more difficult at a larger winery, Arrowood says, especially when “you’re working with somebody else’s money.” Arrowood experimented, though, and concluded that Parker was right.
“That’s God’s honest truth,” he says. “When you mechanically process a wine . . . things are taken out--not only bad things but bad and good things. . . . I’d love to tell you that I saw the light and he had nothing to do with it but that’s not a fact.”
Even Robert Mondavi, California’s pioneering winemaker and global ambassador, says Parker played a major role in the development of his winemaking philosophy. Mondavi made his first wines “completely naturally,” he says, but he changed on the advice of a prominent French winemaker and didn’t realize his new wines weren’t as good “until I saw we weren’t getting really good scores from Robert Parker. Then I began to taste our wines more carefully. He was right. So I went back to making them without filtering and doing everything as naturally as I could.”
Winemakers on the other side of the Atlantic offer similar testimony.
“The first time Parker tasted my wine, he said, ‘It’s a good picnic wine,’ ” said Alain Raynaud, proprietor of Chateau Croix de Gay and Chateau Fleur de Gay in Bordeaux. Parker gave the wine a score of 77; sales, especially in the United States, were disastrous. Raynaud, president of the prestigious Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux, was devastated. Then he tasted several Bordeaux wines that had won high Parker scores.
“That forced me to change many, many things in my vineyards and in vinification,” he said. “Most [Bordeaux] winemakers have changed the way of vinification. We in Bordeaux must thank Mr. Parker for forcing us to a greater quality than we had before.”
Not everyone is so grateful. Parker once had to cancel a book tour because he received a death threat--anonymously, of course. Indeed, the fear that Parker could either criticize or ignore a winemaker has left many fearful of saying anything negative about him. That reluctance extends even to Aubert de Villaine, whose Domaine de la Romanee-Conti makes several of the greatest and most expensive wines in the world, and makes them in such tiny quantities, that Parker couldn’t possibly hurt him. De Villaine declined to talk about Parker, saying that he did not want to have to choose between “honest answers or answers of convenience.”
Some wine merchants tend to be more willing to complain about Parker, even though they have benefited from the increased wine sales his writings have helped engender.
“People don’t want to drink wine anymore, they want to drink scores--Parker scores,” says Paul Smith, manager of Woodland Hills Wine Co. “They don’t want your advice, the benefit of all your years of buying and tasting. All they want to know is ‘What [score] did Parker give it?’ When people buy by the numbers, that drives the prices up for the top-rated wines, and then the other wineries raise their prices, too, and everyone has to pay more.”
But at least Parker has no vested interest in recommending a particular wine. Customers have to wonder if even the most reputable wine merchant is recommending a wine because he really thinks it’s good or because he bought a lot of it and does not want to get stuck with it. Moreover, it is the wine merchants who have provided Parker with his immense power. Given the small circulation of the Wine Advocate, most people would not even know he existed if they didn’t trumpet his numbers in an effort to sell their wines.
Although most of Parker’s critics tend to be either winemakers who have gotten low scores or wine merchants, importers and other wine writers who are jealous of his influence, many who value what he has accomplished also worry about his impact.
Neal Rosenthal, who began importing wines the same year that Parker began writing about them, says that although “the wine industry is far better off today because of his efforts,” too many winemakers have changed what they do to produce the same kinds of wines everywhere--the “powerful, rich, forward, deeply colored wines” Parker favors.
But just as it seems unfair to blame Parker for his influence in the marketplace, so it seems unfair to hold him responsible for poorly made wines. “If you blame anyone,” says Kermit Lynch, a prominent wine importer and merchant who divides his time between Berkeley and Burgundy, “blame the people who follow him blindly. After all, he doesn’t make the wine.”
Moreover, Parker says, “I believe strongly in the importance of what the French call terroir"--a word that literally means “soil” but also embraces the climate, the drainage, the elevation, the sunlight, even the history, the culture and the intangibles in the air of each individual vineyard.
“If the winemaker does his job properly,” Parker says, “the essential characteristics of the vineyard will ultimately come through. It may not happen right away, but it will happen as the wine develops. The ’82 Cheval Blanc tastes like Cheval Blanc and nothing else. The ’90 Margaux tastes like Margaux and nothing else. It’s not my fault if some people misunderstand or overreact to what I’ve written and obliterate their terroir. That’s the last thing I want.”
Memories of Cold Duck
Parker, his wife, Pat, and their 11-year-old daughter, Maia, live in the rolling hills of Monkton, Md., 30 minutes north of Baltimore. They share the home with a basset hound named Hoover, an English bulldog named George and 20,000 or so bottles of wine. It’s the house that Pat grew up in--since remodeled and expanded several times to include three wine cellars and Parker’s office and tasting room.
Parker delights in telling the story of his dual love affair with Pat and with wine, and driving from Arrowood to Landmark Winery, he does so, with relish.
“We met when we were 12, and we started dating three years later. The first wine I remember drinking was Cold Duck sparkling wine, at Pat’s 18th birthday party. I got so drunk her father had to drive me home. I woke up in the middle of the night feeling lousy, and I wrapped myself around what I thought was the toilet bowl. It turned out that I’d wrapped myself around one of my open dresser drawers and thrown up all over my clothes.”
Two years later, in December 1967, Parker went to France to visit Pat, who was spending her junior year at the University of Strasbourg in Alsace (she would subsequently teach French in the United States for 18 years, until they adopted Maia from a South Korean orphanage); they rendezvoused in Paris, and for their first meal, she took him to a cafe, where he had his first-ever glass of dry table wine.
“It was a revelation,” he says. “I’d never liked beer because it bloated me, and I’d never liked hard liquor because it numbed me. Wine just gave me a pleasant buzz--and it tasted good; it was also the perfect accompaniment to food and, in those days, it was even cheaper than Coke. We spent six weeks in France, with some side trips to Germany, eating and drinking and sightseeing, and by the time I got back, I was not only more in love than ever with Pat, I had begun to love--or at least to admire and appreciate--French culture and cuisine and wine.”
He now speaks French--proficiently if not gracefully--and even uses that as a common language when he’s in Italy, speaking with non-English-speaking winemakers. As a Francophile, he was initially critical of California winemaking, and he still complains that fewer than 10% of the state’s 800 wineries make “world-class wines.” Of the 111 perfect 100-point scores he has given since starting the Wine Advocate, only two have gone to California wines; 104 have been French. But California’s “unprecedented success of high-quality vintages in the 1990s amounts to history in the making,” he wrote in the Wine Advocate. The best California wines, he says, are equal to the best made anywhere.
“Take Landmark,” he says now, pointing to the winery’s sign as he pulls up to the entrance. “They used to make mediocre wine. Now they make some very good wines.”
Mary Calhoun, the Landmark proprietor, meets Parker in the reception area of the winery. He is surprised to see her. “I was told you’d be out of town,” he says. “I hope you didn’t return early just for me.”
“No,” she says. “I didn’t come back early. I canceled the trip so I wouldn’t miss you. When you come, it’s like Christmas for us.”
Upstairs, the formal tasting room looks much like Christmas--green walls, red carpet, chairs upholstered in red and green. Two other members of the Landmark team join Parker at a round glass table, and at one point, winemaker Eric Stern suggests that his ’97 Chardonnay, with grapes bought from the prestigious Lorenzo Vineyard, has “hints of orange marmalade.” Parker says, “No, I think it’s more like tangerine marmalade.” This is the closest anyone comes to a disagreement, and the Landmark contingent is elated by Parker’s obvious approval of the nine wines he’s tasting; when he asks Calhoun if she has a contract to get more Lorenzo grapes, her face lights up. “Better than a contract,” she says. The wife of the man who grows the grapes is “my son’s high school religion teacher.”
Most wineries now routinely subject their wines to elaborate chemical analyses, so after the second “flight” of wine--three Chardonnays--Parker asks Stern, “What does the analysis show on the acid in this?”
“We don’t analyze for it,” Stern says. “We think the best tool for analyzing wine is a wine glass.” Parker nods in agreement.
In the past, as Tom Rinaldi, the winemaker at Duckhorn Vineyards in St. Helena, puts it, too many California wineries “made wine by the numbers, following what our lab instruments said [about alcohol and acid and sugar levels], rather than tasting the grapes, tasting the fruit.” That approach led to “industrial winemaking,” Parker says, “the vineyard equivalent of processed food.”
Wine is still as much an art as it is a science, and Parker thinks too many people overlook that. The art is what makes wine unpredictable, and it’s the potential for surprise--for discovering a great wine from a vineyard or a vintage that he has previously been highly critical of--that helps keep him excited, day after day, bottle after bottle.
From ‘Who’s He?’ to ‘RP’ Overnight
When Parker returned from his first trip to France in 1968, he began reading all he could about wine. He also started a wine tasting group. After he married Pat in 1969, they vacationed in Europe every summer, using itineraries designed around great wine-growing regions. Although he went to law school and took a job in a corporate firm, he became increasingly obsessed with wine--reading about it, talking about it, tasting it, drinking it, buying it. In 1978, he started the Wine Advocate--originally the Baltimore/Washington Wine Advocate--with $2,000 borrowed from his mother. (Now 74, she still helps with secretarial work in his office.) He sent out 6,500 free copies of the first, 16-page issue (it’s now regularly 56 pages); 600 of the recipients sent in subscription orders--barely enough money to pay for the second issue. Growth was slow but steady, and in 1981, he also began writing a freelance wine column for the Washington Post at $150 a column.
Then, in March 1983, came his early evaluation of the 1982 Bordeaux vintage. It was, he wrote, “monumental . . . one of the very great years of this century.” Overnight, Robert Parker went from “Who’s he?” to RP. Within a year, he had 10,000 subscribers, and he had quit his law practice and the Post.
Parker didn’t speak French when he went to Bordeaux to taste barrel samples of the 1982 Bordeaux--Pat had to translate for him--but he was so thrilled by the wines, he says, that “I worried throughout my flight back to the States that the plane would crash and I’d be killed before I could write about them.”
To Parker, the ‘82s were “opulent, voluptuous, ravishing.” They were also softer and more approachable than traditional Bordeaux, and in a foreshadowing of the criticism that would be visited on “Parker wines” in the years to come, many in Bordeaux and elsewhere worried that they did not have enough acid and tannin--the often astringent compounds that come from the skins, seeds and, sometimes, the stems of grapes and that generally provide the backbone necessary for a wine to improve with age and to last two or three decades or more.
At the time, British wine writers dominated the field. To them, Parker was a colonial upstart, incapable of informed judgment on their beloved “clarets” (as the Britons call Bordeaux wines). They seemed to feel that, in Parker’s words, “a wine has to taste nasty when it’s young if it’s going to be great when it’s old.” To Parker, that’s “nonsense. A great wine will get better later, sure, but it should taste good even when it’s young.”
Nevertheless--to Parker’s amazement--a number of American wine writers were also skeptical about the ‘82s. Robert Finigan, whose Private Guide to Wines was then the nation’s best-known wine newsletter, dismissed the wines as “oafish.” (“Oafish?” Parker says. “Hell, I thought he was talking about me.”) Terry Robards, then a columnist for Wine Spectator magazine, told his readers that some ‘82s were “downright flabby.” The wines would be “charming to drink at a young age,” he said, but for the long term, “investing in 1979s or 1981s at this point would be more prudent.”
Today, the ‘79s and ‘81s are regarded as good but not exceptional, while the ‘82s--as the Wine Spectator acknowledged in a 23-page retrospective late last year--remain “stupendous.” Prices for the ‘82s, especially the big names with big Parker scores, have also been stupendous. A bottle of Chateau Mouton-Rothschild that sold for less than $50 when it was released (and received 100 points from Parker) now brings $450 to $700 at auction. Chateau le Pin, originally $23, goes for more than $1,700--if it can be found.
Bordeaux prices--and wine prices in general--began to accelerate after the ’82 vintage, and many Bordeaux chateaux now delay announcing their first prices on a new vintage until they see what scores Parker gives, figuring that high scores will enable them to charge higher prices. Similarly, when they know they have a weak vintage, many will set their prices early, hoping to sell before Parker slams the vintage and depresses the market.
It’s ironic that Parker’s praise for the ’82 Bordeaux--and other wine writers’ criticism of the vintage--served as his launching pad; he began writing about wine because he thought most wines he drank were not nearly as good as the critics said. “I started at a time when there was a lot of grotesquely flawed wine being made,” he says, “but no one was really saying that.”
Most of the major wine writers of the day--men like Clive Coates and Hugh Johnson in England and Frank Schoonmaker and Alexis Lichine in this country--doubled as wine merchants or were otherwise part of the wine trade; not surprisingly, they were not generally inclined toward harsh criticism of either specific producers or entire vintages. Parker saw himself as an advocate for the wine consumer, and he was not reluctant to denounce individual producers and whole regions and vintages alike.
Parker was the right person in the right place at the right time with the right formula. In the early 1980s, the U.S. economy was booming. Americans were traveling abroad in larger numbers than ever before. Nouvelle cuisine had ignited an interest in fresh, naturally grown, high-quality food among Americans heretofore largely content with frozen TV dinners, canned fruits and vegetables and a squat ‘n’ gobble approach to mealtime. Julia Child had helped create that revolution; Parker capitalized on it.
But most Americans--and many other people outside the major wine-producing countries of western Europe, where wine has long been an integral part of the culture--were ignorant of and insecure about wine. “They had to be led by the nose and told what to drink,” says Robert Chadderdon, a New York-based wine importer, and Parker did just that, in easy-to-understand terms.
Before Parker, wine writers who awarded points--and many did not--used the 20-point system common to the French school system. Most American schools have long used 100 points, though--90 to 100 is an A, 80 to 89 a B and so on--and this familiar system was crucial to Parker’s success (so much so that the Wine Spectator adopted it several years later).
Equally important, given that top European wineries export most of their wine, English had become the dominant language of international commerce and communication by the time of Parker’s arrival. His numbers were--and are--accompanied by simple, lucid English, quite unlike the winespeak gobbledygook and dense thickets of prose created by many of his predecessors and early competitors.
Trying to Avoid ‘Palate Fatigue’
Parker enjoys food almost as much as he enjoys wine. Since it’s nearing lunchtime when he leaves Landmark, he says he would like to stop next at a Chinese restaurant in Santa Rosa that he heard about earlier in the week.
He orders quickly--and copiously. “No wine,” he says. “I usually don’t drink with meals when I’m tasting all day.”
How much wine does he actually drink--not just taste, drink?
“I used to drink about two bottles a day” he says, “but when I hit my mid-40s, I figured it was wise to cut back to a little more than one a day.”
How is his health?
“I’ve got gout. All that rich food, no doubt. Apart from that, it’s excellent. Twice a year I get my liver examined and my blood tested and I have a top nose and throat guy check my tongue and mouth and lips.”
Parker is something of an “idiot savant” about wine, his doctor says, but many of his critics accept only the first half of that description. It’s preposterous, they say, to suggest that anyone can taste as many wines as he sometimes does in a single day and still be able to make the subtle distinctions necessary to determine that one is worth, say, 87 points and another 86.
“All I can tell you,” he says, jabbing the air with a chopstick, “is that if I couldn’t do it, I wouldn’t do it. There are times when I feel exhausted, in danger of a palate meltdown, and then I quit. But most of the time my palate holds up just fine.”
Several people who have attended marathon tastings with Parker agree.
“We tasted more than 100 wines, and his questions and perceptions were as sharp and incisive at 6 p.m. as they’d been when we started at 9:30 that morning,” says Bruce Neyers, proprietor of Neyers Vineyard in the Napa Valley and national sales manager for Kermit Lynch.
Most experienced wine tasters say they could not intelligently taste so many wines themselves without suffering “palate fatigue.” Most agree, however, that just because they couldn’t do it doesn’t mean Parker can’t; many likened him to Michael Jordan or other exceptional professional athletes whose practice and passion had further enhanced the extraordinary skills with which they were born--in Parker’s case, an especially keen sense of taste and smell and a remarkable memory for both.
Indeed, Dr. Marcia Pelchat, a food and wine specialist at the Monell Chemical Senses Center at the University of Pennsylvania, says much of what some people might perceive as palate fatigue is actually a problem of memory or concentration. “A well-trained expert like Parker,” she says, can “remember and process information in a more efficient way [and] . . . doesn’t need as much sensory input . . . so even if he suffers some sensory fatigue, he can still do it--sort of like Beethoven being able to compose the Ninth Symphony when he could no longer hear.”
It’s one thing to taste a lot of wines. It’s quite another, though, to give each one a precise numerical score. That reduces a subjective experience, one potentially filled with romance and poetry, to simple numbers. Worse, it implies a static quality to wine, whereas wine is actually “a living thing that continues to evolve and develop over time” in the words of Patrice Rion of Domaine Daniel Rion & Fils in Burgundy. Tasting wine when it’s young--which is what Parker and other wine writers do when making their all-important initial evaluations--is like “taking a photo of a baby,” Rion says. “You can have an idea what it will be when it’s older but only an idea. It can change a lot.” This is especially true of wines deliberately made in a style designed to impress Parker and other influential wine writers when they first taste them.
Even Bill Blatch, who has been in the Bordeaux wine trade for 25 years and considers himself a Parker admirer, says he worries that Bordeaux wineries are “kowtowing” to Parker and other influential wine journalists by making wines that “show really flashy” when they’re very young but “may not hold up as long in the bottle.” That, he says, is a disservice to the consumer.
Before Parker can respond to these criticisms, the waitress arrives with more food. It’s not very good. “Maybe we should have had some wine after all,” he says.
But wouldn’t the disappointing food make even a good wine taste less good? Most experienced wine drinkers say a wine will taste different depending on what they drink it with--and on how old the wine is and on whether they’re tired or happy or in a foul mood because they had a fight with their wife or their boss or . . .
“I call those people ‘rotating palates,’ ” he says. “I buy a lot of wine--often multiple cases of the same wine--in part so that I can monitor a wine’s evolution over time and under varying circumstances. I’m always re-tasting wines and I very rarely find more than a 3-point variation in my score, no matter what the circumstances, or whether they’re young or old, for that matter. The essential characteristics are always there. Again, it’s all a matter of mental focus. I shut out everything but the wine in my mouth.”
Parker acknowledges that he’s not perfect. Despite the encomiums he bestowed on the ’82 Bordeaux, for example, he didn’t even mention Chateau le Pin in his first three reports on the vintage and he rated it “only” 88 in his final report in 1985. He boosted it to 97 in an updated appraisal four years later and to 100 in his 1995 “What about now?” retrospective. “I never dreamed it would turn out to be this mind-blowing,” he wrote.
On occasion, he’s even admitted being wrong about an entire vintage, as when he initially overrated the 1983 red Burgundies and underrated the 1990 Bordeaux; in both instances, he misjudged the impact of severe weather conditions. He subsequently revised his evaluations. “I owe it to my readers,” he says, “to tell them when I’ve made a mistake.”
Unfortunately, his revised scores sometimes come too late to do his readers any good. They will have bought--or not bought--a wine based on his initial evaluation, and by the time Parker can buy the wine in a store, re-taste it and write about it again, their money’s spent (or not) and the wine may no longer be available. But Parker doesn’t want people to buy wines based solely on the basis of his numerical scores. On the cover of every issue, in boldface, he tells readers that his scores “do not reveal the important facts about a wine . . . the written commentary that accompanies the ratings” is much more valuable, and “there can never be any substitute for your own palate nor any better education than tasting the wine yourself.”
Besides, Parker says, major revisions in his scores don’t occur often enough to be a problem.
“If there’s one thing I have confidence in, it’s the consistency of my palate.”
It’s a point he’ll make repeatedly in interviews over the weeks to come, and more than once he’ll be asked if he’d be willing to demonstrate his consistency. Would he taste and score five or six wines “blind"--without knowing what they are--and then taste and score them again a day or two later?
“No,” he says. “I’m not doing trained dog tricks. I’ve got everything to lose and nothing to gain.”
Next: Sake in Japan, trouble in Burgundy.
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How Parker Rates Wine
In his 100-point system, every wine starts out with 50 points.
* General color and appearance can be worth up to 5 points
* Aroma and bouquet: up to 15 points
* Flavor and finish: up to 20 points
* Potential for further evolution and improvement: up to 10 points
Parker’s Scoring System
96-100: An extraordinary wine of profound and complex character displaying all the attributes expected of a classic wine of its variety.
90-95: An outstanding wine of exceptional complexity and character.
80-89: A barely above average to very good wine displaying various degrees of finesse and flavor as well as character with no noticeable flaws.
70-79: An average wine with little distinction except that it is soundly made. In short, a straightforward, innocuous wine.
60-69: A below average wine containing noticeable deficiencies, such as excessive acidity and/or tannin, an absence of flavor, or possibly dirty aromas or flavors.
50-59: A wine he deems to be unacceptable.
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From Vineyaard to Bottle
Wine is essentially a simple product--it’s basically fermented grape juice. However, differences in the type of grape, soil, climate, wine style and the individual winemaker’s taste complicate the process. Winemakers vary on whether and how much to filter wine to remove sediment and bacteria, and in how much to “fine” the wine to give it clarity. Sulfur dioxide is usually added to prevent bacterial growth.
The Basics of Making Red Wine
(1) CRUSH: Grapes are crushed and sometimes the stems are removed.
(2) FERMENTATION: The crushed grapes, including juice and skins, are pumped into fermenting tanks. Sulfur dioxide and/or yeast may be added before fermentation begins. During fermentation, sugar converts to alcohol; this usually takes 5 to 25 days or longer. Some red wines are fermented a second time to reduce acid.
(3) PRESSING, RACKING, FILTERING: Solids are pressed out of the fluid. Some winemakers “rack” the wine at this point, transferring it back and forth between barrels to clear it of solid particles. Sometimes at mass production wineries, a machine called a centrifuge is used to separate the particles. Wine may be filtered and clarified at this point.
(4) AGING: Wine is transferred to oak barrels to age, generally for up to 3 years. Some wines are blended with other red grape varieties at this point.
(5) FINING AND FILTERING: Wine may be fined using egg whites, gelatin or other coagulants to further clarify it. Sulfur dioxide may be added again and the wine filtered and racked again before bottling.
* Wine, says Robert Parker, should taste first and foremost of the grape. He objects to excessive filtering and other interventionist procedures that he thinks strip wine of its natural flavor, individual identity and distinctive character.
Sources: “Wine Spectator’s California Wine”; “Wine Production Technology in the United States”; “Sunset’s Guide to California’s Wine Country”
Researched by JULIE SHEER / Los Angeles Times