For Wine Critic, the Truth Is in the Glass
Robert Parker tasted 30 wines this morning--a small number by his standards. But it’s only early afternoon. He’s in the California wine country, gathering information for the 20th anniversary issue of the Wine Advocate, the bimonthly newsletter that has made him the most powerful wine critic in the world--the most powerful critic of any kind, anywhere, a man whose writings and ratings have enormous impact in virtually every country where wine is made, bought or sold.
All the wines he’s tasted so far today have been good. Some were extraordinary. On his celebrated--some would say notorious--100-point scale, almost all will be rated between 87 and 97. Passionate about wine, supremely confident in his judgments, he is at the moment a most happy man, very much in his element, as he drives past one vineyard after another, heading toward his next stop--Kistler Vineyards in Sebastopol, in southern Sonoma County.
When Parker traveled to Tokyo for the first time last spring, he tasted 225 different sakes--Japanese rice wines. He acknowledges that he is not a sake expert, but that didn’t stop him from devoting two pages in last fall’s Wine Advocate to numerical ratings of what he deemed the 48 best sakes. He even provided detailed “tasting notes” for the top 15, carefully distinguishing among the four sakes that got 91 points, the eight that got 90 and the three that got “only” 89.
Six months later, while tasting wines in the Piemonte region of northwestern Italy--only his third visit to the area in 20 years--Parker suggested several times that he understood the region’s 1997 Barolo and Barbaresco wines better than the people who made them, some of whose families have been making wine for several generations.
“I don’t think they really realize what they have here,” he said over dinner one night, having spent much of the previous seven hours sampling 144 different wines from 17 different producers and three different years, just the sort of marathon tasting for which he is both famous and controversial.
But for all his self-confidence and power, Parker remains remarkably free of arrogance and pretension. “He’s very down-to-earth, just one of the guys,” says Manfred Krankl, who sent a sample of his Sine Qua Non wine to Parker three years ago, with no previous introduction, and was rewarded with a rating of 95. Parker called his wine a “dazzling . . . tour de force,” and Krankl’s Ojai telephone line was flooded with far more orders than he could possibly fill.
Wine writers have long been an infamously freeloading lot, but Parker does not abuse the power that such consumer responses have given him. He insists on paying for what he wants. Like other wine writers, Parker is not charged for the wine he samples at individual wineries or at the centralized tastings he conducts in Bordeaux, Piemonte, the Rhone and elsewhere. Like other wine writers, he also receives many free, unsolicited single-bottle samples at home. He does not, however, solicit free wine, as many other wine writers have traditionally done--often by the case--and he returns or gives to charity many free wines he is sent.
“I spend about $150,000 a year on wine,” he says, “and an awful lot of that wine gets poured out on the garden, after I’ve tasted it.”
Dominique Lafon, one of the most respected winemakers in Burgundy, says Parker “ordered two cases of wine from me several years ago and insisted--as always--on being billed for the wine. I knew his daughter was born in 1987, so I sent along a case of ‘87s at the same time, free. He sent me a check for the two cases he’d ordered, plus a nice note saying he couldn’t accept the free case and had made his best estimate of its cost and donated that amount to a charity in my name.”
Other winemakers tell similar tales, and Parker is proud of his reputation for integrity, even among his critics. He says he has refused numerous entreaties and lucrative offers to fax, mail or otherwise make available early copies of the Wine Advocate.
During his wine-tasting excursion to Piemonte last fall, Parker invited various winemakers to join him for lavish lunches during his midday breaks--and he paid for everyone’s meal (at a total cost of just under $3,000), as he almost invariably does when he eats with anyone in the wine trade. “He’s the only wine writer I’ve ever had lunch with who picked up the tab,” says Dick Arrowood, proprietor and winemaker at Arrowood winery in the Sonoma Valley.
Unlike most wine writers, Parker has also insisted from the beginning on paying his own way when he travels to wine-growing regions. The Wine Spectator, the largest wine publication in the world, announced a similar “no freebie” policy in 1987, 11 years after it began publication. But unlike the Wine Advocate, which has neither advertising nor photographs, the Wine Spectator is filled with both.
As a biweekly, with three times as many issues as the Wine Advocate--each one containing four or five times as many pages--the Wine Spectator has much more overall information on wine. That’s why the Spectator has 250,000 subscribers, about six times as many as the Advocate. But the Wine Advocate represents one man’s opinion, while the Spectator’s ratings are done by tasting panels, and although the Spectator “may have more influence with people on the outside looking in, Parker’s the most important for the serious wine buyer,” says Greg Koslosky, manager of the Wine Club store in Santa Ana.
Curiosity About the Process
Steve Kistler, the owner and winemaker at Kistler Vineyards, is wearing a wrinkled plaid shirt, dirt-stained Levis and even dirtier tennis shoes when Parker drives up after lunch. His tasting room is really a small laboratory, filled with test tubes, scales, meters, gauges and other winemaking paraphernalia. It’s a far cry from the formal tasting rooms at Arrowood and Landmark, where he sampled wines this morning. There are no chairs, so Parker stands. There aren’t enough glasses, so he rinses his in the sink between wines. Instead of pouring from wine bottles, Kistler pours from a glass beaker; every few minutes, he disappears with a siphon to get more wine from the barrels in the next room.
The wines are sensational--all 12 of them. Parker, it later turns out, scores most of them in the mid-90s.
“This is when I don’t even want to write tasting notes,” he says while sampling one ’97 Chardonnay. “This is a beautiful, beautiful wine.”
Kistler just nods.
“We didn’t add any SO2 yet,” he says, referring to the sulfur dioxide that winemakers use early in the winemaking process to prevent spoilage and to inhibit the growth of bacteria. Even the small amounts of sulfur that good winemakers like Kistler use can affect the taste and smell of the wine for a short period of time. “Usually we’d have put it in by now,” he says, “but we delayed because you were coming. We’ll do it tomorrow.”
Parker has said repeatedly over the years that it is not the process of winemaking but “what’s in the glass that counts”; still, he is deeply curious about how wine gets to the glass. He has strong views on how wines should be made, and now, as he does at every winery he visits, he peppers his host with questions about his winemaking procedures.
Parker is critical of what he terms “greedy, risk-averse, interventionist winemakers,” winemakers who try to grow more grapes than their vineyard can properly produce, who pick their grapes before they are fully ripe, who age all their wines in old oak barrels and who vigorously filter their wines in an effort to make sure they are free of bacteria and other impurities. In Parker’s view, such practices can “emasculate wines, stripping them of their individual identity and distinctive character.” Kistler, however, is Parker’s kind of winemaker; he says he doesn’t do these things.
Because Kistler isn’t much of a talker, Parker is in and out of his winery quickly, without challenging his replies. But Tom Rinaldi, the winemaker at Duckhorn Vineyards, has said he’s seen winemakers “lie to Parker. I don’t blame them. It’s their life’s blood. They’ll say whatever is necessary.” Winemakers in France and Italy have made similar comments. Because they all know how Parker thinks wine should be made, they know what he wants to hear. His exchanges with Kistler raise an obvious question: How can he be sure that Kistler--or any other winemaker--is telling him the truth?
Parker listens to the question, starts to get into his rental car, then backs out.
“Look,” he says, “I take people at face value until they prove they don’t deserve it. But the truth is in the glass. I can usually tell by tasting a wine if the vineyard yield is too high or if a wine has been filtered or put in old oak. Sometimes I can even tell who made their oak barrels.”
Many winemakers say that some of the practices Parker criticizes cannot be detected. He disagrees. But he also says, “I’ve never said you should never filter, just like I’ve never said you always have to age your wine in new oak [barrels]. Some wines shouldn’t be in new oak, and sometimes you have to filter, to make sure you have a healthy wine. You just have to do it lightly. You shouldn’t nuke it. It shouldn’t be a case of ‘Nothing gets out alive,’ as Jim Morrison would say.”
Parker loves rock music--especially Neil Young, Bob Dylan and Bob Seger. He often invokes their lyrics, both in conversation and in his writing, and he usually has a cassette blaring in the car. But he is too polite to play loud music with a guest along, so the conversation resumes. If he is so sure he can spot a filtered wine, how about a “ringer” wine? How does he know that the wines Kistler was squirting into his glass are what consumers will get in the bottle? It has long been rumored that when Parker comes calling, some winemakers give him what is known as a “Parker cuvee"--a special barrel or blend of wine made to impress him (and perhaps a few other influential wine journalists) but not representative of what will ultimately be made available to the public.
“I can put in the bottle whatever I want, whatever will taste best to him,” says Manuel Marchetti, who refused to send his Marcarini Barolos to Parker’s Piemonte tasting, in part because he doesn’t make a Parker cuvee and didn’t want his wines compared with those that might have been “manipulated.”
No one admits to making a Parker cuvee, of course, but Philip Togni, whose California Cabernets consistently get Parker scores in the mid-90s, does acknowledge that he makes sure Parker tastes his good barrels, “the top half” of what he has. Like many other winemakers, both here and abroad, he thinks other winemakers are even more selective in what they permit Parker to taste.
Parker does worry about being set up. “That’s one reason I buy so much wine from wine stores,” he says, “including about 70% of the wines I give 90 or more points to. I want to compare them with what I tasted at the winery and make sure that no one’s playing games with me. Kistler is honest. He wouldn’t do that. Neither would any of the other people we’re seeing today.”
A few wineries have tried to deceive him, though.
“I can’t name names. Remember what happened with Faiveley?”
Francois Faiveley, who runs a major, family-owned winery in Burgundy, sued Parker for libel in 1994 after Parker said in one of his books that some Faiveley wines he had bought in the United States tasted “less rich” than the wines he had tasted in Faiveley’s cellars. The case was settled out of court, with no money changing hands; Parker excised the offending comments from ensuing editions and published a statement that he had not intended to suggest that Faiveley made separate cuvees for journalists and for the public.
Faiveley’s family has been making wine in Burgundy since 1825, though, and he is regarded there as a man of unimpeachable integrity. “Accusing Faiveley of what Parker did is like accusing Mother Teresa of giving your charity funds to gambling houses,” says Becky Wasserman, an American who has lived in Burgundy for 30 years and represents many winemakers there in the worldwide market.
Parker was accustomed to controversy, but not hostility of this magnitude. Whatever their differences, most in the wine trade say that he has interested more people in talking about wine and buying wine and drinking wine, and that’s good for everyone who cares about wine. Retail wine sales in this country have more than quadrupled since he started the Wine Advocate, and in some areas--the Rhone and Piemonte, for example--he is widely regarded as having brought new international attention to wines that long had a much narrower appeal. Suddenly, in Burgundy, he was a villain.
Fallout From a Lawsuit
Burgundians think the Faiveley lawsuit “left a bad taste in Parker’s mouth,” as several said, and was thus responsible for his critical comments about Faiveley’s 1993 wines--and about many other ’93 Burgundies as well. Although other critics praised the ’93 Burgundies, Parker insists he didn’t write negatively about them because of the Faiveley lawsuit. “Time will prove that there are a lot of skinny, nasty, mean wines in that vintage,” he says.
In reviewing Faiveley’s ‘93s, Parker mentioned the lawsuit and then wrote, “The obvious as well as legitimate question of whether I can review these wines fairly will have to be answered by my readers.” He added that he had tasted the Faiveley wines “blind"--without knowing whose wines they were--alongside three other Burgundy enthusiasts, all of whom scored the wines slightly lower than he did.
“I would never let someone’s treatment of me affect what I write about their wine,” he says. “I’ve been critical of friends’ wines--and lost a couple of those friends--and I’ve given some of my greatest scores to wines made by people I think are contemptible. . . .”
Parker doesn’t write about Burgundy in the Wine Advocate anymore, though. Two years ago, he hired Pierre-Antoine Rovani, an American whose parents and first language are French, to cover Burgundy (and a few other wine regions)--the first time Parker ever allowed anyone else to review wines in the Wine Advocate.
“The wine world is expanding, with more good wine being made in more different countries than ever before,” Parker says, “and as I approached 50, I realized I had to have help.” He’s been attacked, for example, for writing about the wines of Spain, Germany, Tuscany, Australia and South America without ever visiting those places to taste their wines. Importers arrange tastings near his home for these wines, but that’s not the same as seeing the vineyards and the cellars and talking to the winemakers. With Rovani on board, Parker expects to travel more widely.
Although Rovani will be responsible for several areas, Parker will keep most of the major wine-growing regions--Bordeaux, California, the Rhone, Piemonte, Champagne--for himself. “I couldn’t be greedy and monopolize all the best stuff,” he says. “I knew when I picked Pierre that I had to give him at least one plum, and he wanted Burgundy.”
Parker acknowledges that Burgundy has always been a troublesome area for him. Some Burgundians think that’s because he began as an aficionado of Bordeaux, where wines tend to be bigger, deeper in color and more powerful than in Burgundy; they say that he neither understands nor appreciates the finesse and elegance of their wines, and indeed, over the years, he has given only 10 perfect 100-point scores to Burgundies, while giving 53 to Bordeaux wines--and 31 to Rhone wines, which are often even more powerful. (He has given 100 points to only one Italian wine--the 1985 Sassacaia--and some there feel he doesn’t appreciate what they do either, especially in Tuscany, where he often tends to favor newer, Cabernet Sauvignon-based wines over the traditional and indigenous Sangiovese-based wines.)
“Power . . . and concentration have never been what’s good about Burgundy,” says Kermit Lynch, a wine importer and retailer who divides his time between Burgundy and Berkeley. “That’s not what’s wonderful about it. “
As much as he likes and respects Parker, Lynch says they do not generally like the same Burgundies because “we just are looking for different things.”
Burgundy is made from the Pinot Noir grape, and for almost a decade now, Parker and his brother-in-law have owned their own Pinot Noir winery in Oregon--Beaux Freres. Although their wines are generally well-regarded, a number of critics say Beaux Freres, like some other American Pinots Noirs and certain other wines that Parker likes, are too concentrated to be classic versions of those varietals. Parker scoffs at the charge. He insists that he loves Pinot Noir-based wines and understands what makes them special.
“If I didn’t love Pinot Noir, why would I try to make it?” he asks. “It’s the most difficult wine to make, but when it’s done right, it’s great--the best. Unfortunately, when I started out, many winemakers in Burgundy were not . . . making great wine. They had this great terroir . . . and they were blowing it, betraying their heritage, and I said so.”
A surprising number of winemakers in Burgundy agree. But Burgundians are a “wonderfully ornery and individualistic lot who’ve been making wine for generation after generation,” as Wasserman puts it--and they did not particularly like hearing the criticism from an upstart young American, especially one who, Rovani concedes, was sometimes “obnoxious” in his observations.
Although Rovani has echoed most of Parker’s criticisms of Burgundy winemaking, his taste and manner are both regarded as “more Burgundian” than Parker’s; even those who are harshly critical of Parker quickly came to like Rovani--and to cooperate with him.
Many Burgundians were uncooperative when Parker tried to visit their wineries or asked them to send their wines to a centralized tasting location. More important, the tastings were often frustrating.
“Burgundy evolves very irregularly,” Parker says. “Unlike my experience with other wines, I often find much more than a 3-point discrepancy when I re-taste them. That’s always bothered me, and if I had to chastise myself for not living up to my own standards, it would be there. I’m not happy with my Burgundy reviews.”
Even fanatic Burgundy buffs admit that Burgundy can be the most unpredictable, disappointing and confusing of the world’s great wines. Unlike Bordeaux, which is largely made up of big commercial estates, Burgundy is a patchwork quilt of mostly tiny vineyards, many occupying less than an acre, often with similar, almost identical names, producing wines in microscopic quantities.
Burgundy can be daunting, even to experienced wine drinkers, and that makes an independent, knowledgeable critic especially valuable. But many wines that Parker tasted in Burgundy were unavailable for his comparative tastings in the United States. When he could find the wines here, they often--as in the Faiveley case--seemed inferior to those he’d tasted in Burgundy. Was that because Burgundy is made from the fragile Pinot Noir grape, and the wines were damaged in transit or in storage? Was it because he tasted barrel samples in Burgundy, and those wines were then excessively filtered before they were bottled? Or was it because he’d been given “Parker cuvees” in Burgundy? He had no way of knowing for sure, so in 1992, he announced that he would no longer publish tasting notes or ratings of barrel samples in Burgundy; he would only write about Burgundies that had been bottled.
For all the criticism he has encountered in Burgundy, Parker continues to insist that he has had “more impact there than anywhere else in changing the way people make wine. There were maybe half a dozen or so people making unfiltered wines there when I started,” he says, “and now there are more than 100.” Pascal Marchand, the winemaker at Domaine Comte Armand in Burgundy, says Parker claims too much credit for that change--"we were learning more and trying to make better wines for the world, not for Mr. Parker"--but he and others agree that Parker and the importers whose wines Parker has praised have been “major elements in pushing people to make better-quality wines.”
A Visit With a Maverick
The last winery on today’s itinerary is just around the bend in the road--Williams Selyem, one of the state’s benchmark producers of Pinot Noir. In early 1998, owners Burt Williams and Ed Selyem sold the winery to Millbrook Wine Estates of New York. Williams, the winemaker, agreed to stay on for at least two years, and it’s Williams whom Parker is supposed to see today, on his first visit to the winery. But Williams is nowhere in sight. Parker pokes his nose into what appears to be a small shed. A winery employee walks over, and Parker introduces himself in his typically low-key manner--"Hi, I’m Bob Parker, and I’m looking for Burt.”
A few minutes later, Williams walks in. He’s gruff, seemingly annoyed at being interrupted. Clearly, he’s not the least bit impressed that the Great Man has finally come to visit.
Again, Parker tastes standing up--this time surrounded by large wine barrels. He gets one tiny glass, a glass that won’t allow the bouquet of the wine to develop and show itself. Parker raises his eyebrows but doesn’t complain. Williams doesn’t move. Unlike Kistler, Williams has not deviated from his normal winemaking schedule to accommodate Parker. When Parker sips the first wine and says he tastes sulfur, Williams just nods and says, “It was necessary. We’ve got doors opening and closing here and temperatures fluctuating, and we couldn’t take a chance.”
Williams knows this could cost him several points in Parker’s ratings, but like many small wineries, Williams Selyem sells almost all its wine through a customer mailing list, so Parker can’t hurt him, at least not in the short term, and Williams even dares to tweak Parker a bit. “We don’t pay much attention here to scores and all that crap,” he says.
Parker recoils in mock horror and screeches, “Hey, hey, hey!”
Soon, however, the two men are locked in a discussion about various winemaking techniques, and Williams gradually warms to Parker. It’s a typical reaction. Even people who disagree with his ratings and resent his influence find it difficult to dislike him once they have met him. His knowledge, enthusiasm, curiosity and lack of attitude win over most people.
The Williams Selyem wines haven’t won Parker over, though. “The wines are good,” he says as he drives away, “they’re just not on the cutting edge anymore. Now that the winery’s been sold, it could get worse. They could just try to make a lot of money living off the good name for a few years.”
Parker says that he finds a full day of tasting so “mentally exhausting” that he usually goes back to his hotel afterward, orders a hamburger or a salad for dinner and goes to bed early. Not tonight. “Let’s go to Pinot Blanc [a nearby French bistro] for a plate of oysters,” he says.
On the way, he responds to critics who say that he can’t judge wines fairly because he doesn’t taste enough of them “blind.” Marvin Shanken, editor and publisher of the Wine Spectator, says 99% of the Spectator tastings are done blind because “it’s virtually impossible not to be prejudiced, positive or negative [when you can see the label on what you’re tasting]. The taster is a human being . . . and even if you say it doesn’t influence you, there’s no way to know it doesn’t influence you.”
Others say blind tasting is overrated. Knowing what wine you’re tasting, they say, enables you to take into account the characteristics and history of that particular vineyard and that particular vintage and thus evaluate the wine and its potential within a meaningful context.
What does Parker have to say about this debate?
He looks at his watch before addressing the issue, as if trying to calculate if he has enough time to do so before he gets to the restaurant, now just a few minutes away.
“I probably taste blind about 25% to 35% of the wines I wind up writing about--most of them in the tasting room at my house,” he says. “I used to taste more blind, but the more experienced I’ve become, the more I’ve realized that the label doesn’t mean a thing to me. I focus totally on what’s in the glass.”
‘King of Wines, Wine of Kings’
What’s in the glass?
Randy Dunn violates Parker’s winemaking guidelines about not filtering wines or adding acid to them. He’s convinced that such steps are necessary to assure his customers of stable, healthy wines. Parker gave 96 points to each of Dunn’s last three vintages anyway. Bo Barrett of Chateau Montelena also filters his wines. He, too, gets high scores from Parker--94s and 95s for his last three vintages. In the December issue of the Wine Advocate, Parker wrote, “No other winery in California has such a consistent record of excellence over the last 25 years.” Then there’s Nils Venge. He made the 1985 Groth Reserve Cabernet. He says he not only filtered the wine, he also harvested five tons of grapes per acre that year--more than double the yield Parker generally recommends. Parker gave the wine 100 points--the first American wine to earn a perfect score.
Do these examples prove that Parker’s critics are right and that he can’t always tell how a wine was made? Or are Dunn, Barrett and Venge proof that he does judge wine by “what’s in the glass”?
His ratings of recent vintages of Barolo might provide an answer. Until the last 15 or 20 years, Barolo makers let their grape juice macerate--remain in contact with the skins--for several weeks during the fermentation process, then aged it in large, Yugoslavian oak barrels. The combination produced wines so powerful and tannic that they couldn’t be drunk for 15 or 20 years. Once drinkable, though, they lasted for 20 or 30 years--or longer. In Italy, Barolo has long been regarded as “the king of wines, the wine of kings.” Aldo Conterno, one of the great winemakers--and, at 67, one of the grand old men--of Piemonte, likes to say, “If Christ had served Barolo at the Last Supper, Judas wouldn’t have betrayed him.
“But everybody has changed the way they make wine here,” Conterno says, “even if they deny it.”
Many in the new generation of Piemontese winemakers (not Conterno) now put their wine in small, French oak barrels, and some--older winemakers like Conterno among them--now allow their grape juice to remain in contact with the skins for only days, not weeks. These changes and others have produced a different kind of wine, drinkable at a much earlier age.
“The new-style wines are good, some of them may even be great,” Conterno says. “But they aren’t characteristic of Barolo.”
At many wineries, these changes have triggered considerable hostility, often pitting father against son.
“My father made wines the old way for years,” says Elio Altare, “and when I wanted to change, we had a big fight. He said I was destroying everything he’d built up. But this area was dying. People weren’t buying Barolo anymore. I finally took an electric saw into the cellar and cut up all his big, old casks, so we had to use the barriques [small, French oak barrels]. When he died two years later, he was still so angry he didn’t leave anything to me. My sisters got the house and the vineyards and everything.”
Altare borrowed money, bought the vineyards from his sisters and made wine his way, and four years later, Parker named him one of the top 12 wine producers in the world for 1989.
Parker was one of the first to praise the new-style wines--the Barbarescos of Angelo Gaja and the Barolos of Altare, among others. That encouraged the pioneers in that style to persevere, and it encouraged many others to join in the experiment. (He’s had much the same effect in Spain in recent years.) But Parker, while critical of the “harshness and mustiness” of many old-style Barolos, also gives high praise--and high scores--to the best wines made by some of the few remaining traditionalists.
“By praising both, it was a miracle--he created the best possible world for Piemonte,” says Pio Boffa, proprietor of Pio Cesare vineyards.
To Parker, there’s no “miracle” about it. “A great wine is a great wine,” he says, “no matter how you make it.”
California’s ‘Most Profound Wine’
The maitre d’ at Pinot Blanc takes Parker straight to his table, and Parker immediately orders a dozen oysters. As soon as he begins scanning the menu, he abandons his plan for a quick, light dinner with no wine.
“It’s not even 6 o’clock,” he says. “Let’s have some mussels, too. And I think I’ll have the veal cheeks after that.”
He asks for the wine list. “They’ve got Harlan Estate,” he says, beaming. He’s given recent vintages of Harlan scores of 98, 99 and 100. He says it’s “maybe the single most profound wine in California.” After his first sip, Parker’s cherubic face takes on a blissful glow. He has said that he “gets chills” when he tastes certain wines, and this is one of them.
Harlan is dense and powerful, and it provides the ideal opportunity to ask about the most frequent criticism of Parker’s writings and ratings--that he only likes dense, powerful wines, especially the most concentrated wines from the Rhone, Bordeaux and California. These wines may be dazzling when sipped briefly at a formal tasting, but many say that they can be so intense that they are fatiguing after a couple of glasses, and they sometimes overpower the food they are intended to accompany. Bo Barrett calls these wines “heavily front-loaded, Dolly Parton wines, with ‘gobs of fruit’ [a favorite Parker phrase] but maybe not enough balance to last a long time.”
Critics say that Parker gives such wines high scores because they stand out when he tastes a large number of young wines in a short period of time. Wines of elegance and finesse that may be better in the long run tend not to fare as well. It’s not just the Burgundians and assorted Parker detractors who say this; many of his biggest boosters and beneficiaries agree.
Luciano Sandrone, one of the new generation of Barolo makers who acknowledges that rave reviews from Parker have “created a new and very special market for my wine,” says that when he visited California vineyards two years ago, he sampled wines that Parker had given high scores to because he respects his palate. “But I was very disappointed,” he says. “They were all very big, dense, rich, with a lot of alcohol.”
Parker has heard all this before. With the weary air of a man who has been through this argument many times, he slowly puts down his fork and says, “Yes, I like wines with personality--just like I like people with personality. I don’t like people who win arguments by shouting, though, and I don’t like those kinds of wines either.
“I guess I’ll go to my grave hearing that I only like ‘big fruit bombs,’ ” he says, “but it’s just not true. In the first place, big wines stand out in a tasting only for someone who doesn’t have a good palate, and in the second place, just look at all the wines I’ve given good scores to.”
He ticks off more than a dozen wines, from all over the world, that he has praised highly--all of them made in a lighter, more elegant style. He could easily point to a number of such wines in every issue of the Wine Advocate. But his protestations notwithstanding, it is clear that he does have preferences--not prejudices, mind you, but preferences. Although he routinely gives scores in the low- to mid-90s to elegant wines, he is far more likely to give his highest scores--98, 99, 100--and his most fervid prose to, well, “big fruit bombs.” In just three pages of the Wine Advocate, top-rated wines were described as “spectacularly intense . . . blockbuster-styled . . . massive . . . huge . . . [and] full-bodied,” not to mention “super-rich . . . explosively rich . . . fabulously rich . . . stunningly rich.”
But all critics have preferences. Their readers learn to evaluate their recommendations accordingly. People might buy two or three wines because Parker raves about them, but if they are consistently disappointed, even the most insecure will finally stop paying attention to what he says, just as they would if they began to disagree often with their favorite film critic or restaurant critic.
“I’d be delighted to be a little less influential,” Parker says. “It would take some of the pressure off. But it’s not happening.”
An International Palate
Parker’s continued success raises the intriguing question of how much he influences people’s taste and how much he simply reflects their taste. Americans, in particular, have always had a preference for strong, “sweet” flavors--it’s part of our Coca-Cola culture--but despite the hegemony of the English language and the size and growth of the wine market here, U.S. taste alone is not sufficient to alter winemaking practices abroad.
About 11% of the people in this country drink 88% of the wine; on a per capita basis, Americans drink 54 gallons of soft drinks a year--and less than two gallons of wine. More than 30 countries have higher per capita wine consumption rates than the United States, with France, Italy and Portugal all averaging more than 15 gallons per capita.
“But tastes have been changing throughout the world over the past 15 years or so,” says Tino Cola, an Italian winemaker. “To some extent, the American palate is becoming the international palate. Most people everywhere now want richer, fresher, fruitier wines, and Parker has captured that shift.”
The change in taste is not limited to wines. Many restaurants say that customers also want big, bold flavors, often achieved by the use of chiles and assorted Asian and Latin American spices. Indeed, we now live in an overstimulated environment overall--louder music, bigger billboards, movies filled with ever more spectacular pyrotechnics, and local newscasts dominated by crime and violence. In this environment, the demand for more intense wines--wines that stand out in an increasingly crowded marketplace--hardly seems surprising.
Parker also seems to have tapped into another cultural phenomenon: The world is moving at a faster pace than ever before. People are impatient. They want immediate gratification. Fewer and fewer are willing to wait 15 or 20 years or longer to drink a bottle they bought yesterday. Wines made “Parker’s way” can be consumed much sooner.
Along the Way, a ‘Wine Goddess’
Dinner’s over. It’s still early--only a little after 8 o’clock--but Parker is eager to call it a day.
“My first tasting is at 8 in the morning,” he says, heading toward the parking lot. “Then I’ve got some real blockbusters--Helen Turley’s wines.”
Turley is his favorite American winemaker. She and her husband, John Wetlaufer, the vineyard manager, make Chardonnays under their own Marcassin label and are also consultants for Colgin Cellars, Bryant Family Vineyard, Pahlmeyer and Martinelli, among other high-scoring wineries. In one issue of the Wine Advocate, Parker mentioned her six times, referring to her as a “genius” and a “wine goddess.”
Parker says he doesn’t understand why “more people don’t make wine the way Helen does. With her low yields, you won’t get as much wine, but if it’s really good wine, you can make up for that by charging more per bottle. And her wines are sensational.
“Of course, tomorrow afternoon, after Helen, I have to go to. . . . " He rattles off the names of several more wineries, some more than 100 miles away. “Then I go to Santa Barbara for two days of tastings before I go home, close the next issue of the Wine Advocate and head off to Europe for three weeks of tasting.”
It sounds exhausting. Not to Parker. “I’m really looking forward to it,” he says, “all of it. All those new wines, all those new vintages.” He starts jiggling back and forth, his eyes almost glittering. Unlike many critics, who become jaded--and harder to please--the longer they are on the job, Parker has grown more enthusiastic, and his ratings confirm that. In the first 10 vintages after the Wine Advocate began publication, he gave perfect 100 scores to only 22 wines; in the next 10 vintages, he gave 42 perfect scores.
“I don’t know how people are on cocaine; I’ve never tried it,” he says. “But wine really gets me jazzed, especially great wine. The night before I fly anyplace, I always make sure to drink a great bottle--just in case the plane goes down.”
Part one of this series is available on The Times’ Web site at https://www.latimes.com/parker.
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In gallons per capita, 1996
1. France: 15.85
2. Italy: 15.68
3. Portugal: 15.44
4. Luxembourg: 13.31
5. Argentina: 10.96
6. Switzerland: 10.88
7. Slovenia: 10.25
8. Spain: 9.96
9. Austria: 8.45
10. Romania: 8.32
30. United States: 1.92
Source: Wine Institute
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Wine Industry Growth
The growth of the U.S. wine industry since Robert Parker Jr. started the Wine Advocate:
Estimated number of commercial wineries in California:
Retail sales in the U.S., in billions of dollars:
1978: $4.6 billion
1999: $16.1 billion
Source: Wine Institute