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Debunking Robert Parker’s biggest critics on Parkerisation

A case of sour grapes for those pointing their glasses at Robert Parker for 'Parkerising' the wine world.

“For my part, I consider that it will be found much better by all Parties to leave the past to history, especially as I propose to write that history.” – Winston Churchill

Winston Churchill made good on his promise to write his own history in the form of a six-volume series of textbooks he penned entitled, “The Second World War” (1948-1953). Although he was no doubt a biased historian, perhaps Churchill can be forgiven for writing his own account of the war he won; after all, this was a time when there were far fewer historians, who were commonly dictated to by a handful of powerful men and the means of disseminating information were limited. History was often a compromised perspective of how the events leading to an inevitable conclusion played out, favoring some details, omitting others. A lot and not so much has changed since then. Now, with the internet and social media, there are far more voices and many, many more opportunities for being heard. And yet, the “truths” that we believe to be our histories tend to continue to be written as carefully crafted versions of events, often forged by compromised authors.

I am one such author. Anyone who knows me will know that my discussion of anything that has to do with Robert M. Parker, Jr. will be biased. So, let me come clean with this from the outset. I was first introduced to Robert Parker in 2003 and began working for him in 2008. I am currently the Editor-in-Chief and a critic for the publication he founded forty years ago, The Wine Advocate, now known as Robert Parker Wine Advocate. Robert Parker remains a minority shareholder of this publication and an advisor to our company, as well as one of my greatest mentors. While my historical account here may be compromised, on the other hand, like Churchill’s first-hand knowledge of World War II, I happen to know a bit more about Parker than most wine writers.

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Specifically, our modern wine history has this concept of Parkerisation written into it. Parkerisation is the perceived phenomenon of a global wine production trend that sought to achieve an “international style” of wines that would garner high scores from Parker, mainly during the peak of his tasting career between 1990 and 2015.

Naively, I confess, I’d pretty much written off Parkerisation as a concept and one which our modern-day wine world surely had long since dispelled. It appears not. Apparently, Parkerisation is now so pervasive it is widely accepted as an historical truth. However, as Churchill suggests with his “history will be kind to me for I intend to write it,”—that history is not an absolute but a convenient selection of events leading to an inevitable conclusion—I would like to argue exactly the same: that Parkerisation is a lie.

Before tackling the contentious subject of the Parkerisation lie, let’s back up to consider another scapegoat of his time: Émile Peynaud. Now widely recognized as the father of modern winemaking, Peynaud was responsible not just for cleaning up the dank, dirty cellars of Bordeaux, but for championing what we now consider basic practices such as fruit selection (throwing out rotten and green grapes), fermenting distinctive parcels separately and temperature-controlled fermentations.

While this all appears to be pretty basic practice today, at the peak of his career Peynaud was not so lovingly embraced for revolutionizing winemaking. Mike Steinberger noted in his 2004 article about Peynaud, entitled The Tastemaker, that “His recommendations resulted in cleaner, fruitier, more supple wines that were accessible in their youth but also built for the long haul. His approach was not without controversy. In the 1950s and ‘60s, there were skeptics who decried the “Peynaudization” of Bordeaux—they believed that a fine Bordeaux had to be hard-as-nails in its infancy and generally took a dim view of any wine that was especially pleasurable.

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Rise of the wine critic

If Peynaud is the father of modern winemaking, then I would like to suggest that Robert Parker is the father of modern wine criticism. Let’s be honest, wine criticism didn’t much exist before Robert Parker. Sure, we had plenty of great wine writers. André Simon, Harry Waugh, Michael Broadbent and Hugh Johnson were among my favorites of the pre-Parker era. But, for all their wine knowledge, tasting experience and eloquent language, you couldn’t really call them “critics.” For a start, all of these writers worked in the trade, with direct or indirect interests in the sale of wine, and so however good they were/are as tasters and writers—and there’s no denying they were/are good—they potentially had an interest in gaining from the wines that they promoted.

In the early 1970s, when Parker first conceived of writing his own wine guide, he was taken with the work of Ralph Nader, an American political activist who sought to “out” corporate and political corruption by challenging compromised propaganda. Parker recognized that much of what was then being written about wine was compromised by the financial agendas of many of the famous wine writers of the day. He imagined a publication that could be free of financial ties to wineries and merchants, a guide that would produce wholly unbiased views on wines and that served only the interests of wine consumers. In 1978, Parker launched his publication while still working as a lawyer, funded by a small loan from his mother and a burgeoning group of subscribers.

In 1983, Parker’s controversial glowing reviews of the 1982 Bordeaux vintage, tasted from barrels in the wineries, created a stir among most other major wine writers who felt the vintage was too ripe, plush and approachable when young and thus the wines wouldn’t age. “Parker advised his readers to buy the wines, and many did so – in large quantities,” William Langewiesche noted in his article, The Million-Dollar Nose, published in the Atlantic in 2000. “A lot of money was at stake. The established critics attacked, arguing that the young 1982s lacked acidity and therefore would not age well. They were saying, in essence, that these wines tasted too good too soon – an argument related to the traditional one that bad wines require age to become better. Parker suspected the opposite – that the greatest vintages (he thought of ’61 and ’49 and ’47) are so seamless and free of imperfections that they are balanced from birth — and that 1982 was just such a vintage…by 1984, when the wines were being bottled, it was obvious to everyone that he was right.” In 1984, Parker’s subscriber numbers reached critical mass, allowing him to leave his law career to focus on The Wine Advocate and producing wine reviews for consumers full-time.

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Shifting palates

In the early 1990s, when I embarked on a career in the wine trade, I loved big, bold, oak-driven, butterball Chardonnays—I couldn’t get enough of them. I managed a wine bar in Pimlico, London, and one of our most popular wines was an Australian Chardonnay called “Oakwood.” The name said it all. We had a good number of white Burgundies on the wine list, but even the similarly priced ones would gather dust on the shelf while good old Oakwood Chardonnay flew out the window. You couldn’t pay me to drink a glass of that now. Our wine tastes change.

In 2004, I was tasked with organising a selection of the world’s great white wines to feature in a tasting hosted by Robert Parker. In the line-up of wines Parker will present, I include a wine I am very fond of at that time, but that Parker has never reviewed: Tyrrell’s Vat 1 Hunter Valley Sémillon. Before the tasting, Parker sits with me and goes through the list of wines. When we get to the Hunter Valley Sémillon, he asks me why it is included. Sweat dripping off me, I explain why I think it deserves to be in the tasting. Parker listens respectfully. Then he suggests that I join him on the stage and speak about this wine. Afterwards, he tells me honestly that it is not a style he likes, but he understands why I and others might like it. Four years later, in 2008, he asks me if I would like to work for him.

People claim that Parkerisation must be real, because Parker’s high scores for some of the big, powerful, generously fruited wines produced in the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s created buying frenzies for those wines. And this is true. But what is also true: wine consumers throughout that period loved drinking those wines.

Parker’s focus for his bi-monthly reports has always been to highlight wines that his readers would want to buy and drink as well as point out wines that would disappoint them. At first, this readership was just a small collection of wine lovers around the Baltimore and Washington DC area. Then his popularity spread across the US and eventually throughout the world. Not accepting sponsorship of any kind, Parker was one of the only, if not the only, critic wholly dedicated and focused on writing for consumers. He could see his readers embracing the same ripe, concentrated styles that he loved. Parker bucked against the opinions of most other experts at the time, who tended to use the term “traditional” as a euphemism for dilute and/or hard-as-nails and revered for the sake of reverence famous labels, designations and well-established hierarchies such as the 1855 Classification. These worn-out wine quality ruts meant nothing to Parker; he essentially levelled the wine quality playing field. As he has attested in his books, his highest ratings were for wines that had “intense aromas and flavours without heaviness,” “the ability to please both the palate and the intellect” and the structure to stand the test of time and “improve with age.” To make a point of this latter attribute, The Wine Advocate was and remains one of the few wine publications to include anticipated drinking windows with every review so that readers have the opportunity to monitor how those estimations of longevity are tracking.

What would Parker drink?

When we consider the purported Parkerisation effect causing wineries and consultants to make the styles of wines onto which Parker would lavish high scores, I would like to suggest that this is, of course, history’s inevitable conclusion. We did see a dramatic shift in the styles of wines being produced after 1982. Wine production trended away from many of the thin, often faulty, lean, green, mean styles of the pre-Peynaud era, which some other writers of the day had made a career of lavishing praise upon, and trended toward cleaner, richer, riper, more fruit-forward styles. To this end, there is indeed a correlation between the snowballing consumer wine trend for riper styles and Parker’s scores for wines of this style. But consider this: the region of Alsace has one of the highest percentages of wines rated 95-100 by Robert Parker throughout his career, at 14.2%. This is higher than Bordeaux (5.3%), California (10.9%) and the Rhône (6.5%). If Parkerisation is purely a consequence of Parker’s high scores, why didn’t we see a massive upswing during the 1980s and 1990s in Riesling and Gewürztraminer plantings and thousands of Alsace lookalikes being produced? It is because these were not the styles of wines that consumers rushed out to buy and drink. They mainly wanted bold, flavorsome Bordeaux and Rhône varieties wines—subsequently to become known as the “international style.”

Throughout his critical career, Parker tasted and reviewed wines across many styles, regions and varieties, rewarding the highest quality examples with high scores. More than 87,000 of Parker’s reviews (those written since 1992) are housed in our RobertParker.com database and can easily be searched by author, region, variety, style, rating, etc. In the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s, it was mainly the ripe, concentrated, “hedonistic” styled wines, usually made from well-known French grapes, that sold—a lot—helped in part by Parker’s enthusiastic, straight-talking language to describe the attributes and personalities of those wines. Wineries throughout the world wanted a piece of the action by developing styles that fit the trend, but it was not Parker that created the trend. Consumers did. Parker was the critic that validated consumers’ palates when very few other wine writers would and helped his readers to find the best examples of the styles that they wanted to buy, drink and cellar. And Parker became extremely popular among consumers because of this.

On the cover of every issue of The Wine Advocate and to this day on the website, Robert Parker maintains to his readers: “However, there can never be any substitute for your own palate nor any better education than tasting the wine yourself.” One of the simplest yet greatest paradigm shifts Parker instigated with his new era of wine criticism was empowering the consumer to make up her/his own mind about wine styles and offering the encouragement to drink the styles he/she wanted. Clearly, this ruffled more than a few feathers among wine royalty at the time, and even to this day, because it threatens not only the self-righteous disdain some doggedly cling to for an “international style,” but the previously accepted stance that experts know more than consumers and it is their duty to tell consumers what they should drink, whether consumers like it or not.

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Debunking the notion of Parkerisation

The truth about Parkerisation is, in essence, it is nothing more than a sour grapes slur against Parker for validating a consumer wine trend that was terribly inconvenient for some. Today, Parker should remain a liberating symbol as the palate of the people for steering consumers toward countless wines of greatness and wines that they actually wanted to drink, again and again. And let’s not forget, he helped to put many regions on the wine map and boost, enormously, global wine interest, consumption and spending. But there are still many wine communicators out there who want consumers to believe that Parker somehow tricked consumers into losing the path by encouraging them to drink the wines they found delicious rather than those that suited various agendas. And yet, it seems the Parkerisation myth is firmly ingrained in our wine history. Why? There are several reasons why:

1. It provides a villain for causes

Without Robert Parker, Jonathan Nossiter would have had no villain for his 2004 film, Mondovino, about wine globalization/homogenization…and arguably no film. Ditto for Alice Feiring’s 2008 book, subtitled “How I Saved the World from Parkerisation.” After all, if the trend for what was termed as the “international style” was blamed on consumers rather than some villainous critic who brainwashed the masses into drinking wines they loved but ought not be drinking, both filmmaker and author would blatantly be telling consumers they were stupid. And then who would see the film or buy the book? Instead, point fingers firmly at Parker-the-Villain.

2. Parkerisation provides winemakers with an excuse for why their wines didn’t/don’t sell

The bottom line is that wine consumers buy wines that they want to drink and if they really enjoy them they will buy them again. A high Parker score simply serves to highlight a recommended example of a style of wine to consumers. A high score does not dictate the quality or the style—the winemaker does.

3. It gives other writers and critics something to write about that attracts more readers

Mention the word Parkerisation in a headline or article and you’ve already got far more readers clicking on your article. Well into the 21st Century, consumer tastes continue to evolve. Consequently, Australian Chardonnay has had a complete makeover since the days of my “Oakwood” era, now trending toward elegance and finesse, although I hasten to add there are a good many old school, big, rich, bold Chardonnays from around the world still out there and consumers who love them. That’s OK—we don’t pass judgements on consumer tastes here; we judge quality across a world of styles.

The global wine market is growing up. Growth in global consumption is slowing and consumers’ tastes are broadening. It becomes more and more challenging to maintain the position forged by Parker forty years ago as the palate of the people. There are far more wine drinkers today and many, many more palates to which to deliver new and exciting wine discoveries.

I hope that one day Robert Parker takes a page from Winston Churchill’s book and writes his own history. Until then, even though I’m sure this piece will put a few noses out of joint, my intention is to highlight the vast contribution Robert Parker has made to our wine world and to help set the history record straight on the erroneous slur of Parkerisation.

 

Photo credits: RobertParker.com