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Robert Parker Scores and Misses

robert parker“I want to see all of you succeed,” Robert M. Parker Jr. told more than 40 wine writers in attendance at last week’s Symposium for Professional Wine Writers at Meadowood in St. Helena. This was a generous, perhaps surprising, statement from Parker who has frequently— and very recently—traded criticism and low blows with many of the same scribes. I’m convinced he meant every word, the denunciations and the well-wishes.

Robert Parker is full of contradictions, as are we all. But unlike the things you and I say, his every sentence is scrutinized, canonized and simultaneously chastised. He has long been the emperor of wine criticism. He remains so, though the power of that empire declines due to democratization of wine commentary and a recent secession.

As sound bites from Parker’s semi-extemporaneous talk were tweeted and retweeted, Facebooked and “liked,” outside observers responded instantly. “Words to live by!” said one. Parker’s statements resonated with many. But others called him “delusional” and “disingenous.” It’s lonely at the top.

Speaking of which, there were poignant moments. “I was extremely lucky,” said Parker, “I wish you all the success I’ve had. And the climb to the top is what makes it all worthwhile. Once you get there, there’s nothing there.” He’s been “there” for 30 years.

Robert Parker set out to be a consumer advocate. Ralph Nader was his inspiration. The clear conflicts of interest inherent with top British wine writers’ also selling wine were his call to action. He set out to create a newsletter with unassailably independent reviews. Parker’s identification of 1982 as a Bordeaux vintage for the ages, in stark disagreement with many critics, brought international prominence that he built upon for the three decades to follow.

Along the way he made and buried wineries. He can’t see that. Producers’ desire to rate highly in his newsletter drove richness in wine, and eventually alcohol, to unprecedented levels. He won’t admit that. He simply said, “I do believe flavor intensity is critical. And I am looking for wines that will develop in five to ten years. Some of the thin, feminine, elegant wines being praised today will fall apart. You need some richness and intensity for development.” Then there were popping sounds as some writers’ heads exploded.

Parker spoke for roughly half-an-hour and took questions for another 30 minutes. Listening was a privilege and a frustration. I was grateful for the opportunity, regretful he didn’t stay longer. Dozens of questions went unasked, as many conflicts unresolved. But Robert Parker did offer valuable insights. Later this week I’ll share them, along with comments from some other writers in attendance.

In the meantime, please enjoy this beautiful video montage of the symposium created by Kaethy and Tim Kennedy of Story Cellars.


Follow NorCalWine on Twitter for wine news, information on events and more, or friend me on Facebook. This article is original to Copyright 2014. Photo of Robert Parker from  All rights reserved.


Randy Caparoso
#1 Randy Caparoso 2014-02-24 15:47
High alcohol in California Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir, an irrational dislike of lower alcohol wines that compliment food, rampant Brettanomyces in grand crus Bordeaux, bludgeoningly oaked "Super" Italian reds, ultra-ripe sweetness in Alsatian whites, Chardonnay, the movement towards varietal sameness, et al... the list of developments in the wine world over the past 20, 25 years that came directly as a result of "Parkerization" -- the naked desire to achieve a high WA score -- goes on and on. It's called journalistic responsibility. As much as many of us admire and applaud what Mr. Parker has achieved, these nagging questions will still abide.

It's certainly made my past career in restaurants that much harder. Ideally, we should have benefitted from the his contributions -- especially his highlighting of hitherto little known wine regions -- but not without the negatives: the relentless promotion of styles of wines bastardize traditions and terroirs, and narrow the sense of what constitutes quality.
Kate Lavin
#2 Kate Lavin 2014-02-24 17:32
Oh man, this made me laugh so hard. " Then there were popping sounds as some writers’ heads exploded."
Alan Courtney
#3 Alan Courtney 2014-02-24 17:34
Much as Sutter Home White Zin introduced many consumers to California wine in general, Robert Parker brought many casual wine consumers to understand an appreciate the characteristics of fine California wine. His articulate comparisons of new world vs old world styles have helped the world of consumers and collectors to understand and appreciate the wine in the glass before them. He has favorites (as do we all), I find his favorites to be interesting and enjoyable, and I know why. Thanks RP
Chuck Hayward
#4 Chuck Hayward 2014-02-24 17:50
Thanks for the coverage. Surprisingly very little given the All-Star lineup of speakers. One of the best array of writers I have seen (not that I was there). Looking fwd to more.
Bill Ward
#5 Bill Ward 2014-02-24 18:37
Nice overview, Fred, and great exploding-head quip. It was fascinating and frustrating, as you note (way too brief). His bouncing back and forth between wistful (being at the top, missing his daughter's upbringing)and willful was really interesting. He used "intensity" a lot to dewscribe the wines he likes, and made a decent case, I think, that he has been pigeonholed a but too much. And he did seem sincere throughout. Riveting stuff.
katie bell
#6 katie bell 2014-02-24 19:31
Nicely done Fred, love the title, must be a wine writer!
William Allen - TS
#7 William Allen - TS 2014-02-24 20:12
RIP RP. You are accelerating your own irrelevance and accelerating confirmation of the shift in wine occurring again. Keep it up.

Thank Bacchus I didn't launch my brand 10 years ago, and huge kudos to those who did and stuck out "Parkerization" - to deny this phenomenon is mind boggling.
Edward Lohmann
#8 Edward Lohmann 2014-02-24 20:46
Nicely done and objectively observed without being Parkerized though I think he was and is a trail blazer in his own right. I enjoy his writings but question how he sometimes describes a wine. You either like it or you don't. Cheers
Tim Hanni
#9 Tim Hanni 2014-02-25 17:24
When are we going to get that there are significant physiological differences that determine what we perceive then neurological and psychological differences that determine what sensations mean? Different people respond differently to bitterness, alcohol, tannins...etc. and then there are different systems to determine the value and meaning of the sensations.

we are different - different people use different systems. the Parker system is perfect - for those how align to the sensory profile and system he forwards. Just as Dan Berger is perfect - for the hypersensitive people who value is perspective and opinion. Just different systems.
Pam Strayer
#10 Pam Strayer 2014-02-25 17:44
I don't think Parker set out to dominate the scene - just to make it fair (i.e. re wine faults).

The dominating influence of his palate happened because he started to score wines. I don't think he has anything to defend when it comes to his palate. It's his palate.

The power side of the equation is something that was bestowed upon him by the public, who liked a scoring system - any scoring system. More and more, multimillion dollar publications have arisen with scores as their primary intellectual property.

Parker's scores were the product of a gatekeeper media-tocracy, which we're supposedly leaving behind. The question is - why has he in particular been such a loud voice in the firmament? I think we should all be asking that question, not arguing over his palate or others. He established a brand and a narrative early in the game.

As America's wine culture grows up, the knowledge and appreciation that palates differ widely will become part of our worldview.

I like the more nuanced approach wine merchants like J. J. Buckley and K & L Wine are taking - with multiple tasters and blogs. That's where it's going.
Fred Swan
#11 Fred Swan 2014-02-25 19:48
Thank you all for your comments.

Tim, I agree completely. And Parker wouldn't risen to the level he has if he was "wrong." His preferences are clearly very popular. At the same time, it's clearly led to excesses by those looking for his badge of approval and diversity has suffered.

Good point, Pam. Multiple perspectives are definitely a better service to customers.
Bill Haydon
#12 Bill Haydon 2014-03-03 16:34
And I am looking for wines that will develop in five to ten years. Some of the thin, feminine, elegant wines being praised today will fall apart. You need some richness and intensity for development.
No, they will age very well because they have high natural acidity that didn't come out of a bag. I was privy to a tasting of Parker's top 1994 Napa cult cabs in 2004, and even the most passionate defenders of Napa Valley at that table couldn't help but admit that every wine present was either over the hill or downright shot.

Wines of almost raisined fruit combined with the massive acid adjustments necessary to bring them back into some form of balance might be impressive cocktial wines when RMP gives them their 5 second evaluation when young, but they almost never age gracefully.
Bob Henry
#13 Bob Henry 2014-03-21 06:53

This was "then" (1989 interview in Wine Times):

". . . The good wines in good vintages not only have the depth but also the precociousness. I used to think some of the softer ones wouldn't last more than a couple of years, but they get more and more interesting."

And this is now (2014 Symposium for Professional Wine Writers speaking engagement):

". . . Some of the thin, feminine, elegant wines being praised today will fall apart. You need some richness and intensity for development."

~~ Bob
Bob Henry
#14 Bob Henry 2014-03-21 07:07

A number of folks have observed that the 1994 vintage California Cabs and Merlots and Cab-Merlot blends were exhibiting accelerated maturity at 10 years of age.

If you go to this website . . .

. . . you will see my wine group's single-blind evaluation of the 1994s upon release (Part 1 and Part 2), and then again at 10 years of age (Part 3).

For an eye-opening experience, go back and taste the 1985 California Cabs. Highly praised upon release, I've found too many to have a mean-streak of unnatural acidity (due to acidification).

~~ Bob
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