It’s tasting time in Bordeaux, when the wine world flocks to the banks of the Garonne to discover what the latest vintage has to offer. For the next few weeks critics and merchants will sniff, snort, swill and spit their way through hundreds of tastings before passing judgement on the wines of 2014.
This year, though, there will be a huge gap at the table. Robert Parker Jr, unquestionably the most powerful man in the world of wine, the critic who can make or break the reputation – and value – of an entire vintage, will not be there.
The wine world was shaken last month when Parker, founder of The Wine Advocate, announced he would no longer take part in Bordeaux’s annual barrel tastings but would pass responsibility to his English colleague Neal Martin. Outsiders could be forgiven for giving a puzzled shrug: wine critic says he’s no longer travelling to France but will carry on drinking and writing at home – so what?
For people in the intense community of the vine and bottle, however, this was earth-shattering, like Madonna announcing her retirement, or George Clooney giving up acting. Perhaps more so, since Madonna and Clooney are mere entertainers. Parker’s word by contrast can add or subtract thousands from the price of a case of fermented grape juice.
Fortunately, however, while the rest of the world was chattering about where he wasn’t, City A.M. Bespoke managed to track him down to where he was: relaxing at home in Maryland.
“I guess the announcement about Neal caught people by surprise, but it really shouldn’t have,” he chuckled. “I’m 67 after all and I’m recovering from back surgery. I’m still going to cover bottled Bordeaux. This isn’t a farewell.”
Before you think about Parker, take all your prejudices about wine critics and wine snobbery and throw them out of the window. He’s a burly, laid-back former lawyer from rural Maryland who just happened to be blessed with a love of wine, a fine nose, and a single brilliant idea that helped to shift the topography of the wine industry.
That idea was, quite simply, to score the wines he tasted out of 100. Suddenly wine mortals like you and I had a ready reckoner to gauge how good our plonk is. 92 points? Sounds good for a Tuesday evening. 98 points? Oh, yes! Only 82? No thanks, I’ll stick to lager.
So just like that, Parker had democratised the seemingly impenetrable world of wine, right? Not quite: his scale had an inadvertent consequence: it made wine an investable asset. “I’ll bid you up for three cases of those 100-pointers, since I’m reducing my portfolio of the 96- pointers.” Thanks to Parker and his The Wine Advocate newsletter, fine Bordeaux is now traded daily on electronic exchanges like platinum or pork bellies, the prices largely governed by his ratings.
Parker sounds doleful when I ask him about this. “It’s the downside of what I set out to do,” he admits. “It’s an irritating thing I can’t control, even with the degree of success I’ve had. The problem is, the very people I’ve been trying to reach, the consumers, have been priced out of the market. I never appreciated that my ratings would be used in that way.”
Parker’s story is one that should encourage every wine enthusiast. Instead of growing up swilling Margaux from a crystal goblet, the native Marylander only discovered wine when he visited Alsace as a student. He then spent ten years as an invisible corporate lawyer, writing a wine newsletter in his evenings and gradually building up a following. Today The Wine Advocate has 100,000 subscribers; vineyards and merchants hang on its judgements.
Fans may now have to wait rather longer for 100 point wines; it’s clear that Martin, who comes from the harsh lands of Essex, is considerably less generous in handing out top scores than Parker. “We are going to see some changes, for sure. Some people have a philosophy that nothing can be perfect. I believe that if this is the best you have tasted then it deserves a perfect score. He’ll be more conservative than I am, but then after 30 years, you get more confident giving out perfect scores.”
For the people who pay top-whack for his 100-point wines, Parker has a word of caution. “The difference between a 97-point wine and a 100-point wine is largely an emotional one. Wines should be emotional, they should be magical. They should move you and if you aren’t moved then you’re drinking the wrong beverage.”
Not that the life of a globally renowned wine critic is all plain sailing. Legend has it that over the past 30-odd years he has been sued, received death threats and even been attacked by a Chateau owner’s dog. I ask him about these tales, since I’m sure that some of them must be myths. They’re all true, he says.
“It was a Schnauzer that bit me. It got a pretty good bite on my leg, I still have the scar.” The belong to Jacques Hebrard, owner of Chateau Cheval Blanc. Parker was returning to retaste a wine from the early 80s that he had marked savagely – the dog decided to exact its revenge. It is a credit to Parker that when he did retaste, still bleeding, he realised he’d been too harsh and marked it upwards.
The death threats? “They came in 1990 and were recorded on an old answerphone of mine. They were traced to a wine merchant in New York – it turned out he had a ‘special problem’ with wine writers,” he explains with exquisite understatement.
And the lawsuits? They are well documented and form a central part of Parker’s fractious relationship with the wine makers of Burgundy. He was sued by Domaine Faiveley, one of the grandest houses of the region; the battled raged throughout the mid-1990s. Faiveley was outraged at the (apparently incorrect) suggestion that its wines tasted better in France than the ones it exported. The long-term result? Parker stopped reviewing Burgundy.
“In the end the whole case was settled for damages of one French franc. But afterwards I realised I couldn’t go back since the lawsuit had divided Burgundy. Some people thought the whole thing was unfair, others said that it was about time a wine critic was brought to account. So I moved on.”
Some have claimed the lawsuit made him more timid. “I don’t think I’ve mellowed. I’ve simply learned that you can make the same criticisms but be more diplomatic. Thirty years ago my comments were more blunt and crude. I’m more careful about how I write criticisms now – I don’t think I will ever compare wine to industrial detergent again.”
For every enemy he has made, Parker has made as many friends, not least along the banks of the Southern Rhone, which he more or less rediscovered as a fine wine region. “There wasn’t a lot of coverage of the Southern Rhone, and I found that there was just a vast ocean of wonderful value there. I love the Grenache grape and I said ‘this is how Pinot Noir should taste’.
“They made me an honorary citizen of Chateauneuf du Pape, you know. I don’t think they will ever do that in Burgundy…”
Despite stepping back from the Bordeaux tastings, Parker says his enthusiasm for wine is as strong as ever. “The world of wine in 1978 looked nothing like it is today. There has been a proliferation of quality everywhere. There has been enormous investment in wineries, with temperature control, better bottling, better facilities.
“Spain has undergone a complete transformation from industrial production to great terroir producing high quality wines. Even England; I tried some Nyetimber sparkling wine when I was there and it was as good as high quality champagne. These days you have to have a good product to compete in a global market.”
Although Parker has given up on his annual pilgrimage to Bordeaux, his diary is hardly empty. He’s started a world tour of masterclasses for subscribers sponsored by Badoit, the water he uses during his tastings. Like Dickens in his later years, he’s decided to concentrate on live events that get him closer to the people he cares about most: his subscribers. A few weeks ago he addressed 1,400 of them at the Royal Courts of Justice in London.
I wonder whether he’ll miss Bordeaux? “I will. There’s always a huge adrenaline rush when you get to taste a new vintage. But Neal is well prepared.”
I can’t leave him without asking what bottle is on his dinner table tonight. True to form, it’s a Chateauneuf du Pape, a Domaine du Pegau 2009, which he has waiting outside his office, a snip at around £50 a bottle. “I think we’re having it with roast chicken,” he adds enthusiastically, ever the ordinary man with the extraordinary palate.
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