Robert Parker: Farewell to the Emperor

Robert Parker: Farewell to the Emperor

© The Wine Advocate
Robert Parker has finally hung up his tasting glass and pen.

Wine’s most influential writer of the past 40 years has retired.
W. Blake Gray pays tribute to a legend.

I come to praise Robert Parker, not to bury him, because this is not quite an obit.

The most important critic in the history of the world officially retired this week, leaving yours truly as the best-known active wine writer from the Baltimore area. (Thanks Bob, and go Orioles!)

Parker single-handedly changed the wine world. There have been theater critics who had the power to close shows overnight, but they couldn’t change the style of drama presented.

Lisa Perrotti-Brown, editor-in-chief of the Wine Advocate, writes that the “Parkerization of wine” is a lie; that wines were becoming riper and more fruit-forward anyway, because of improved viticulture and winemaking as well as global warming. Perrotti-Brown also writes that Parker didn’t force these styles of wines on anyone; that he succeeded because people like these wines.

She’s not wrong, on any of these counts. But to downplay Parker’s role is disingenuous. Fifteen years ago Parker was the hardest-working critic in the world, weighing in on regions he knew well and some he didn’t. The height of his influence corresponded with the height of overripeness, rather than ripeness, in wine.

Parker pulled back gradually from one region after another, and as other critics like Antonio Galloni and his team at Vinous have come to the forefront, the high-end wine world has taken a step back from low-acid caricatures. Nobody is going back to the 1970s and Cabernet at 12 percent alcohol, and fruit-forward wines are here to stay. But it’s no coincidence that California cult Cabs, for example, are seeking balance more than they were a decade ago.

There is actually a company in California, Enologix, that made its money by predicting what scores Parker would give to wines. In 2004 this mattered immensely, because a 98 could make a winery’s fortunes while an 85 could break them. Today, there is no single critic with anywhere near Parker’s influence, and there likely never will be again. Wineries are forced to make wines that they think are good, rather than wines they think Parker will think are good. That has been better for everyone.

But I said up top that I come to praise Parker, and that is true. For all the vitriol heaped on Parker in the latter part of his career,he was overall a net positive for wine. There are certain basic tenets that he has espoused throughout his career that are at odds with a traditionalist’s view of wine, and he was right about almost all of them.

Most importantly, Parker always believed each wine should be evaluated on its own merits. Before Parker, people believed that top estates’ wines were always better than everybody else’s. I’ve met people who still believe it, but it’s hogwash. Great estates can and do have vintages that are only OK, while unknown wineries can achieve greatness. Without Parker, we might not have had a wave of overripe and overrated Barossa Shirazes, it’s true. But we also might not be as open-minded toward Central Otago Pinot Noirs or Uco Valley Malbecs.

Parker also had impeccable personal ethics in an industry that never experienced such before. Parker mostly bought his own wines and paid his own way. His organization has had certain ethical lapses, both before and after its sale in 2012. But Parker himself has always conducted his business honorably.

Here is an unappreciated thing about Parker: the man really loves wine. A lot of critics sound clinical in their writing. Parker’s enthusiasm always comes through. Especially early in his career, he didn’t just love Napa Cabs and Bordeaux and Rhône reds. His affection for small producers trying new things was palpable.

Some people mock Parker’s writing style, but I admire and even envy it. Take a close look at his notes. Wine isn’t a passive noun in Parker’s mouth, languidly sloughing off adjectives. Wine explodes, it bursts, it lingers. Parker’s wine tasting is full of action verbs. He makes wine not an object but a protagonist. Parker gave wine a hero’s journey, and he rooted for every wine that completed it.

I have attended writing seminars where people try to tell us the “right” way to write tasting notes. Robert Parker is the most successful critic by an enormous margin and his notes – his self-taught style – are a major part of the reason. So go ahead, tell me some other style is “right”. Me, I tell aspiring critics to follow the money.

That leads to what I most admire about Parker. Today, under different owners, the Wine Advocate is doing what brands do: monetizing. They have expensive tastings and seminars and I won’t be surprised if they introduce a line of logo goods; they wouldn’t be the first wine publication to do so. Parker lived large, eating a lot of great food and drinking a lot of great wine, but he didn’t really “monetize,” not as he could have.

Parker was, as Elin McCoy called him in her book, The Emperor of Wine. Whether his reign was benevolent or malevolent might depend on whether you’re in Châteauneuf-du-Pape or Beaujolais. But even his detractors should look on the bright side – if Parker had loved lighter wines, we wouldn’t be able to afford them now.

There will never be another Parker, and that’s a good thing, but that doesn’t mean the one who just retired wasn’t a great man whose life is worth celebrating. I think I’ll go find the highest-alcohol wine in my cellar and open it tonight to toast a great fellow Marylander. And then I’ll probably open something else.