April 15 2012 issue
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CLOSING TIME Parker's legacy will endure Elin McCoy
Robert Parker’s legacy will endure, but the model of an all-powerful critic may not.
Now that Robert Parker, long considered the world’s wine guru, is approaching retirement age—he’ll be 65 in July—it’s an appropriate time to assess what his legacy is likely to be.
The industry has changed dramatically since Parker launched his newsletter The Wine Advocate in 1978. And since 2005, when my critical biography of him, The Emperor of Wine, was published, he has spun off many of the regions whose wines he once regularly reviewed—and influenced—to his new hires: Antonio Galloni; Neal Martin; Lisa Perrotti-Brown, MW; David Schildknecht; Mark Squires; and the controversial Jay Miller, who recently stepped down. Only Bordeaux and the Rhône Valley remain completely under his sway. At the WineFuture 2011 conference in Hong Kong last November, Parker himself acknowledged that he was not as influential as he was a decade ago. Which aspects of his influence will endure?
The paradigm of the wine critic. Parker’s modus operandi became the archetype that a majority of wine writers emulate, whether in print or online: they review wines by sniffing, sipping, and spitting dozens of them at a go and then writing a tasting note and quality assessment for each one. Parker popularized the idea that a wine should be judged only by what is in the glass. Where once tasting notes were quite short and limited to a narrow range of terms, like "noble" or "very fine," Parker sought to describe the exact flavors and aromas of wines, using a vastly expanded vocabulary: boysenberries, floor wax, asphalt, tongue on stone, wet dogs, cigar boxes, and all the rest. I don’t see this model of the wine critic as an ultimate taster—nor the tyranny of the tasting note—changing any time soon.
The 100-point system. Parker was not the very first to use a 100-point rating scale for wine, but he was the one who made it ubiquitous and powerful. Despite unrelenting criticism of its flaws and limitations over the past 15 years, even writers who initially denounced it have adopted it. And though it’s shunned by some in the industry, especially the younger generation, many producers, importers, distributors, and retailers continue to rely on scores to sell their wines. For commercial reasons, if nothing else, I believe their use will persist for the foreseeable future.
" Parkerized" wines. While Parker claims to love many styles of wine, he has almost always given his highest scores to bold, richly fruity, swashbuckling reds, which often have high alcohol levels. His preferences, and the power of his scores to sell bottles, have compelled many winemakers to change their styles accordingly, and thus have changed the very definition of a top Cabernet Sauvignon or Rhône wine. The recent backlash from producers, sommeliers, critics, and consumers who champion more delicate wines with lively acidity, minerality, and a sense of terroir only goes to show how a perceived negative influence encourages diversity. Still, a whole generation grew up with Parker-style wines, so I don’t think they’re going to disappear.
A critic’s independent stance. Most people who wrote about wine prior to Parker were in the wine trade, not impartial reviewers. He was largely responsible for the idea that only those outside the industry could critique its products without prejudice. And though his publication has been criticized for perceived lapses, he set high ethical standards that will (I hope) persist among wine writers.
The democratization of wine . In 1978, only a handful of wine regions were represented on U.S. retail shelves. Few consumers knew anything about the wines of the Rhône, Spain, or even, surprising as it may seem, Italy. Parker turned his spotlight on unknown labels and regions, arguing successfully they could be just as good as more renowned wines and sparking a trend that has only grown, as today’s critics—and sommeliers—seek out and champion the new.
Will the power of The Wine Advocate to influence the wine industry and consumers alike outlive Parker’s tenure? He clearly thinks so, which is why he’s brought on younger reviewers and anointed Galloni as his heir apparent. I’m not convinced. The Wine Advocate has already moved away from the idea that originally attracted its fans: that a single person could have a definitive palate. The wine world no longer believes any one critic should have the last word.