Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Robert Parker, Emperor of Wine: Book review

This is the full version of a review which appeared in edited form in Barrons, August 8, 2005

It’s hard to divine who gets the French in a bigger bipolar snit: President George Bush or wine’s über-critic Robert Parker whose newsletter, The Wine Advocate, can make or break a wine, a vintage, a winery or an entire region.

In The Emperor of Wine: The Rise of Robert Parker, Jr. and the Reign of American Taste, author Elin McCoy offers us a vivid picture of Gallic pride and intensity following Parker’s description of the 1981 Château Cheval Blanc barrel samples as “’disappointing’ and ‘mediocre.’” Château owner Jacque Hèbrard tracked down Parker and persuaded him to re-taste the wine.

When Parker arrived and knocked on the door, “Hèbrard opened it and out tore a small dog, a miniature schnauzer which made straight for Parker’s calf and bit down ferociously. Hèbrard…stood impassively by the door, watching the astonished wine critic shaking his leg vigorously to get the dog to let go.”

McCoy notes that Hèbrard did nothing to stop the dog’s attack, and after Parker shook off the dog by himself, Hèbrard led Parker – pants ripped and leg bleeding – to the château’s office. “Instead of getting the bandage Parker requested,” McCoy writes, “Hèbrard rummaged around for his copy of The Wine Advocate, which he angrily threw on the desk, saying, ‘This is what you wrote about my wine!’”

One can suppose Parker should grateful that Hèbrard had a mop dog rather than a pit bull.
McCoy’s book makes it clear that Hèbrard acted out what many others on the short end of Parker’s tasting stick had only dreamed of.

On the other side of the equation are those like Napa Valley’s Patz & Hall Winery who have canonized Parker. “In April 1991, they had been desperate and depressed. Their 1989 wines had flopped. They were running out of money and after a huge tax bill, they had $600 in their bank account and wine in barrels that they could not afford to bottle.”

Then came a Parker miracle worthy of sainthood: Parker gave them a 92 rating. The wine sold out. They were instantly in the black. A thorough reading of McCoy’s book shows that the number of these “miracles” far exceeds those required by Papal commissions for Catholic sainthood.

Parker is a devil; Parker is an angel: Few people in the wine business, media or among wine fanatics have a neutral opinion. McCoy offers us the best portrait yet of the man, his sins, virtues, deeds which form the foundation of this intense polarization and of his success.

The French are bipolar about him because he single-handedly turned consumers against mediocre wines from over-rated châteaux run by the French equivalent of decadent Faulknerian aristocracy whose only claim to greatness was in faded memories of the past and not in the bottle. On the other hand, He was awarded the French Legion of Honor mostly for helping revitalize the sales of Bordeaux clarets in the 1980s.

But beyond the French who are bipolar about so many things from war to Big Macs, McCoy makes clear that Parker's invention of the 100-point system is the single largest bone of contention. She expresses the view of many – even those who are Parkerites – when she writes, "I find scoring wine with numbers a joke in scientific terms and misleading in thinking about either the quality or pleasure of wine, something that turns wine into a contest instead of an experience."

Yes, it is the worst system in the world – except for all the rest. The fact is clear that the system would never have caught on had it not struck a chord with the consumer. McCoy is also correct that a single number is not the wine and that using the 100-point system implies a precision that does not exist. However, single numbers can – and do – affect the lives of people. Consider SAT test scores, FICO credit ratings, The Dow Industrials and others. If there is a better way -- such as the one developed by Master Sommelier Peter Granoff for the original Virtual Vineyards web site -- then the wine industry should push for its adoption.

Following close on the heels of the 100-point system is criticism that Parker's palate is too personal, that he likes big, fruity wines and ignores other styles which others may prefer. This, along with Parker's influence, has resulted, McCoy writes, in vintners making their wine to suit Parker's palate and that, in turn, as produced a global Americanization of wine.

McCoy accomplishes a lot with this book, but begins Emperor with a particularly annoying and unnecessary set of snobbish errors when she describes Parker’s secondary education: “While most of the students at this ‘redneck’ high school were 4-H club future farmers, Parker was in the college-bound program for smart kids….”

McCoy’s probably unaware that one needs to be smart to be a farmer and that today most have college degrees. Further, she’d be shocked – as do those “Sideways” urbanites who buy wineries and have to get mud on their Pradas – that wine at its core is farming and that everyone from those who prune the vines all the way to the winemaker need to be smart, very, very smart. The final irony in this line is McCoy’s noting that Parker’s first and only job as a lawyer was for the Farm Credit Bank in Baltimore. As it happens, Farm Credit is a major – perhaps the largest – financier of vineyards and wineries in California. One should never forget that one is only as far away from farming as one's next meal.

Despite these and a scattering of other wine-snobbisms, this is a very solid book, well-written, copiously documented and presenting a well-rounded picture of the man so many love to hate and hate to love. I've been involved in the wine industry on and off for nearly 25 years as an importer, publisher, journalist, book author and judge at international wine competitions and found this a valuable, even-handed book which will offer ammunition to both poles in the debate.

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