From Lawyer to Wine Advocate

December 5, 2012

Last month, Wall Street Journal wine columnist Lettie Teague profiled wine critic Robert M. Parker Jr. For oenophiles, Parker is either the best or worst thing to happen to the industry. He either brought integrity to the business or destroyed it with his bias toward “oaky, alcoholic, and bombastic” wines. He either made wine more approachable for the rest of us or sterilized the rating process with his point system. At least one reader in the comment section wondered why doesn’t he blind taste.

Parker’s influence is undeniably immense—he has subscribers who pay to read what he rates, which in turn affects which bottles sell better. But Teague reminds us he wasn’t a wine critic by training—he was a bank attorney.

Mr. Parker was inspired by his hero, Ralph Nader, to become a consumer advocate for wine drinkers. When Mr. Parker began his newsletter in 1978 (initially titled the Baltimore-Washington Wine Advocate), the wine trade was rife with cronyism and conflicts of interest. Leading wine writers were often engaged in selling the wines they wrote about, especially in the U.K.

And their notes on wines were often florid if rather vague on particulars. “I often thought the Brits hedged their bets—they couldn’t be held accountable because they didn’t really say anything about the wines,” said Mr. Parker. That was one reason he decided to employ the 100-point scoring system. At least that way he was “putting his stake in the ground.”

So how did Parker become one of this country’s most powerful wine critics? “Mr. Parker’s other now-legendary point of distinction was his ringing endorsement of the 1982 Bordeaux vintage when every other wine critic dismissed both the wines and the vintage,” Teague explains. “Mr. Parker saw greatness—and he turned out to be right. The 1982 Bordeaux are still some of the most sought-after wines in the world. It was the turning point that put Mr. Parker enduringly on the wine map.” (At the moment, Teague says Parker is favoring very reasonable Spanish whites, including Albariño.)

Of course Parker’s assessments continue to be jammed with colors and smells and visuals. He describes a 2005 Harlan Estate Cabernet as having “a gorgeous thick-looking ruby/purple color in addition to a beautiful nose of burning embers interwoven with crème de cassis, roasted meats, sweet black truffles and spring flowers.”

Reminds me of that scene in Sideways where Miles inhales a wine and elaborates: “Mmm… a little citrus… maybe some strawberry… passion fruit… and, oh, there’s just like the faintest soupçon of like asparagus and just a flutter of a, like a, nutty Edam cheese…” To which his buddy Jack replies, “Wow. Strawberries, yeah! Strawberries. Not the cheese.”

Photo of Albariño grapes by Miguel Ángel García

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