THE EMPEROR OF WINE: The Rise of Robert M. Parker, Jr.,
and the Reign of American Taste
By Elin McCoy
Ecco -- 342pp -- $25.95
The Good An illuminating look at America's preeminent oenophile--and his phenomenal clout.
The Bad The book's organization can be confusing, and its ornate prose sometimes irksome.
The Bottom Line A fascinating analysis of Parker's substantial influence on the global wine market.
Critics are valued as keen observers of the changes affecting a commercial or cultural pursuit. But what happens when one critic becomes so powerful that his subjects reshape their efforts largely to satisfy his tastes? That's the intriguing question posed by Elin McCoy in The Emperor of Wine: The Rise of Robert M. Parker, Jr., and the Reign of American Taste. This illuminating biography of America's preeminent oenophile not only traces Parker's ascension from bored, pot-smoking 1970s government lawyer to global arbiter of vino taste, but also scrutinizes his phenomenal impact -- for better or worse -- on the world of wine. On the downside, a discussion of the science behind the human palate appears late in the tale and fails to explain Parker's talents. Throughout the book, ornate descriptions of personalities are irksome.
Parker, publisher of the newsletter The Wine Advocate, is to the grape what The New Yorker writer Pauline Kael was to cinema in the 1970s. But the wine world is a lot smaller, with fewer competing commentators. So Parker's reach has been magnified to the point that his thumbs-up alone can make or break a wine -- especially an expensive one. Key to Parker's clout is the simple 100-point rating scale he unveiled in 1978. The notion that something as sensory as wine tasting could be boiled down to the vinicultural equivalent of baseball box scores was scandalous to many in France, then the Valhalla of wine. There, wine was a lifestyle beverage steeped in history and lore. Even today the prices of Gallic cuvees are in large part determined by a châteaux ranking system set up by the French government in 1855.
That's why much of wine criticism historically dwelled on the "sense of place" represented by terms such as terroir (the French belief that the specific soil where the grapes are grown imparts certain qualities to a wine) or breeding (the belief that a wine has innate worth simply because it hails from a particular château). Obviously, valuing "sense of place" gives a leg up to traditional winemaking countries such as France. Parker changed all that -- at least for the swelling number of American wine drinkers in the 1980s and 1990s. While he agreed certain regions are better suited to making certain wines, Parker preached that the bottom line for consumers is what's in the glass. To Parker, taste trumps terroir or breeding every time. And if taste is the desired measure, then how better to critique wine than through competitive blind tastings (with labels covered), where the winners and losers could be ranked? Parker loudly noted that he was an independent who paid for most of his own wines -- a rarity among wine writers. "It was a familiar stance to wine lovers who regularly consulted Consumer Reports when they bought a dishwasher or a car, and they trusted it," writes McCoy.
This approach, of course, required the talents of a master taster. And few disputed that the self-taught Parker was a superstar when it came to deconstructing individual aromas and flavors (raspberries, tobacco, pain grillé, etc.) in a glass of wine. His mouth and nose quickly won fame as a veritable laboratory, capable of sampling hundreds of wines in a single day. And he'd crank out detailed tasting notes and precise scores with a certainty that wowed fans and horrified his critics. The result: what English wine writer Andrew Barr called "a victory of American pragmatism over French mysticism."
Although Parker always said his scores should be used in conjunction with his tasting notes, it wasn't long before wine merchants -- and wineries -- started trumpeting the Parker scores alone as a quick way to decipher a wine's worth. Soon, a high Parker score, especially a 90+, meant higher prices for producers and a lot more sales for retailers. As McCoy explains: "The scores fit an impatient, cut-to-the-chase attitude -- just give me the best."
It also didn't take long for winemakers to note Parker's preference for big wines that are packed with oak and fruit and have lots of texture. Critics charge that wines that don't fit Parker's favored profile receive lower scores and, therefore, have poorer sales -- pushing winemakers to adapt.
McCoy excels when she describes the growing number of oenological consultants who have sprung up, offering to help wineries Parker-ize their products. The author also sheds some interesting light on the thin-skinned Parker's response to -- and possible retribution toward -- his own critics.
Unlike the 1970s, when few Americans had much exposure to wine and needed a plainspoken guide like Parker, today's consumer drinks more and can look for ample wine advice on the Internet, on cable-TV networks, and in many newspapers. So McCoy is surely right in predicting that "there will never be another emperor of wine." Given her fascinating analysis of the unintended consequences of Parker's influence on wine tastes worldwide, that may not be a bad thing.
By James E. Ellis