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Do We Talk Too Much About Robert Parker?

2011 September 14
by Mike

My post last week about Robert Parker’s tasting of some allegedly counterfeit wines prompted a lengthy thread over on Wineberserkers.com. One Parker fan offered the usual retort—journalists like me are just envious of Parker. My friend Eric LeVine of CellarTracker didn’t accuse me of jealousy and felt that the Parker tasting was a legitimate issue, but he also said I have a tendency to focus “too much” on Parker (he acknowledged that he did, too). Eric’s post brought an interesting comment from Wilfred Van Gorp, another friend of mine who occasionally contributes here; in his view, Parker hasn’t been subjected to nearly enough scrutiny. I actually think they are both right: I and other wine writers do spend an awful lot of time discussing and debating Parker, but I also believe that until fairly recently, he had not received much scrutiny relative to the power he wielded.

With regard to the jealousy meme, it’s certainly true that there are journalists and critics who are envious and resentful of Parker. I am not one of them; I’ve never considered myself in competition with Parker, and have never had a desire to practice his form of wine criticism. I have written extensively about him mainly because as a journalist, I am completely fascinated by his story: by the astonishing influence he has exerted over what is, at heart, a matter of personal taste; by the evidently quite significant disconnect between some of the claims that he has made on his own behalf and the reality; and by this bizarre, self-destructive final chapter of his career.

And let’s face it: Parker has cast such a giant shadow that it would be strange if we weren’t talking about him this much. It is virtually impossible to have a discussion about wine trends, wine politics, or the business of wine without mentioning the guy. No other critic in any field has ever exercised the kind of authority that the wine world has assigned Parker. In that sense, I agree with Wilfred: all things considered, Parker has gotten off pretty lightly. Only in the last few years has he started to attract serious, sustained scrutiny, and the results have been eye-opening. Consider what we’ve learned. Parker had always said that he purchased the vast majority of the wines that he sampled; we now know that at some point, this ceased to be true. It was only because of some inquiring minds, and one in particular, Dr. Vino, that we discovered that Parker was allowing Wine Advocate contributors to flout his ethical guidelines—guidelines that were a critical element in his success.

Another cornerstone of his success was his reputation as a freakishly gifted taster, a reputation that developed in no small part because of his boasts to that effect—most famously, when he told William Langewiesche of the Atlantic that he “remembers every wine he has tasted over the past thirty-two years.” In light of these extravagant claims, I think it was newsworthy that when Parker did a public blind tasting a few years ago of the top wines from the 2005 Bordeaux vintage, he not only failed to correctly identify a single one but struggled to distinguish Left Bank from Right. Thanks to all this scrutiny, we now have a more complete, complex, and accurate picture of the Parker phenomenon than was the case a decade ago. I’m sure that Parker would not appreciate the irony, but it seems to me that the same Naderite sensibility that guided his early efforts—a belief in transparency, and in the right of consumers to know the truth—has driven recent press coverage of him.

All that said, I agree with Eric that some of us spend a lot of time talking about Parker. Although my paper trail clearly suggests otherwise, I decided a while ago that I had personally exhausted this topic. But here’s the thing: it is really hard to get away from Parker! Let me give you an example that is particularly germane to this post. Last year, Bill Koch, as part of his war on counterfeit wines, filed a lawsuit against Christie’s. I’d already written several pieces about the fraud issue and was naturally curious to see what Koch was now alleging. Reading his court filing, I came across a section stating that Hardy Rodenstock had shipped hundreds of large-format rarities to a New York retailer called Royal Wine Merchants; the lawsuit included the list of wines that had been sent, and it was staggering. As far as I knew, this was the first indication we’d had of the scale of Rodenstock’s operations, which struck me as a dramatic new twist to this saga.

I was also intrigued by the New York connection; unfamiliar with Royal, I made a few phone calls, and what I quickly learned, among other things, was that Parker had been very tight with Royal’s owners, Jeff Sokolin and Daniel Oliveros. As the details accumulated, it became clear to me that there was potentially a major story here, and it turned out there was. Parker had always sought to cast himself as the white knight of the wine fraud issue; my reporting showed that the truth was quite a bit more complicated than that. Thus, when I read Parker’s account of his recent tasting with William Edgerton, in which he tried to portray a flawed and almost wholly meaningless exercise as a big breakthrough in the battle against fake wines and to use it as a way of reclaiming that white knight status, I felt compelled to point out that he was peddling nonsense. Some have chosen to interpret this as Parker-bashing. I call it journalism.

So what’s your take on this: do we spend too much time talking about Parker, or is he finally getting the scrutiny he deserves?

63 Responses leave one →
  1. Matt permalink
    July 2, 2013

    As to the sensitivity and accuracy of Mr. Parker’s nose. I do have to admit seeing him tested on television more than once. I think even on 60 Minutes. They threw some pretty exotic wines at him and he got it right. I don’t know why, or if, he performed miserably in a public tasting at Bordeux, but he clearly has a nose and palette that is extra-ordinarily more sensitive than the average persons. People recognize this and so he makes sense as a source of expertise. This does not mean that Parker is a good guy, or that the wines he prefers will be good for everyone, it only means, he was gifted with a good sense of smell.

  2. Tom permalink
    September 25, 2011

    Some interesting points Dan, appreciate you expressing your point of view.

    I was hoping to get some good details about the recent backlashing to Parker. I have been reading more about this of late and wanted to know more about why, thanks for providing some of the why.

  3. September 24, 2011

    I can speak from many sides of this.

    1) I am a wine retailer
    2) I dined with Robert Parker on a few occasions, including 1 charity dinner, of the same genre that Wilfred speaks of.
    3) I was banned from his bulletin board

    Dining with Bob is a good time, as it would be dining with most of you. While the subject of wine is broached, it does not have to dominate the dinner, which can be quite refreshing, especially when you talk about wine all day, as a retailer.

    My issues have nothing to do with any dining experiences or the aftermath of those experiences.

    My issues have to do with honesty and integrity.

    Tom, what no one is saying in simplistic form is that Robert Parker and The Wine Advocate have “duped” you, me and the wine world. His platform of being an arm’s length from the trade is simply not true. He has beaten down publications like the Wine Spectator, for taking advertising dollars, while ignoring the fact that those critics taste and review wines under blind conditions. This is something that he claims to do, but does not, nor do his other critics.

    He also claims to purchase 60% of his wines for review (down from 75% two years ago). This is simply not true. He is tasting with importers, or at the wineries, or with regional advocacy groups (Wines of Australia, Wines of Spain, Wines of Chile, Napa Valley Vintners, the promotional groups of Chateauneuf, Gigondas…you name it).

    When he was covering Spain, he never visited the region. Rather, he relied upon information given to him from US wine importers, about the region. Many of these importers appeared to have cozy relationships with him, and later Jay Miller. The same could be said of Australia, although I believe he visited Australia once, but it might have been with a US importer. I do not recall.

    His books written on Bordeaux claim that he buys the wines stateside, after release, off retailer’s shelves, places them in peer groups, and drinks them blind. Again, this never happens. He tastes them at the Chateaus annually.

    To many, none of this is a big deal, but to a wine retailer, such as myself, this calls into the integrity of all of his reviews. If it is no big deal, then he should update the front page of the Wine Advocate, which is full of lies and half truths.

    For asking for the truth, I was banned from his bulletin board.

    2 years later, he continues to downplay all of the lies on his website and in his publications.

    I just want wine critics to be opn and honest. Parker has not been. And at the same time, he has put down other wine publications who have not told those lies.

    There you have it, Tom.

    It is all about disclosure. Then people can make up their own mind. But if you do not disclose the truth, then how can people make an informed decision. They can’t.

  4. Jack Bulkin permalink
    September 24, 2011

    Tom your comment “I had received the print version of the WA for a few years but in the end let it lapse as I felt I no longer wanted it. It helped build my palate and wine knowledge but was not all of my wine education. My own tasting and travel experiences are really what make that up, along with good wine books and journalism where you can get it.” Got my attention.
    I learned about wine by traveling to the vineyards of regions that grew grapes that I became infatuated with over the years. The late Joe Dressner once stated
    “”Why not just sit down with one great bottle. Learn everything you can about the region and producer. Go visit them on a vacation. Immerse yourself.”
    I had a lot of hits by following that advice in my younger days. I also had misses but it was fun to experiment, trust my own palate and advice I received from old time masters like Anthony Barton and Joe Heitz.
    Travel became more difficult form me after 2001 so I began to listen to Robert Parker’s advice. I read him extol the virtues of many wineries that put out high octane, ripe and alcoholic plonk that sadly stares at me whenever I enter my cellar today.
    I can stop talking about Robert Parker forever, sadly, many of the wines I mistakenly bought on his recommendations will continue to stare at me in my cellar until I either drink them or sell them the latter seeming a safer bet to me today.

  5. Tom permalink
    September 24, 2011

    That’s the thing I guess since I have not invested that much time or money (a lot in some cases as it sounds) I never revered or felt the need to “kiss his ring” and thus don’t have a hero gone bad feeling if he were to disappoint me.

    What I think you fail to realize about my point is that I never put him on a pedestal in the first place so if it turns out what you say is true to those close to him than so be it and that is quite unfortunate.  I trust my own palate more thn anything else, not another supposed expert.  Wine is subjective, and yes there is typicity and other things one who knows anything about wine should expect.  It just sounds like a lot of comments on here want to see him fail and ruin whatever legacy they think he will  have.  I can see why you feel that way if you held him up so high on a pedestal.  But have you not learned enough on your own and from him and other wine persons that you don’t need him and can move on?  That will be on his soul to deal with if he is what you all are saying he is, a phony. Like any other product, movie, or tv show if you don’t like don’t support o buy it. Why waste your energy on hating it?

    I had received the print version of the WA for a few years but in the end let it lapse as I felt I no longer wanted it.  It helped build my palate and wine knowledge but was not all of my wine education.  My own tasting and travel experiences are really what make that up, along with good wine books and journalism where you can get it.

    White knight, ha!  Far from it, besides I don’t think name calling is a mature way to go about a conversation. 

  6. Jack Bulkin permalink
    September 24, 2011

    Tom, unlike Wilfred, Eric Levine and others I have not paid thousands to attend a dinner to kiss Robert Parker’s ring only to have him later try to explain to me like he has to them that his pissing on me was just a Spring shower in Monkton. I used to read his issues with great anticipation. I used to try to get his palate choices in Bordeaux, CdP and CA Cabs. Those days are gone.
    He no longer earns my respect. He is lost living in his own Castle surrounded by his white knights like you who adore him. I have so much to say in response to your recent post that it would thake 1,000 words. Since the title of this blog is “Do we talk too much about Robert Parker?”, I will just bite my tongue and agree that we do. To each his own. You may revere him if that is your choice. .

  7. Wilfred permalink
    September 24, 2011

    Hi Tom

    Last post to you on this. I didn’t say Parker is a “bad person.” I said he should be more kind/respectful to his customer base. I also made a statement of fact that the majority of people who paid thousands of dollars per person to share a dinner with him no longer are on good terms with him.

    I really don’t care to discuss it further here but thanks for the advice.

  8. Tom permalink
    September 24, 2011

    The board was a great place and I was severely disappointed that it was closed to subscribers only. So many like minded, smart, open forum discussion on food, travel, and of course wines. That being closed to the public was a true shame.

    Your gripe sounds quite emotional, I think that it should be discussed, if you want to say he is a bad person you should say why. All we get form your comment is that he wont hang out with you anymore.

  9. Wilfred permalink
    September 24, 2011

    I don’t have the time or energy to go into how he has alienated his customer base on his website by insulting his most loyal customers, banning them from the board, etc. but I’ll just say this.

    A number of years ago, several of us paid dearly to attend a charity dinner with Robert Parker. The money we each spent was a marker of our respect for Parker and our desire to be around him as well as to contribute to a good cause.

    What is it now, 10 years later? Almost no one in the picture from the evening has good relations with Parker. What does that tell you?

  10. Tom permalink
    September 24, 2011

    How is he doing that?

  11. Wilfred permalink
    September 24, 2011

    Tom, the one thing I would say in response is that although Parker doesn’t seem to care about his readers’ reactions, he should care about his customers’ reactions. He is running a business and customer service is one aspect of that. Rule #1 in business is don’t alienate your main customer base.

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