Wine Diarist

Do We Talk Too Much About Robert Parker?

My post last week about Robert Parker’s tasting of some allegedly counterfeit wines prompted a lengthy thread over on 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?