Wine Diarist

Emperor On A Ledge

So as you may have heard, Robert Parker just released his final, in-bottle reviews of the 2009 Bordeaux vintage and gave 100-point ratings to 19—count ‘em, 19—wines, a profusion of perfect scores without precedent in the annals of Parkerism (sorry, that orgy of alliteration just kind of wrote itself, and it’s so bad that I couldn’t resist the urge to keep it). By contrast, he awarded 100-point scores to just six wines from the fabled 1982 Bordeaux vintage, and gave only two wines from the brilliant class of 2005 his highest mark.  While there is generally a lot of enthusiasm for the 2009s, Parker, with his maximum, Nigel-Tufnel-crank-it-to-11 bullishness, has now turned this vintage into a referendum on the late-era Parker palate.

Anticipating the many raised eyebrows that greeted his Bordeaux report, which he titled “The Empire Strikes Back” (what empire he was referring to, and who it was striking back against, was not clear), Parker posted a missive on eBob late last week in which he proclaimed 2009 to be “the greatest Bordeaux vintage I have ever tasted” and suggested that it could go down as the finest Bordeaux vintage ever. He brushed aside concerns over grade inflation and said the astronomical scores speak to the dramatic improvements that the Bordelais have made in their vineyards and cellars over the last three decades.

He conceded that there is superlative fatigue with Bordeaux these days but said he’d be remiss in his duties as a critic if he didn’t scream the praises of the 2009s. “Perhaps the most remarkable thing about 2009 is that there is no ‘buzz,’” he wrote. “We are all tired of the newest Vintage of the Century, but when the real one happens, it has to be recognized, and someone has to point it out. That is not called hype, but accountability, fairness, and independent professional reporting.”

Despite Parker’s attempt to head off criticism, there has already been much snickering and second-guessing concerning his 2009 ratings. Some people have noted that carnival-barking seems to be his thing now; he’s become the Bob who cried whoopee. He gushed that 2000 was “the greatest vintage Bordeaux has ever produced.” After tasting the 2005 Bordeaux vintage from bottle, he declared it “the greatest vintage produced during my 30-year career.” Not long thereafter, he said that 2007 in the southern Rhone “may be the most compelling vintage of any viticultural region I have ever tasted.” His Riedel clearly runneth over.

However, I’m writing this post not to mock Parker but to express some admiration for him. Say what you will about his 2009 scores, he has made a bold call at a point in his career when he certainly doesn’t need to throw Hail Marys. By lavishing such effusive praise on the 2009s and dishing out so many 100-point ratings, he has now staked his reputation on this vintage (and he acknowledged as much in his comment on eBob).  If these wines start cracking up in 15 years, or just don’t turn out to be as good as he claims they are, his legacy won’t necessarily be destroyed, but it will be badly tarnished. The title of his report will need to be changed from “The Empire Strikes Back” to “The Emperor Commits Hara-Kiri.”

It has been suggested that Parker’s Bordeaux review is just an attention-getting ploy by a veteran critic who senses his audience slipping away. Sure, Parker’s influence has waned in recent years, but I can’t imagine that he would risk his reputation like this simply to get a burst of publicity.  I think he genuinely believes that 2009 is the finest Bordeaux vintage of his career and that it has the potential to go down as the region’s greatest year ever, and I give him credit for not hedging even one bit. It’s a ballsy thing to do at a stage in his life when prudence would suggest focusing on legacy preservation rather than legacy enhancement.