The emperor of wine
I’ve mentioned Elin McCoy’s The Emperor of Wine before on these pages. It’s the first biography of the world’s most influential wine critic, Robert Parker, and it’s published this month for the first time in the UK by Grub Street. I met Elin (pronounced ‘ee-lin’) for an interview on Tuesday, which I’ll be writing up in full at a future date. She was charming and smart, and we had an interesting broad-ranging discussion about the Parker effect in general. I’ve now finished reading the book, which I struggled a little with in its early pages. It gets better, though, and I found it pretty absorbing in the end—I reckon it’s an important work that all wine nuts should read.
There are huge difficulties facing anyone who wants to write a biography like this. If they know their subject well, they have the advantage of being close enough to give an accurate, detailed picture. But this closeness brings with it its own challenges. The huge danger is that the book then becomes a hagiography; to write honestly giving the bad along with the good risks alienation from the subject and would damage even the strongest friendship. Or if the author is already alienated from the subject, then the book can easily become a hatchet job. On the other hand, if the author doesn’t have much of a relationship with the subject, this is less of a risk, but the attendant danger is that the work could flirt with superficiality, or inaccuracy.
McCoy steers a fairly deft course between the twin perils of hagiography and hatchet job. You sense you are getting a work that doesn’t carry some hidden agenda; she wanted to write the best biography she could. It’s not perfect, but overall, it works. I’ll leave you with one of the closing paragraphs.
It will be hard, if not impossible, for Parker to pass on his mantle of power, for his reputation is rooted in the idea of his specialness and the myth of his unique, semi-divine tasting ability. There will be others to follow him. But he has changed the wine world, and the unique circumstances that coronated [or should that be ‘crowned’?] him will never be duplicated.
Total needless aside: Grub Street have obviously translated the spellings in the UK version of the book from American English to UK English by automatic means – this has led to the occasional amusing typo, such as the one at the bottom of p175, where ‘Colorado’ becomes ‘Colourado’.