Robert Parker is the world’s most famous wine critic. Since his rise to fame in the 1980s through a newsletter called The Wine Advocate, his 100-point scale has become the default scoring system for wines. He’s also spawned a band of imitators.
When I first began drinking wine in earnest, in the early 1990s, I remember the excitement I had when I first read a friend’s copy of Parker’s Wine Buyer’s Guide: in contrast to most books on the market, which talked about wine styles and regions in more general terms, here was a guide that actually focused on specific wines, and through the scores, allowed me quickly to get a strong impression of just how good Parker thought these wines were.
Now, in the internet age, it seems fashionable to bash Parker. He’s criticised on many fronts, for many things, but what people seem to forget is just how important Parker has been for fine wine generally – and not just for the wine styles he has been reported to favour. I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to say that the whole wine world has benefited greatly from the work of this single critic. Let me attempt to argue why.
Through his work, Parker has made fine wine accessible to a large number of wealthy collectors. People who are cash-rich and time-poor often have a latent interest in wine, but lack the knowledge (and can’t spare the time to acquire this knowledge) to negotiate the complexities. The very real possibility of spending lots of money and ending up with mediocre wine puts people like this off. Parker offers a solution: a helicopter ride to the top. He’s a trusted guide who can quickly, through his scores, identify the ‘best’ wines. Collectors are happy: they have the money to spend to get the best, and Parker’s guidance steers them there.
By and large, people have found Parker to be a reliable authority. That’s evident because of his popularity (if he was frequently wrong, people would stop following his advice). His scoring system has also aided the investment market a great deal, and has helped make the top wines of Bordeaux such sought-after commodities. He has also acted as a king-maker: in the past, a winery would have to struggle to establish themselves over many years; high Parker scores can propel a relatively new venture onto the radar screens of collectors straight away.
Now you may not like the idea of wealthy collectors or wine as an investment vehicle. But this has brought a lot of money into the world of wine. The potential rewards for excellence have grown to the extent that more and more wineries are focusing on making top quality wines, because they know that the considerable investment that this involves has a good chance of paying off. As the pool of consumers willing to pay good money for top wines has grown, so has the breadth and depth of the fine wine scene.
For all the talk of wines now tasting the same (because they’re made to match Parker’s palate), the fine wine scene across the world’s wine regions has never been richer or more diverse. I’m not suggesting this is all down to Parker, but I do think he has played an important role in increasing the popularity of wine generally. All too often we forget the importance of consumer demand. Quite simply, we wouldn’t have the diversity of wines that we have today, were it not for the existence of people willing to buy them. Robert Parker and other communicators such as Jancis Robinson, Hugh Johnson and Oz Clarke, as well as magazines such as The Wine Spectator – all of whom have a significant impact on consumers – have played a vital role in growing the consumer base for interesting wines.