Why we should be grateful for Robert Parker

business of wine

Why we should be grateful for Robert Parker

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.

25 Comments on Why we should be grateful for Robert ParkerTagged ,
wine journalist and flavour obsessive

25 thoughts on “Why we should be grateful for Robert Parker

  1. Wholly agree Jamie.

    I now sell to the people who, by virtue of them being prepared to pay the extravagant prices required in order to drink the wines, actually prop up the top end of the wine market. Parker facilitates one side of this, even if he has helped create the other. But I believe that the whole chain beneath them benefits from the financial input. The real price to pay of course is that the world’s most expensive/exclusive wines are not within the financial range of ‘ordinary’ drinkers. However, if they were then ordinary wines would suffer, not gain, as a lot of this money is spent re-investing somewhere else in the wine business, including in its production.

    Parker = easy to bash, but we’d miss him if he weren’t there. His consistency is also very commendable and this is a quality that is more easily noticed when absent than present.

  2. It is always good to be reminded there is an investment grade category of wines. You correctly point out Robert Parker is the gold standard for both producer and investor,as he sets the baseline for these investments.

    Everyone wins when wineries try to up their standards to achieve this higher status.

  3. I don’t begrudge Parker his preferences or his talent. I agree that he has brought more money and interest to the wine world on the whole, particularly from Americans, and overall has contributed quite substantially to our wine culture here. He’s a major figure deserving of respect.

    However, one can’t ignore that bringing all this extra money into the wine world has negative effects. The two main ones are, first, that there are many wines, particularly from Burgundy and Bordeaux, that used to be splurge bottles for middle class people and regular drinks for doctors and lawyers. They are now splurge bottles for doctors and lawyers and entirely out of reach of the rest of us. This is a sad thing; people like me used to be able to drink the occasional Coche-Drury or Chateau Margaux, but no longer. This is certainly not all Parker’s fault but those upset at the development have a right I think to cast him occasional askance glances.

    The much more pernicious second problem is that point-chasing (a) ruins many wines; not all grapes and terroirs are cut out for that kind of treatment, and even some of those that are aren’t obviously better for it and (b) winds up wiping out local wines that are at least interesting and have some character in favor of another damn planting of pinot noir, merlot, chardonnay, etc. This is frankly a disaster even if you like Parker-style wines because most places simply aren’t cut out to produce them, or if they do wind up producing a vaguely pleasant Red Wine with Oak that’s certainly a step up from say Castano Monastrell but doesn’t really offer anything resembling beauty, just agreeability.

    Again, it is not only Parker’s fault that people do this, and he does have an ability to appreciate and say informative things about wines outside his wheelhouse as it were, but many of us think it’s a problem, and if he deserves some of the praise for the general level of culture and money he’s brought into wine, he can’t be totally ignored in connection with the problems the money end of this at least has caused either.

  4. Jamie – very well stated, it appears the style people think Parker likes, and therefore attempt to make has become a collateral damage of sorts to the benefits you so well outline.

  5. With the bright side of the Parker coin exposed the reverse necessarily becomes apparent. The Yin and Yang of life and wine exposes to an even greater extent wines of distinction, subtlety, and nuance from regions developing, forgotten, or in need of exposure. It is truly a great time to be a wine drinker.

  6. So now I need to be grateful for Robert Parker too?

    I am amused by Jamie’s quaint and naive comment – “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).” Jamie should be selling lines like that to all the folks who lost money on the reliable advice of the folks at AIG, Bank of America, and Goldman Sachs.

    Popularity is certainly not an automatic indicator of reliability – especially regarding wine. The power of Parker and other wine writers has as just as much to do with the power of marketing, the incredible laziness of the media, and the willingness of the public to be led about by the nose.

    I do not deny that Parker and many others have talent – but I think the desire of the media to create kings and queens and generate controversy is as much a factor in their “power ” as anything else.

    But grateful for Parker – I hardly think so.

  7. I agree with most of it, but am not entirely convinced about Parker ‘growing the consumer base for interesting wines’. Parker may have opened up people’s eyes to wine, but I believe that other critics have encouraged people to look at other wines. See http://www.thetastingnote.com for my take on this.

  8. Can’t help but agree that Parker has opened up fine wine to a much broader spectrum, including those whose resources have enabled producers to up their game. My only concern is that his occasional preference for high-alcohol wines led to a steady climb in abvs. Thankfully, this appears to be tapering off now.

  9. I agree that Jamie’s post is naive to say the least.
    Thanks to Parker, the majority of US wine lovers are now obsessed with point scores, are a slave to someone else’s palate, and Parker himself has persuaded a raft of Bordeaux winemakers to change their style to something riper and more extracted, with higher alcohol.

    Yeah, thanks for that, Bob!

  10. I’d lay less blame on Parker for the chasing of point scores, and more on how the 100 point scale has been misused by the media, PR, retailers, etc., to promote that kind of slavish thinking among us wine consumers.

    It could be argued that Parker now plays into (or at least ignores) that condition, but it’s like blaming George Lucas for every effects-laden bad movie made since Star Wars was filmed…

  11. This is probably the least in touch a wine writer is with the art and soul of wine and the closest to the capitalist, corporatist approach in wine. Jaime, you have no idea ho much damage this cig smokin cat had done. Take a walk on the grower/winemaker side and you might have an idea of what I mean. RP enouraged and rewarded the Paul Hobbs (among other of WS and RP darlings) style of picking Pinot Noir at 30.5 brix (fucking raisins), RP nearly solely brought the idea of 9-10 monts oaking rather than the traditional (for hundreds of years)16-22 months because the crap made into wine had such a high ph and dangerously high VA that 9 months is all the wine could bare in brl. The high alc content we could also thank RP for.

    Jaime you are so wrong on so many levels. YOU may be thankful for him but all of us actually doing the growing and winemaking and marketing are not thanful for this disgusting, undrinkable wine he’s helped birth. He may be growing the base, but the amount of work we in this industry need to do to bring a little balance back is tremendous. We’ll be doing it with out (hopefully) guy like you. Obviously you’ve never spent a god damn day among the vines. I’m not surprised though…. Aussie wines are pretty vile because of RP’s influence. You in fact should shoulder some of their problems since you think that style is so great.

    Robert Parker is in part destroying wine country. I look forward to wineries taking back the responsibility of marketing their wines.

  12. Seriously how could anyone admire someone who invents a point scoring system for wine which starts at 50, but only those wines scoring 90 points or more matter . It’s a con . The consumer base for wines hasn’t been expanded by Parker ; outside the world of wine enthusiasts nobody has heard of him . The consumer base for wine has been expanded by the supermarkets . All these people who fancy themselves as wine critics talking about the quality of wine in supermarkets . Does anybody bang on about beers such as Bud or Becks like this ? Of course not . Were any of these people alive in the 50s, 60s or 70s ? Do they know what was on offer then ? If Englishmen drank wine at all it was what their fathers drank before them delivered by the family wine merchant . This was a tiny proportion of the population. They were the elite at that time. Parker feeds into the elite for our age- the investment bankers for whom money is a fluid thing and who can play the game that is fine wine. But for everybody else it’s the supermarkets who meet their wine needs and what are they ? A nice beverage at a reasonable price and no bullshit.

  13. The 100-point scale is a gross oversimplification that completely elides the question of winemaking styles. How about this: Those who feel grateful to Mr Parker can keep sending him checks for his publications. As for the rest of us, Jamie, please leave us alone and stop urging us to be thankful.

  14. I was trying to make quite a difficult point – that even though I’m no particular fan of the wines that Parker is supposed to favour (look at the sorts of wines I tend to favour – lots of natural wines, high acid wines, Loire reds, biodynamic wines, quirky wines, wines with a story to tell, elegant versus powerful wines), I think the job he has done has helped grow the whole category of fine wines, and it is in part because of the high prices fetched by high-scoring wines that others have been encouraged to get into the winegrowing game.

    Sadly, some very serious wines are now out of the price range of normal people. But then, there are some very special terroirs that are being given the proper attention that they deserve, now. If the limits of fine wine were still bordeaux and burgundy, then this wouldn’t have happened.

  15. I think Parker intially was good for the industry, and not good at all for the last 10 or so years. Slave to points. Short 20-30 second tastes does not equal enjoyment of a whole bottle. Does Parker advise people to work with a good retailer? Does Parker honestly and openly advise people of his own style preferences and make it known that other styles can be just as pleasing? These are my main gripes. Just because he has made a following, does not mean the industry would have been better off with less bombastic and more educational wine reviewing. Wine writing mostly stinks among the larger circulations, driven by fancy ads for Rolex, swanky resort hotels, and Lexus. Read most back labels. What a waste. Next tranche of complaints: Can you taste glycerin? Can you ID it by the legs? Don’t think so. Does port have thicker legs than Bordeaux? Try that on for size and Parker’s lack of science in his writings. Lastly, is the wine industry really doing well? Look around. Riots and fire bombings and huge annual distillations and now fraud in France. Aussie’s tearing out tens of thou of acres and sitting on stocks of millions of gallons or bottles. Constellation, formerly Canadaguia, maker of sweet cheap stuff, buying up anything that stands still because they have DISTRIBUTION power, not wine excellence?

    Nope, don’t count me in.

  16. Children (Rady)…behave! There are a few important points from this discussion. First — If you do not agree with Parkers scores (or anyone other critic for that matter) do not purchase wine based on their advice (simple huh?). For every Paul Hobbs there is “A Donkey and a Goat”. Vote with your wallet–if enough people do than the wine styles will change regardless of the critics. Personally, I do not find Parkers scores to my liking but (paradoxically?) I find myself frequently in agreement with JL from WS. Which brings me to my 2nd point — while I am quite into wine, including being an investor in a small winery and making a fair bit of wine in my garage, there is no way I can keep up with all of the wineries even in my local area, much less world wide. So, how could I “trust my own palate” for all of my wine purchasing decisions?? JL does me (and the wineries he reccomends) a great service by guiding me in the direction of wines that I would have otherwise never found on my own (Rudius, Prospect 772, McPrice Myers come to mind of late)–all of whom I am now purchasing 1-2 cases per year from

  17. Jamie

    I’m not sure where this particular post came from (i.e. exactly what might have prompted it) but it sure seems to have had the effect of stirring-up some pretty heated arguments from both sides. Call me cynical, but I guess it is a while since your criticism of other bloggers taking payments for coffee ads caused more than a little acrimony. As they say, no publicity is bad publicity…..

    Anyway, I can’t let your Parker-worshipping post go by without sticking in my two penn’orth. I will quote you, for ease of reference.

    Quote: “Through his work, Parker has made fine wine accessible to a large number of wealthy collectors.”

    Yes, and…..? As others have pointed out, this has had entirely the opposite effect on genuine wine enthusiasts, who can no longer afford these so-called “fine wines”. Can’t say I’m too bothered, personally, since I have different opinion on what is actually fine wine. Nevertheless, nobody in their right mind can say that these ridiculous price hikes have had a beneficial effect o- at least not for real wine drinkers.

    Quote: “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.”

    So what? They probably made the wines in a specific style, so as to have that very effect. Then again, if they didn’t (and even if the wines might just appeal to non-Parkerites) the prices soon sky-rocket, thereby putting them beyond the pockets of – you’ve guessed it – real wine enthusiasts. More to the point, what about the vast majority of wines and winemakers, many of which might be extremely praiseworthy, that – for one reason or another – do not get picked up on by Parker or his team? Or any other influential wine journalist, for that matter. There are countless good and great winemakers out there who continue to struggle through thick and thin,, eking-out a living without the oxygen that Parker ratings (or any other ratings) might bring. At least they provide the opportunity for the real wine drinkers to enjoy great wines, at decent (and often bargain basement) prices. Which is great for the wine enthusiast, if not so great for the growers. King-maker? Personally, I’ll avoid the kings and give my money to the paupers.

    Quote: “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.”

    You might think so, but I (and, I would wager, a large proportion of true enthusiasts) don’t. Diversity is slowly but surely being overtaken by sameness. The wine world itself, in terms of the sheer number of wine producing regions, has never been so diverse. But that doesn’t mean that the wines themselves are diverse. Of course, there are winemakers in most regions who will quietly go about their business of making truly individual, terroir-laden wines. But then there are the rest, who will refer to their recipe books each vintage time and produce the same old rich, soupy, over-extracted and over-alcoholic wines, shove ’em in a big heavy bottle, slap on a fancy label and hope to God that Parker and his disciples keep on bigging them up.

    Diversity? In my experience, that is a quality best found in wines without a big fat number at the end.

  18. Jamie,

    Seems you’ve stirred up a bit of a hornet’s nest. I’ve been kicking around the wine scene in Maryland since 1962 as a hobbyist and, hence, know some of Parker’s friends and some of his adverse critics. For 20 years, I was also on the Board of a boutique winery in Maryland whose owner and wine educator felt Parker’s scoring system was ridiculous. Today in a very post-retirement part-time job, I’m a wine sales consultant for a Maryland retailer of fine wines.

    From those prospectives here are some different views. First, when Parker first began publishing his newsletter in 1978 there were few really good, or should I say honest, publications rating wines. He thus produced a Consumer Reports type of newsletter that could be trusted and for that I give him great credit.

    The fact that I dislike high alcohol fruit bombs aside, Parker has indeed brought many wineries to consumers attention that may have otherwise languished. Let’s give him credit for that much.

    I personally despise the 100-point scale and favor a proper 20-point sensory evaluation techniques and now use my own slightly modified UCD scale to examine wines when tasting blind. However, the 100-point scale made wines accessable to many more retail consumers, especially through shelf-talkers, when making purchases with no one present to assist in their selections. Whether anyone likes it or not, those shelf talkers sell a ton of wines to time-stressed consumers. Wine buyers who know little about Wine Spectator or Wine Enthusiast and certainly don’t subsrcibe to the Wine Advocate appear to trust Parker implicitly. Why? Who knows? But people do relate to a high school grading system. And let’s remember the vast majority of wine purchasers are quickly grabbing a bottle to enjoy with a meal within 48 hours of purchase and are not wine aficionados. Thus we today have more people enjoying wine with their meals than ever. On balance that’s a good thing for America and its wineries.

  19. Leon, you are spot on. You wrote exactly what I was thinking.

    Jamie, you say one of the main reasons we should be grateful to Parker is he has made fine wine accessible to a large number of wealthy collectors. Really? I’m sorry but I can not let you write this. Is this really what wine is about? Wow… Honestly what is the positive here? I’m really shocked to read this.
    I’m a big fan of your articles in TWFW but this post totally surprises me. Parker has his fans and good for him and them (I think it’s great to find a critic whose palate matches yours) but like many I don’t think he’s done that good for the wine industry.
    I want wines with souls, character, sense of place. And I don’t care if those wines have not been reviewed and therefore available for those wealthy collectors. Sad things is we spend more time discussing the rating of a wine than the wine/winemaker itself. Is this normal?

    Anyway, thanks for your writings. I always enjoy reading them.

  20. The 100 point scale always makes me laugh. Why? Well, for one thing, I have never seen anything rating below 70, and at 70 points you really have a piss-poor wine. So, in order to have a true 100-point wine, you have to rate it at 170. Or am I missing something here?

    And can someone really taste the 1-point increments?

  21. It is too easy to forget what wine was like in the 1970’s and 80’s when Parker was starting out. Wines were very cheap. There was also LOTS of bad wine. I wrote off most of Italy, Spain and France outside of Burgundy and Bordeaux. Many/most of the wines were made in dirty cellars with overly tired barrels that hadn’t been cleaned in years. Better reviews = more money into the business = cleaner wines = better wines, etc.

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