The Emperor of Wine: the Rise of Robert M. Parker, Jr. and the Reign of American Taste by Elin McCoy

by Stevie on October 5, 2011

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This biography of the famous American wine critic, Robert Parker, best known as the creator and power behind Wine Advocate, has been out for a while now. I’d been hesitant to read it, to be honest. Frankly, biographies often leave me a bit numb. Generally their writers are either so enamored by their subject that they’ve no sense of objectivity at all, or, admittedly more rarely, it is the complete opposite, and thus the identical problem: the writer despises the person in question and bends over backward to make him or her sound dreadful. Just think of that endless parade of awful books about the American founding fathers, Abraham Lincoln, British Monarchs or Hollywood celebrities, and soon enough you can see what I mean.

Windsor Castle, formerly an imperial home of the British Emperor

Windsor Castle, formerly an imperial home of the British Emperor

That said, McCoy’s The Emperor of Wine rises above the tired sanctified/demonized style biography. As I was reading this well written monograph, I kept wondering what “side” of the Robert Parker debate she fell on: pro or con. By the end, I couldn’t really tell. That may not be a true measure of objectivity, but is impressive nevertheless: both because the nature of the genre seems to demand the writer choose, and, since Mr. Parker has been such a lightning rod for controversy in the wine world for ages, it would appear perfectly natural to have a strong opinion.

Perhaps McCoy is especially cognizant of the importance of objectivity in her book on Parker. After all, much of the weight of the story hinges on the question of the great critic’s ability to independently evaluate wine and the industry. Educated as a lawyer in the seventies, Parker was as much a fan of good wine as he was of Ralph Nader and the consumer rights movement in the United States at the time. When he decided to start Wine Advocate, he eschewed advertising and freebies of any kind. He makes a big point of paying for all wine that he tastes—even going so far as to donate money to charity for any free sample bottles that arrive in the mail from hungry wine makers hoping for a 90+ Parker score.

That’s all fine and dandy, but didn’t translate into much success, that is until the 1982 Bordeaux vintage. Parker loved it and praised it to the skies in his newsletter. British and other American critics were less enthused. But the industry, always focused on the bottom line—after all wine is big business—rode the Parker bandwagon all the way to the bank. Overnight he was a star and his critiques, and even more importantly, his 100 point numerical rating system were everywhere.

As hard as it is to understand now since everyone is doing it, that last piece, the wine score, was a huge innovation, or depending on what camp you’re in, a tragic devolution in vinous writing. Just glance through the pages of Wine Spectator or Wine Enthusiast and you’ll see those powerful little numbers everywhere. Of course all the obvious questions come up in Emperor of Wine: can wines really be boiled down to a number? What’s the difference between 87 and 86? Though, it turns out that the difference between 89 and 90 suddenly became obvious to wine marketers: the nineties flew off the shelves and the eighty-nines languished. Collectors and wine drinkers became so enchanted by the numbers game that some even held potlucks in which guests were asked to bring only 97’s or above, or perfect 100 point bottles, or what have you. People really can be nutty. Easy to criticize (people understand scores immediately but don’t want to bother understanding flowery descriptions) nevertheless the idea is genius.

The Parker story is the American dream. Wooed by France and the rest of the wine world; he is rich, comfortable, with ample time to travel, apparently a 12,000 bottle wine collection divided into three cellars, an enjoyable marriage, loving child and warm close friends. He was even bestowed the Legion of Honor for his wine-critical work in 1999, the highest award given anyone in France.

Oh, and I forgot to write, the guy’s famous, too.

And that fame-thing has become the source of much of the critical push-back against Parker. He gives some obscure wine a high score, and suddenly overnight they’re sold out and the prices soar through the roof. A new cult wine is born. Bordeaux, who really created the Parker juggernaut with their 1982s, wait and wait for his reviews each vintage before they even release their prices. But he’s just one guy. Is he really so on-point all the time that he “knows” the quality flawlessly? Could he ever make a mistake? Apparently he says no—or at least not that often.

Then there’s the whole issue about his taste in wine. We all know that’s subjective, but apparently he’s the exception. Many Parker critics believe that he favors reds that are dark, fruity, oaky, bold and low in acidity—actually, thanks to Parker, those are the reds that most of us tend to drink. So has his taste been shaping how wines are made and drunk throughout the world? Probably so. Are we in fact at risk of having all wines coalesce into a single style? Harder. And finally, doomsday fears aside, can the Man really be objective at this stage in the game when the entire world bows down to his taste and winemakers knowingly design theirs for his glass alone? Hmmm…

This is a good book. I was alternately amazed, intrigued, horrified and amused by what I found here. Locating the rise of Parker in a specific time in American culture, McCoy concludes this delicious read, “There will never be another emperor of wine.” But I’m not so sure. If all the predictions of the rising Chinese middle class prove true, I wonder if the next Parker might live someplace in Asia, maybe right now, awaiting his or her wine-epiphany?

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Purabi Naha October 5, 2011 at 8:08 am

What a wonderful article! Loved reading this!! I had no idea tha they have wine scores!
Purabi Naha recently posted..Welcome Fall with Roselle Tea!My Profile

Krista October 6, 2011 at 10:33 am

This sounds SO interesting! :-) I’m racking up a list of good reads to delve into when I get to Australia. :-) Anything historical and quirky gets me every time. :-)
Krista recently posted..Rest and Treasures in the WoodsMy Profile

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