He’s been called the “Emperor of Wine” not because of the vast viticultural kingdom he rules, but because of the vast influence he holds over the wine industry and the wine buying public. With the stroke of his pen, he can either play king maker and anoint the next big thing in wine or he can doom a brand to failure – or at least to obscurity. That’s a bit of hyperbole, but it is true that the words of Robert M. Parker, Jr. help move the wine world.
I have zero personal experience with Robert Parker. All I knew of him were from reading his books and the Wine Advocate, his monthly newsletter of wine reviews. Second hand, I’d heard that he was pleasant and gracious in person. Professionally, I knew that – at least recently – his company had been tone-deaf in the area of customer service, displaying a George Bush level of blind loyalty to some staff members who, quite frankly, should have been removed from his publication and website. While few readers questioned Mr. Parker’s ethics, a couple of his tasters/staff members stepped in it big-time and to question the questionable invited censure or banning from the then public forum on eRobertParker.com. Since that time, the forum has been made subscription only. With the bannings of dissenters – admittedly perhaps one or two who were rabble-rousers – and the new pay-to-play policy, all is happy in that online kingdom, though quite a bit quieter when it comes to intelligent wine discussion.
Anyway, the purpose of this post is not to skewer Robert Parker. I’ve come not to bury Caesar, but to praise him. I believe he has done more positive for both the wine industry and wine drinkers than any other single person. On November 3, 2010, Mr. Parker sat down in front of about 70 Napa Valley vintners for an informal Question and Answer session. It was my pleasure to attend. These notes are from that session. Unless otherwise indicated, the views here are either direct quotes of Mr. Parker or my interpretation and understanding of what he said.
Mr. Parker started out by giving us some background information. Perhaps his personal history is well-known to some readers, but it wasn’t to me. He comes from a family of dairy farmers in Maryland and in fact, still lives just a few miles from where he grew up. I was surprised to learn that his parents did not drink. His first experience with wine was at a girlfriend’s 16th birthday party. His memory of that Andres Cold Duck wine was throwing up all night afterwards. While in law school, he followed a girlfriend who was studying abroad in France. She had more sophisticated tastes in wine and food than he did at the time and it was through travels with her that he first gained exposure, and later love, of Bordeaux and other French wines and foods. Apparently love was in the air: he is still married to that gal.
The first time he realized that California was a wine region worth investigating was when he purchased a $3.99 bottle of 1970 Parducci Cabernet Sauvignon. He was impressed by its pure and supple fruit.
Mr. Parker stated that he believes that the development of California’s single vineyard wines will be its legacy in the wine world. In fact, he came back to this point throughout the afternoon. While not discounting appellation blends, one could tell that he seems to be most interested in single vineyard wines.
In reference to California vintages, he compared our consistency of quality to chocolate truffles. “Even when you have a bad truffle, it’s good.” He described the 2007 vintage for Napa Cabernet as a “modern day reference point” but said that 2008, while troublesome for many regions and varieties in California, looks “fabulous” for Napa Cabernet. He said that “the sweet spot of 2008 was Napa Cabernet.” [Author’s note: This Q&A Session took place towards the end of Mr. Parker’s tasting trip in California. He had just tried many 2008 Napa Cabs.]
The floor was then opened to questions:
What do you see in Asian markets?
Mr. Parker confirmed what we already knew: that the thirst for fine wine is really growing in Asia and wineries must position themselves to take advantage of that market. He pointed out that the French, in particular, the Bordelais, are ahead of California vintners in marketing and brand recognition in Asia. However, he said that from tastings he has conducted in China, he believes that the Chinese are very open minded about wine. Korea, he pointed out, was a very dynamic wine market with “more wine bars in Seoul than in any other city.” Female wine buyers and sommeliers are also gaining influence. Taiwan and Singapore are good markets but hindered by high taxes on wine imports. Mr. Parker believes that the no tax on wine imports policy of Hong Kong will be a positive influence and perhaps force Korea and Singapore to follow suit.
What about Europe?
Mr. Parker didn’t see much future for Napa wines in Europe saying that they tend to be “too chauvinistic about their own products.” Perhaps some opportunity exists in Russia, but overall he recommended Napa vintners moving internationally should look to Asia and even to South America.
Winemaker Les Behrens asked, “is there any hope for Syrah?”
According to Mr. Parker, Syrah is probably the most satisfying wine at each price point. He pointed to several reasons why Syrah may be having problems. First he said that the flooding of the market by Yellow Tail, industrial style made Shiraz had cheapened the variety. Also, Syrah is made in so many divergent styles that perhaps folks don’t know what they are buying. He suggested that high-end Pinot Noir may be starting “to tank” and that Syrah may move to that position. He referred to the movie Sideways causing too much Pinot Noir to be planted in the wrong places. Wine varieties tend to be victims of their own over popularity as too many wineries try to cash in.
What about Social Media for wineries?
Mr. Parker said that he was one of the first wine writers using the internet, tracing his use back to the old online bulletin board Prodigy and its wine forum. He said that now the internet offers much information about wine ranging in quality from good to bad. Mr. Parker said that a lot of bloggers are just “a lot of white noise” but he does understand why these bloggers’ arrows seem to be aimed at him and Wine Spectator. According to Mr. Parker, it was the same when he started out: he aimed his arrows at the British wine press.
He did not mention Facebook or any of the other social media apps with the exception of Twitter which he says that he started using fairly recently (@RobertMParkerJr). He said that he usually sits down and composes 20-25 tweets at a time and then staggers their release.
His main advice to wineries: have your websites be “interactive” and available in Mandarin, Japanese, and Korean. He also suggested we could pay to have our sites appear higher in Google search results.
[Author’s note: In fairness to Mr. Parker, despite his claim to have been a pioneer in the wine online world, he hasn’t really pushed the envelope to explore much further than those Prodigy days. He’s not really the guy one should ask about wine and social media.]
How do you view your contribution to the prevalent style of Cabernet?
Mr. Parker chuckled and called this topic the “800 lb gorilla in the room.”
He believes that his tastes are often pigeon holed into too narrow an understanding. He then quickly moved off the topic and really didn’t address whether he thought he drove wine styles. He proceeded to describe the “elements of all great wine.”
- If one goes back and reads old diary entries that were written about wines which we recognize today as great, on release, these wines were described as “opulent.”
- Great wine comes from great terroir planted properly with the proper variety.
- Great wine is made from ripe fruit: not under ripe and not over ripe.
- Great wines have to be concentrated in the beginning for them to be concentrated later on.
- Alcohol content is not an issue if the wine is balanced. He said that he never once looked at ABV on a wine. If it tastes hot then it’s an issue.
- Great wine has to have a singular personality
- Great wine fulfills the reason we drink wines: hedonistic enjoyment and intellectual interest. “Do you want a second glass?”
What is your opinion of a classified growth system for California?
Mr. Parker said that he had thought about it, but that it wasn’t his job. He joked that he had enough enemies. He thinks such a system would probably be unnecessary and that ultimately single vineyards and AVAs “will take care of it.”
His advice to Napa, Sonoma, and the Central Coast is to keep telling our story. The greatest threat is complacency. He pointed out what he views as a huge advantage that Napa possesses: our geography sheltering us from weather, pollution, fall out, etc. He said that he thinks about this every time he is in Paulliac (Bordeaux, France) where apparently there is a nuke plant right by the vineyards.
In his opinion, Cabernet and Chardonnay are still king.
Can the image of Merlot come back?
Mr. Parker compared the situation to Pinot Noir: everyone jumps on the craze a lot of bad wine gets made.
What is a good wine pairing for spicy food, specifically Mexican dishes?
No oak, Zinfandel, Rhone Rangers such as Syrah, Grenache, Mourvedre blends, Riesling, Chateauneuf du Pape.
What do you think about Biodynamic farming practices?
Mr. Parker said that his own vineyard has been biodynamic since 2003 [Author’s note: He is part owner in the winery Beaux Freres in Oregon.] He said that he doesn’t think biodynamic farming practices have helped or hurt their wine quality except perhaps this year when biodynamics may have made things tougher because it was a very tough vintage. He said that he believes Biodynamic farming and Organic farming make their difference in marketing because the terms are popular with the public.
What is the demographic of your readership?
They studied this a few years back and he tried to recall from memory
- almost all men
- median age 41 or 42
- a lot of MDs
- high income
- about 55k subscribers
Mr. Parker then brought up recent events on eRobertParker.com that ended up with the online public forum becoming non-public and pay subscription only. He said a similar situation had happened back at Prodigy too. Perhaps “2 dozen troublemakers” “generally single men” “probably still living in the basement of their mother’s house” started making problems. He laughed it off and said that now you can “criticize me, call me whatever you want, but you’re going to have to pay for it.”
Regarding Pierre Rovani, a former Wine Advocate taster, Parker said that he was talented and wonderful, but couldn’t take criticism.
[Author’s note: It wasn’t clear why Mr. Parker made the last statement. It is especially ironic because my observations of the event described by Mr. Parker as the actions of a couple of dozen troublemakers was actually an example that Rovani is not the only wine critic who could not take criticism. There are two sides to this story.]
And finally, someone asked if there is an heir apparent to Robert Parker.
His answer: Antonio Galloni
Overall, I was impressed by Mr. Parker’s thoughtfulness, his candor, and his understanding of the wine industry. Whether the emporer lives in an ivory tower, unable to see what some of his underlings are doing to his image, or whether he just doesn’t care what those of us he rules think, I’ll leave that to another writer to decide. On this afternoon, in front of the Napa Vintners, he was gracious, sincere, and well-spoken. He possessed a humble demeanor and a frank style that I enjoyed very much.