Another Wine Byte 10: For the Love of Parker?
Here is the tenth in our weekly series of Another Wine Bytes; information about wine you can use to impress your friends (but not in an obnoxious way, of course!)
Recently I was listening to a wine show podcast. One of the guests interviewed was discussing traditional print wine writers, winery PR and wine blogs. The hosts of the show were asking about the influence of wine blogs on wine selection and purchase. The guest offered his opinion that out of 800 or so wine blogs, only a few had any influence at all. The only ones that counted, he said, were wine writers who had transferred their writing from traditional print media to an on-line site. His view was that the “power of the Internet” was that it allowed more people to see these few influential writers.
Well, given this is one of those 800 wine blogs, I got a little pissed off.
He then said that the only way wine blogging would ever have any influence would be if Main Stream Media (MSM) like TIME, Newsweek, or even Jon Stewart did a story on wine bloggers. He said maybe people would care, if a wine blogger focused his entire blog on the wine habits of celebrities by following and blogging about which wines they ordered in restaurants.
Because, I’m thinking, all Americans care about is the wine preferences of famous people like Angelina Jolie or Brad Pitt or Britney Spears or Levi Johnston? While the guy might be right about the general public, I don’t necessarily agree that this is true among all wine drinkers.
AWB#10 – For the Love of Parker Just Who is Sir Wines-A-Lot?
This same guy said that wine drinkers were never going to pay much attention to anyone other than Robert Parker. And even if they did, nothing was going to change because Americans only like big jammy wines, like Parker does.
And here’s then I got really pissed off. Not only did he say none of the rest of us mattered, but I know the guy has a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. He makes his living advising wine industry clients on which wine writers they should target with advertising and PR. And where they should send their samples. And if the wine industry started targeting all of us bloggers, the guy might have to find another way to sell his services.
Having spent a great deal of my life in advertising and PR, I recognize self preservation when I see it. It’s safe and warm inside the status quo. And it’s a much easier way to do your job. But that kind of thinking leaves you scrambling for “new” and reacting to others’ innovations, rather than proactively setting yourself apart from the masses, and listening to consumers. And let’s face it, it’s much easier to target to a few famous wine writers with an on-line presence than actually read 800 wine blogs.
Being Robert Parker
But it got me to thinking, maybe this guy wants to be Robert Parker!
Let’s face it; Robert Parker does have influence — and it’s huge. Wineries and wine makers care about Robert Parker because he is King Maker. And all the traditional writers want to talk about the numbers. What number did Parker give the wine? Because if Parker doesn’t like your wine, and gives you a “bad number” the traditional writers aren’t going to suggest that people buy your wine. And that, my friends, is very bad for business. In fact, an article in Decanter magazine indicates a Parker score can affect the price of a Bordeaux by up to 15%!
But, what about the consumers? Frankly, OMG I am about to commit a sacrilege here: some wine drinkers do not care what Robert Parker thinks. In fact, many a casual wine drinker does not even know who Robert Parker is!
Asked one of my wine loving attorney friends when I was bitching about a podcast in which one PR guy said I and my blogger friends were wasting our time talking about wine.
Robert Parker is one of the world’s leading wine critics. An attorney turned wine writer who knows a great deal about wine, he’s the guy that created the 50-100 point wine rating system. He started The Wine Advocate. He authored A Wine Buyer’s Guide,now in it’s Seventh Edition, which is considered the Bible of the Wine Industry. He has a fabulous website. And he’s been covered in Newsweek and TIME magazines:
In the course of an average week, Robert M. Parker Jr., 40, will sniff, sip and spit his way through hundreds of bottles of wine (reds in the morning, whites in the afternoon). The opinions recorded at his daily tastings are written up primarily for the 21,000 subscribers (at $30 a year) to his influential, fact-choked bi-monthly newsletter, The Wine Advocate. Finally, some of the judgments will mature into a book. November marked the publication of his third, The Wines of the Rhone Valley and Provence (Simon & Schuster; $22.95); both sections of France, Parker believes, offer good bargains as well as awesome, mouth-filling wines.
Parker’s influence in the wine trade is fairly awesome itself. In France, some vintners await his thrice-yearly tasting visits with the same trepidation that restaurateurs have for the annual Le Guide Michelin ratings. Craig Goldwyn, editor of the rival International Wine Review, says Parker has “one of the greatest palates ever to walk the earth,” although some writers complain that as a taster he favors strength over subtlety. (Parker, of course, denies it.) His critics also carp that his success is based primarily on a 50-to-100-point rating system for wines that is fast becoming a popular industry standard. Wine merchants across the country know that advertising a vintage with a Parker rating of 90 or more virtually guarantees a sellout. Parker insists that the controversial scores are less important than his precise descriptions of wines, which are sometimes brutally scathing. Of one California Cabernet Sauvignon he recently wrote, “This is a pathetic wine with a bouquet that reeks of cardboard, is inexcusably diluted, and has harsh flavors that offer no redeeming value.” Rating: 52. “The Man with a Paragon Palate,” TIME, Monday, December 14, 1987
Now granted, that was over 20 years ago. But Parker’s influence continues, as evidenced in a 2002 article on Slate.
Parker very much wishes to be seen as a freak of nature. Despite sampling over 50 wines a day and some 10,000 to 15,000 annually, he says he never suffers palate fatigue. He also claims to recall literally every wine he has ever tasted. Call me cynical, but I seriously doubt that if I slipped him a glass of an $8 Chianti he reviewed in 1993 he would nail it (in an adulatory profile several years ago, David Shaw of the Los Angeles Times tried to test Parker’s consistency, which he touts as his greatest asset, by asking him to do a blind tasting of six wines twice over consecutive days; tellingly, Parker refused, saying, “I’ve got nothing to gain and everything to lose”). The Great and Powerful Schnoz, by Michael Steinberger, Slate, Monday, June 17, 2002, at 3:57 PM ET
A number of other critics dispute the totality of Parker’s influence, some say, out of jealousy, and others because the increased interest in wine has added to more sources of informed wine critics:
But two decades on, many people who once drank only wines that bore Parker’s stamp of approval have grown more confident in their own judgments. In addition, there are now many more sources of informed wine criticism (thanks in no small part to the Internet). While the number of “Parkerized” wines (lavishly fruited, lavishly oaked) has unquestionably exploded, there are still plenty of winemakers unwilling to cater to one man’s palate, and I still find plenty of subtle, distinctive reds and whites on my local retail shelves. If these wines and winemakers managed to survive the Parker ascendancy, they will surely survive his decline. The Wino in Winter, by Michael Steinberger, Slate, Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2005, at 11:44 AM ET, in a review of
The Emperor of Wine: The Rise of Robert M. Parker, Jr. and the Reign of American Taste by Elin McCoy.
The wine industry has even come up with words to describe the reach of Parker’s influence: Parkerization.
Wine writer and former New York Times columnist Alice Feiring has even written a delightful book called The Battle for Wine and Love: or How I Saved the World from Parkerization, about her love of Old World Wines. In it she includes a chapter, “My Date with Bob,” detailing Feiring’s interview with Parker about the classic definition of tradition, and what she sees as the standardization of the wine industry.
She writes of Parker’s response to her question, “Is there room for other critical opinions?”
“I have always believed in diversity of opinion,” he recited, as if he had gone through this speech-oh-so-many-times. “I mean, I never commented on that woman’s book [Elin McCoy's Parker biography, The Emperor of Wine], but the one real annoying thing — that was totally untrue — she said about me is that I have thin skin, that I don’t accept criticism, and I go after wine writers. When I started out in 1978, I was very critical of others because, back then, like travel writers, most wine writers existed on the largesse of the industry. The British were the worst. Yes, there’s plenty of room for other opinions. I just offer mine and try to do a good job, and hope most people agree.” page 216, The Battle for Wine and Love
There. I feel vindicated. Even Robert Parker believes that there’s room for the other 800 of us with opinions!
Now granted, when shopping for wines, we too look at ratings. I prefer to use Wine Spectator, because I like to look at the release price, as well as the rating to make sure the local wine merchant isn’t gouging me on the price. That and I have access to the mobile version via my PDA. Joe prefers Parker’s ratings, because Joe also likes big powerful fruit bombs, and because he trusts Parker’s palate. “Wine Spectator has a number of writers, each with different tastes — but I trust Robert Parker,” Joe says. “Parker isn’t prejudiced against wine that isn’t the big fruit bomb, but he knows when a wine maker is hiding poor wine making under claims of terroir.”
But how much influence should one man have on the wine industry and wine consumption habits of consumers? For yet another perspective on the influence of Parker, check out this video, whose author was also part of the same wine show podcast mentioned above:
You can listen to the entire aforementioned podcast online as well. Just go to this link at radiotime then scroll down to Unfiltered 9: The Return, March 31st.
Okay I know this is probably longer and includes much more information than is usually in our weekly “AWByte.” Perhaps it’s even a rant. But you’ve got to admit you learned something. Something to impress your friends; however, don’t share with them all of the information at once. You don’t want to appear snobby or obnoxious, do you?
And that’s this week’s Another Wine Byte.