Who will be the next Robert Parker?

Photograph by Christopher Barker

Searching around for a sequel to Empire of Booze, my book about the British and alcohol, the obvious choice is to look at other countries and their influence on what we drink. A friend suggested Khanates of Booze. There’s potential for dozens of books: Duchies of Booze, Republics, Sultanates, Oligarchies, Kleptocracies of Booze! First though, here’s a look at America’s influence on wine, the Republic of Booze:

It’s easy to see the American influence as solely about homogenisation. When we think of Americanisation it’s Budweiser that springs to mind, drinks made simpler, blander for the big broad American palate. Yet the American influence is far more complex than that.

American wine hit the headlines in 1976 for the first time with the so-called Judgement of Paris. This was arranged by English wine merchant Steven Spurrier. He pitted the best of Bordeaux and Burgundy against the best Cabernets and Chardonnays from California. The wines were tasted blind by a mainly French judging panel. The winners were both Californian. The outcry was immediate. Many of the judges thought they had been somehow duped. It is the tasting that inspired a thousand articles and put Californian wine on the map as well as making Spurrier’s career.

Perhaps even more influential was the American wine critic, Robert Parker. Parker deliberately styled himself as the anti-British critic, not that he was anti-British, well maybe a little, but that he was the antithesis of the clubbable British wine critic. Parker saw this type as being far too close to the trade to give an objective assessment of the wines. He had in his sights someone like Hugh Johnson who, as well as producing innumerable books, is also the chairman of the Sunday Times Wine Club, makes his own wine and used to own a shop on St James’s selling wine paraphernalia. Parker saw himself as the champion of the consumer. His newsletter (now a subscription website) takes no advertising and he doesn’t accept hospitality from producers or merchants. He instituted a system for scoring wines out of 100 (well out of 50 really as the score starts at 50.) Wines that scored more than 90 sold out quickly.

Parker championed wines made by growers. All over the world, but in France especially, growers were bypassing the power of merchants and bottling their own wine. The adulteration scandals in Bordeaux and Burgundy made wine lovers think that the only way to guarantee quality was to go directly to the grower. Wines were increasingly bottled at the châteaux, rather than in London. Whereas previously most Rhône and burgundy would have been sold under the name of a négociant, now it was the producer. Parker and other American wine critics enabled customers to cut out the middlemen and some of these growers became very wealthy indeed.

You can see Parker as he sees himself as a true American maverick who shook up the wine trade, but I see continuity in his approach. The wines that he was most confident with were ones that would have been familiar to a Victorian drinker: claret and claret-style wines (Napa Cabernets), port, and wines from the northern Rhône. Like port shippers and British wine writers before him, he was simplifying wine for English-speaking people who didn’t know that much about it. His scoring system was a master stroke. Now there was a seemingly objective way of measuring how good a wine was. I don’t like this wine, Parker gave it 93, I’ll take two cases. Most controversially, Parker actually changed how wine was made. It was noted that he often gave the highest scores to the biggest, most alcoholic and oaky wines and some producers began to make wines in this style. They cut yields drastically, left grapes to ripen longer, extracted heavily and then lavishly matured it all in new oak. Whether this was a deliberate attempt to curry his favour or just the way that fashions in wine were going anyway isn’t always easy to judge, but wines did get bigger when Parker was in his pomp. We can criticise these wines, but this is how the new wine drinkers of America and the world liked them. The analogy is with the change of port from a dry to sweet wines or the sort of burly adulterated clarets sold in London. It was a very British attitude to wine: we won’t learn to appreciate the difficult wine, make it bigger, sweeter, stronger and more oaky to suit us. Many British wine writers held their noses, preferring a more classic style of wine, not realising that Parker was merely following in the footsteps of the British market. Parker, and he would probably hate me for saying this, has very British tastes.

The Judgement of Paris, too, was also more evolutionary than revolutionary. You can see this as a victory for California and evidence of the decline of France, but you can also see this as a continuation and affirmation of British tastes. The Californians were comparing themselves against wines created for the British market. They won because they tasted like claret and white burgundy. Both Parker and Spurrier played a part in the revival of Bordeaux which had been in doldrums since the late 19th century. The 1980s, 90s and 2000s were a period of astonishing prosperity for the top châteaux.

Driven partly by consumer champion’s such as Parker and by advances in technology, wine at all levels is now of a quality that would amaze the 19th century British drinker. It is very rare to have a bad bottle these days (though quite easy to have a dull one.) Much wine is now sold by big brands such as Penfolds in Australia or Casillero del Diablo in Chile. In 2004 a film was released called Mondovino about the globalisation of wine. It claimed that producers all over the world were creating wine in an international style. There was even a word for this “Parkerization” – wines made to appeal to Parker’s palate. The film was a cri de coeur arguing that if we didn’t act soon then the local, unusual or difficult styles would disappear under a wave of oaky Cabernet. It never happened. At my local Marks and Spencers supermarket in far from fashionable Lewisham, south-east London, I can now buy Greek, Croatian, Turkish and Georgian wines made from indigenous grape varieties. In the 1990s southern Europe was alive with the sound of chainsaws grafting Chardonnay, Cabernet and Merlot onto rootstocks, now there is interest in previously neglected grapes such as Cinsault, Fiano and Xinomavro.

Now no one country, style or man can be said to dominate. Parker has been unseated or rather stepped down, he sold his website in 2012 and is now in semi-retirement, and his place taken by a thousand bloggers, writers, sommeliers, importers, winemakers and enthusiasts. It’s worth reading this article by Simon Woolf on Jancisrobinson.com on where the next Robert Parker might come from.

This is a very heavily edited version of the afterword from my book, Empire of Booze

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About Henry

Henry Jeffreys was born in London. He has worked in the wine trade, publishing and is now a freelance journalist. He specialises in drink and his work has appeared in the Spectator, the Guardian, the Economist, the Financial Times, the Oldie and Food & Wine magazine. He was a contributor to the Breakfast Bible (Bloomsbury 2013) and his book Empire of Booze: British History through the Bottom of a Glass was published in November 2016.
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One Response to Who will be the next Robert Parker?

  1. Miquel Hudin says:

    Simon’s article doesn’t really say anything new given that I’ve seen the “social media is the new way to find wine!” argument for several years now and the problem is, it just doesn’t work. Democratization of something as subjective as wine is a general failure for many reasons, the biggest of which being a need for knowledge about the subject which is why the “somm” is such a superstar in wine at the moment, at least in the US.

    Are people going to switch to glancing at an app while in the supermarket aisle choosing a wine? I don’t see that happening ever as most people go by price first and foremost and then label design. This is why the shelf talkers have (and I’d argue still do) work so well as they just guide the eyes to where to make the purchase and bam, done.

    Mentioning Tripadvisor is an interesting point though as the travel industry has had online review sites around for a long time now. They do indeed influence people (although the shouldn’t as I’ve recently found on my own as well from others that Tripadvisor won’t allow many negative reviews) but this has more to do with the fact that planning a trip is a long-term investment. Buying a bottle of wine is something that should take under a minute–people hope. And still, despite the Tripadvisors, Yelps, and the rest, travel guidebooks are still selling because people want an authoritative voice. Wine is just as much if not more the same. There will indeed be a new Robert Parker in some form, but it will most probably not be anyone who is around currently.

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