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Robert Parker is a reeking pile of pus

2010 April 29
by Richard Jennings

Parker and RJ pictured at a Latour tasting in 2003

Hey, Robert Parker says stupid things to get attention, so I’m stealing a little page out of his (admittedly corrupt) book for a moment to get yours. I promise not to make a habit out of it.

I don’t want to spend any significant bandwidth on this blog belaboring Parker’s undue and, in my view, largely negative influence on the wine world. There are books, movies and lots of thoughtful articles and blog posts by others that make that point abundantly and effectively. Frankly the man is just too big a target and writes too many patently ridiculous things for it to be that interesting anymore to attack him for his endlessly pompous statements and dumbfounding reviews. Nonetheless, the man has, as is his wont, done a couple of things in the past week that read as a very desperate demand for the wine world’s attention. I therefore feel the need to make a short and succinct response to them, to go on the record as to where I stand, if nothing else. The bottom line is that people, like me, who used to look up to the man as a consumer advocate and reliable authority (at least on regions that he has long admired, like Bordeaux and Chateauneuf du Pape, if not on regions that he never demonstrated any understanding of whatsoever, like Burgundy), can now, increasingly, only see him as a narcissistic zombie, desperate for our attention but lacking any useful and reliable information to give us in a world where there are dozens of more accurate and reliable critics and wine experts.

The first move, April 27, was to suddenly, with no warning whatsoever, essentially shut down the wine world’s most active bulletin board, limiting activity on the Mark Squires board on eRobertParker to only those with paid eRobertParker subscriptions. As a result, people who have added much content to that site over the years—content that others, who have no particular interest in Parker’s predictable take on wines, came there on a regular basis to read—now have no access to what they’ve written without paying Parker for the privilege. (I’m not in that boat, I should point out, because I had already pulled everything I’ve written and wanted to keep off the Squires board in setting up this website. I also stopped posting there last Spring, when the purges and arrogant censorship of board “dissidents” made it a place I could no longer justify contributing to.)

The second obvious cry for attention, April 27, was to publish over-the-top ratings for 2009 Bordeaux based on barrel tastings, including lots of 96-100s and 98-100s, and a new “*” addition, indicating that the wine he tasted in the barrel was the best from that producer he’s ever tasted from barrel. A lot of people are taking the * to mean that the wines so indicated have broken the 100-point Parker system—that he’s now going to 101 points, and beyond. Parker made a similar calculated move to grab attention in October 2008 when he declared that the 2007 vintage in Chateauneuf du Pape was “the vintage of my lifetime for this region,” which he followed up a year later with the claim that ’07 in CdP “may be the most compelling vintage of any viticultural region I have ever tasted,” a pronouncement that no other serious wine critic agreed with. That move was an echo of his extreme high scores for souped up, over-concentrated and high alcohol wines from Australia and Spain in years past that have turned out, more often than not, to be duds. At any rate, Parker’s extreme praise for Bordeaux made apparently in his image—i.e., super concentrated, extracted, and high in alcohol—stands in contrast to the more moderate praise and measured critique of the vintage that is coming from the other critics who tasted similar samples. (See the excellent summary yesterday by Dr. Vino on his blog.)

I think both of these recent moves are calculated attempts by a former lion of the wine world to remain relevant and important in the eyes of others. Unfortunately, because they are so calculating and, in the view of many, corrupt, their likely net effect, in the coming months and years, will simply be to hasten Parker’s fall as a reliable wine critic, and to increase the public’s awareness that the former “emperor of the wine world” is now sauntering around in no clothing whatsoever.

The walling off of eBob, effectively turning it into the wine world’s East Berlin circa 1961, reflects Parker and Co.’s extreme frustration for the past 12 months at trying to contain dissent and negative comments there about Parker and a couple of his longtime cronies, Jay Stuart Miller and Mark Squires, whom he hired as reviewers about three years back. Parker has, over the years, demonstrated that he has an extremely thin skin by regularly employing his paid employee, Mark Squires, to censor and ban those who posted critical comments about him, whether those comments were made on eBob or on other sites, like WineSpectator’s wine board, which Parker and his staff regularly monitored for comments about him. Although eBob had developed a huge following, with some 15,000 registered participants, and periodic posts by other major critics, like Allen Meadows, and revered winemakers, like Olivier Humbrecht, when Parker and Co. could no longer control the increasing negative reaction to the Man Himself, Robert Parker ultimately chose to close it down. And in keeping with the arrogance with which the Board has been run over the years, it was shut down with no advance notice to longtime participants and contributors whatsoever.

The major beneficiary of this move is likely to be an independent wine board that got going over a year ago and that now has 2700 registered participants, including lots of refugees from the Squires board from the purges that preceded this latest move. The board is called WineBerserkers, and it is moderated in a very light and fair style, in stark contrast to that of the politburo that has policed the Squires board over the past year.

As to the Parker 98-100* scores for barrel samples, suggesting that these are the greatest wines Parker ever tasted in his career (hey, what about those ’07 CdPs that were supposed to be the “most compelling vintage of any viticultural region” you ever tasted?), these fly in the face both of good taste and common sense. Personally, I think high end Bordeaux itself has been in serious decline over the past 10 years, as a result of having affixed itself so tightly to Parker’s preferences and making itself so dependent on his ratings. Bordeaux-the-commodity made its pact with the Devil (RMP) many years ago by altering traditional winemaking techniques to produce the more concentrated, fruit bomb, heavily oaked wines that Parker has lavished with high scores. Even former stalwarts like Cheval Blanc have climbed on board the Parker juggernaut. The result are wines that have become indistinguishable from big Napa Cabs that have likewise been Parker darlings, even though they’re increasingly out of balance, impossible to enjoy with food, and have prices based more on their Parker scores than any intrinsic quality. I stopped buying and going out of my way to taste these wines a few years back, so Parker’s extreme gushing this week over the latest batch of Bordeaux in this style has no effect on my wine habits other than to confirm that the region has become a toxic mess of dangerous proportions. People with more money than taste will pay ridiculous amounts for these wines thanks to Parker’s inflated scores, and Bordeaux-the-commodity will see some short-term gains. I predict, however, that those gains will not last, and that others who really love wine—authentic, balanced, wines of place–will continue to drop out of the Bordeaux market in increasing numbers. I predict that Bordeaux ’09 (and other similiarly hyped vintages) will become a bubble, not unlike the sub-prime housing market bubble the world has been suffering for the last couple years, and that, ultimately, those who spend ridiculous sums on these kinds of commodity wines will end up holding toxic assets—stuff that is as undrinkable and undesirable as the Aussie crap Parker overhyped up until just a few years ago.

RJ next to a French poster ridiculing Parker (taken at tasting room in the Languedoc in Feb. ’06)

22 Responses leave one →
  1. April 29, 2010

    Hi Richard — just clicked through from the Wine Berserkers forum to read your blog post, and I was smiling as I read it. Love this particular bit:

    [quote]The bottom line is that people, like me, who used to look up to the man as a consumer advocate and reliable authority (at least on regions that he has long admired, like Bordeaux and Chateauneuf du Pape, if not on regions that he never demonstrated any understanding of whatsoever, like Burgundy), can now, increasingly, only see him as a narcissistic zombie, desperate for our attention but lacking any useful and reliable information to give us in a world where there are dozens of more accurate and reliable critics and wine experts.[/quote]

    I found myself reading it out loud to my husband. This is exactly how I feel — used to really look up to him (heck, still do in many ways), but it’s become very disenchanting to see how warped the RB machine has become.

    BTW, you’ve been one of my “favorite tasters” on Cellartracker for a while now. It was fun to see your post on Wine Berserkers (which I just recently joined), then follow you over here. :)

    • April 30, 2010

      Cindy,
      I’m glad you enjoyed the piece. Thank you for the kind words, and for finding the blog.
      warm regards,
      Richard

    • Steve Hurley permalink
      August 11, 2010

      The most revealing thing that I ever read about Parker was that his favourite wine was Chateauneuf. It is tempting to think that the more a Bordeaux resembles a Chateauneuf then the higher he will score it.

      Perhaps the alledged ‘Parkerisation’ of Bordeaux will actually benefit the drinker in the end. If things continue to progress as they have then we may soon be encouraged to ‘Add water to taste’ for particular classed growths!

  2. Faryan permalink
    April 30, 2010

    Thanks for the commentary Richard. There is undoubtedly an acceleration of rating inflation that at times feels like an arms race between critics and aspiring net-voices. I found it interesting that we see a litany of superlative scores for barrel samples. The very thought of giving 98-100 points for a wine in its embryonic stages almost seems to suggest that the primary phases of wine are the most virtuous; power, length, opulence, weight. By worshiping this pursuit, criticism begins to eschew the search for harmony, balance, compatibility (with food) in search of the sublime.

    We as tasters and end-consumers need to make a more concerted effort to taste from a wider diaspora of wines, to taste blind and to be objective in our analysis in order to make our own informed decisions and to hopefully adjust the market tendencies with the vote of our dollars. If anything, by finding virtuous wines which Parker neglects, we are doing our pocketbooks a favor. We can only hope that there are producers who hold true to this mantra.

    • April 30, 2010

      I think you’re absolutely right Faryan. And I agree that part of the stunning thing about Parker’s ’09 hype is that he would make his attention-seeking comments on the basis of barrel samples, which are not only unfinished by notoriously unreliable. Not only do a lot of barrels, with very different contents, have to be assembled to make the final wine, but I’ve also had the experience of winemakers tasting me on their very best barrel (sometimes being upfront about it, sometimes not), which is hardly representative of how the final blend is going to taste. You would think a man with over 30 years experience would have developed some caution in making such judgments based on barrel samples, but I believe is need for attention and to be heard above the din of so many other critics these days is just too great. He couldn’t help himself.

  3. Keith Goldstein permalink
    April 30, 2010

    Well said, RJ! I browsed the latest WA shaking my head in bemusement at yet another vintage of a lifetime. Maybe winemakers are outdoing themselves year after year, but the Parker’s reviews sound more like a hype machine for the wine industry or for his own publication. The man is simply no longer a reliable resource.

  4. April 30, 2010

    Well said Keith! And thanks.
    Parker is not content with being a reliable, authoritative critic, a la Stephen Tanzer or Allen Meadows. Maybe he’s not capable of it any more, since his biases are so glaring in comparison to those of his peers. So instead of writing accurate and useful criticism, which doesn’t generate the attention or power he craves and has experienced for so many years, he became a hyperbole factory. It’s sad, but has become all too glaring.

  5. April 30, 2010

    Great to see the usually mild Richard come out with some seriously strong opinions! Enjoyed the post very much!

    As far as comparing one’s impressions with a critic’s — like you said, ’nuff said about Parker, but I do find myself often wondering about cellartracker community scores too, where things in the 89-90pt range could be wines I totally love. And often, reading notes on cellartracker, people describe those wines as very good, yet the scores are rather low. Which leads me to not be able to trust cellartracker too much either (even though it’s a resource I turn to all the time as well). If you check out my most recent post on E.Guigal and then see the cellartracker scores… hm…

  6. April 30, 2010

    Excellent analysis, Richard.

  7. Philip permalink
    April 30, 2010

    Richard – you had a picture of yourself in front of one of those famous “Vis Parker” posters in your gallery (for those without French is translates absolutely literally as “screw Parker”) when you started out. It isn’t there anymore. Why not?

    • April 30, 2010

      Philip,
      Thanks for the reminder! I pulled it off because the picture quality wasn’t as good as some of the others, but I’ll resurrect it. That was a great poster Alain had in his tasting room.

  8. Andrew Christiansen permalink
    April 30, 2010

    You got my attention. Excellent article with keen perceptions and observations.

    I don’t drink Bordeaux or Cabernet, and after reading your artical and watching the recent Ebob crisis unfold, it’s becoming clear why. I have little tolerance for high alc/extracted cocktail wines, a la Robert Parker. I hope you are right and that his recent desperate actions are a signal of an inevitable decline in influence. Perhaps then I might be able to enjoy CA cabernet and perhaps a bordeaux.

    Fortunately he doesn’t get the pinot grape whatsoever, so at least half my target market will remain unpolluted.

    • Wes Barton permalink
      May 3, 2010

      Andrew, there are still excellent old school Bordeaux and CA Cabs. The problem is they are priced reasonably, so don’t stand out from the crowd…

  9. Larry Stein permalink
    April 30, 2010

    Great piece, Richard! Now tell us how you really feel. 😉

  10. Bradford Taylor permalink
    April 30, 2010

    Great write-up Richard. I was also disappointed with Parker’s report. I was hoping against hope that he would surprise all of us and come out with more moderate and realistic scores. That, I think, would have brought attention from the the concerted wine drinkers, rather than attention from big-time investors. The “surprising” scores, in fact, came as no surprise at all. And I think RMP will be receiving less and less attention from those who matter most. Your image of the emperor is on point; but I can’t help but think of Macbeth, strutting his final hour on the stage….

  11. Sang permalink
    April 30, 2010

    Who knows how the ERP machine is doing financially? Could this be a way to try to drum up business, if misguided? People who are desperate to stay on the BB might sign up I suppose. Not many, but a few. And the hype of another vintage of the century could drive subscriptions?

    Or is it possible to taste and drink so much wine that your tastebuds become desensitized? Think of how much wine this guy has had over his lifetime!

    At any rate, I really enjoy your tasting notes and you certainly have enough great content and experience for a great blog!

  12. May 2, 2010

    Excellent round-up and commentary, Richard.

  13. Employee500 permalink
    May 11, 2011

    Well said, great commentary!

  14. Tom Pavlovic permalink
    May 11, 2011

    Those who think RP never knew Burgundy might search out tapes of the BBC series on Cote d’Or, which allowed Clive Coates, M. Broadbent, other Burg icons, and a coltish looking RMP , tasting through the wines. I submit that he turned away from Burgundy due to the uncontrollable numbers of vintners, with tiny, or parochial distribution, that would make his opinions valueless to much of we wine loving public.

  15. Mark permalink
    September 7, 2012

    I read the book on R. Parker many years ago and found it fascinating but I have noticed Parkers increasingly more optimistic ratings on wine that don’t seem to warrant these higher scores. This seems to be a good explanation, nicely done RJ.

  16. La Cave d'Argent permalink
    July 5, 2013

    Great article. As a physician, I can fully comprehend use of the term “pus.” My only conclusion as to why RMP (a man whom I previously respected) would give astronomical ratings to certain wineries is because he is [I]following the money[/I]. His web site is an absolute joke, as are the sycophants (like Squires) who tow the line.

  17. November 10, 2013

    My wife and I stopped giving any credence to Parker’s reviews about 10 years ago – maybe more than that now. He prefers those cough-syrup monstrosities only tolerated by cuckold Napa wives who went straight from drinking grape juice at their daddy’s table to wine at their sugar-daddy’s table. Give any of those people a proper burgundy and they’ll call it lean, acidic and unremarkable. The plain fact is that they have bad taste in wine & so does Parker.

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