Lion in Winter: Robert Parker Addresses Wine Writers
This year’s Professional Wine Writers Symposium at Meadowood in St. Helena was the 10th anniversary of this annual event. It was my second time attending, and perhaps because I am further along in my career than I was when I first attended two years ago, it felt like a much richer and deeper experience for me this year.
Among the sessions that particularly impacted me were perspectives on photography from Bonjwing Lee, a food blogger and highly successful food photographer. I chatted with Bonjwing at the symposium’s first dinner and during other gatherings, as I wanted to learn as much as I could from him. A riveting talk by Columbia School of Journalism Professor Michael Shapiro will also stay with me for a long time. It included suggestions on methods of inquiry for getting past writer’s block, and enabling one to come from a place of authority and true “need to write” when composing a piece.
There were the usual helpful workshops on pitching pieces to editors, this time from the likes of wine writer David White, C Magazine’s Alison Clare Steingold and Travel & Leisure Senior Editor Jacqueline Gifford. And there were talks and panels that included distinguished wine writers like Eric Asimov, Jay McInerney and Ray Isles. McInerney’s segment, moderated by Ted Loos, was particularly entertaining and memorable.
The session that provoked the most ongoing debate through the succeeding three days of the symposium, however, had to be that of our keynote speaker, Robert M. Parker, Jr. It was also the event’s most newsworthy aspect, containing statements likely to be of interest both to the many who follow Parker as well as to those who find themselves periodically provoked by him. I therefore attempted, speed typist that I am, to take down the core of his remarks verbatim as much as possible.
I did not capture everything Parker said. I thought a couple of questions Parker was asked by fellow symposium attendees were not particularly good—-like “what’s your favorite wine?”—-so I’ve omitted those questions and their not surprisingly unenlightening answers. Below, however, you will pretty much find the gist of Parker’s presentation and most of his answers to our better questions.
I think I speak for everyone on hand when I say we were immensely appreciative to have Parker speak to us. This was his first ever appearance at the symposium. Although he did not stay to take part in the succeeding events, as speakers and faculty members traditionally do, it still meant a lot for him to address us and take some of our questions.
Many of us, like me, were avid readers of Parker when we first got into wine. Parker has obviously had a huge impact on wine criticism and wine education in the 30 years since he came to national and international prominence with his eventually triumphant opinion on the 1982 vintage of Bordeaux.
Parker published widely read books and is responsible for the influential 100-point rating scale, as well as the success of a great many now important wineries, from Bordeaux and the Rhone to Napa and Paso Robles. So for him to share his perspectives and attempt to give some advice to other wine writers was a significant moment.
As you will see from the summary below, he was very forthcoming with his thoughts and opinions. Even though I have issues with several of his statements, I applaud him for accepting the invitation to address us this year, and for being willing to speak before an audience that included many of us who have sharply criticized one or more of his actions or pronouncements in the past.
Parker’s symposium appearance comes at a time when a number of observers have suggested that Parker and The Wine Advocate’s influence has waned in recent years. Some say that’s because there are now many more good sources of information about wine, and because there’s been a shift away from the kind of big, intense, higher alcohol wines that typically receive high scores from Parker.
Ironically, the session that immediately followed Parker’s appearance included empirical data that further evidenced this decline in influence on the part of The Wine Advocate (“TWA”).
That data, presented by John Gillespie of Wine Opinions, was based on surveys last fall of Wine Opinions’ Drinks Opinions panel, individuals statistically chosen to reflect the 30% of U.S. wine buyers who are “high frequency wine drinkers.”A portion of that data—presented on two out of a few dozen slides Gillespie shared with us, analyzed who had the biggest influence on wine buying decisions by this segment of the market. Gillespie explained that a mean score of six indicated the highest influence; a score of one indicated no influence.
Not surprisingly, the biggest influencers, with a mean rating of six, were buyers’ wine knowledgeable friends. Second most influential were wine shop staff, with a rating of 5.3 As far as major publications, Wine Spectator had the highest mean rating of influence at 4.7. Wine Enthusiast followed with a 4.4 score. A high Parker rating in TWA rated only 4.1. Newspaper wine columnists, several of whom were represented at the symposium, were only a notch below that at 4.0.
Parker referred at length in the comments summarized below to the criticisms and attacks he’s received over the years. I have to note that, unlike other highly influential critics—people like Stephen Tanzer, Jancis Robinson and Allen Meadows—Parker often issues strident, strongly worded and combative statements. Arguably, Parker often has his own intemperate and extreme statements to thank for sparking many of the personal attacks he receives.
During the course of his keynote, Parker called for us wine writers to be more supportive of each other and less negative. Nonetheless, during this hour long session, he made remarks and affirmed recent prior statements that themselves could be read as highly negative and combative.
A final note: Parker’s physical appearance came as a surprise to many of us there. The last time I saw him speak—ten years earlier at a vertical tasting of Chateau Latour in San Francisco—he was well groomed. This time, he had long, unkempt hair and sported a shaggy beard. He walked slowly and hesitantly with the aid of two canes. Obviously he has had a very challenging recovery from extensive back surgery that he referenced at the beginning of his talk below. Nonetheless, one wonders what Asian audiences who are paying substantial fees to attend his talks over the coming month will make of his current wild and wooly appearance.
Synopsis and Excerpts from Parker’s February 19, 2014, Keynote Session
After walking very slowly up to his seat behind the microphone, Parker explained that he now has a “completely rebuilt lumbar spine.” This has taken “lots of metal and rehab,” but he reported that he is now in “no pain.” In fact, Parker claimed, “at 66 years of age, I feel about 20.”
Looking Back to His Beginnings
Parker spoke for about 25 minutes before opening the floor to questions. During these remarks, Parker reminisced that he, “came out of nowhere and a farming background and never dreamed of the success I’ve had.” He stated, “When I retire, I don’t want to see the wine writing profession wither away. There’s a lot of good talent out there.”
He told the familiar story of his dropping out of the University of Maryland to follow his then girlfriend (now wife, who was listening in the audience) to France in 1967-68, since he was afraid she might turn her attentions to a Frenchman.
“I got interested in wine by fortuitous circumstances. I went to France to protect my investment. I went to see her, and she made me drink wine. I wasn’t fond of alcohol. I thought liquor was numbing, and beer was so filling. We drank bistro wines, probably the kind I wouldn’t touch today. For me, the most important part was a nice euphoria that came incrementally. You could talk after drinking it.”
After six weeks in France, Parker returned to school and started a wine group. He bought the classic wine books of the time and started learning.
He told us he was fortunate that where he lived in Maryland was near the national headquarters of Les Amis du Vin. They had great speakers, like Peter Sichel, and he learned a lot.
When Parker was practicing law at a bank, he told us he looked forward to Wednesdays when he would buy The New York Times and Washington Post for the weekly wine columns there.
He found he hated the practice of law. In 1976 he got the idea of starting a wine newsletter. He ultimately launched it in 1978. From the eight-page newsletter he first produced, TWA is now up to 124 pages.
Parker told us, “1978 seems like yesterday to me.” He reminisced that, “Mohammed Ali was still boxing.”
Parker stated there were some very good wine writers back then, but most of them made their living in the wine industry. Parker wanted to take a “consumer-focused, independent approach.”
Parker told us, “I was extremely lucky. I wish you all the success I’ve had. And the climb to the top is what makes it all worthwhile. Once you get there, there’s nothing there.”
Parker reminded us that what brought him to international attention was the 1982 Bordeaux vintage. “It takes that threshold event that separates you from the pack.”
“Robert Finigan, whom I respected enormously, did not like the vintage. Nor did Terry Robards. I was the new guy and there was a real civil war as to who was right—this new guy who comes from nowhere, or these esteemed long time critics. Consumers ended up siding with me and I’ve never looked back. I believe in standing up for what you believe in. I’ll always do that, regardless of the fallout.”
“When I started in 1978, the greatest wine in Spain, Vega Sicilia, wasn’t even imported to the United States. The alleged greatest Australian wine, Penfolds Grange, wasn’t imported to the United States. There were no by-the-glass programs. Sommeliers were intimidating. They had kinky leather aprons with a lot of chains. They looked like they were working in a sex club.”
“The level of education in the wine community, among consumers and professionals, is 20 or 30 times what it was when I started.”
“My philosophy is to live and let live. Even though people accuse me of having a thin skin, I actually have a thick skin, and waistline.”
“Wine to me is something that brings people together. Wine does promote conversation and promote civility, but it’s also fascinating. It’s the greatest subject to study. No matter how much you learn, every vintage is going to come at you with different factors that make you have to think again.”
Advice to Wine Writers
Turning to one of the topics Parker was asked to speak to–suggestions on where opportunities were today for wine writers–Parker noted that the number of magazines and newspapers carrying wine columns had greatly decreased in recent years.
“Streaming, educational video programs that are professional but affordably priced is a great direction. The real growth market is in Asia. And virtual tastings with people.”
Parker told us he was on his way to Asia for a month of lectures, “all of which are sold out.”
“You have to find the right purveyor there,” Parker advised. “Everyone gets a commission. But you make it up in the volume of people looking for wine education there.”
“Women in China are a huge, huge resource. When it comes to wine, for some reason there is no ceiling for women in wine in those countries—positions as buyers and wine directors.”
“When you have a blog, you have to have original content. I may have been the first wine blogger when I was the wine expert for Prodigy. But there’s got to be real content. Not rehashed news or other people’s headlines. It has to be compelling and consumer-oriented. There has to be creativity. People buying this blog need to have a sense that there’s continuity. And you can’t give it away. The idea of giving it away when you have high quality content makes no sense. People will always be willing to pay for high quality content.”
“In the blog world, I see too much negativity and a lot that’s derivative of other sources. You may have to do something with four or five people to make it work and have enough to read.”
“People do still want to read tasting notes. You may disagree, but I think it’s as true today as it was 35 years ago. They don’t have to agree with you, but people want some guidepost, some sign that this is what that guy or woman thinks about the wine.”
“I don’t think it’s easy. We’re in a tough, tough market for new and upcoming businesses, but you can still do it on a shoestring. Video to other countries, with translations, would be a huge success.”
“I don’t think there are enough positive stories. What’s happened in California in the last 25 years is remarkable. I see Chards and Cabs that can rival France’s best. And keep in mind I’m a Francophile–everything I learned about wine I learned in France.”
Closure of World’s Biggest Online Wine Community
I asked about the Fall 2010 shutdown of the world’s largest online wine community by far—the once very active bulletin board on eRobertParker.com, that financial types had estimated attracted an audience that was worth millions. I asked Parker to speak to the thinking that led to the decision to close the board, overnight and without warning, to everyone except TWA subscribers, and to say whether he had any regrets about that decision.
Parker responded that he knew it was the most open and active wine board. He also stated upfront, “No one at The Wine Advocate has any regrets about closing it.”
“When I was Prodigy’s wine expert, I saw a deterioration of communication standards beginning there. There was more and more aggressive stuff and hostile behavior. One person’s handle was ‘Not Fun to Play With.’ The breakdown in civility chased a lot of people away. And sinister, invidious trends started up.”
“My critics would say I didn’t like the criticism of me. But I still get criticized on the bulletin board by Advocate subscribers. There was a thread there recently about how many wines people ‘disagreed with Parker’ on.”
“[Bulletin board editor] Mark Squires kept throwing people off, warning them at first. It just got worse and worse though. [Squires] was turning into a schizophrenic because so many people were complaining.”
“We knew we were going to lose a lot of traffic and endure a lot of criticism. Now, however, the board is much more civil, but traffic there is high quality and people self police.”
“The mistake that was probably made was that I should have policed Mark a little better. I believe in ‘killing them with kindness.’” Parker indicated that, by contrast, Mark, an attorney, metaphorically “took a sledgehammer,” beat people down, and then “poured sulphuric acid over them. That doesn’t engender a lot of friends.”
Parker noted that Stephen Tanzer’s and Jancis Robinson’s boards are likewise closed [they were never publicly open to non-subscribers] “but they don’t get the same criticism.”
“Do I miss some of those high test posts that were on the edge? Yes, I do sort of.” But the eRobertParker.com policy of a bulletin board closed to non-subscribers is “not going to change. But then, who knows? I’m not the majority owner anymore.”
Defining Personal Success
Parker was asked, “What does success at this point mean to you?”
Parker explained that TWA “went through a transitionary stage with staff where there were some scandals.” Those scandals were “damaging and embarrassing and I was certainly at fault for not watching as carefully as I should have.”
“Now there are strict rules. Our writers are no longer independent contractors. And we’re not done hiring.”
“I think The Wine Advocate is as brilliant as it’s ever been. No one covers more wines under $25. We have a great team now and I’m excited about it. 2011-2012 were troublesome years. The appearance of doing something wrong is just as bad as the reality, and our writer in Spain, although he didn’t do anything seriously wrong, surely wasn’t careful.”
Success for Parker today, he continued, was “enjoying the new team we have.” Parker claimed, “I think we have some real superstars. You’ll see it two and three years from now.”
“I continue to cover the north coast of California, and Bordeaux, which is in a major, major bad patch right now. When some vintages came along, they should have dropped their prices. Napa and Sonoma, and bands of areas in Paso Robles are making great wine.”
“In my career I’ve been able to cross lines that haven’t existed before. I’ve received awards from kings and presidents that were unprecedented. I don’t want to be the last one to get those awards.”
“I want to leave some kind of legacy in Asia. I started going there in 1998. In China, although the government is a dictatorship, there is robust capitalism. The people there are great students and fast learners. They’re too respectful to challenge you on anything, but they’re learning. They’ve read all the books. And each year we see progress in Chinese wine. Last year we actually had an 85 pointer, didn’t we Lisa?”
Parker was directing that question to TWA Editor-in-Chief Lisa Perrotti-Brown, who was also scheduled as a speaker at the symposium, and who was sitting in the audience along with TWA correspondent Jeb Dunnuck.
“You can’t just say you’re going to be successful. You have to earn it and it’s hard work. You can’t do that and have an idyllic life. In the early days I was traveling three or four months a year. After tasting all day, you end up alone in a room, popping an Ambien to sleep. The next day it starts all over again. I missed a lot of my daughter’s growing up years.”
“My wife suggested that all the things that were written that were false and malicious about me be flashed up on the wall while I am talking. But I was getting criticism even before I was terribly well known. Criticism about the 100 point system. I’ve been told I’m the person people love to hate until they meet me.”
“The press has exaggerated my power and tried to pigeonhole my taste. They attributed power to me to make or break a winery, which I’ve never been able to do.”
“Virtually every one of those hateful things that have been written about me, they don’t bother me. I wish it didn’t happen but it does. You just let it slough off your back.”
“The wine world is so big. Yes, there are styles of wines I don’t like. Orange wine, natural wines and low alcohol wines. Truth is on my side and history will prove I am right.”
“I don’t think people making or drinking these wines should have a brain transplant. As a consumer advocate you are required, expected to state your opinion. Do I sometimes overdo it? Do I sometimes get carried away? Yes. Sure.”
“People who’ve written nasty things, people that fire back, I can’t get angry at them because I know it’s coming from passion.”
“As I look around the room now, I see a tiny number of people here that I have met. That’s sad. I am out in the boondocks, and I’m alone a lot while I’m traveling. Early on people told me I should move to New York or San Francisco if I wanted to cover wine. But I wanted to look at things through clear glasses and not live in a bubble.”
“2003 Pavie was a very controversial call. Jancis, for whom I have a lot of respect, said it was akin to late harvest Zin and basically undrinkable. Clive Coates, for whom I don’t have the same respect, said ‘Parker needs a brain transplant.’”
Parker then mentioned a recent charity event for the U.S. Seal Foundation, supporting Navy Seals, for which he provided Bordeaux from his cellar for a “master class,” and where the 2003 Pavie was poured. “Three quarters of the people there loved the wine. I was having problems with it though. The gritty tannins seemed to me to be excessive. It is a vintage that’s evolving very fast. I kept those problems to myself though, until today.”
Another attendee asked, “What is a Parkerized wine?”
Parker responded, “In the 1960s in Bordeaux, Emile Peynaud was very influential. Some of his critics started using the term Peynaudization. People said all the wines were tasting alike. I think Parkerization is a derivative of that. The people who use that term don’t read The Wine Advocate. It’s a gross simplification, an effort to pigeonhole my taste. People who know me are shocked by what they read, by what I’m supposed to drink.”
“I do believe flavor intensity is critical, and I look at what the wine is going to be. You need some power, some richness, some intensity. Otherwise, the wine will fall apart because there’s nothing there. And I am looking for wines that will be better in five to ten years than they are today. Some of the thin, feminine, elegant wines being praised today will fall apart. You can’t expect soft, shallow wine to get any better. You need some intensity.”
As an example of what he was talking about, Parker referred to recently drinking [at Press Restaurant two nights previously] “a last bottle of 1969 Chappellet. Philip Togni, the winemaker, said it was the greatest wine he ever made. Jay Miller found it on auction and bought four cases at $35 a bottle. The wine is brilliant, powerful and rich, with lots of nuances. It could go another 45 years.”
“I remember talking to Gerard Chave about the ’03. There was no acidity in it. The pH was over 4. He explained that it was just like his father said the ’29 was, that it had so much fruit and dry extract it would survive on that. “
‘Natural’ and Low Alcohol Wine
San Francisco Chronicle Wine Editor Jon Bonné asked a lengthy question involving Parker’s recent screed against “natural” and low alcohol wines, those who produce them and writers who champion them, that appeared on Parker’s website in January. Among other things, Parker referred there to an “anti-California, anti-New World movement by Eurocentric, self-proclaimed purists.” Concluding his question, Jon asked, “Under the philosophy of live and live, why not allow more diversity?”
Parker said he agreed with what Jon said, “even though the passage you read is a call to arms. I think it’s a mistake to have a formula to pick grapes at lower brix just so you can have low alcohol and then slam the word ‘elegant’ on it. You just have a wine with low alcohol.”
Parker referred to Steve Kistler’s new project, Occidental, “where he is able to get exceptional flavor concentration in his Pinot Noirs at 12.5 and 13%, due to the microclimate and viticulture.”
“I’ve never used alcohol as a criteria. It’s just not that important to me. Most of the labels lie anyway.”
“I am going to flunk a wine if it doesn’t have the requisite concentration of flavor. If you’re just picking under ripe fruit.”
“I had this argument with Adam Tolmach at Ojai. I used to visit there every year. One year he brought out a Chard that had no flavor and was too high in acidity. He said he was going to do this in the future. I just don’t think people making those wines should trash those that are big and alcoholic.”
“I wrote that column to encourage conversation on this subject. I think there are terroirs in California where you can get the concentration and flavor. If it isn’t ripe, you don’t get expression of grapes or the terroir or the vintage.”
“Excessive manipulation includes picking too soon, or too late. Or following a rigid non-intervention philosophy.”
“When I first started, there was too much fining and microfilters going on. I don’t know any quality producers that use megapurple and enzymes. If they do it, they’re doing it really well.”
“And I never talk about having a vineyard with my brother-in-law [Beaux Freres in Oregon’s Willamette Valley]. That vineyard in most vintages has sulfur levels that are sometimes so low we could have put no sulfur on the label. It is biodynamically farmed, which I am not in full agreement with, and I don’t allow him to put it on the label. We don’t fine or filter, and I think the wine is fairly delicate. Only two or three vintages have had alcohol over 15%. But I think the very best was the 1994, which came in at 15.5%.
“I would like to see more civility. If I had one hope, it’s that we stick together a little better than we’re doing and move forward together as wine lovers. And if you’ve got something that you really disagree with me on, or have a question, pick up the phone and call me. I’m not going to bite anyone.”
The (410) area code telephone number for TWA’s office was then given out.
Parker concluded by saying he would like to come back, and to do a tasting with us.
Again, I applaud Parker for coming to face a room full of fellow wine writers, including many of us who had written attacks on various things he has said or written in the past.
I am sure Parker meant well with his comment that he hoped “the wine writing profession” doesn’t “wither away” on his retirement, but it hit me as one of the single most arrogant statements I have ever heard him say. I think it’s safe to say that wine writing is more varied, robust and informed than it has ever been. It is in no danger of “withering away” when Parker hangs up his quill.
Parker’s suggestions as to current opportunities for writers struck me as surprisingly narrow and uninspired. Wine education videos for Asia? There are already people doing that, including people who actually speak Asian languages who are quite expert in wine. I have met some of China’s own wine experts and journalists on press trips and they are very knowledgeable and possess impressive credentials. And TWA is obviously now focused on providing wine education to Asia. I hardly see that as a growth area for the average Western wine writer.
Parker’s assertion that “truth is on my side” and “history will prove me right” sounded disturbingly Nixonian, or Dick Cheney-esque, to me. In my view, such arrogant and empty assertions are hardly valid, useful or reasoned arguments in support of his position.
As to Parker’s continued diatribe against orange, “natural” and low alcohol wines, I could go on at length, and some of my esteemed wine writer colleagues already have (e.g., Alder Yarrow and Eric Asimov). In sum, though, for Parker to follow his broad over generalizations and unfair blasts at producers and writers with a call for greater collegiality on the part of wine writers struck me as more than a little disingenuous. If that’s what Parker wants to see on the part of the wine writing community, I think he needs to learn to practice a little more thoughtful moderation of his own comments.