Lion in Winter: Robert M. Parker Jr. Addresses Wine Writers

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Robert M. Parker Jr. has been the world's preeminent wine critic and tastemaker for decades.

Parker had a huge impact on wine criticism and wine education over the 30 years since he came to national and international prominence. Parker published widely read books and is responsible for the influential 100-point rating scale, as well as the success of many now important wineries, from Bordeaux and the Rhone to Napa and Paso Robles.

Over the last few years, however, he and the publication he founded, The Wine Advocate (TWA), have suffered setbacks. Controversies over seeming ethical lapses by a couple of TWA writers led to talk of scandal and the dismissal of one of those writers. At the end of 2012, it was announced that Parker had sold a majority interest in TWA to Singapore investors. Shortly thereafter, one of his primary writers, Antonio Galloni, left the publication.

Parker has also suffered from severe back pain in recent years, which ultimately led to major surgery and a long recovery. Parker's often combative comments and harshly worded opinions have also drawn increasing fire from other critics and wine writers.

A study last fall by Wine Opinions showed TWA having lost significant ground as an influencer of "high frequency wine drinkers" in the U.S., coming in third in terms of influential publications, well below Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast.

Parker's appearance as the keynote speaker at the annual Professional Wine Writers Symposium at Meadowood in St. Helena last week, his first ever such address to a large group of fellow wine writers, was therefore a much anticipated event.

Robert M. Parker Jr. addressing wine writers at Meadowood

Parker's comments there have touched off further controversy, with several lengthy reports and responses having appeared already on wine blogs, bulletin boards and news outlets.

This report summarizes the portion of Parker's comments and observations last week likely to be of interest to wine consumers generally. For a complete summary of Parker's talk, see my blog here.

Parker walked slowly and gingerly up to his seat behind the microphone, relying on two canes for support. Parker explained he now has a "completely rebuilt lumbar spine," as a result of surgery last year. 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."

Parker reminisced that he, "came out of nowhere and a farming background and never dreamed of the success I've had."

He told the story of his dropping out of the University of Maryland to follow his then-girlfriend (now wife, Patricia, who was listening in the audience) to France in 1967-68:

"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 found he hated the practice of law. In 1976 he got the idea of starting a wine newsletter. He ultimately launched it in 1978.

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, referring to his call on 1982 Bordeaux as a great vintage: "I was extremely lucky. It takes that threshold event that separates you from the pack."

"Robert Finigan [,another independent critic], whom I respected enormously, did not like the vintage. Nor did [New York Times wine columnist] 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."

"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."

"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."

"I think The Wine Advocate is as brilliant as it's ever been. 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."

"I continue to cover the north coast of California, and Bordeaux, which is in a major, major bad patch right now. Napa and Sonoma, and bands of areas in Paso Robles are making great wine."

"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 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. Some of the thin, feminine, elegant wines being praised today will fall apart. You need some intensity."