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The Million-Dollar Nose

With his stubborn disregard for the hierarchy of wines, Robert Parker, the straight-talking American wine critic, is revolutionizing the industry -- and teaching the French wine establishment some lessons it would rather not learn

by William Langewiesche

Reprinted with permission from The Atlantic Monthly Company.

THE most influential critic in the world today happens to be a critic of wine. He is not a snob or an obvious aesthete, as one might imagine, but an ordinary American, a burly, awkward, hardworking guy from the backcountry of northern Maryland, about half a step removed from the farm. His name is Robert Parker Jr., Bob for short, and he has no formal training in wine. He lives near his childhood home, among the dairies and second-growth forests in a place called Monkton, which has a post office but no town center. A new interstate highway has reduced the drive to Baltimore to merely thirty minutes, but otherwise has had little effect. Monkton remains rural and bland -- a patch of forgotten America as culturally isolated and nondescript as the quietest parts of the Midwest. Parker likes it that way. He is married to his high school sweetheart, Pat, with whom he has a teenage daughter named Maia, adopted as an infant from a Korean orphanage. The family has a quiet and apparently idyllic domestic life. Parker seems to be a happy man. In repose he has the staid face of an affluent farmer. In his baggy shirts and summer shorts, with his heavy arms hanging wide, he looks as if he could wrestle down a cow.

He couldn't, because at age fifty-three he has a bad back. But here's how strong he has become: many people now believe that Robert Parker is single-handedly changing the history of wine. That's saying a lot. There are more than forty wine-producing countries in the world today, of which France is the first and the United States is the fourth; China is on the list. These countries have planted 30,000 square miles of vineyards and are making the equivalent of 35 billion bottles of wine every year. Parker directly controls the merest patch of all this -- a micro-winery called Beaux Frères, near Newburg, Oregon, which he owns with his brother-in-law and refuses to promote. The wines produced there (from pinot noir grapes) are not necessarily among the best, but they keep Parker from sounding off about winemaking as, he says, a eunuch might sound off about sex. He is not an exporter, an importer, or a money man. He is a self-employed consumer advocate, a crusader in a peculiarly American tradition. It's really very simple, or so it seems at first. Parker samples 10,000 wines a year. He sniffs and sips them, and scribbles little notes. Some of the wines are good, and some are not -- according to Parker. If he is changing wine history, as people claim, it is purely through the expression of his taste.

His base is a cramped two-room office in his house in Monkton, where the family's bulldog and basset hound like to lie on the tile floor and sleep and fart and snore. Parker has an acute sense of smell, but unless he is tasting wine, he enjoys their presence. The two secretaries who work in the outer office are less understanding. They told me that they, too, like the dogs but often usher them outside. The older of the secretaries has worked for Parker for years, but has never learned to enjoy wine. She is dedicated to Parker, as women close to him tend to be, in a protective and motherly way. Parker's real mother, who handles the office mail, has a different approach. She is said to be tough and unimpressed. One afternoon Parker, in a self-pitying mood, mentioned to her that for years he had received only letters of complaint. She fixed him with a stare and said, "That's because they're the only ones I've let you see."

Her instincts were probably good. Parker seems to have trouble distinguishing friends from sycophants, and he sets too much store by the compliments he receives. He does his best work not in public but in his private inner office, where he is left mostly alone. That office has a messy desk and a computer, a stereo stacked with CDs (Bob Dylan, Neil Young), a countertop crowded with bottles, a rack of clean wine glasses, and a sink that is deep enough to allow for spitting without splattering. There he writes and publishes an un-illustrated journal called The Wine Advocate, subtitled "The Independent Consumer's Bimonthly Guide to Fine Wine."

The Wine Advocate accepts no advertising. A subscription costs $50 a year. Each issue consists of an editorial or two and about fifty-six pages of blunt commentaries on wines that Parker has recently tasted. The commentaries are short, usually two or three sentences, grouped by region and winery, and associated with "Parker Points," which are scores on a scale of 50 to 100. One of the lowest scores Parker ever gave a new vintage was 56, for 1979 Lambert Bridge Cabernet Sauvignon, about which he wrote, "One has to wonder what this winery does to its cabernet to make it so undrinkable.... This wine has an intense vegetative, barnyard aroma and very unusual flavors." But generally, poor wines score in the 70s, adequate ones in the 80s, and really good ones in the 90s. There are significant gradations within those ranges. Rarely, Parker has given a wine a perfect score of 100 -- seventy-six times out of 220,000 wines tasted. He always lists an approximate retail price and provides an opinion about when the wine will be ready to drink. He works hard to avoid conflicts of interest: he pays his own way, accepts no gifts or payoffs, and does not speculate financially on wine. As a result he has an unimpeachable reputation for integrity in an industry that does not.

The Wine Advocate has 40,000 subscribers, in every U.S. state and thirty-seven foreign countries. These are influential readers, and they pass the issues around, igniting the markets of Asia, the United States, and now even Europe, where collectors and wealthy consumers can be counted on to search out wines on the basis of Parker's recommendations. The effects are felt on store shelves, where retailers display Parker's comments or scores, and up the supply chain, influencing speculation, negotiation, and price-setting, until even the producers of mass wines feel the weight of Parker's opinions. The trade has never known such a voice, such a power, before. When it comes to the great wines -- those that drive styles and prices for the entire industry -- there is hardly another critic now who counts.

The effects are global. As wines rise and fall on the basis of Parker's judgments, and as producers respond to his presence, the industry worldwide is moving in an unexpected direction, toward denser, darker, and more dramatic wines. It would be simplistic to believe that the movement is entirely due to Parker: he may just be its most effective agent. In any case, these denser, darker, wines are the wines that Parker and now much of the world prefer to drink. Because they require intensive thinning and pruning of the vines, hand harvesting, and at the winemaking stage the sort of attention to detail that can be achieved only one vat at a time, they lend themselves to production on a reduced scale. At the extreme they are known as "garage wines," smaller-scale even than "micro-wines" -- so small that some are produced in garage-size buildings. Such wines are often absurdly expensive, because they are rare and fashionable. That's the bad side. But they allow producers without much money (or the ability to attract large investments) to make a living by making wine. That's the surprise. With his single-minded concentration on taste and his unique ability to communicate his opinion, Parker may be pioneering a new kind of globalization -- not the monolith that the world dreads but the monolith's counterforce: a boutique economy that is American in inspiration, individualistic, and anti-industrial at the core.

In France especially -- the country, ironically, that fights against the McDonald's-ization of the world -- this new form of entrepreneurial winemaking is being resisted. It's easy to understand why. France has long been the bastion of big-time wines. Parker threatens these wines, and the companies and families that produce them. Particularly in Bordeaux, the culturally conservative city that is widely considered to be the world capital of wine, winemakers are engaged in an increasingly bitter fight against Parker and his influence. This year the fight has broken into the open.

"A Democratic View"

It's a strange position for a man from Monkton. One commonly heard explanation for it is that Parker writes in English at a time when English use is increasing around the globe. But the British, who are the traditional wine critics, write in English too, and they don't enjoy anything like Parker's clout. Many of them have a diploma called the Master of Wine, or M.W., for which they've been required to pass tests -- based largely on the identification of obscure or antique wines -- that Parker would probably fail. Parker's eminence is therefore annoying to them. They see Parker, correctly, as an American upstart. They see him as a heathen.

Lineage counts for a lot with the British critics and is accorded proper deference. At their worst they seem to practice criticism as an excuse for Continental excursions: the villages were picturesque, the peasants were quaint, and the wines were "noble" above all. In contrast, Parker's criticism sounds like his mother's -- direct and pointed, like one American talking straight to another. There are other American critics too, of course, but none who has been able to equal the directness and authenticity of Parker's voice. Last April, after tasting the most recent offering of Canon, a famous producer in Bordeaux, Parker gave the wine a score of 84-85 and wrote,

Once again, this renowned estate appears to have badly missed the mark. Undoubtedly, part of the difficulty in 1999 was the fact that the vineyard was hit by the hail storm that punished a small zone of vineyards on September 5th. This medium dark ruby-colored effort reveals soft, berry flavors with steely/mineral-like notes in the background. Some of the vineyard's pedigree comes through, but this uninspiring, medium-bodied wine possesses little depth or length. Anticipated maturity: now-2008.

It's an intentional style, and more difficult to achieve than it seems -- prose so plain and clear that it reads like a subway map. It is also a particular outlook. Last spring in Monkton, Parker said to me, "What I've brought is a democratic view. I don't give a shit that your family goes back to pre-Revolution and you've got more wealth than I could imagine. If this wine's no good, I'm gonna say so."

That's the sort of English everyone can understand -- and the big French winemaking families don't like it at all. Those families are some of the most conservative in Europe, masters of understatement and judgmental silence. They are epitomized by the wine aristocrats of Bordeaux, who pioneered the production of modern red wine 300 years ago, and who ever since have been able, on the basis of their wines' lineage alone, to set the standards and prices for the industry worldwide: traditionally, if they declared that their wine was the most desirable in the world, then whatever its real merits, it was accepted as such. Anyone who disagreed, said the Bordelais, simply did not know wine. The magic here lay, of course, in the tight control of definitions. It provided for an enviable commercial position, and allowed the Bordelais to pull off a double trick -- producing very large quantities of very high-priced wines. But Parker is changing all that. It is getting harder for the Bordelais to disregard the laws of supply and demand, or the fact that their great wines aren't always very good.

Bordeaux is the key to understanding Parker's role in the world. It produced many of the truly fine wines on which he built his reputation, yet as a place that has come to rely on the techniques of modern high-yield production, it stands as the most important example of the industrialization in wine that he has been fighting against. Bordeaux is big business in disguise. The composition of the aristocracy there has changed over time, but outsiders who have bought into it have always eagerly adapted, mimicking the old families so willingly that by the second generation their carpetbagging is almost forgotten. In recent years a slew of publicly held corporations have bought in as well, and even they have played along, furnishing their chateaux with antiques and hiring the second sons of the aristocracy to make their wines in imitation of tradition. This is considered respectable, civic-minded behavior -- and indeed it is, in a place that has staked its fortunes on its power to define the meaning of taste.

In Bordeaux the wines are made not of single grape varietals but of ever-changing combinations. Those combinations have been based on the cabernet sauvignon grape, with varying amounts of merlot, cabernet franc, and another, rarer grape, petit verdot, mixed in according to each winemaker's calculation, to provide a bit of "depth," or to intensify the wine. The result has traditionally been complex, light-colored wines, epitomized by the elegant "clarets" produced by the old vineyards north of the city, in an area called the Médoc, on the left bank of the river Gironde. The British have traded in claret since the 1700s, and they have long understood the rules of the game. There are unfortunate years of too much cold or rain, but if the wine is thin, then it is subtle or laudably austere. If it is undrinkably acidic or astringent when young, then, like a family inheritance, it is not intended to be consumed soon but to be put away to mellow, for future generations to enjoy.

Photograph by Christopher Barker

But now comes this Parker, a man as naive as America, with his raw talent, his disproportionate weight, and his stubborn disregard for the hierarchy of taste. It is maddening to the Bordelais that even in France consumers increasingly are using him as a reference. The Bordelais believe Parker favors dark and dramatic wines -- wines that they claim are at their most impressive when they are young in the glass, or competing in organized wine tastings, and that, more ominously, may well lack a pedigree. Wines like these depend more heavily on the merlot grape than on the cabernet sauvignon. To some degree they have long existed on the Gironde's right bank, around St.-Emilion and Pomerol, areas that in the context of the Médoc are considered to be newcomers, producing plebeian and somewhat simplistic wines. The new small wines are like those right-bank wines, only more so -- darker, more intense, and, to the untutored palate, more accessible. These are the boutique growths, the so-called garage wines, that are starting to command the highest prices, and they are spreading like a rot through the region. Parker is to blame.

The old families try to hold steady. Last spring when I went to Bordeaux to ask them about Parker, they told me that he is deferential, that he visits twice a year, that he maintains a small Bordeaux office from which he publishes The Wine Advocate's only foreign-language edition, and that he pays homage to the region as the reference point for the world. But they also admitted, when pressed a bit, that he terrifies them. When Parker criticizes their wines, they see their prices tumble. When he compliments their wines, they can't resist using this to their advantage and proclaiming their scores. In private they complain that he is playing them like puppets. In public, for business reasons, they smile and pretend to be his friends. The duplicity is humiliating -- and worse, it signals their loss of control.

You have to admire these people for their sense of irony. In the region of Bordeaux one day, one of them -- impeccably dressed in jacket and tie, in an office where Thomas Jefferson went to taste wine, with portraits of ancestors hanging on the walls -- made the argument to me, with just the slightest hint of humor in his eyes, that Bordeaux should erect a statue of Parker in honor of his contributions. It was the sort of dry joke he might have made to his patrician friends. Twice in the past ten years the Bordelais have arranged through local politicians to award Parker a national medal, the more recent of which was the Legion of Honor -- France's highest award. It was presented to Parker at a ceremony in Paris in June of last year, by President Jacques Chirac, for having promoted French wines. Parker accepted the medal with tears in his eyes.

If reform is a form of promotion, Parker has promoted French wines -- and perhaps some families felt that he deserved credit for that. But more likely they intended the medal as a public acknowledgment that they would have to find some way to live with him. The impulse is well known: you give a man a badge when you can't shut him up. Not that they hadn't tried. By the time of the Paris ceremony the French had sued Parker for what he had written, sued him for what he had not written, and even sued him for something in between -- a mistake in translation. (A cellar that Parker called "disgusting" became "dégueulasse" -- literally, "nauseating," which was more than he'd meant to say.) They had forced him into formal public apologies. They had cost him hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees. They had banned him from their estates, fired his friends, mounted whispering campaigns against him, and pilloried him numerous times in French newspapers and magazines. To top it all, through blacklisting and a coordinated effort to render him useless to his readers, they had exploited a series of mistakes that Parker had made and had almost managed to run him out of Burgundy. The story of Parker's failure in Burgundy is long and complicated and not particularly relevant to Bordeaux. But in no country other than France has anything similar happened to him. Parker told me that he didn't want to sound like Oliver Stone, though he seemed sometimes to believe in conspiracies. And maybe for good reason. His life is not at risk, of course, but people in Bordeaux talked openly to me about setting him up for a drunk-driving arrest. Parker told me that several years ago one of them attacked him with a dog.

It was a small dog, but aggressive. Parker was in his hotel room in Bordeaux one night, working on the day's notes, when he got a phone call from Jacques Hébrard, the family manager of a famous chateau called Cheval Blanc, whose recent vintage Parker had described as a disappointment. Because Hébrard was very angry, Parker agreed to visit the chateau the following night, after his regular schedule of work, in order to retaste the wine. At the agreed-upon time he knocked on the chateau door. When it opened, a snarling schnauzer came out, leaped into the air, and clamped onto Parker's leg. Hébrard stood in the doorway, staring into Parker's face and making no attempt to intervene. After several attempts Parker managed to shake off the dog, which went tumbling into the night. Parker followed Hébrard into an office, where he saw that his pants were torn and blood was running down his leg. He asked Hébrard for a bandage. Hébrard came across the room and glanced disdainfully at the wound. Without saying a word, he went to the far side of a desk, pulled out a copy of The Wine Advocate, and slammed it down hard. He said, "This is what you wrote about my wine!"

In his simplified French, Parker said, "That's why I'm here. To retaste it. Because you think I'm wrong."

"Well, I'm not going to let you retaste it."

Parker got as belligerent as he gets. He said, "Look. I came here at the end of the day. You said I could taste your wine. I've been bitten by your dog. If I was wrong about this wine, I will be the first to say so."

Hébrard stalked out of the office. Parker thought he would have to get up and leave. But then Hébrard came back and said, "Okay, let's go taste the wine." Parker limped after him to the tasting room. He was quick, as he always is; he tasted the wine twice to be sure, as is his habit, and realized to his chagrin that Hébrard was right -- the wine was better than he had thought. He returned to his hotel to wash his wound. As a critic who often has to condemn the efforts of people he likes, he now had the equally hard task of admitting that Hébrard's work was top-notch. For the families of Bordeaux it was satisfying: Parker had been punished for his judgment. With luck he would have a little scar as a souvenir.


(The online version of this article appears in four parts. Click here to go to part two, part three, or part four.)

William Langewiesche is a correspondent for The Atlantic.

Photographs by Christopher Barker.

Copyright 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; December 2000; The Million-Dollar Nose - 00.12; Volume 286, No. 6; page 42-70.