THE ROLE OF ROBERT M. PARKER, JR. and OUR WINE CRITIC ETHICS and STANDARDS
“A man must serve his time to every trade save censure – critics all are ready made.” Thus wrote Lord Byron.
It has been said often enough that anyone with a pen, notebook, and a few bottles of wine can become a wine critic. And that is exactly the way I started when, in late summer 1978, I sent out a complimentary issue of what was then called the Baltimore/Washington Wine Advocate.
There were two principal forces that shaped my view of a wine critic's responsibilities. I was then, and remain today, significantly influenced by the independent philosophy of consumer advocate Ralph Nader. Moreover, I was marked by the indelible impression left by my law school professors, who in the post‑Watergate era pounded into their students' heads a broad definition of conflict of interest. These two forces have governed the purpose and soul of my newsletter, The Wine Advocate, and of my books.
In short, the role of the critic is to render judgments that are reliable. They should be based on extensive experience and on a trained sensibility for whatever is being reviewed. In practical terms, this means every one of us should be blessed with the following attributes:
Independence: For me only, it is imperative to pay my own way. Even more important is to refuse all advertising – from any source. This guarantees total independence. The Wine Advocate and eRobertParker.com are 100% subscriber funded and supported. We do not permit any advertising. With respect to gratuitous hospitality in the form of airline tickets, hotel rooms, guest houses, etc., I have never accepted these either abroad or in this country. And what about wine samples? I purchase more than 60% of the wines I taste, and though I do receive unsolicited samples at no cost, I do not feel it is unethical to accept samples that I did not request. Irrefutably, the target audience is the wine consumer, not the wine trade. While it is important to maintain a professional relationship with the trade, I believe the independent stance required of a consumer advocate often, not surprisingly, results in an adversarial relationship with the wine trade. It can be no other way. In order to pursue this independence effectively, it is imperative that I keep a distance from the trade. While this may be misinterpreted as aloofness, such independence guarantees hard‑hitting, candid, and uninfluenced commentary.
THE OTHER WINE ADVOCATE / EROBERTPARKER.COM WINE CRITICS
As for the independent writers I have hired to cover certain areas, they are held to high but less stringent and demanding standards only with respect to accepting educational travel and hospitality to emerging wine regions, which is permitted.
The same standards of tasting free of external influence as well as unbiased reviews I have followed for 30+ years are expected from all independent wine critics working on assignments for The Wine Advocate or eRobertParker.com.
All writers hired as independent contractors must certify that they maintain rigid standards of independence and integrity, writing about what is in the bottle, free of external pressure. All tastings, other than expressly noted, are done either stateside in peer groups, or in author-organized tastings in the country where the wines are produced. They are done under both blind and non-blind conditions, at specific domaines, at centralized locations, and on occasion, with importers. I routinely purchase and taste some of their highly rated wines to verify and monitor their reviews for accuracy.
Hospitality and Entertainment Standards: This is the most difficult area for me, or any wine critic, to establish black and white rules. Aside from contact with our wives and children, we are immersed in an environment where essentially all of our contact is with people in the wine world. Much of the joy of drinking or tasting wine is amplified and/or enhanced by contact or additional time spent with the person who produced it. I have kept the wine trade at arm’s length over the last three plus decades, and I realize that as rigorously high as my own particular standards are, it is neither possible nor realistic to expect such standards with the independent wine critics who work for me. However, I do expect independent reviews that are not influenced by a taster’s professional admiration or respect (or in some cases, lack thereof) for the people making the wine. I, along with all of the people who work for me, have a great interest in the world’s finest wine producers as well as food, and it would be not only unrealistic, but impossible to ask them to turn down every invitation where a professional tasting is accompanied with a meal. Nor do I police social contact with members of the wine trade. Yet, if I have any belief, no matter how slight, that professional relationships or social interactions have influenced the outcome of a review, either positively or negatively, the contract with any independent wine writer will be immediately terminated.
On rare occasions, I have accepted invitations to lunch with a producer, but I have never had any problem criticizing that producer if his wines are not up to standard. I demand the same conduct of the independent wine critics who work for The Wine Advocate and eRobertParker.com. I also expect them, as I have done for 30+ years, not to solicit or accept free hotel accommodations or hospitality not directly related to their professional endeavors. There are occasions where several of the independent writers have been in the rural countryside of an emerging wine region (i.e., in Israel, Greece, Portugal, Chile, Argentina) where there are no hotels, and the only way of visiting these areas and getting a night’s sleep is to stay at the producer’s guest house or residence. This may also happen in the future in such emerging wine regions as Eastern Europe, China, or India. This is acceptable, but only for a first-time visit. The first and foremost priority is to write independent, unbiased, non-partisan reviews, and we all realize that is our primary responsibility to our subscribers.
I expect the writers to learn about the regions they cover from first-hand observation, but I demand they have access to all wines, not just one particular sub-segment category or region. Moreover, I require full disclosure of such hospitality they receive in the articles that emanate from these trips.
With respect to historic wine regions, The Wine Advocate and eRobertParker.com will continue to cover all of the independent writers’ reasonable travel expenses related to their reviews.
Courage: Courage manifests itself in what I call the “democratic tasting.” Judgments ought to be made solely on the basis of the product in the bottle, not the pedigree, the price, the rarity, or one's like or dislike of the producer. The wine critic who is totally candid may be considered dangerous by the trade, but an uncensored, independent point of view is of paramount importance to the consumer. A judgment of wine quality must be based on what is in the bottle – in vino veritas. This is wine criticism at its purest as well as most meaningful. In a tasting, a $10 bottle of petit château Pauillac should have as much of a chance as a $200 bottle of Lafite‑Rothschild or Latour. Overachievers should be spotted, praised, and their names highlighted and shared with the consuming public. Underachievers should be singled out for criticism and called to account for their mediocrities. Outspoken and irreverent commentary is unlikely to win many friends from wine commerce, but wine buyers are entitled to such information. When a critic bases his or her judgment on what others think, or on the wine's pedigree, price, or perceived potential, then wine criticism is nothing more than a sham.
Experience: It is essential to taste extensively across the field of play to identify the benchmark reference points and to learn winemaking standards throughout the world. This is the most time‑consuming and expensive aspect of wine criticism, as well as the most fulfilling for the critic; yet it is rarely practiced. Lamentably, what often transpires is that a tasting of 10 or 12 wines from a specific region or vintage will be held, and the writer then issues a definitive judgment on the vintage based on a microscopic proportion of the wines. This is irresponsible – indeed, and appalling. It is essential for a wine critic to taste as comprehensibly as is physically possible, which means tasting every significant wine produced in a region or vintage before reaching qualitative conclusions. Wine criticism, if it is ever to be regarded as a serious profession, must be a full‑time endeavor, not the habitat of part‑timers dabbling in a field that is so complex and requires an enormous time commitment. Wine and vintages, like everything in life, cannot be reduced to black-and-white answers. Our independent contractor wine critics are immersed in the wine field and also possess significant experience. Two of them even worked in the wine retail and wine importation business before accepting employment with The Wine Advocate and eRobertParker.com. One is among only a handful of women Masters of Wine.
It is also essential to establish memory reference points for the world's greatest wines. There is such a diversity of wine and multitude of styles that this may seem impossible. But tasting as many wines as one possibly can in each vintage, and from all of the classic wine regions, helps one memorize benchmark characteristics that form the basis for making comparative judgments between vintages, wine producers, and wine regions.
Individual Accountability: While I have never found anyone's wine‑tasting notes compelling reading, notes issued by consensus of a committee are the most insipid and often the most misleading. Judgments by committees tend to sum up a group's personal preferences. But how do they take into consideration the possibility that each individual may have reached his or her decision using totally different criteria? Did one judge adore the wine because of its typicity while another decried it for the same reason, or was the wine's individuality given greater merit? It is impossible to know. That is never in doubt when an individual authors a tasting critique.
Committees rarely recognize wines of great individuality. A look at the results of tasting competitions sadly reveals that well‑made mediocrities garner the top prizes, and thus blandness is elevated to the status of a virtue. Wines with great individuality and character never win a committee tasting because at least one taster will find something objectionable about the wine.
I have always sensed that individual tasters, because they are unable to hide behind the collective voice of a committee, hold themselves to a greater degree of accountability. The opinion of a reasonably informed and comprehensive individual taster, despite the taster's prejudices and predilections, is always a far better guide to the ultimate quality of the wine than the consensus of a committee. At least the reader knows where the individual stands, whereas with a committee, one is never quite sure. Every article and tasting note we issue is attributed specifically to the writer responsible.
Emphasis on Pleasure and Value: Too much wine writing focuses on glamour French regions such as Burgundy, Bordeaux, and on California Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. These are important, and they make up the backbone of most serious wine enthusiasts' cellars. But value and diversity in wine types must always be stressed. Wines that taste great young, such as Chenin Blanc, Dolcetto, Beaujolais, Côtes du Rhône, Merlot, and Zinfandel, are no less serious or compelling because they must be drunk within a few years rather than be cellared for a decade or more before consumption. Wine is, in the final analysis, a beverage of pleasure, and intelligent wine criticism should be a blend of both hedonistic and analytical schools of thought – to the exclusion of neither.
The Focus on Qualitative Issues: It is an inescapable fact that too many of the world's renowned growers/producers have intentionally permitted production levels to soar to such extraordinary heights that many wines' personalities, concentrations, and characters are in jeopardy. While there remain a handful of fanatics who continue, at some financial sacrifice, to reject significant proportions of their harvest to ensure that only the finest‑quality wine is sold under their name, they are dwindling in number. For much of the last decade production yields throughout the world have broken records with almost every new vintage. The results are wines that increasingly lack character, concentration, and staying power. The argument that more carefully and competently managed vineyards result in larger crops is nonsense.
In addition to high yields, advances in technology have provided the savoir faire to produce more correct wines, but the abuse of practices such as acidification and excessive fining and filtration have compromised the final product. These problems are rarely and inadequately addressed by the wine‑writing community. Wine prices have never been higher, but is the consumer always getting a better wine? The wine writer has the responsibility to give broad qualitative issues high priority.
Candor: No one argues with the incontestable fact that tasting is a subjective endeavor. The measure of an effective wine critic should be his or her timely and useful rendering of an intelligent laundry list of good examples of different styles of winemaking in various price categories. Articulating in an understandable fashion why the critic finds the wines enthralling or objectionable is manifestly important both to the reader and to the producer. The critic must always seek to educate and to provide meaningful guidelines, never failing to emphasize that there is no substitute for the consumer's palate, nor any better education than the reader's own tasting of the wine. The critic has the advantage of having access to the world's wine production and must try to minimize bias. Yet the critic should always share with readers the reasoning behind bad reviews. For example, I will never be able to overcome my dislike for vegetal‑tasting New World Cabernets, overtly herbaceous red Loire Valley wines, or excessively acidified New World whites.
My ultimate goal in writing about wines is to seek out the world's greatest wines and greatest wine values. But in the process of ferreting out those wines, I feel the critic should never shy away from criticizing those producers whose wines are found lacking. Given the fact that the consumer is the true taster of record, the “taste no evil” approach to wine writing serves no one but the wine trade. Constructive and competent criticism has proven that it can benefit producers as well as consumers, since it forces underachievers to improve the quality of their fare, and by lauding overachievers, it encourages them to maintain high standards to the benefit of all who enjoy and appreciate good wine.
Correspondence intended for Mr. Parker should be addressed to him at The Wine Advocate, Inc., P.O. Box 311, Monkton, MD 21111. Email may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.