Waiting for Parker
It was a rough spring in Bordeaux. Parker had left town after a ten-day stay,
during which he had tasted the wines made just a few months before, in the
fall of 1999. The early sale of such very young wines, two years before
they can be bottled (let alone consumed), is considered to be a
prerogative of Bordeaux's top chateaux, most of which now try to sell
their entire production this way. These wines are known as "futures." They
provide the chateaux with obvious financial advantages, and with the
valuable appearance of enjoying a frantic demand for their wines. They
provide consumers with the pleasure of playing an insider's role, and with
early access to wines that in theory will become more expensive when they
mature. The process is extraordinarily complicated. It kicks off each
spring with a wild scramble that lasts for several weeks, during which the
chateaux sell the fall's vintage in allocations to the traditional traders
in Bordeaux -- the négociants, who enjoy exclusive purchasing
rights and have maintained a lock on the business for a few hundred years.
Each chateau negotiates its own prices -- but as much in jealous relation
to the prices that its neighbors are getting as in anticipation of the
market. This is more rational than it might seem, because prices help to
determine prestige, and prestige is always relative. Each spring, when
it's time to start over again, no one wants to go first. One of the smart
new winemakers told me that Bordeaux is like barbichette, a
schoolyard game in which children hold one another by the chin to see who
laughs first. The child who loses gets a slap in the face.
Parker makes it worse. When he is in Bordeaux, he keeps mostly to
himself, and though the city studies his every gesture during the
tastings, hoping for some indication of his thoughts, he keeps his face
neutral and his notes private, and he goes home to Monkton without
expressing his opinions. The business then plays barbichette for
several weeks while waiting for The Wine Advocate's regular
Bordeaux edition to appear, in late April. Last spring, after Parker left,
the wait was said to be more intense than ever before. All of Bordeaux
knew that 1999 had been at best an average year, and that the market was
already flooded with overpriced and mediocre 1997s and the uneven and
still more expensive 1998s. Retailers worldwide were rebelling against an
allocation system that, rather than being a privilege, felt like a feeding
tube shoved down their throats.
Back in Bordeaux the production levels were very high. Chateau Margaux
alone was making 440,000 bottles a year -- of what was supposed to be
expensive stuff. At a similar chateau in the Médoc, a place called Léoville-Barton, the owner told me he sometimes
wistfully considers that if he could just get each person in Bordeaux to
drink one bottle of his wine every year, he could sell out his entire
stock right there. But of course that would include children, practicing
Muslims, and a sizable population on welfare. Short of such reveries, some
chateau owners hoped that an economic bridge could be maintained to what
was likely to be the sought-after vintage of 2000.
It was obvious to everyone that deep and wide price reductions would
soon be needed. It was also obvious that Parker would agree, and that in
the coming issue of The Wine Advocate he would advise his readers
to stay away from 1999 futures in general. Still ... again ...
barbichette. Who would reduce his prices first? Who would give that
tactical advantage to his neighbors, allowing them to set their prices
higher than his -- if only just slightly? Moreover, who among Bordeaux's
natural leaders would ignore the certainty that Parker would celebrate
some of the wines and score them, perhaps, merely one point beyond 89 and
into the magic 90s? For those wines the prestige would be all the greater
in a year of general decline. So Bordeaux waited.
One afternoon I went to a professional tasting at Chateau Pavie, a revitalized winery near the hilltop village of St.-Emilion, where several hundred buyers from around the world
were milling about in an elegant vaulted hall, sampling a selection of
about forty 1999s, which were being presented by a Bordeaux trade
association, the Union des Grands Crus. The buyers kept to themselves in
groups of two or three, and wandered among the offerings, spinning and
sloshing the wines, tasting them, and leaning forward to spit them into
centrally placed porcelain funnels. The funnels drained into buckets
encased in wooden barrels. The buckets were carried off by young men
slipping quietly through the crowd.
A lot of thought had gone into that setting. The lighting was cool but
not cold. The art was bright and modern. The floors were a lovely tile, a
shade of desert tan. A few steps away, wide doors opened into a
still-larger vaulted hall -- Pavie's lavish temperature-controlled
production room, which was three stories high and had double walls and a
viewing platform overlooking lines of dramatically lit oak barrels: a
fortune in new wine. But the buyers seemed hardened to any such efforts,
whether in architecture or in wine. They were not aesthetes. They were not
dilettantes. They were professional skeptics, people who made their living
by being unimpressed. Now, like everyone else, they were stuck having to
wait for Parker in order to come to terms on prices. They jotted
disgruntled little notes about the tastings. But mostly they were just
Our host was the president of the Union des Grands Crus, a vocal Parker
supporter named Alain Raynaud, who at his property in nearby Libourne was
making some of the best wines in Bordeaux. Raynaud was aware of his
guests' frustration, and he blamed the négociants, the traders in
Bordeaux. He said, "If Parker has too much influence, it's the fault of
the traders. They have the chance right now, while their clients are here,
to decide for themselves what they think of these wines. If they want to,
they can make the deals. But whether because they are cowards or lack the
will, instead they will wait. I find it completely surprising, and I know
that Parker does too."
I said, "But Parker is not just some critic. The traders have to take
into account that he makes the market."
Raynaud said, "Last year I brought my 1998 right here, to show it to
Bordeaux. I was very proud of it. And I said, "Voilą! I propose
this wine at one hundred francs a bottle, before tax. Everybody said --
everybody! -- 'This is very great wine that you've made! But you've
raised your price too much, and we won't buy it.'
"And I said, 'Okay, very good, we'll just wait until Bob Parker gives
it a score.'
"Parker scored it ninety-three to ninety-five. That very day I could
easily have asked two hundred francs for it, and it would have been
snapped up. I didn't do that. I sold it at a hundred and twenty-five
francs. But the last I heard is that in the dealing between the traders
just here in Bordeaux it's now going for three hundred francs a bottle."
Raynaud was not simply gloating. His point was that the traders had
profited more by waiting for Parker than they would have by fulfilling
their traditional role, negotiating prices and investing in wines on the
basis of their own independent judgments. In other words, Raynaud believed
that the traders were shirking their duties. He was probably right, but he
was also being unfair. What he left unsaid is that because of Parker --
this one man with so much power -- the terrain has become much less
certain for the Bordeaux traders. The critical decisions are made not
about the ordinary wines but about the very best, especially those that
when tasted young might qualify for a Parker score in the 90s. Yes, there
is money to be made by exploiting the advantage that traders have of being
first in line and simply following Parker's lead. But there is also money
to be lost by moving out in front of Parker. If a trader decides
that a wine is very good and agrees with the chateau on a moderately high
price for it, he runs the significant risk that Parker might score the
wine at 89 as opposed to 90 or 91 -- and that in a generally skittish
market the price for it will tumble. That is one of the ironies of
Parker's role. He regrets the skittishness of the market. He opposes
speculation of any kind. But inevitably he fuels it.
The Rocky Balboa of Wine
that he never intended any of this. When he went home from his first trip
to France, he got together with a few college friends and began drinking
wines for fun. He read some British wine books, which he found interesting
on historical topics but strangely impractical on the subject of taste.
What did it mean when a wine had a hint of Russian leather? Worse, what
did it mean when a wine elicited metaphors? "This wine is a beautiful lady
in the last years of her life, wearing a bit too much makeup, perhaps, who
can no longer hide all the wrinkles she has...." What Parker wanted to
know about a wine was whether to buy it or not.
He took a class from Gordon Prange, the author of At Dawn We Slept, who taught him the discipline
of writing short, clear sentences. He kept tasting wines. When he was
twenty-two he married Pat and went back to Europe with her for the summer.
After finishing college, he started law school, still at the University of
Maryland. The young couple moved into a cheap basement apartment that they
kept at a constant 55°, just perfect for wine. Parker was becoming more
serious about his hobby. Pat was willing to go along with it because she
was young, but she sometimes quarreled with Parker about the money he was
spending on wine. She had a job teaching French in a public school. Parker
told me he was known as the phantom of law school, because he liked to
stay up late watching Dick Cavett and then needed to sleep through the
morning. But one class started with a roll call, so he usually managed to
show up for it. The class was about conflict of interest -- a hot topic in
the early 1970s -- and was taught by the Watergate counsel Sam Dash.
Parker thought it was fascinating, and he began to think of wine in these
new terms, to wonder why so many famous wines were watery and bland but
were written about as if they were not. As a budding consumerist, he began
to feel indignant. He felt he had been ambushed too often.
Parker passed the bar in 1973 and dutifully took a job in Baltimore,
which soon confirmed his suspicion that legal work would bore him. As
often as possible he escaped with Pat to Europe. They concentrated on
France, where she could serve as his translator and charm the chateaux
into letting them inside to talk and taste wine. Parker was very serious,
and he took notes; Pat enjoyed looking after him. With a hobby as
expensive as wine, they did not have much money to spare. They traveled
light, and in the evenings ate cheaply. They managed Europe on ten dollars
a day. It was a simple time for them. They look back on it now with
By 1978 Parker was ready to put his experience to use. He typed up the
first issue of The Wine Advocate, including on the front page a
consumerist manifesto. He bought a few mailing lists from wine retailers
and sent out 6,500 free copies. Six hundred people subscribed -- a
disappointment for Parker at the time, but by direct-mail standards a
success. In the second issue (the first for which people had paid) he
wrote a scathing critique of the industrialization of California vineyards
-- a trend that he blamed for producing bland, sterile, and overly
manipulated wines that tasted alike and seemed designed to survive the
rigors of mass distribution and generally to minimize business risk. It
was a battle cry heard initially by very few people, but they must have
welcomed it. The circulation of The Wine Advocate began to climb.
Parker still needed his earnings as a lawyer to pay the bills, but he
consoled himself that the journal allowed him his independence of mind.
Such independence was not a hallmark of most other critics -- a
collection mostly of ineffectual men whom Parker in his moral rigidity and
his ambition began to despise. The feeling was soon reciprocated, dividing
the wine press into camps so hostile that the slick New York-based
Wine Spectator has never
run a profile of Parker and will barely
mention his name. But in the early days, before Parker was known, a
British critic came up to him in London and said, "Living in America, how
hard is it for you to get your cases of first-growth claret?"
Parker said, "What do you mean?"
The critic looked confused. "Don't you get a case of Latour, Lafite,
and Margaux sent every year?"
"No," Parker said. "Maybe I should be insulted."
He meant insulted on behalf of his readers. But he cannot have been
surprised. The setup is an open secret. In Bordeaux people say that the
critics' car trunks automatically pop open at the famous estates, and just
can't be closed until they are full of bottles. Some critics are
consultants. Some are importers. Some simply write for magazines that
depend on wine advertising. The problem they all have is how to make a
living. In English this generally leads to a critical technique known as
"varying the degrees of 'wonderful.'" In French the relevant technique is
called "drowning the fish" -- a slightly different thing, which
contributes to the tendency toward bewildering complexity in French prose.
At one of the middle-ranked chateaux in the Médoc, during the wait last
spring for Parker's declarations, an iconoclastic winemaker named Olivier
Sèze called most French critics "odious." He said, "They use our wines as
a pretext for their writings. 'Look -- what I write is good! Look -- what
I write is intelligent!' But you read a full page of it and you say, 'What
was that about? About wine? About a car? Perfume?'"
With Parker there was never any question. By 1982, after four years in
existence, The Wine Advocate had a circulation of 7,000. Then came
the Bordeaux vintage of 1982, whose young wines were unusually dark,
powerful, and fruity. When Parker flew home from tasting those "futures"
in the spring of 1983, he was so eager to get back and write about what he
had found that he worried uncharacteristically that the airplane might
crash. This was the scoop of a lifetime, a vintage that he was convinced
would become one of the greatest in history, and that the other critics,
within their variations of "wonderful," seemed to have underestimated.
Parker advised his readers to buy the wines, and many did so -- in large
quantities. A lot of money was at stake. The established critics attacked,
arguing that the young 1982s lacked acidity and therefore would not age
well. They were saying, in essence, that these wines tasted too good too
soon -- an argument related to the traditional one that bad wines require
age to become better. Parker suspected the opposite -- that the greatest
vintages (he thought of '61 and '49 and '47) are so seamless and free of
imperfections that they are balanced from birth -- and that 1982 was just
such a vintage.
With his career on the line, he returned to Bordeaux and started asking
about the past. In the archives of Chateau
Haut-Brion he found an old diary that expressed concern about the
famous vintage of 1929 -- that the then-young wines were too intense, and
would not endure. Parker knew those wines after fifty years, and
considered them to be excellent still. He retasted the 1982s and was again
astonished by their splendor. He went home to Monkton, and reiterated his
earlier judgments. By 1984, when the wines were being bottled, it was
obvious to everyone that he was right. Most of the opposing critics began
to back down. One who didn't was forced into an increasingly untenable
position, and finally lost his job. The Wine Spectator eventually
came out with an issue celebrating the 1982 vintage, but by then those
wines were hard to find and very expensive. Parker's reputation was made.
Some of his readers had gotten rich on his advice. Others simply had
picked up good wine at a good price. The Wine Advocate's
circulation jumped past 10,000. Parker quit his job as a lawyer. Several
weeks later he signed his first book contract in New York. He told me that
going home on the train, he felt like Sylvester Stallone in Rocky.
Saving Bordeaux From Itself
Last spring, when the annual Bordeaux issue of The Wine Advocate finally
came out, the Bordeaux establishment lashed back angrily. In a campaign
led by some of the large chateaux, people attacked Parker in the local
press, accusing him not only of undue influence and technical incompetence
but also of cronyism and, by innuendo, of malice. The Bordeaux newspaper,
published several articles laying out the accusations, and a wider press
spread the story -- through Europe and to the United States. These
accusations were for the most part unfounded, but they were serious enough
to leave Parker feeling wounded and perhaps genuinely threatened. He took
the unusual step of writing letters in his own defense -- but he was
hampered by a lack of detail in the accusations, and by the fact that
during his last stay in Bordeaux he had indeed not handled himself well.
It was a matter of appearances: he had gone for a private dinner with
Alain Raynaud at a remote country hotel, and the next day had tasted the
wines of the Union des Grands Crus and rated Raynaud's very high.
A well-known chateau called Bouscaut ran a sarcastic advertisement for its 1999
wines, including a defiant proclamation of its score of only 79-82. In the
ad a cartoon depicted a retailer saying to a customer, "A good wine with a
real terroir? An individualistic wine? No hesitation -- find one
with a bad Parker score!!!!" Parker's response was typically blunt. To a
query from a London wine magazine he responded, "The cartoon was a
splendid idea. Given the wine Bouscaut has made, I would resort to humor,
too, if it helped to sell the wine. But purchasers of it will find out who
the joke is really on." As a consumerist, Parker naturally is
self-righteous and maybe too easily aggrieved. His mother could have told
him just to smile and sit tight.
At first glance Bordeaux seemed to be upset about very little. In his
April issue Parker praised some producers for their 1999s but reported,
accurately, that the year had been excessively wet and hot, resulting in
few compelling wines and little reason to buy futures. This was hardly a
surprise. But then Parker went further. He wrote a few paragraphs that
were unusual for him, in which he expressed his thoughts about Bordeaux's
business side and discussed the global glut in its wines. He said the
retail trade worldwide would have to cut its losses by dumping the 1997s
en masse and skeptically judging each wine from 1998. Then, while scolding
the Bordeaux producers for their "egregious blunder" and foolish greed, he
called for a reduction in the prices for the 1999s by 30 percent or more.
He wrote, "If arrogance prevents them from understanding this, they will
see the irresponsibility of their ways ... sooner rather than later."
This was getting closer to a reason for a fight. A 30 percent reduction
in prices? The producers choked at the very thought, and they knew that
Parker's opinions, once expressed, are not just abstractions: this issue
of The Wine Advocate would be wielded by the disgruntled buyers,
who were already murmuring about a boycott. Parker had the audacity to
claim that he was trying to save Bordeaux from itself. Those few
paragraphs of his were going to cost Bordeaux a lot.
But the truth is that the chateaux have the financial reserves to ride
out a downturn in the market -- along with the cushion that the 2000
vintage is likely to provide. They are not, in other words, so obviously
beleaguered that they need to fear Parker's frank assessment. Their
reaction to it, therefore, can only be understood as an expression of a
deeper problem: what they are really worried about is the accelerating
movement toward the garage wines, those dark, dramatic, small-production
wines that are being made with fanatical devotion to detail.
The garage phenomenon began in Bordeaux less than a decade ago as a
novelty, but it seems now to be evolving beyond mere fashion, and taking
shape as one of the more important changes of the past 200 years. The
competitive advantages are clear: the garage wines do not require large
vineyards, big crews, a manor house, or a classic patch of terroir
-- and they are now fetching the highest prices in Bordeaux. This is
extremely threatening to the established families, whose very society
requires them to hold stiffly to the idea that price is a reflection of
quality. Privately, the families claim that the "garagistes" are
cheating -- that because of the ultra-small quantities involved (for any
label, typically less than 15,000 bottles a year), the new producers are
able to manipulate their prices in the most cynical ways, buying back
significant percentages of their own stock in order to stimulate the
market, or working through unnamed agents to ratchet up demand
artificially at the famous London and New York auction houses. In some
ways the big families are right. It is certainly true that many of the
garage wines are terrible buys and that if a wine-drinker wanted one rule
for Bordeaux it would be to stay away from them entirely. Another rule,
however, might be to stay away from the famous chateaux as well. For the
established families it's a predicament: after so much market manipulation
of their own, they are hardly in a position to complain on behalf of the
consumers. Meanwhile, the garage wines are spreading through the cracks
and odd parcels of the best wine-growing region in the world, the finite
realm of Bordeaux, where rapidly and insidiously they are subverting the
structures on which the great families rely.
It's no wonder those families fear Robert Parker. He is indeed the man
to blame. He claims to disapprove of the prices for the garage wines, but
insists on judging such wines as a purist would, concentrating entirely on
their taste. It is true that the garage wines are dense, impressive, and
often extremely good. Parker likes the idea of them, and in the new
Bordeaux Wine Advocate he said so more clearly than ever before.
There's an argument now that the
garagistes are making wines to suit Parker's taste, and that
therefore the world is getting smaller here, too. I heard it many times.
Parker is a monopolist, the Bill Gates of wine; Bordeaux must follow the
example of José Bové, the French anti-globalist, and fight back against
Parker's domination. The image of one American with so much power seems
valid from a distance. But up close it tends to fall apart. No two fine
wines are ever the same. I moved for weeks among the garagistes,
and even I, with my lack of knowledge and my dull palate, would never have
mistaken any one of their wines for any other. Parker is making the world
not smaller but larger. Bordeaux distrusts him for that reason. After 300
years he is breaking up the terroir.
The leading garagiste is a brash, self-confident man named
Jean-Luc Thunevin, who with his wife, Murielle, makes a ripe red wine
called Valandraud, one of the stars of the region. The
Thunevins are seen in Bordeaux as the ultimate outsiders. He is a
"pied-noir," the son of refugees from the Algerian war for
independence, an outsider who worked in a bank for thirteen years and
nearly went broke in the restaurant business before acquiring a scrap of
ground and getting into wine in 1991. Until a few years ago she was a
The Thunevins do not have a chateau, though they could almost afford
one by now. They live in the center of St.-Emilion, in bright and
minimally furnished quarters directly above their wine-production rooms.
One evening over dinner there he said to me, "People think our wine is a
product of Parker -- but it's not true. Parker is prudent. He didn't know
if we were going to keep producing good wines -- if we were serious, if we
were honest. He started grading only after four years, when he had tasted
our wines in the bottle. For the first few years he gave us scores only in
the eighties. But the effect of Parker was to accelerate things. Before,
we would have required fifty years to be recognized -- and, of course, we
would never have been able to survive. But thanks to Parker, we needed
only four years. It was his willingness to taste our wines, and the speed
of the information, that mattered."
Thunevin is openly despised by the old families of Bordeaux, who call
him "Tue-le-vin," a shortened form of "He who kills the wine." I
asked him what he thought about them in return. He said, "I'm not trying
to be accepted. People have problems because they absolutely want to enter
a milieu that is not theirs. I have the advantage that I don't care. When
I started into the business, I had a friend who warned me. He said, 'In
Bordeaux they don't like newcomers. They're going to break you.'" Thunevin
smiled, as if to say, "And now look who is afraid."
The subversion has spread even into Bordeaux's heart, the Médoc, where
Murielle Thunevin in 1999 starting making a new garage wine, called
Marojallia, in a neglected patch of vineyard, with a little stone shed, a
little tractor, and not much else. Every day through the summer she drove
there in her jeans and rough shirts, and worked side by side with two
Moroccan women to tend the vines. In the fall, with a slightly larger
crew, she harvested the grapes and made the first wine. Her powerful
neighbors at the surrounding chateaux were shocked and outraged, and came
by to peer into the shed, but they could do nothing about her presence.
During Parker's tastings last spring the current owner of Chateau
Margaux, a woman named Corinne Mentzelopoulos, wanted to talk to Parker
only about the Thunevins' new wine. Parker later told me that she was
resentful, and viewed the innovation as dangerous. She said, "We believe
Parker refused to accept the traditional meaning of that word. He said,
"Well, it is a terroir. It doesn't have a history of three
hundred years, like Chateau Margaux, but it's a terroir. Why
shouldn't someone try to improve the quality of wine that comes from this
parcel of land?" She retreated to the old answer -- that no one knew how
the wine would evolve.
Parker, for his part, refused to budge. In The Wine Advocate he
discussed Murielle Thunevin's new wine, which he had tasted as a future.
This is the first of what will likely be an
increasing move toward limited production "garage" wines in the Médoc
(something the powers in the appellation are totally against). An
impressive first effort, it has the potential to merit an outstanding
rating after bottling. There are nearly 600 cases of this saturated
purple-colored offering, which exhibits low acid, sweet blackberry
aromas backed by chocolate and toast. In the mouth, the wine is
voluptuous, opulent, pure, and harmonious. My rating is conservative
since this is the debut release, but this 1999 has enormous potential,
and since it is likely to be bottled without fining or filtration, it
should merit an outstanding score.
He gave it 89-91, neatly signaling his view of the years to come. The
message to the old families was clear.
In the essay accompanying the tasting notes, Parker professed
astonishment that anyone might fear the garagistes. He wrote,
There is no stopping this new phenomenon in
spite of the hostility it has received from négociants, the
Médoc's aristocracy, and those reactionaries in favor of preserving
Bordeaux's status quo. These wines are not the destabilizing influence
many old timers would have consumers believe. What's wrong with an
energetic person taking a small piece of property and trying to turn out
But Parker knew perfectly well that a fundamental change was under way
-- that a vast industrial structure seemed about to break apart. When I
saw him again at home in Monkton, with his dogs snoring in a corner of the
office, he admitted that these might be the final years for the old
families of Bordeaux. Olivier Sèze, the iconoclastic winemaker in the
Médoc, had been gleeful at that possibility. He had said, "If people start
to make better wines than the first growths, the whole system falls apart.
It becomes a revolution. It is a revolution!" Parker, too,
sometimes used that word. The coming vintage of 2000, he told me, would
strengthen the great chateaux, but only temporarily. He had a long-term
view. He said, "A hundred years from now the garage wines won't be a
separate category. They will be up and down the Médoc. Everyone will be
making wines that way. And if someone wants to go back over the history,
Thunevin will be seen as the pioneer who totally changed the system."
"My name might come up too -- maybe as a footnote."
He pretended to have a workman's view of himself in history. He said,
"I'm an anti-industrial kind of guy." As if he were just another critic
expressing an opinion, he said, "I don't like manipulation, compromise, or
interventionistic winemaking -- unless something goes wrong. I believe
that the responsibility of the winemaker is to take that fruit and get it
into the bottle as the most natural and purest expression of that
vineyard, of the grape varietal or blend, and of the vintage." He also
said, "When I started tasting wines, in the 1970s, we were on a slippery
slope. There was a standardization of wines, where you couldn't tell a
Chianti from a cabernet. That's pretty much stopped now." He refused to
say it had stopped because of him. I figured he was being willfully
modest. His own mother seems to believe he has developed a big ego. But
the furthest he would go now was to express surprise that the logo he had
chosen for The Wine Advocate had long been overlooked. It is a
corkscrew in the form of a crusader's cross, and he admitted almost shyly
that at last it has been noticed.
(The online version of this article appears in four parts.
Click here to go to part one,
part two, or
Langewiesche is a correspondent for The Atlantic.
Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights
Atlantic Monthly; December 2000; The Million-Dollar Nose - 00.12;
Volume 286, No. 6; page 42-70.