If you are any sort of wine lover Elin McCoy’s authorised biography of Robert M. Parker, the most controversial and powerful wine critic on earth, should be in your Christmas stocking.
In The Emperor of Wine: The Rise of Robert M. Parker Jr and the Reign of American Taste (Grub Street – London) McCoy describes the wondrous evolution of Robert “Bob” Parker Jr.
He was born in 1947 in the river and seaport city of Baltimore, Maryland. (The current speaker of the US House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi was born in the same place.)
Parker grew up on a farm adjacent to the anonymous rural town of Mockton.
His father was a bourbon drinking, bear hunting, dairy farmer who married at 18 and once told Bob Jr that he could identify, by smell, any breed of dog.
This may explain Parker Jr’s acute olfactory ability and why he insured his nose and palate for a million dollars.
Curiously, Parker Jr’s birth year augured well because it, along with 1945 and 1949, comprises a troika of magnificent vintages in France when wines of great corpulence and longevity were made.
In 1973 Parker Jr (pic) graduated with a degree in law from the University of Maryland.
About six years earlier, following regular travel to Europe, with his French-speaking girlfriend Pat Etzel, now his wife of 40-years, he commenced his historic mission as a wine surveyor.
Up until 1984 he was employed as a banking attorney, until his interest in wine appreciation counterbalanced his interest in the laws of money lending.
To some extent his background mirrors that of our own James Halliday who, until he surrendered to the obsession of viticulture and wine appreciation, was for many years a senior partner at Clayton Utz.
It was probably Jacqueline Kennedy’s enthusiastic public embrace of French culture in the 1960s that, in some measure, was responsible for igniting sudden admiration in America for all things French – in particular, food, wine and fashion.
While still working as a banking lawyer Parker Jr noticed the changing drinking and eating habits of Americans.
In 1978 with a small loan from his mother, and utilizing mailing lists obtained from wine retailers, he launched a wine information newsletter called The Baltimore – Washington Wine Advocate and, as they say, the rest is history.
Today that publication has transmogrified into The Wine Advocate and has, globally, 60,000 devoted subscribers.
Parker Jr internationalised himself by evaluating the 1982 French vintage as “superb” when many established wine critics described the vintage as mediocre and “over ripe”.
Parker Jr’s preferred red wine style is full-bodied, fat and robust with high extract and alcohol.
This may explain generally why he has great affection for many Australian red wines. As Parker says:
“I believe that the responsibility of the winemaker is to take that fruit and get it into that bottle as the most natural and purest expression of that vineyard, of the grape variety or blend and of that vintage.”
Perhaps the most controversial aspect of Parker’s career is the development and employment of his “100 Parker points” wine evaluation system.
I will let him describe it:
“It is a 50 to 100 point scale, the most repugnant of all wines meriting 50 and the most glorious, perfect gustatory experience commending 100.”
He says that wines in the category 90-100 are “outstanding” for that type or style, wines in the 80-89 category are “very good”, 70-79 are of “average quality”, while those below 70 points are merely “flawed, imbalanced or terribly dull”.
The evidence suggests consumers take notice of this ratings’ system and producers endeavour to achieve high “Parker points” because this translates into voluminous sales.
For example, about 10 years ago Parker Jr awarded 99 points to an obscure Victorian shiraz from Heathcote evocatively labelled “Duck Muck”.
The wine instantly achieved cult status and in the US the price per bottle rocketed to $1,500.
What emerges from McCoy’s fascinating book is the extraordinary influence Parker Jr has had on the dynamics of the flavour and structure of wine.
The expression “Parkerisation” is sometimes used pejoratively.
Parker’s response is:
“People say I like these bombastic, oaky fruit-driven wines, it’s the uncivilized American taste and I’m leading everyone to it – and its such a myth. I’m a Francophile, and French wines by their very nature are elegant wines. My European colleagues accuse me of being a globalist.”
The idea of “Parkerisation” has attracted odium from some vignerons and wine critics who consider his ratings system flawed and self-indulgent.
However, it must be remembered that Parker Jr is forever vigilant about his independence and objectivity as a consumer advocate. He refuses largess from winemakers, does not accept gifts, free or subsidised travel or accommodation from wineries.
One of the most endearing accounts in McCoy’s engaging biography is an occasion, about a month before Parker Jr’s 50th birthday, when he was awarded the Legion d’ Honneur by President Jacques Chirac for his services to the French wine industry.
Following the ceremony at the Elysee Palace Parker, wearing his medal and accompanied by his wife and daughter, was making his way across the Place de la Concord in Paris when a “battalion of gendarmes suddenly snapped to attention and saluted”.
He said: “That’s as cool as it gets.”
In 2002 his contribution to wine knowledge saw him awarded a Commendatore, Italy’s national order of merit.
Parker has a punishing work schedule. He is constantly on the road tasting and evaluating wines from around the world. He is also the author of numerous definitive books on the wines of France, Italy and the US.
As Parker himself once put it:
“No sane man can afford to dispense with debilitating pleasures; no ascetic can be considered reliably sane.”