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Considerable Power of Robert M. Parker Jr.

The great Oscar Wilde once said, “Most people are other people.

Their thoughts are someone else's opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.

Considering how passionate many people are about wine, it’s shocking how powerful the opinions of critics, no matter how titled, educated, or experienced they may be, can have on what the wine-buying public decides to consume.

.. In an industry overpopulated with pundits who have dedicated their lives to evaluating and rating ever last nuance of every last bottle of wine deemed worthy enough to receive their highly lauded scrutiny, none have more power and prestige than Robert M. Parker Jr. Yet, technology and the upsurge in wine’s accessibility and popularity has taken a toll on Parker’s autonomy, and a quiet but growing backlash has begun, leading us to ask – what do these ratings systems really mean, and more importantly, who the heck does Robert Parker really think he is?

Robert Parker spent the first several decades of his life studying history, art, law, and practicing as an attorney in Maryland until he resigned in 1984 to dedicate his time to all things wine, but by then he was already knee deep in the world of wine ratings. He produced the first issue of The Wine Advocate in 1978, reaching a scant 600 subscribers. Today the publication reaches 50,000 readers in 38 countries and many consider it a leader in the field of wine buying, writing, and rating, but more perhaps more importantly, its wide availability and name recognition allows it to cast a wide net of influence.

Before Parker and WA, wines were often reviewed by the very people trying to sell them, making it almost impossible to get an unbiased opinion of a particular bottling, vintage, or vineyard. Parker sought to remedy this less-than-ideal situation, and formulated a system that would benefit the consumer over industry insiders. This 100-point system, which is still in use today, ranks wines based on their appearance, aroma, flavor, finish, and overall quality, to achieve a total score out of a possible 100 points. By eliminating undue influence and creating a numerical way to objectively rate wines, Parker gave the public a way to narrow down their possible purchases, one point at a time.

That’s all well and good, as were Parker’s intentions, but what started off as an answer to a problem has in fact turned into the problem. Instead of using Parker’s opinions as one part of a multi-faceted approach to evaluating wine, his word has almost become law, and can make or break not just the inventory of a home cellar but also the success of an entire label. Max Lalondrelle, who is the fine wine buying director at Berry Bros & Rudd summed up the Parker effect thusly: “Nobody sells wine like Robert Parker. If he turns around and says 2012 is the worst vintage I’ve tasted, nobody will buy it, but if he says it’s the best, everybody will.” One 2001 study estimated that a one-point increase in a rating from Robert Parker equalled a 7% increase in a wine’s price, an effect that multiplies exponentially at the higher end of the pricing spectrum.

At a gathering of wine writers earlier this year author James Conaway deplored Parker’s seeming obsession with high-alcohol, high-priced wines. The next day Parker himself defended his penchant for the big and the bold, waxing on about an affordable bottle of Petite Sirah that he and his wife adored. But is the issue really what Parker likes, or is the problem that people would rather fall in line with what he writes than forage out on their own, risking a mouthful of something less than savory in their search for the truly ethereal and extraordinary?

See, Parker isn’t necessarily to blame here. People in power are only as strong as their supporters, and if consumer’s continue to base each and every purchasing decision solely on the tiny placards retailers put out listing Wine Advocate scores with Parker’s name prominently displayed, the onus is clearly on the buyer. One person’s full-bodied is another person’s palate-coating disaster, and Parker’s love of big, blousy wines might destroy your taste buds like a tannin-covered ton of bricks. Like a blind date, someone else’s opinion will only get you so far – at some point, you’re going to have to realize that your opinion is the only one that matters.

Over the last ten years, the pedestal the public built for Parker has begun to show cracks. While participating in a blind tasting of fifteen of Bordeaux’s top 2005 offerings, Parker failed to identify any of them correctly and even flubbed the right bank/left bank designations on a few. Embarrassing definitely, but the very public misstep was even more startling considering Parker himself had boasted in The Atlantic Monthly five years earlier that he tastes 10,000 wines annually and not only remember them all, going back as far as 32 years, but that he can also recall the ratings he gave them as well. Was Parker caught in a fib, or is this simply age and a weary palate rearing their ugly heads?

It’s hard to tell, and more than likely, no one but Parker truly knows how objective his ratings really are. The point is, it really shouldn’t matter. Publications like The Wine Advocate should only be one weapon in a wine lover’s arsenal. Renowned wine critic or now, Parker’s opinion is only one fish in a very loud, very self-righteous see of self-proclaimed experts, and in the end, what you put in your kitchen, wine glass, and eagerly awaiting mouth should be completely up to you.

Reference: The Wine Advocate Rating System


96-100: An extraordinary wine of profound and complex character displaying all the attributes expected of a classic wine of its variety. Wines of this caliber are worth a special effort to find, purchase, and consume.

90 – 95: An outstanding wine of exceptional complexity and character. In short, these are terrific wines.

80 – 89: A barely above average to very good wine displaying various degrees of finesse and flavor as well as character with no noticeable flaws.

70 – 79: An average wine with little distinction except that it is a soundly made. In essence, a straightforward, innocuous wine.

60 – 69: A below average wine containing noticeable deficiencies, such as excessive acidity and/or tannin, an absence of flavor, or possibly dirty aromas or flavors.

50 – 59: A wine deemed to be unacceptable.









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About The Author
Alana Luna
Alana is a freelance food and wine writer currently living in Las Vegas, NV. She is a lifelong hospitality enthusiast, having been born into the industry and raised in restaurants (and perhaps the odd bar or two…). Prior to writing full time, Alana worked on the Las Vegas Strip where she was lucky to learn from some of the leading wine professionals in the world while tasting some of the very best bottles wine country (in the broadest sense of the term) has to offer. Above all, she believes in the power of a really good story, and stories involving food and wine are her very favorite tales to tell.

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