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Robert Parker, Parkerization, and the judgment of history

Dear Mr. Parker:

I smiled when I read details of your recent interview with the French wine magazine Terre des Vins, where you said you didn’t think Parkerization – the idea that wines should be richer, riper, and more alcoholic, a practice that has become de rigueur for many high-end producers in France and California – existed. It reminded me what Joan Baez once said: That she never wanted to be famous, just well known.

Yes, Parkerizaton exists (as even your wife has apparently noted). Why else would I get a sample of $50, 15.2 percent California pinot noir, other than to impress you? It’s not like anyone else would want to drink it.

Frankly, denying Parkerization is too Shakespeare – you are protesting too much. Instead, you should acknowledge the influence you had on the wine business over the past 20 years, when even the greatest French producers would accept your verdict as gospel. That’s pretty damned impressive.

Before Ernest Hemingway, everyone wrote like Henry James. After Hemingway, everyone wrote like Hemingway. Papa reveled in that, and never tired of reminding the world that he was behind it. See the scenes with F. Scott Fitzgerald in “A Moveable Feast” for evidence.

My guess, and it’s only a guess, because we’ve never met and I don’t know you (though I greatly respect your work) is that you were having a Baez-like moment. Could all the changes in the wine business and the way wine is made have really happened because of you? You were, all those years ago, just an attorney who loved wine. There’s no way you, one man, could have changed so much, is there?

Afraid so, and you only have a couple of choices now. Accept your role, like Hemingway (without the looniness, hopefully). There are an almost infinite number of wine writers who wish they were in that position. Or, if you really think Parkerization is wrong, say so. Say it forcefully and often. Look back at what you wrote and see where, maybe, you opted for unctuousness (one of your favorite terms) over subtlety. And did it happen more often than you remember?

Regardless, accept that most of us would not be doing this sort of thing if not for you. I, for one, am grateful for that.

Sincerely.

Jeff Siegel
The Wine Curmudgeon

Robert Parker and the end of an icon

Robert ParkerIt’s hard not to be cynical about the announcement yesterday that Robert Parker is making significant changes at his Wine Advocate newsletter – quitting as editor and selling a good part of it to Asian investors.

It’s also easy to feel just a little bit sorry for the critic, who used to be the most important person in the wine business — and not all that long ago. The sale, though, shows someone trying to remain important in a wine world that is far different than when he started three decades ago.

None of this is to downplay what Parker has done or how important he has been. The Wine Curmudgeon, after all, has insisted on those two things for years. But, the changes, as first reported by the Wall Street Journal, show someone not quite sure about what comes next:

• Three Singapore-based investors will buy a ”substantial” interest in the Advocate, and operate the financial side of the business from Singapore.

• Parker will continue to review Bordeaux and the Rhone and become chairman. The editor will be Singapore-based correspondent, Lisa Perrotti-Brown. She’s quoted as saying she wants more editorial control over wine reviews.

• The print version of the Advocate could end, perhaps as soon as next year. There has been some dispute about whether the Journal reported this correctly, including a later Parker statement that this will happen.

• The Advocate will accept advertising for the first time ever, though only for “luxury” brands and not wine or wine-related products. It will also sponsor Advocate-branded events and tastings, much as the Wine Spectator does.

The driving force behind all of this? That Parker, 65, needs to make a decision about what happens next. He is the Advocate, and businesses with a one-person identity don’t last long after the person is gone. Does anyone remember Arthur Treacher fish and chips?

It’s also important to note that the Advocate probably never made Parker rich, even though he was “The Emperor of Wine.” His company is private and doesn’t release financials, so these are all estimates based on available information. The newsletter grosses less than $4 million annually in subscriptions; a partner at a top law firm (Parker was an attorney before going into wine) can earn that much without having to worry if the postal service actually bothered to deliver the latest issue.

In this, the new investors have their eye firmly on the bottom line. Eliminating the print edition could save as much as one-third of expenses, and end pass-throughs, the practice where someone subscribes to the Advocate and shares it with a couple of other people. In a digital world, those couple of other people will have to pay $75 a year if they want the newsletter, potentially doubling or tripling subscription revenue.

And accepting advertising – well, we know what that means. It’s easy to say, as Perroti-Brown did, that the ads would come only “from sponsors where there is absolutely no conflict of interest,” but there’s no such thing. Once a publication takes ads, advertisers feel they have a legitimate right to ask for favors. And sometimes, it’s hard to say no.

Finally, the new Advocate will add reviews on wine made in China and southeast Asia. This is, as Parker admitted to the Journal, chasing after those 1.2 billion Chinese who are the next great wine market. That few Chinese wines are of Advocate quality doesn’t seem to matter – a potential conflict of interest as great as taking ads. What happens the first time an important Chinese winery gets a 79? Or if a reviewer, hesitant to give a wine a 79, hems and haws it up to 85?

And I would not be me if I didn’t note that Advocate still does very little with wines made in the 47 states in the U.S. that aren’t on the west coast. But, then, there aren’t 1.2 billion of us interested in regional wine.

Robert Parker finally elected to Vintners Hall

Which is as welcome as it was overdue. Parker redefined wine writing not only in the United States but in the world, and his 100-point scoring system made him the most powerful person in the wine business well into the 21st century.

Somehow, though, the wine writers and and Hall members who vote didn't elect Parker to the Vintners Hall the first two times he was on the ballot. That changed this year, when the 81 people who voted (out of some 220 who were eligible) put him in. As I wrote in July, when I sent in my ballot — with Parker's name on it:

There is no reason why Parker shouldn’t be in. We’re told we should vote
for someone who made "the greatest contributions to the California wine
industry in any area of achievement." I’ve got news for them. That’s
Parker, no matter how jealous they are of his success or how envious
they are of his prestige and popularity. If I’m writing this, and I
think the 100-point system is dumb, then the rest of the other 216
writers (and current hall members) who have a ballot have no reason not
to vote for Parker.

Also elected were winemaker Merry Edwards, wine writer Frank Schoonmaker, and labor leader Cesar Chavez, all of whom I voted for. The late Chavez, who has been on the ballot at least three times, was a surprising — but well-deserved — selection.

Parker's election does raise a couple of questions. First, what will happen when he and hall member Randall Grahm — no fan of Parker, the 100-point scoring system or the Winestream Media that Parker epitomizes — see each other at the induction ceremonty? Second, what will I have to complain about when I vote next year?

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