There cannot be many wine lovers who aren’t aware of the phenomenon that is Robert Parker, the American wine critic. For nearly 30 years controversy has raged around this man who, it is said, “makes and breaks the market” for fine wines. The pro-school point to his independence and integrity in relation to producers, his ‘ordinary bloke’ anti wine-snob stance, his awesome work rate – this is a man who can taste 10,000 wines a year and still write cogent notes and run a successful business, his wine review The Wine Advocate. The ‘not so keen’ school talk about his soulless scoring system – all wines tasted are graded out of 100, the ones collectors seek out are his 90+ wines; his mono-themed palate which favours huge testosterone-packed wines with ultra ripe fruit and high alcohol; and overall the sheer audacity/unfairness that one man’s palate can determine the success of a wine when, to most of us, it is perfectly obvious that taste is a subjective area and heavily influenced by location, ambience, food and company etc.
But the knockers have failed over the years to turf this man off his pedestal – collectors are scrabbling to buy the 2009 Bordeaux ‘en primeur’ at prices completely unheard of (Lafite is now £13500 per case!), many on the strength of Parker’s lavish praise and high scores. It is said that not only is he the Emperor of wine critics, he is the most successful critic in any field of all time. Sure, theatre critics in London or New York can close a play locally with a stinker of a review but uncle Bob Parker’s critical reach and market-making power is truly global.
My own view re Parker has been quite ambivalent over the years. Undoubtedly he has been hugely positive for the Rhone region I know and love. Parker is a huge fan and has pushed the region to a critical level only just below Bordeaux and Burgundy. However, I confess I was recently quite shocked when reading his biography (the excellent The Emperor of Wine by Elin McCoy) to come across the story of the Californian consultancy – Leo McCloskey’s ‘Enologix’- which claims to have identified the 84 chemical constituents of a wine that, combined in a certain formula, are associated with the wines Parker scores 95-100. All their clients, mainly boutique Napa valley wineries, have to do is submit samples to this consultancy where the scientists and mathematicians will play with something resembling a graphic equaliser (remember those?) before the necessary viticultural or vinification tweaks are recommended. Heh presto, vintage later, a Parker-pleasing wine blend! And big bucks, no doubt, to follow. Now that is more than a tad worrying I think you’ll agree.
Whistler readers who fancy trying a Parker 100 pointer to see what the fuss is all about will need to think about selling a few family heirlooms. Probably better value than most would be from my region, Chateauneuf du Pape producer Chateau Beaucastel’s special cuvee ‘Hommage à Jacques Perrin’, the 1998 vintage, available from Turville Valley Wines in Buckinghamshire at £250 per bottle.
Philip Reddaway runs La Madelene Rhone Wine Holidays. www.rhonewineholidays.com email: firstname.lastname@example.org