Saturday, February 18, 2006

Decanting the Emperor

I just finished reading Elin McCoy's The Emperor of Wine, and came away from the book mostly impressed by the work and the man. Since the book was released mid-year '05, I know I'm late in addressing this tome about Robert Parker. But I'm glad in a way that I did not tackle the book before becoming a blogger and a reader of so many enlightening wine blogs. Let me explain.

Parker without a doubt has the single most influential nose and pen in the business. Wines that please Parker can soar in terms of sales and prestige while those suffering poor reviews stand to lose big time. His Wine Advocate reviews have such a huge impact that many Bordeaux labels in the past decade began waiting for Parker's assessments to come out before setting their futures prices.

As a result, Parker, who started out as a Ralph Nadar-type savior of wine-writing has become over time a lightning rod for criticism because of his profound and imposing preference for fruit-driven wines. The French have a love-hate relationship for the wine world's 800-pound gorilla while the English, in particular, seem to have developed a particularly nasty dislike of him. All because Parker has a lopsided share of influence, and a profoundly "American" palate.

My view is that, of course, no one person should have such a monopolistic influence on such a huge and diverse business. But unless you have no appreciation for context and history, I don't see how you can blame Parker, a self-made millionnaire. He basically transformed wine writing from the pompous, unethical practice that it was into a consumer-focused, more or less fair and above-board craft. His creation of the 100-point scale for judging wines, as despised as it is by many, gave consumers a tool that they could understand and embrace. If it's often abused as a one-dimensional yard stick, it's also an important part of demystifying wine for millions.

As for his palate, if it is biased toward "fruit bombs" that show well early but lack the stamina for long-term aging, it is also perfectly suited to American tastes. Not everyone's, mind you. But it's been my experience both socially and in retail that most Americans prefer Parker-type wines. His recommendations, consequently, have helped more Americans get on board the great journey that is wine.

I'm not saying Parker is without fault; he can be overly sensitive, prickly and sometimes surly toward others. He's human. And, it's clear the wine business and consumers would benefit from more voices to consider. I'm just saying Parker came about his success and overwhelming influence honestly.

The good news -- what I was referring to when I said I was glad I read the book after becoming a blogger -- is that Parker's influence is beginning to diminish, and other voices are now being heard. For example, I think most consumers these days rely more on Wine Spectator than on Parker for guidance. Since there's lots I don't like about Spectator, it's not really "the answer." But it does help.

No, the really promising development lies in the wealth of guidance and opinion that's available these days through the blogosphere and the explosion of wine columns in newspapers and magazines. There's so much information available now, and meaningful tips, about wine that you don't have to wonder, for example, how long to sit on your 2000 Bordeaux. Someone out there is checking and sharing their assessments based on real experience.

There's never been a better time to be an oenophile. Wines are better made today than ever, and now we have the sources of information we need to properly keep up. That's why I suspect McCoy's book already is becoming a chronicle of interesting history rather than current events. But if you are at all into wines, you should read it. It's not just the story of one man but of the phenomenal changes in the world of wine in the past 30 years.


Anonymous Jack said...

Well done and you definitely make me want to read the book now.

1:10 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home