Robert M. Parker, Jr. – arguably the world’s most famous, but unarguably its most influential, wine critic – is hangin’ up the spurs.
Last week, The Wine Advocate announced that Parker, who had steadily been down-shifting his wine review duties over the better course of a decade, is retiring from the publication.
What’s poised to change in the wine world? Probably next to nothing; the days when the words of a lone critic such as Parker directed huge swings of the wine-buying needle for industry buyers and consumers alike are increasingly far behind us, a type of influence that has been on the wane for, well, the better course of the same decade in which Parker down-shifted his wine-reviewing beat.
Wine Advocate’s Lisa Perrotti-Brown once tried (unsuccessfully, IMHO – hey, I simple know too many winemakers at this point, so I know better) to downplay the effect of “Parkerization” on the wine world. But in that argument, she missed out on the most important aspect of Parkerization, or, in more positive terms, Parker’s enduring legacy in the wine world.
Namely, that the days of wine brands coasting their lazy asses on the basis of past performance, and consumers being forced to suck up junk-ass wines as a result, are largely a thing of the past, and that is in no small part due to the work ethic of one Robert M. Parker, Jr. In other words, like him or hate him, love points or gag at the sight of them, Parker’s influence in the wine world writ large is and will always be net positive…
Perhaps I am biased, and not just because I count current Wine Advocate staffers Monica Larner and (fellow Philly boy) Mark Squires as friends. I mean, in the same way that Parker legitimized so many otherwise unknown wine brands, he legitimized my “brand” when he granted me the first interview he’d ever done for a wine blog (and at a time when he just wasn’t really giving interviews). Having said that, I’ve been critical of the guy’s actions, have never been an Advocate subscriber, and more or less never paid attention to his reviews (not out of disagreement, but only because in general I don’t pay much attention to wine reviews with numbers on them).
But none of that keeps me from recognizing the fact that before Parker attempted his version of democratizing wine reviews about three decades ago, a crap-ton of shit wine was on the market, some of it being made by storied brands. Almost all of the people reading this won’t know that, because they got to come of drinking age at a time post-Parker. Parker was one of the first – and certainly the most accessible of – voices to call out shit when he tasted shit, and to reward quality when he tasted quality, regardless of pedigree.
The results, some decades later?
Firstly, yeah, there was a move towards some sameness in wine tastes broadly, in a strange capitalist feedback loop of high scores begetting trends in consumer tastes, begetting deliberate movement in winemaking styles towards those high-score-achieving, better-selling taste profiles. Just as we cannot blame George Lucas for every crappy, effects-driven blockbuster after the success of the original Star Wars, we can’t levy all of the blame of sameness squarely on Parker’s shoulders alone.
But we are not poorer for that, in so far as the second result comes into play – wines, in general, just got better. Not because they were chasing Parker’s tastes, but because wine brands were on notice that shit wine wasn’t going to be able to coast into the market all that easily. Over time, shit wine (in terms of obviously flawed stuff) wasn’t really able to coast into the market at all. Most of us have grown up into a wine world in which it’s actually kind of difficult for consumers to encounter awful, flawed wines on the shelf, and I’d posit that Robert M. Parker, Jr. is the grandfather of all of that.
More could be said about Parker helping to engender a wine collectors mentality into the masses, or the influence of his work ethic (as I am fond of saying, Parker is a bit like George W. Bush as President – you might not like everything he wanted to do, of how he did it, but it’s difficult to argue that he didn’t think, deep down, that he was doing the right thing). But we needn’t enter into those discussions at all to acknowledge the positive aspects of Parker’s legacy. On the whole, we are a better wine world for having had him in it.
I’ll leave you with this, the last question I asked Parker when I interviewed him almost ten years ago, specifically related to his retirement:
1WD: Willie Mays didn’t do it, Michael Jordan couldn’t do it. Cal Ripken, Jr. did do it. Any consideration to “quitting at the top of your game?” How would you like to be remembered in terms of your legacy in the world of fine wine, if/when you do retire from it?
RMP: I have been blessed with extraordinary success, and I could have stopped working many years ago. If I ever felt that I had lost my passion or enthusiasm for wine, or that my abilities had declined, I would stop in a heartbeat. The one thing that separates me from just about everybody else in the wine world is hard work. Yes, I have plenty of talent, but so do many of my colleagues. However, no one has ever worked as hard or as comprehensively as I have. This might also explain the success for athletes such as Michael Jordan (a person who was well-known for spending more time on the practice court than anybody else) and Cal Ripken (a person who constantly worked at his game). Legacy is nice from a spectator point of view, but it is something I never think about. From the day I started tasting and reviewing wine in 1978, until today, I have always tried to do the best job I could, I write exactly what I believe, I am not beholden to anybody, and I sleep very well because of that. That will never change.