Robert M. Parker, Jr. (born July 23 1947) is a leading U.S. wine critic with an international influence. His ratings on a 100-point scale and his florid tasting notes, published in his newsletter The Wine Advocate, define modern American wine criticism and are a major factor in setting the prices for newly-released Bordeaux wine. Wines made specifically to earn high Parker points are often called "Parkerized". Because of his influence and the change of certain "traditional" wine styles represented by Parkerized wines, Robert M. Parker is sometimes the target of criticism from those whose tastes are different.
In 1975, he began writing a guide to wine. Parker wanted to be a consumer advocate, free of the conflicts of interest that might taint the opinions of wine critics who also make a living selling wine. Three years later in 1978, he published a direct-mail newsletter called The Baltimore-Washington Wine Advocate, which became the The Wine Advocate in 1979. The first issue was sent free to mailing lists Parker purchased from a several major wine retailers. For its second issue in August 1978, the magazine had 600 charter subscribers.
Parker received worldwide attention when he "called" the 1982 vintage in Bordeaux as superb, contrary to the opinions of many other critics, such as San Francisco critic Robert Finigan, who felt it was too low-acid and ripe. The debate about whether 1982 is a vintage for the ages continues through the early 2000s, but on the wine market the prices of 1982 Bordeaux remain above other vintages.
More than twenty years later, The Wine Advocate has over 50,000 subscribers, primarily in the United States, but with significant readership in over 37 other countries. While other wine publications have more subscribers, The Wine Advocate is still considered to exert a significant influence on wine consumers' buying habits, particularly in America. New York Times wine critic Frank Prial asserted that "Robert M. Parker Jr. is the most influential wine critic in the world."
In addition to writing and tasting for The Wine Advocate, which is published six times a year in Parkton, Maryland, Parker has been a contributing editor for Food and Wine Magazine and BusinessWeek. He has also written periodically for the English magazine The Field and has been the wine critic for France's L'Express magazine, the first time a non-Frenchman has held this position.
Parker is considered to have had a noticeable impact on
According to Elin McCoy, Parker is a consumer advocate who admires Ralph Nader and has been critical of most wine critics, who traditionally have been part of the wine industry and have had vested interests. According to statements Parker has made in his own publications and to the press, he considers his commitment to be to his readers rather than to producers, and he believes that a producer’s reputation and prestige is unimportant compared to the wine in the glass.
According to Mike Steinberger, however, Parker has inadvertently made becoming a wine critic in the future almost impossible since (partly due to his scoring system's success) it is now prohibitively expensive to taste the very wines one should criticise. If it behoves a critic to understand, say, Lafite 1982,2000,2003 and 2005 before assessing the latest vintage, this requires the critic to have drank wine worth tens of thousands of euros before he or she can even begin, in a way that was not true when he himself became a connoisseur in the 1970s.
One of the most influential and controversial features of Parker's wine criticism is his 100-point rating system, which he devised with his friend Victor Morgenroth. The system was designed to counter what Parker believed to be confusing or inflated ratings by other wine writers, many of whom he accused of a conflict of interest, as they often had a financial interest in the wines they rated. The scale, since widely imitated in publications such as the Wine Spectator, ranks wine on a scale from 50 to 100 points, on color and appearance, aroma and bouquet, flavor and finish, and overall quality level or potential. Therefore, 51 rather than 100 different ratings are possible. Many of his competitors, such as Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson), argue that the quality of a wine is too subjective to be assigned a numerical rating with such a high degree of implied precision. While most American reviewers have adopted point systems like Parker's, many British reviewers still prefer a 20-point system, as in the cases of Jancis Robinson and Clive Coates.
It is common for retailers in North America to mark wines with Parker's point scores on printed cards on the shelves. Large numbers of consumers, collectors and investors, especially in the increasingly important United States wine market, make purchasing decisions based on the scores that Mr. Parker awards based on his taste. Parker himself cautions that buyers should read the tasting notes to determine the wine is made in a style they will like. As he states on his website,
Scores, however, do not reveal the important facts about a wine. The written commentary that accompanies the ratings is a better source of information regarding the wine's style and personality, its relative quality vis-à-vis its peers, and its value and aging potential than any score could ever indicate. ... [T]here can never be any substitute for your own palate nor any better education than tasting the wine yourself.
Parker argues that he scores wines on how much pleasure they give him. He and others have said that it is the obscurity, corruption, and other problems of the appellation system that made his consumer-oriented approach necessary and inevitable. For example, the Bordeaux Wine Official Classification of 1855 was based entirely on recent wine prices of that time. However, in the many decades since, many châteaux sold much of their vineyards, others bought additional vineyards far away, and the original winemakers have been long dead. Parker says this has created injustice for consumers because the traditional classifications cause mediocre wine to be sold for too much, and good wine to be sold for too little. He says the 1855 classifications "should be regarded by both the wine connoisseur and the novice as informational items of historical significance only.
A common criticism of Parker is that his tasting methodology is fundamentally flawed. Parker, himself, stated on 60 Minutes that a wine tells him everything he needs to know in five seconds. This philosophy combined with mammoth tastings in which Parker will run through between fifty and one hundred wines in quick succession, have led critics to conclude that in such tastings the only thing that can stand out is excessive levels of oak and alcohol. A long standing criticism of this tasting philosophy has also been that fundamental chemical flaws in a wine tend to be seen as positives, as they help a wine stand out as distinctive among the scores of wines given their five second evaluation in quick succession. In fact, over time, Parker has shown a pronounced affinity for wines displaying excessive levels of brettanomyces and volatile acidity. This has been derided as the inevitable "smelling salt effect" of Parker's tasting and evaluation methods.
This new approach to wine making led to changes in viticulture and wine making practices, such as reducing yields by green harvesting, harvesting as late as possible for maximum ripeness, not filtering the wine, and the use of new techniques such as microoxygenation to soften tannins. These widespread changes in technique have been called "Parkerization" and have led to fears of a homogenization of wine styles around the world, as Parker's "tastes are irrevocably changing the way some French wines are made". Indeed, certain low-producing "boutique" wineries, among many others, have received high scores from Parker for wines made in this style. Parker himself disputes the notion of growing homogeneity and argues for the opposite: "When I started tasting wines, in the 1970s, we were on a slippery slope. There was a standardization of wines, where you couldn't tell a Chianti from a cabernet. That's pretty much stopped now..
Because of his powerful influence, his experiences have ranged from having two chateau owners offer him the sexual favours of their daughters to receiving death threats. On one occasion the manager of Château Cheval Blanc, Jacques Hebrard, was outraged at Parker's evaluation and asked Parker to retaste. Upon arriving, Parker was attacked by Hebrard's dog as the manager stood idly by and watched. When Parker asked for a bandage to stop the bleeding from his leg, Parker says Hebrard instead gave him a copy of the offending newsletter. Hebrard denies that Parker was bleeding.
Wine critic Prial says "The Bordeaux wine establishment feels threatened by these new-style wines...and is engaged in an increasingly bitter fight against Parker and his influence."
Whatever his influence, Parker alone cannot impact the market price for a wine if he is alone against the mainstream. The famous controversy around the Château Pavie 2003 is an example of this: despite Parker's positive ratings, the wine in bottle sold 30% cheaper than en primeur.
Burgundy proved much more difficult to Parker than Bordeaux, in particular because of the Faiveley case. In the 3rd edition of his Wine Buyer's Guide (1993), Parker reported rumours according to which "the Faiveley wines tasted abroad would be less rich than those one can taste on the spot [...]" . In other words: Faiveley would be cheating. In February 1994, Parker was requested to appear in front of the Paris "tribunal de grande instance". Even though the case was settled outside court, it left a bitter taste, as a number of Burgundy wine makers supported Faiveley's defense against Parker. The latter never really managed to get into Burgundy: this is probably why he delegated this region to Pierre-Antoine Rovani as of April 1997.
Robert Parker is one of only a handful of foreigners to have received France's two highest Presidential honors and is the first wine critic to have received such recognitions in France and Italy.