The power of Parker


Jonathan Pugh is published each day in The Daily Mail
In May of this year, Robert Parker officially hung up his wine-writing boots. Joss Fowler – the man behind Vinolent – considers how the famous critic changed the world of wine

Looking back at the career, or effect, of Robert M. Parker Jr over the past 30 or 40 years is something that inspires, for me at least, a little awe, a great deal of respect and no shortage of stories revolving around the release of the latest scores. To put this in context, a lot of these stories involve fax machines – copies of Mr Parker’s latest scores crossing the globe via facsimile.

Mr Parker’s influence predates the internet; that we are still talking about him now is testament to his power. His retirement may only have been announced recently but, realistically speaking, he hasn’t really been working for years. Neal Martin took over Bordeaux coverage at the Wine Advocate with the 2014 vintage; Antonio Galloni took over California, another of Parker’s loves, in 2011; Jeb Dunnuck took over the Rhône in 2013. These were the three regions where Parker was strongest, and it is a notable aside that all three of the new reviewers are no longer part of the now Michelin-owned Wine Advocate.

The effect of Robert Parker’s absence from the en primeur scene has been tangible in recent years. The last great vintages that he evaluated from barrel were 2009 and ’10. He correctly called these truly great, and the wines were released, and for the most part sold, at unprecedented prices.

Since then, we’ve had some indifferent vintages, one truly awful one, one under-rated one (’14), and three vintages – ’15, ’16 and ’18, that we can’t really get our heads or our wallets round. Because no matter how good the current batch of critics is (and it’s been growing), no one – not even Neal Martin – can call a vintage the way that Robert Parker did. Some may say that ’16 is one of the greats, but without the endorsement of Mr P., it’s not quite there.

What Parker did was simplify things. I’m a big fan of simplicity. My question to any sommelier is invariably simple: is this any good? Or, slightly more complex: is this better than that? Because, for most of the time, that is all we want to know. Wine and food matching is a very simple art (complicated food wants simple wine; complicated wine wants simple food). Mr Parker was, in his way, the ultimate sommelier for those with the simple question. Not only this: he numberised it. Is the Belgrave better than the Bellevue? Yes: by two clear points. And, nine times out of 10, he was right.

This is where Parker is missed and where, in my view, he’ll never be replaced. The combination of a brilliant palate, integrity, simplicity and a mission that didn’t really change since he started is too much. And, more than anything, it was the integrity that counted. Parker had no agenda, no beef, and seemingly no need to blow his trumpet too loudly. He just said it as he saw it, and understood that much of his audience wasn’t interested in words, in poetic notes – they just wanted a simple translation of quality.

The past couple of months have seen various en primeur offers hammering my inbox. Each one seems to lead with a quote from a different critic, generally the one who has given the wine in question the highest score. On the surface this looks like mere cynical salesmanship, and it is, but there is more to this. Not only has Mr Parker left a gap, there are plenty of people there who feel that they can fill it, or at least benefit through doing so.

We now have a plethora of critics to tell us what is what, what’s good and what’s not (though there’s not so much of that – it sometimes looks like a competition to see who can be the most positive). You might think that a number of critics rather than just the one makes sense – it’s like a panel – but the problem here is this: it’s another choice that we have to make (which critic do we listen to) and the whole point of Parker is that he helped us with making choices.

This is also the problem with peer-to-peer recommendations. Do you trust the opinion of a random stranger with a wine-rating app on his or her phone? Did they taste objectively? Do they know what they are doing? Do they like what you do?

One of the original peer-to-peer platforms – CellarTracker – is a useful tool if you are looking to buy something that has already been on a few tables and is already in a few cellars but – this is the thing – Parker’s most important reviews were his en primeur reviews. And peer-to-peer just isn’t relevant here as, for the most part, the vast majority of those who have tasted the wines in barrel are either journalists themselves, or the wine trade (who clearly have a horse in the race).

The thing about Parker is simple, even if the question isn’t. As much as quality is objective, taste is subjective. Appreciation of wine is subjective. It can all get very, very complicated. What Mr Parker did was objectify the subjective, make it simple. His points system was the key to this, the formula that made things possible, which goes back to my question to the sommelier: is it any good?

Will Mr Parker be replaced? I doubt it. Much of it was down to timing: would he have been the greatest if he had started now, when anyone with a computer can publish? Would he have made it through the noise? I’m not sure. But he remains the Silverback. That he is accused or credited, depending on the way you see it, of changing the both the style and quality of wine, particularly those of Bordeaux, is testament to the fact that he is, and was, a one-off.