Tom's blog

Sine die, Robert Parker

This week Robert Parker Jr. made his retirement official. It wasn’t a surprise that the most renown wine critic was hanging up his corkscrew — he had turned over the reigns of his famous Wine Advocate to Lisa Perrotti-Brown some time ago. But, like politicians and athletes, comebacks are always around until someone makes it official.

I owe a lot to Parker because he created the model of a critic when he launched his publication in 1978. I was living in Maryland at the time and quickly subscribed to what was then the Washington-Baltimore Wine Advocate (he dropped the city names a year later). The publication was a tabloid newspaper for several years and largely unknown until Parker broke rank with more famous critics who had panned the 1982 vintage. Parker said it was going to be one of the century’s best. And, it was.

Parker invented the 100-point scale too. Until then, most critics just described the wine and left the reader confused. Others used various devices to indicate recommendations, but it was the 100-point scale — now widely used — that gave Parker a wide range to classify his wines.

A lawyer by trade who fell in love with wine while with his wife in France, Parker was ruthless in using his pen too. He accepted no advertising from the start and thus had no allegiance to anyone other than to himself. Once famous, his scores could make or break a producer. Any wine that scored less than 90 points was largely ignored; those that did score high, particularly the obscure wines, flew off the shelf. And those wineries who experienced high score raised prices and profits.

He was an honest, uninfluenced wine critic people could trust. And, I did. I bought several cases of the 1982s and remember walking through a Washington, D.C., store with his publication in my hand. I have one bottle left — a Gruard Larose that he scored 95 points. I bought my wines on futures. The Gruard Larose cost me about $15 and I was mortified to be spending this much money on a bottle of wine.

Parker’s influence changed the direction of wine too. Bordeaux producers, eager for high scores, actually changed their wines to gain his favor. And, they weren’t the only wines. Those ripe, high-alcohol and extracted wines we taste today started with Parker. (He later launched Beaux Freres in the Willamette Valley with his brother).

Many critics of the critic faulted him for warping French producers who were no longer making traditional wines.

I met Parker when he was at a book fair at the Naval Academy in the early 1980s. He was just becoming known and few people were stopping by his table to buy his first book, “Bordeaux,” a compilation of wine reviews starting with the 1961 vintage. It was a bible to every Bordeaux collector.

My second encounter with Parker was when he invited users of his online journal to write an essay on why people were so critical. He was obviously stewing over the barrage of personal insults that came from some dust-up I can’t remember. I responded — and won a set of expensive wine glasses that I still use.

Parker had the most amazing palate — so good that it was insured for millions. But it wasn’t everyone’s palate. When people felt differently about a wine he panned but they liked, his critics blamed him rather than realizing that wines are personal and that criticism isn’t always a science.

Thank you, Mr. Parker, for everything you’ve done to wine and to wine criticism.