It will no doubt come as some surprise to the likes of Jancis Robinson, Allen Meadows, James Suckling, Michel Bettane, Steven Spurrier, et al. to learn that, according to French broadsheet Le Monde, wine criticism has diversified since Robert Parker’s “retirement”.
One might wonder what those luminaries were doing in the interim? Taking a form of Tennis Court Oath in the carpark of Château Margaux? Examining their fingernails while Parker was hitting home runs and slurping the last of his milkshake?
Of course not. For decades scores of palates have been rating wines and publishing their thoughts. To suggest that, with Parker taking a back seat, wine critics have starting popping up like botrytis in a tropical rain event is disingenuous to say the least.
Now, anyone who reads the Le Monde article in French will know that I’m being a little unfair with my translation, but the point still stands: the world of wine is apparently becoming more diverse. And I’ll be the first one to praise this. The more talk there is of wine and the more discussion there is of wine, the better.
But let’s also be honest here. It isn’t necessarily Parker that’s driving this. It is the people who follow him casting out as he starts to take a back seat. Ironically – and Parker was always the first to point this out when people complained about his dominant influence – the unilateral nature of his power was only due to his followers; his clout was his readership. Had The Wine Advocate’s subscription numbers been the same as the San Diego Padre’s runs tally in 2017, we would not have given two Malcolms (“Malcolm Gluck” – UK wine trade rhyming slang) for the man from Maryland’s opinion at En Primeur. So it’s worth remembering that the diversity of opinion isn’t necessarily occurring at the level of the critics, it’s occurring at the level of the wine lover.
Once this is understood, we do need to grapple with something that Le Monde – and many others – might be missing.
Quite to the contrary of current received wisdom as exemplified by the Le Monde piece, I’m actually tempted to state that there was diversity especially in Parker’s heyday. Those with a good memory will remember his and Jancis‘ disagreement over 2003 Château Pavie (a story broken by yours truly back in 2004), as well as multiple other occasions (Decanter’s five-star rating of 2005 Château Pedesclaux back in 2008 and Parker’s concurrent 82 points was also memorable). In the days when it was easy to access his bulletin board, you could even watch while the sparks flew. Parker didn’t hold back.
And whatever you think of the man or the palate, I suspect we might well miss it in the long run. That’s something I didn’t think I’d ever say, but the great thing about Parker was that his clout was so weighty and so revered that it almost became a hobby to find the counterpoints. I still do it to this day. For instance, I really don’t think 2009 Pape-Clement is a 100-point Bordeaux. I’d even go into why I think that, but that’s not the point. The point is that Parker was always a great windmill to go tilting at. It was just as entertaining to watch others tilting too. To take it one step further, I’d almost go so far as to say that we don’t get Alice Feiring and Jonathan Nossiter without Robert Parker.
So while many people might be thankful for a bigger spread of critical clout these days, I’m almost nostalgic. And a little worried. Even if the fights between critics continue to break out (which, in many ways, we should hope they do) who’s going to want to watch?