The Million-Dollar Nose

The Million-Dollar Nose

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With his stubborn disregard for the hierarchy of wines, Robert Parker, the straight-talking American wine critic, is revolutionizing the industry — and teaching the French wine establishment some lessons it would rather not learn.

THE most influential critic in the world today happens to be a critic of wine. He is not a snob or an obvious aesthete, as one might imagine, but an ordinary American, a burly, awkward, hardworking guy from the backcountry of northern Maryland, about half a step removed from the farm. His name is Robert Parker Jr., Bob for short, and he has no formal training in wine. He lives near his childhood home, among the dairies and second-growth forests in a place called Monkton, which has a post office but no town center. A new interstate highway has reduced the drive to Baltimore to merely thirty minutes, but otherwise has had little effect. Monkton remains rural and bland — a patch of forgotten America as culturally isolated and nondescript as the quietest parts of the Midwest. Parker likes it that way. He is married to his high school sweetheart, Pat, with whom he has a teenage daughter named Maia, adopted as an infant from a Korean orphanage. The family has a quiet and apparently idyllic domestic life. Parker seems to be a happy man. In repose he has the staid face of an affluent farmer. In his baggy shirts and summer shorts, with his heavy arms hanging wide, he looks as if he could wrestle down a cow.


He couldn’t, because at age fifty-three he has a bad back. But here’s how strong he has become: many people now believe that Robert Parker is single-handedly changing the history of wine. That’s saying a lot. There are more than forty wine-producing countries in the world today, of which France is the first and the United States is the fourth; China is on the list. These countries have planted 30,000 square miles of vineyards and are making the equivalent of 35 billion bottles of wine every year. Parker directly controls the merest patch of all this — a micro-winery called Beaux Frères, near Newburg, Oregon, which he owns with his brother-in-law and refuses to promote. The wines produced there (from pinot noir grapes) are not necessarily among the best, but they keep Parker from sounding off about winemaking as, he says, a eunuch might sound off about sex. He is not an exporter, an importer, or a money man. He is a self-employed consumer advocate, a crusader in a peculiarly American tradition. It’s really very simple, or so it seems at first. Parker samples 10,000 wines a year. He sniffs and sips them, and scribbles little notes. Some of the wines are good, and some are not — according to Parker. If he is changing wine history, as people claim, it is purely through the expression of his taste.

His base is a cramped two-room office in his house in Monkton, where the family’s bulldog and basset hound like to lie on the tile floor and sleep and fart and snore. Parker has an acute sense of smell, but unless he is tasting wine, he enjoys their presence. The two secretaries who work in the outer office are less understanding. They told me that they, too, like the dogs but often usher them outside. The older of the secretaries has worked for Parker for years, but has never learned to enjoy wine. She is dedicated to Parker, as women close to him tend to be, in a protective and motherly way. Parker’s real mother, who handles the office mail, has a different approach. She is said to be tough and unimpressed. One afternoon Parker, in a self-pitying mood, mentioned to her that for years he had received only letters of complaint. She fixed him with a stare and said, “That’s because they’re the only ones I’ve let you see.”

Her instincts were probably good. Parker seems to have trouble distinguishing friends from sycophants, and he sets too much store by the compliments he receives. He does his best work not in public but in his private inner office, where he is left mostly alone. That office has a messy desk and a computer, a stereo stacked with CDs (Bob Dylan, Neil Young), a countertop crowded with bottles, a rack of clean wine glasses, and a sink that is deep enough to allow for spitting without splattering. There he writes and publishes an un-illustrated journal called subtitled “The Independent Consumer’s Bimonthly Guide to Fine Wine.”

accepts no advertising. A subscription costs $50 a year. Each issue consists of an editorial or two and about fifty-six pages of blunt commentaries on wines that Parker has recently tasted. The commentaries are short, usually two or three sentences, grouped by region and winery, and associated with “Parker Points,” which are scores on a scale of 50 to 100. One of the lowest scores Parker ever gave a new vintage was 56, for 1979 Lambert Bridge Cabernet Sauvignon, about which he wrote, “One has to wonder what this winery does to its cabernet to make it so undrinkable…. This wine has an intense vegetative, barnyard aroma and very unusual flavors.” But generally, poor wines score in the 70s, adequate ones in the 80s, and really good ones in the 90s. There are significant gradations within those ranges. Rarely, Parker has given a wine a perfect score of 100 — seventy-six times out of 220,000 wines tasted. He always lists an approximate retail price and provides an opinion about when the wine will be ready to drink. He works hard to avoid conflicts of interest: he pays his own way, accepts no gifts or payoffs, and does not speculate financially on wine. As a result he has an unimpeachable reputation for integrity in an industry that does not.
The effects are global. As wines rise and fall on the basis of Parker’s judgments, and as producers respond to his presence, the industry worldwide is moving in an unexpected direction, toward denser, darker, and more dramatic wines. It would be simplistic to believe that the movement is entirely due to Parker: he may just be its most effective agent. In any case, these denser, darker, wines are the wines that Parker and now much of the world prefer to drink. Because they require intensive thinning and pruning of the vines, hand harvesting, and at the winemaking stage the sort of attention to detail that can be achieved only one vat at a time, they lend themselves to production on a reduced scale. At the extreme they are known as “garage wines,” smaller-scale even than “micro-wines” — so small that some are produced in garage-size buildings. Such wines are often absurdly expensive, because they are rare and fashionable. That’s the bad side. But they allow producers without much money (or the ability to attract large investments) to make a living by making wine. That’s the surprise. With his single-minded concentration on taste and his unique ability to communicate his opinion, Parker may be pioneering a new kind of globalization — not the monolith that the world dreads but the monolith’s counterforce: a boutique economy that is American in inspiration, individualistic, and anti-industrial at the core.
UK Agora
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