Where did you grow up?
I grew up in the sticks of Maine. There’s not much to say; it was the middle of nowhere. There’s no wine, the people drink beer or whiskey or apple wine!
What did your parents do?
My mother was a factory worker. She was a single mom.
What drew you to wine?
It wasn’t until I got to college and was studying English Lit at Colby in Maine, and I went on an exchange program to London. It was London that opened my eyes to wine because I hadn’t really paid it much attention before that. First of all, I fell in love with London and ended up living there for 13 years!
What would you have done if you hadn’t been in the wine industry?
I moved to London to write plays. I was a playwright.
Very dark comedies. I had written a few and produced a couple on the fringe in London and was having fun at that. I was well into living this bohemian lifestyle and being an impoverished playwright, but really I had to pay the rent so I had to get a job. A friend of mine was managing a wine bar in Pimlico and said, ‘Ah, come on over.’ After a few months, my friend was leaving to take another job and I was the only person who had a degree – any degree.
And that qualified you?
Yeah! It was owned by a big pub chain and they came up from Dorset and asked if I wanted the job. The job actually came with this incredible three-bedroom, roof-terrace flat in the middle of Pimlico – one of those posh, expensive parts of London – and I was like, ‘Er, yes.’ Then they asked: ‘You do know about wine, don’t you?’ And I told them of course I did! Next thing I do is sign up for a WSET course! I think that was the late 1980’s.
Twenty years later, in 2008, you became a Master of Wine and now you’re editor in chief of The Wine Advocate.
Freaky, isn’t it?!
How did you end up working with Parker?
I was helping him out with some tastings he was doing in Japan, but as soon as I met him I thought, ‘I would love to work for that guy.'
And you did. But it sounds as though you have had a stressful few months, with Bob selling to investors and Antonio Galloni leaving?
Mmm... in a word, yes [awkward silence].
So what’s Robert Parker like as a boss?
If I had to sum it up, it would be truly inspirational. When I first met him, I was dreading meeting him. It’s probably going to sound awful, but I’d just come out of the U.K. wine trade and worked with a lot of superstar U.K. wine writers, and I just imagined he was going to have a lot of ego, pomp and circumstance – like some of the British writers with the volume turned up. From the moment I met him, he was such a breath of fresh air – so relaxed, easy-going. Always an enthusiasm for tasting wine and excited from the moment he sat down at a tasting table. There was never any snobbery and he remains that way to this day.
He is also an incredible source of wine knowledge, and you look up and wonder: ‘How can anyone live up to the legend that Robert Parker is?’ The memory and experience he has with wine, it’s just a library and the recall ability is staggering. He is in love with wine and it drives him to be something very extraordinary.
Now that you're editor-in-chief, are you carrying on with your Australia and New Zealand wine reviewing as well as your other responsibilities at the Wine Advocate?
At the moment, yes. It’s a huge challenge, 'cos the responsibilities for the editorial role have snowballed into this huge thing that I wasn’t really expecting [laughs]. But it’s fun and at the moment I’m happy to keep doing it, mainly 'cos I’m in a groove with it. The hardest thing – and I’ve been saying this to the new writers over and over – is about getting your systems in place. You get into a routine and it’s really easy: you know what’s coming up. Getting all of your wineries to come on board and follow that plan is a challenge.
You taste a lot of wines from Australia and New Zealand. Is there anything that’s particularly exciting you?
Chardonnay in Australia continues to excite, and New Zealand’s getting a little bit better but it’s only a handful of producers. There are some producers – not just in New Zealand – where you swear they taste nothing but their own wine and they are working in a vacuum!
And Australian chardonnay?
What I am excited about is that Australians have bounced back from that really lean style, and they’ve reached a middle ground that’s actually very exciting and really interesting. I’m glad that some people have held their ground – like Leeuwin Estate that still makes big, full-bodied, chunky chardonnay. There is such a market for that style. I’d still call it old school, but it’s good school.
What now for The Wine Advocate?
We are working very hard on developing a new website, lots of new functionality, and new resources. This is why I wanted to do this: we have so much great talent, and we can taste more wines than ever before and offer information on regions, producers and vintages. By redeveloping the website, I hope we can make it a lot easier to search and find information –so that it’s not just about the wine reviews, but also a source of information that’s not written by wine-marketing people but experts.
There has been lots of speculation that you will move the Advocate online only. What’s really happening?
The Wine Advocate is staying – [for] as long as we can justify a print edition in terms of having enough subscribers that are interested in it and it is profitable. But we constantly have to have one eye on it, because it’s an issue for every print media outlet at the moment. Fewer people are interested in reading things in print. The alternative is offering a PDF version, and I’m all for that if we can offer the same look and feel but you can read it on iPad. We don’t want to get rid of The Wine Advocate, but how it’s going to be presented is the question.
It’s almost crazy that print has lasted as long as it has. You imagine, you look at 'The Flintstones,' and they had these tablets and we’re still doing that, more or less. But it is changing – like communicating in 140 characters or less!
What do you see when you look in the mirror?
I was going to say, I really need a haircut. I haven’t had time! I think the last time I got it cut was in February. This is a glamorous job! I probably need a manicure as well.
If you described yourself as a wine, what would you be?
I’d probably be something that takes some time to open up; when you first pour it, it’s a little bit muted and closed, and then, after a few minutes, it opens up and starts talking to you. It might not be a wine for everyone – maybe a little bit quirky, edgy – probably a pinot noir, I’m thinking. Unfined and unfiltered from some little scrappy piece of terroir!