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Should Robert Parker Have Listened to Disraeli?

Benjamin Disraeli served as British prime minister twice: in 1868 and from 1874 to 1880
© Cornelius Jabez Hughes | Benjamin Disraeli served as British prime minister twice: in 1868 and from 1874 to 1880
Is the leading wine critic's latest fusillade a storm in a wine glass or a taste of things to come?

"Never explain, never complain," said the 19th-century British prime minister Benjamin Disraeli. His words hold true today. Publish an article or wine review and there are readers who won't necessarily like what you write. The solution is to develop a thick skin, believe in what you write, and know that if everyone had the same opinion the world would be a boring place.

Over the past 30 years, the world's most famous wine critic, Robert Parker, has largely adhered to Disraeli's advice: publishing articles and reviews, writing books, and letting his work do the talking.

Inevitably, such success means Parker is an easy target for many to attack. There are certainly many Parker haters out there who like to Bob bash. To them, I would say, get out more. While you may not admire his success and you may not enjoy the wine style he is famous for liking, bear in mind that any decent wine critic reviews a wine based on quality parameters such as balance, length, intensity, complexity and ageability. If Parker had been marking wines based on the sweetness of fruit, level of alcohol and proportion of new oak, as some suggest, he would have faded into obscurity long ago.

Whatever your thoughts on Parker, he ignored Disraeli on January 18, publishing a diatribe that he predicted would be the source of "firestorms." Clearly, he was sick of his critics, and instead of taking the "high road" – which he says is his usual inclination – seemed to be in the mood for a fight. I sincerely hope he's ready for an outpouring of vitriole, as such columns are fuel to a wine forum's fire. And from personal experience, those forum comments can be pretty blistering. 

In his article, published on eRobertParker.com, he takes on what he calls "a vociferous minority," who are "perpetrating nothing short of absolute sham on wine consumers." He mentions no names but points to "wannabes" trying to make a name for themselves by being left field.

So, who gets it in the neck?

First of all, there are the "crusaders" pushing "authentic" and "natural" wines. There's been growing discussion of these wine categories in recent years, but there's no accepted definition and the terms seem to suggest that wines not classified as "natural" are somehow unnatural. In part, I agree with Parker that those who believe only so-called "natural" wines are worthy of attention do a disservice to the rest of the industry. Winemakers who like to use a bit of sulfur dioxide and filter their wines do it so that their wines can be enjoyed fault-free.

But the move towards less-interventionist grape growing and winemaking certainly has merit and can't simply be dismissed by commentators such as Parker. Clearly, there are some dodgy "natural" wines where dogma has triumphed over quality, but declaring that all such wines are "oxidized, stale, stink of fecal matter as well as look like orange juice or rusty ice tea" doesn't do Parker any favors. Yes, there are a few of those stink bombs that should be poured down the drainpipe, but Parker's comment suggests limited tasting experience of such wines. In many cases, you wouldn't know that a wine was made with minimal intervention unless you read it on the back label.

Parker dismisses a host of lesser-known grape varieties as "godforsaken"
© AFP/Wine-Searcher | Parker dismisses a host of lesser-known grape varieties as "godforsaken"

Also in his sights is "Parkerization," a term he's not fond of. It's understandable that he's peeved over his name becoming synonymous with high alcohol, over-oaked and over-extracted wines. But while he may have more diverse tastes than his detractors would have you believe, he can't deny that he has a penchant for big Napa cabs. On the flip side, I'd be pleased if I'd inspired a noun. Let's face it, Oscar Wilde had a point when he said, "There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about."

Next up for the guillotine in Parker's article is the low alcohol "movement," which he slams as being "phony anti-California, anti-New World." There is a trend towards lighter-style wines that are generally lower in alcohol, particularly among the industry's gatekeepers. It is not simply driven by a group of misguided Europhile growers whose "preferred method of wine production is the crazy notion that fruit should be picked long before it's ripe," as Parker suggests. Wine research institutes worldwide are spending their hard-fought-for funds on investigating ways to reduce potential alcohol levels in wines in response to rising consumer interest. Governments and scientists aren't spending their time on these projects for the good of their health – although lower alcohols may be good for our health in the long run.

But it's early picking by these crazy Eurocentrics that really gets Parker's goat. "Anyone can pick grapes a month before they're ripe," he declares. But who does that (base sparkling winemakers excepted)? I can't think of any winemaker I have encountered who would deliberately pick a grape unripe. Picking grapes earlier is one way to achieve lower potential alcohol levels, but there are other methods to achieve this end. A recent study discovered that a combination of yeasts can reduce alcohol levels by as much as 1.4 percent, for example. And let's not forget that ripeness isn't cut and dry. A grape that's considered ready to pick by one grower might be viewed as under-ripe or over-ripe by his neighbor.

Parker also lays into a "group of absolutists": those rejecting international varieties in favor of championing alternative varieties. In his view, varieties like trousseau, savagnin and blaufränkisch remain alternative because they are "rarely palatable unless lost in a larger blend." I have tasted some deliciously spicy blaufränkisch, as has Wine Advocate critic David Schildknecht. He has awarded many 90-plus scores for this Austrian varietal, with the 2006 Moric Blaufrankisch receiving an impressive 95. Parker himself gave the $30 2008 Jean Rijckaert Les Sarres Savagnin a very respectable 94 in late 2012. Can these really be "godforsaken grapes" as he claims?

With such sweeping generalizations, Parker is in danger of the very "deceptions and distortions" that he criticizes. It is disappointing to read such broad brushstrokes from a man I respect. The one key piece of useful advice I can take from this is: don't invite him on a holiday to the Jura, the home of trousseau and savignon.

Parker has reached the heights of his profession – or the top of the greasy pole, as Disraeli called it – but such elevation requires grace and dignity rather than an indignant rant. Parker remains the world's leading wine critic, though his stronghold is slowly being eroded by a proliferation of information on the internet. In his view, the internet, while addictive and efficient, is also "a breeding ground for the perpetration of myths, half-truths, innuendos and at times outright falsehoods."

Many wine websites, he claims, "offer little in the way of content and substance." Once again, he may have a point, but does it need to be delivered with such virulence? Switching off his Twitter feed, ignoring his critics and taking his dog for a walk would have served him better than explaining and complaining. History has a lesson for us all.

Related stories:

Parker's Perfect Napa Dozen

Parker Steps Down at Wine Advocate

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  • Comments

    Christian Wyser-Pratte wrote:
    27-Feb-2014 at 22:23:04 (GMT)

    I read Parker's rant, as most of us did, and thought, "boy, he's gonna catch some flack over this." And so he has. So let's leave poor old Robert Parker in peace and give him his due, which is considerable. His lone trumpeting of the 1982 Bordeaux vintage as "vintage of the century" after the staggering volatility of the vintages of the 60's and 70's through 1980) brought cash into the dirty cellars and laid the foundation for consistently better wines thereafter. Thus, with the turn of the millennium, we had "vintages of the century" in 2000, 2003, 2005, 2009, and 2010, and we should all be pleased about that. The fact that Premier Grand Cru wines of the Medoc that used to sell for $3.50/bottle en primeur in 1961 now go for $1,500 isn't Parker's fault. It's our fault. Go to the best sushi restaurant in Los Angeles and the only wine in the display case by the M'aitre d's podium is Chateau Petrus. How does that work? Or, you dip the fish into soy sauce, then into the glass of red wine that's been mixed with Coke...what a concept! My tastes do not mirror those of Parker, they're more of the Clive Coates variety, and I think it's a good idea to read various opinions including those in IWC and Burghound. But Parker is really pretty good, and while I think he went overboard on such things as MollyDooker's Carnival of Love, he and his colleagues on the erobertparker.com website have been spot on with Comte Abbatucci in Corsica, La Peira in Languedoc and many of the fine French blends in California, like Peter Michael's stable of wines. I say let's hear it for Robert Parker. but always remember that the only palate that counts is our own.

  • WineDawg47 wrote:
    25-Feb-2014 at 23:04:02 (GMT)

    Let me get this straight. It's perfectly legitimate to "bash Bob" but not OK if he returns the favor. I've read and listened to these bashers and wannabes since the mid-1980's and can honestly say I have never found one of them to be in his league as a critic or authority. Oh, the little people! Thank God for RMP!!!!

  • Patrick, Wine Pine wrote:
    25-Feb-2014 at 22:17:53 (GMT)

    I think everyone is entitled to blow off some steam every once in a while. This wasn't an outrageous rant from RP so let's cut him a little slack. I'm sure he has some pent up frustrations from years of service in the media. Who wouldn't? Disraeli looks miserable in that photo! Sometimes ancient quotes and mottos aren't necessarily words to live by.

  • Winepine wrote:
    25-Feb-2014 at 15:41:06 (GMT)

    I think everyone is entitled to blow off some steam every once in a while. This wasn't an outrageous rant from RP so let's cut him a little slack. I'm sure he has some pent up frustrations from years of service in the media. Who wouldn't? Disraeli looks miserable in that photo! Sometimes ancient quotes and mottos aren't necessarily words to live by. Patrick www.winepine.com

  • Sigmamupi wrote:
    20-Feb-2014 at 04:02:42 (GMT)

    I am no fan of Parker whose ridiculous views on Australian wine in the 1990s and 2000s created a genre of high alcohol, warm climate monsters that are largely undrinkable (I am Australian). In this case, he seems to be confusing the subset of "orange" wines made in the oxidative style of years ago when wine was first made in Eurasian countries, with the broader group of natural wines, which are impossible to define exactly but appear to be low intervention and often biodynamic or organic. While I don't agree with most of his views, I do think he is on the money about orange wines, a fraud on consumers.

  • Ed Masciana wrote:
    13-Feb-2014 at 21:32:33 (GMT)

    Isn't this the same Parker decrying the "natural wine" critics as the Parker who would take 10 points of the score of a wine he hadn't tasted yet if he knew they had sterile filtered it? I can't fault a guy who has made a fortune doing something all of us would love to be successful at. I can fault those who follow him religiously as if he is the begin all and end all of wine criticism. I tell people to find a good merchant who listens and will help you find something that will please YOU, not a wine critic.

  • wellwisher wrote:
    06-Feb-2014 at 19:17:38 (GMT)

    Blaufränkisch is as godforsaken as Zinfandel. He said similar things about German Spätburgunder. Bob is a great man who knows a lot about wine, but does not know the most important thing - don't express a dogmatic opinion on something you hardly know! Clearly Bob, you need to get out more!

  • Wine49 wrote:
    05-Feb-2014 at 18:02:01 (GMT)

    When I joined eRobettParker and started participating in the chat forums, I assumed Parker would be too busy enjoying his success to get down in the mud with his detractors. This article makes it seem like this kind of rant is unusual for Parker. I assure you, it is not. I have seen this immature behavior from him many times over the years. He resorts to name-calling, smearing his enemies with sweeping, offensive generalizations, often jingoistic and borderline racist in nature. He always wraps these thin-skinned explosions of insecurity in his claim that he's just acting as a consumer advocate trying to protect the public. Once upon a time, anyone could participate on the chat board at eRobertParker and it was a well-trafficked site. But, Parker wanted to silence his critics so he changed it so only those who pay to subscribe to his review service can participate in discussions there. Whether one agrees or disagrees with this tactic, it must be observed that the result of this move is that traffic on the chat board at eRobertParker has slowed to a snail's pace and discussion is dominated by those who pay for his reviews and agree with Parker. Those who were purged from the chat board went off to create another called WineBerserkers, which is open to all free of charge. Traffic on this site easily dwarfs by many orders of magnitude that on eRobertParker. So, these counter-productive acts by Parker are not an aberration, they are part of a disturbing pattern. This is not the behavior of a consumer advocate. Parker has obviously lost touch with whatever once motivated him. Now, with his power dwindling due to the democratization of wine reviewing and opinion brought by the internet which he excoriates, this is a man who is simply lashing out and exposing his personal demons.

  • DREC wrote:
    03-Feb-2014 at 19:16:53 (GMT)

    I'd perhaps take a look at history before suggesting Parker should have heeded Disraeli; in fact RP's "fusillade" is remarkably like that politician's foreign policy!

  • cm in NY wrote:
    30-Jan-2014 at 20:31:39 (GMT)

    All I can think of here is Fox News' "Fair & Balanced". Balance is what I look for in wine. I am not sure that Parker cares for that concept either in commentary or in wine.

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