"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.
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.