If every bottle were tipped together they would form a small river that must flow through a gap less than three inches wide – the mouth of Robert Parker, the world’s most powerful wine critic.
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A former lawyer from Baltimore, Parker launched his Wine Advocate newsletter in 1978 and now has more than 40,000 subscribers. He was recently back in Bordeaux to size up the latest vintage. The chateau owners held their collective breath, as a top score from the so-called emperor of wine can apparently be worth up to £5m.
The moment of truth is brutally curt. Each wine is swirled, sniffed, chewed and spat out. Simultaneously it is measured against a vast memory bank that includes previous vintages and the wine’s entire peer group. Then, almost before it hits the spittoon, a score of between 50-100 is calibrated somewhere deep in Parker’s brain.
Of course the idea of marking something as subjective as wine as though it were a spelling test is absurd. It is not as if ordinary people rate films, plays or books out of 100. UK critics were once sniffy at this brash American approach, but such is the influence of Parker, they now use scores themselves.
When he started out, US wine drinkers were routinely taken for a ride by Bordeaux’s grands crus. To occasionally pump up demand, the trade would declare another vintage of the century and the pundits would dutifully concur. Consumers who found the wines austere were simply told to wait.
Parker set himself up as a consumer champion against the old guard with its class system and deference to pedigree. “What I’ve brought is a democratic view,” he once explained. “I don’t give a shit that your family goes back to pre-Revolution and you’ve got more wealth than I could imagine. If this wine’s no good, I’m gonna say so.”
Opinions about him are starkly divided. His fans seek to form a human shield around their guru and his divine tasting ability. Others attack him for promoting only big, pumped-up wines that betray their roots. English wine expert Hugh Johnson called him “the dictator of taste”.
Yet if many of the great chateaux actively chase Parker points and their wines have become more homogenised as a result, you can hardly blame the man himself. Top producers will nod in agreement if you question the idea of rating wines by numbers, yet their marketing people hang on his every word. Fine wine press releases invariably trumpet their Parker score in bold print, assuming it is favourable.
“The greatest irony is that the consumer champion has ended up being used by the wine trade to charge higher prices,” says writer Tim Atkin. And, having given a resounding thumbs-up to the 2009 vintage, and awarded a fistful of scores of 100 points, prices have already started to soar by up to 50% on 2008. Then again, there are still people willing to buy. One day the bubble will burst, and I just hope I’m there to see it.