Wine: Johnson versus Parker

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Indy Lifestyle Online

One's stock-in-trade is words, the other's numbers. Hugh Johnson and Robert Parker may be the twin colossi of wine writing, but as a weighty biography of one and the other's characteristically fine new book make clear, they're poles apart. "We have different tastes," says Johnson in Wine, A Life Uncorked (£20, Weidenfeld & Nicolson). "Parker emphasises concentration, strength, density and 'palate feel'. To him viscous, of a red Bordeaux, is a term of praise. It makes me shudder ... I love transparent wines, fresh in the mouth with the lowest alcohol content compatible with flavour and satisfaction."

With tattered Thesaurus as constant companion, Johnson articulates elusive smell and tastes. Chenin blanc is a "puzzle wrapped in an enigma". The perfume of a viognier was "like a garden of unknown flowers". Johnson's narrative is a window on mouthwatering feasts and intriguing personalities. He is at his best on the classics of bordeaux, burgundy and champagne. New-wave Bordeaux epitomises his distaste for "what America, led by Robert Parker, seems to look for: they justify extreme language, words such as rich, sweet, jammy, dense and thick, and of course blockbuster".

Elin McCoy's compelling The Emperor of Wine (from £12.95, Ecco,, is the meticulously researched story of how an average American Joe called Robert Parker became an extraordinary phenomenon. As a young lawyer, Parker's early motivation stemmed from a sense of injustice that he and other consumers were being hoodwinked by the French. Indeed, the self-styled crusader conceived The Wine Advocate as an American-style Which? guide for wine.

Challenging the outdated hierarchies of wine was in part achieved by giving a score out of 100 for what his powerful nose found in the glass. Could it be that the 100-point system for rating wines was in fact Parker's way of compensating for his own lack of vocabulary in the face of Johnsonian eloquence? Possibly. Like it or not though, the boldness and originality of the 100-point system defined Parker's success. "His genius," says McCoy, "was to marry Americans' love of numbers with their equal love of hedonism." Its success has made him the most powerful wine critic in the world.

The certainties of Parker's point system and America's "imperialistic swagger" get Johnson's goat, especially because Parker's "ring of authority" now influences the way wines are made to grab his attention. McCoy's account gathers pace and interest when she broadens the scope to a discussion of the influence of American consumers and critics on the Francocentric world of wine. Parker's visceral world of instant gratification, for now, has wine consumers and producers in thrall. Scrupulously fair, McCoy is ambivalent about Parker's influence. She finds it ironic that having started out as the consumer champion's lone ranger, Parker has become "the very symbol of the elite expert pronouncing on unobtainable wines".

Next to Parker's numbers-influenced writings, the urbane Johnson's wry, elegant prose speaks of a more gracious, timeless world in which discrimination and imagination are free to roam. I suspect that Johnson's informative tome will be required reading in 50 years time for a broad brush perspective on wine in the late 20th century. If not used as doorstops, Parker's biblical-sized tablets will be pored over by collectors anxious to know when to drink, or sell, their 2005 Château Lafite.