Wine: The power of Robert Parker

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Indy Lifestyle Online

As the Zarathustra of wine is about to pronounce on the new Bordeaux vintage, journalist Elin McCoy hands out her own verdict on the world's most influential wine authority in her well-researched book. Just published in this country, the Emperor of Wine (£20, Grub Street), follows the "remarkable story of the rise and reign of Robert Parker". Parker is the Special One of wine, an all-American ex-lawyer from Maryland, whose unique system of rating wines out of 100 has made him the most powerful voice in the world of wine today. His power is such that producers are known to fashion their wines to garner Parker points, while Bordeaux normally awaits his verdict before finalising its opening prices.

This year however, evidence is emerging to show that the influence of the self-styled consumer's champion may be on the wane. According to Bill Blatch, a Bordeaux négociant, "Parker will have an effect on the exceptional 2005 Bordeaux vintage, but many people have come to taste and have made up their own minds, and most of the châteaux have made up their minds about price already." A backlash also emerged from a recent survey on "the Parker effect" by the website Wine Opinions. Of the 403 high-end wine drinkers who were questioned, the study found that a significant group of consumers didn't consult Parker at all and another went out of their way to avoid wines he had recommended.

Is it because his power is being questioned that a thin-skinned Parker went on the offensive against British wine writers in a recent interview in The New York Times? This follows his spat with author Jancis Robinson when she called the 2003 Château Pavie "a ridiculous wine". He loved the wine, questioning her integrity when she said she'd tasted it blind. "If people don't agree with him, it's perceived as an attack on him," says McCoy. "The only thing that makes sense to me is that it's about protecting his brand." What other reason can there be for Parker's repeated calumny against the British press? "He talks about all British writers as if they're all involved in the wine trade," McCoy adds. "He doesn't recognise that there are new people in wine. It's like he's stuck in the past."

The wheels started to come loose a few years back when the litigious Parker received a bloody nose after being sued for libel for suggesting that François Faiveley, a Burgundy producer, had doctored samples to please him. He retired hurt from Burgundy, bringing his second-in-command Pierre-Antoine Rovani in to cover, among other regions, Burgundy and Alsace. His publication, The Wine Advocate, was further watered down when he relinquished Italy to Daniel Thomases and more recently Austria, Germany and Spain to David Schildknecht and Kevin Zraly, leaving him to concentrate on Bordeaux, the Rhône, California and Australia.

Bill Blatch feels that, because of the investment element involved, he will continue to mobilise the Bordeaux market at the top end. Yet, according to Elin McCoy, there's a growing trend for retailers no longer to put Parker points on their shelves, and that's significant because "his power has been with the choosers rather than the consumers". She goes on: "There's a huge growth in the number of wine buyers, managers and sommeliers ... they don't like being asked, 'What did Parker give this wine?' Wine drinkers are turning to the internet too for more information, and the younger generation have never been enthused about ageing gurus." Unflattering as that may sound, the 58-year-old critic might take comfort from his contribution towards helping wine drinkers make up their own minds.

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