Robert Parker references in Beijing wine shop
The news that Robert Parker Jnr is a) to sell a “substantial” share of the Wine Advocate to a trio of young Singaporeans; b) hand over day-to-day management to Lisa Perrotti Brown; c) switch from print to online and d) allow the publication (of which he remains CEO) to accept advertising for luxury goods (but not wine), was greeted by a largely predictable response. At least from one section of the auditorium.
The people who despise, dismiss and/or are simply jealous of the former lawyer made sounds that were the wine equivalent of Libyan rebels rejoicing at the overthrow of Muammar al-Gaddafi. A typical would-be witty tweet offered the simple line; “WA RIP”. For them, a post-Parker world will be a better place; just as a certain kind of Republican willed the disappearance of Barack Obama, while their counterparts in the UK still relish the notion of the collapse of the Euro. None of them seems to have given much sensible thought to the consequences of being rid of the thing they so dislike. Following their logic, the replacement of a well-educated, eminently sensible if disappointing president by a Tea Party loony, or the casting into financial chaos of Britain’s biggest trading partners would simply be an entirely acceptable outcome.
I beg to differ. The people who are cracking open the 79-point Champagne today are missing several points. The most obvious of these concerns the constitution of the post-Parker world they – prematurely in my view – think is dawning. This happy realm is one in which wine drinkers will… will what precisely? March to the beat of a different and more congenial drum perhaps? A new emperor whose tastes favour Muscadet and 12.5% Loire reds? Hmmm… I might well find myself in greater agreement with the new Dear Leader than I have sometimes been with the old one, but he – or she – would still be an all-powerful weather-maker before whom the great and good of Bordeaux and elsewhere would bow and scrape.
Or maybe the influence would simply pass across to the obvious next place: the Wine Spectator, another American publication that – unlike the new Wine Advocate – does solicit advertising from the producers whose wines it judges. On second thoughts, the idealistic post-Parkerites will probably prefer not to include this in their scenario. For some of them – the mainland European faction in particular – a more ideal outcome might be a return to the well ordered days of yore when consumers treated wines as though they were serfs in the age of royalty, doffing their caps at aristocratic Rioja Gran Reservas, Bordeaux classed growths and Grand Cru Burgundies, however dismal their quality. And finally, of course, for many, there’s probably the desirable prospect of total anarchy, in which millions of consumers will decide for themselves, or follow the advice of any of a vast array of critics and wine shop managers and sommeliers.
At a time when we are witnessing the less than entirely edifying spectacle of the post-Arab-Spring and watching a – supposedly – democratically elected Russian government amass Soviet-style powers I’m far from sure that this last outcome is actually better than what we have “enjoyed” for the last three decades. The overblown “Panchogate” brouhaha last year surrounding Parker’s Spanish-specialist Jay Miller and the earlier scandalous behavior of his former assistant in Bordeaux helped to obscure the fact that, since he first came to the attention of the wine world in 1983, no-one has ever seriously accused Robert Parker of being anything other than entirely honest. In fact, whatever fingers were pointed at Jay Miller, I don’t recall any that suggested a direct connection between payment to him and the award of a high rating. (Unlike the comments that have been made about links between advertising and ratings in other publications).
Yes, Parker has made some calls on vintages and wines that turned out – even by his standards and tastes – to be wrong. But I’d have to say that his consistency over thirty years of criticism is pretty damn impressive. Stated simply, people who have only bought wines that have been highly rated by Parker and share his tastes have had every reason to be happy with what they have received. And that consistency has been maintained as the business of tasting and rating has been delegated to a set of “associates”. Today, wine insiders may be obsessed over whether wines with “Parker Points” were or were not tasted by the great man himself; others may be less tunnel-visioned. After all, the Panchogate saga illustrates all too vividly how seriously Spanish producers wanted to attract the attention of one of his sidekicks, and today it’s a rare winemaker who wouldn’t reschedule his diary to accommodate a visit by Neal Martin.
Of course, the anti-Parkers who happen to dislike wines he has blessed with high scores prefer to think that the critic somehow forced his fans to like them, just as the man himself somehow carried out some kind of bloodless coup to gain his extraordinary global power. “I personally hate those wines” they declare with glorious arrogance, “so it’s quite unthinkable that anyone else might actually enjoy them”.
It’s rather like saying that McDonalds brainwashes consumers into relishing its burgers and fries, or that Starbucks somehow bamboozles its customers into preferring its flavourless coffee to the “better” fare on offer on the same high streets. It’s just too hard to accept that Robert Parker got his emperor-status through a purely democratic process: people voted with their wallets. Consumers opted to trust his ratings and wine producers and distributors chose to bow down before him rather than any of the other contenders.
Or at least that’s what they did in some markets. They – or at least far, far fewer of them – didn’t in the world’s other two big import markets, Britain and Germany. (Apart from many of the more moneyed Bordeaux buyers). So how did these two largely-Parker-free zones fare over the last two or three decades? In Germany, distribution largely fell into the hands of discounters who sold generic own-label Bordeaux, Chianti and Rioja for laughably low prices. In Britain, we favoured brands – provided they were sold at knock-down prices. And when those discounts became unavailable, we happily switched allegiance to supermarket-own and private labels. According to the head of Winery Exchange, half of all the wine sold over a counter or through a checkout in the UK now bears some kind of own-label. In the US, the figure is 5%. Which of these is the healthier situation? I wonder. Anyone who really enjoys browsing in wine shops can have a far, far better time in almost any US city than London, whether they are looking for a choice of Burgundy domains or the chance to buy a bottle from the Jura.
I’m sure there are wine producers and regions who will thank critics like Michel Bettane, Jancis Robinson and Stephen Tanzer for helping to build their international reputations – but they would be a tiny group compared to the mass who have benefitted from Parker’s egalitarian crusade. Whenever I hear French voices denigrating him, I cast my mind back to tastings I attended in Paris in the 1980s when eminent Gallic critics – some of whom are still at work today – did not even deign to taste wines from regions such as Minervois and Corbières. And why should they when there were “important” wines from Margaux and Cornas that awaited their distinguished noses and lips? If a wine from Uruguay or Sicily can aspire to be taken seriously today, it owes the same kind of debt to Robert Parker that female voters owe to the early campaigners for women’s suffrage.
Of course parts of the US market are slaves to Parker points, but other parts happily promote all sorts of other scores or even the results of local wine competitions. And then of course there are the US retailers like Kermit Lynch in California and countless sommeliers for whom it is a matter of professional pride not to take any notice of anybody’s scores. What Robert Parker did was to make wine sexy, aspirational and worth spending money on for a couple of generations of Americans. And he did that, I would remind my French friends, at a time when millions of their compatriots have simply given up drinking the stuff.
Ask almost any wine producer in France or anywhere else in the world which of the three biggest wine import markets they can make money in and it will be a rarity who opts for either of the European options. And, for the moment at least, Parker and the Spectator are still helping to drive the import markets in Asia. (Just think of the effect Parker’s re-rating of the 2009 Bordeaux has earlier this year).
Robert Parker, like the three-tier-system that controls alcohol distribution in the US, is an American anachronism that Europeans in particular simply do not understand. The inconvenient truth is that Parker’s (and the Wine Spectator’s) success are an inevitable consequence of the inexorable shift in the balance of power from one side of the Atlantic to the other.
But now, of course, it’s shifting further round the globe. And, I’m afraid that the person who penned that RIP notice may have to wait a lot longer to bury the Wine Advocate. Asian ownership and the introduction of luxury lifestyle advertising may be just the boost the publication needs. Currently, it boasts a list of some 50,000 subscribers which, when you consider its influence and the number of professionals who read it, seems a surprisingly small number. An Asian-focused Wine Advocate with Lisa Perrotti Brown at the tiller, Robert Parker in the background and clear routes into the world’s most important and fastest-growing wine markets may be an even stronger force to be reckoned with than we’ve recently been used to. The people celebrating what they believe to be Parker’s disappearance today may soon get to learn the truth of the old saying that one should beware of getting what one wishes for…

  1. Parker helped Uruguay or Sicily to be taken seriously? I find it a little stretched to attribute those large-scale changes to Parker. Wine made itself sexy and aspirational through improvements in winemaking technique and a surge in quality driven by a collapse of the table wine market. Parker was surely there and listened carefully and was dextrous in channelling these phenomena to a ready group of consumers, but I don't think he can be credited with every change for the better in the industry since the 1980s.

  2. Now if only Jim Laube would retire from the Wine Spectator. He might quality as the worst open-minded / objective taster in the world and his taste preferences create a dichotomy of unpresedented proportions for consumers.

  3. I agree that Parker has, for many wine regions, been a powerful democratising force. I'm also hopeful that the ethos behind the Wine Advocate will more effectively translate onto the internet through these changes. It's a shame though that advertising will now come into play as, more than anything, I suspect that this alone will gradually alter the character and individuality of the publication. Advertisers demand audiences and content and presentation may change substantially in order to attract them.

  4. Steve, yes, advertising will bring changes, but not all negative – given that the ads will not be for wine. Vogue is a wonderful publication for the fashion industry; its publishers have learned to combine editorial and advertising in ways that suit advertisers and readers

  5. No, of course he can't, any more than Steve Jobs can be credited with everything that has happened to computers and phones. But it's important to remember that in the BP – Before Parker – days, it genuinely was hard for people in lesser-known regions to be taken seriously. I remember producers in Nelson in New Zealand making that complaint in the early 1990s. Parker helped to change the music, in much the way that Oprah has helped to change the status of black people in the US…

  6. Hi Robert,

    A welcome, insightful return after what always seems like a huge gap between posts (probably just a consequence of great writing). I do think more people have a balanced view of this than you've highlighted. Everything changes. This is an inevitable change in dynamic. Interesting, but to be neither feared or celebrated. It just is, and it's perhaps not quite as seismic as it seems (as a distant wine speck it won’t make much difference to my personal bottle choices). I thought Eric Asimov's piece on its place in a bigger picture of change in wine was also very good though.

    Tyrone: @winesonlyadrink

  7. Nicely done. “Of course parts of the US market are slaves to Parker points” – that's really the ONLY part of this that troubles me and the sooner we move on from that, the better. My concern is also really about RMP's legacy – which should be largely positive, but now he may be putting that into the hands of the investors, which might turn out not to be the smartest move. Time will tell…

  8. I think that it is in the nature of the US to over-embrace prominent critics (think of the “Butcher of Broadway”). As to what happens next, as you say, only time will tell.

  9. Caspar Bowes wrote I honestly hope that this heralds our exit from the Dark Ages of wine journalism with its rampant requirement for mis-guided, pseudo-scientific quality assessment (including scoring) and our entry into a golden, modern age in which wine is described without judgement and in which wine writers write beautifully and descriptively about this unknowable subject, thereby inspiring consumers to drink and collect more eclectically. It couldnt get any worse than it is at the moment, with no one reading wine journalism, column inches being cut, scores being the consumer's overriding yardstick and everyone sitting at home drinking the same kiwi SB every night of their lives. Roll on a bright future!

  10. David Tropp @datropp wrote print is a strategy from another era and scale / demographics of an online readership are v different from print + in this context transferring mgmt to a new generation for strategy and execution is eminently sensible

  11. You say that WA will not accept advertising from wine producers, which may well be technically correct. However, Lisa Perrotti-Brown has openly said that the new WA will arrange wine-tastings, which is just another form of advertising.

    More importantly, the `trio of young Singaporeans' includes as the main new shareholder Soo Hoo Khoon Peng, formerly majority shareholder in Singapore based Hermitage Wines.

    Although he has (very recently) sold his interest in the company the new owner is … surprise, surprise, his wife, Josephine Ng Choo Ping.

    So for all practical purposes WA is now owned by a wine merchant. Some more cynical than me might wonder if we are likely to see a connection between those wines that are surprisingly highly rated by WA Nouveau and those that Hermitage just happen to have stocked up on …

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