A couple days ago it was announced that influential wine critic and noted hairstyle icon Robert M. Parker, Jr. was stepping down as the Editor-in-Chief of The Wine Advocate, though he will still continue as the CEO of the publication and will still contribute tasting notes on favorite regions, especially Rhone and Bordeaux.
Parker’s most enduring legacy will be, for better or worse, his role in popularizing the “100 Point Scale” for rating wine. Because of his system, he created a rubric by which he and his like-minded conspicuously-consuming wine enthusiasts could reassure themselves that what they were drinking was worth drinking. Because, after all, “I like it, this gives me pleasure,” is not, in and of itself, enough of a reason to drink a wine and share it with friends.
But that’s the wine world we’re living in right now and virtually every critical wine publication uses a system very similar to Parker’s, although the monolithic influence of wine scores on market trends is waning. Nevertheless, the importance of wine scores to the economics of the wine business, particularly with the affluent sector who trade in wines priced in the triple and quadruple digits routinely, cannot be ignored.
So what, beyond the score system itself, will Parker’s legacy be? Will it be as a champion for new, unheralded wine regions? Possibly, although the results of his advocacy for certain wine regions has been mixed. For every Cotes du Rhone, a French region that barely registered for the average Bordeaux drinker 20 years ago and that Parker turned into perhaps the third highest-valued Gallic AOC after Bordeaux and Burgundy, there’s an Australia, where Parker’s love for inky high-alcohol Shiraz turned Aussie wine into a gun-with-one-bullet wine bubble that burst a couple years back, damaging the credibility of Australian wines for a generation of younger wine drinkers. And the jury is still out on another Parker bubble, Paso Robles, where some of the high octane Parker darlings of the mid-2000s have fallen on hard times while others have reached unprecedented popularity. It should be noted, however, that alcohol levels are inching down on the Central Coast.
In the end, Parker will be most known, I think, as the man who made wine a highly contentious and highly divisive business. He played an integral role in turning what should be an industry built on the pleasures of farming and community into a high-stakes game of alcohol and extraction brinksmanship. His success at turning his own personal preferences into benchmarks for “good” and “bad” wine is remarkable and a little bit scary, indicative more of the herd-mentality of affluent wine collectors than any particular aspect of Parker’s character or ability. He was simply first on the scene at a time when the American wine market was beginning to mature and his writing was effective enough to draw in fellow attorneys and investment bankers.
Parker will be known to many in my generation, however, as the man who termed those of us with a preference for the milder, more nuanced wines as “the anti-flavor elite,” turning our own indifference toward Parker into open hostility.
So, here’s to Robert M. Parker, Jr., an undeniable titanic figure in the business of wine criticism. And here’s to his having enough sense to get out of the day-to-day before he has to go down with his ship.