The most famous name in wine has never squeezed a grape. Robert M. Parker Jr. made that name sipping the stuff and getting other people


Parker vs. Parker

The most famous name in wine has never squeezed a grape. Robert M. Parker Jr. made that name sipping the stuff and getting other people to pay him $100 a year to tell them what he thought about it in his no-advertising-accepted newsletter, The Wine Advocate. Only 40,000 people get their Parker by subscription, but the rest of us benefit from his relentless traveling and tasting anyway, because any winemaker whose product rates a 90-plus in the Advocate lets the world know about it. I guess that's one reason I never bothered to pick up one of Parker's dozen books of wine ratings. But last week the new (sixth) edition of Parker's Wine Buyer's Guide (Simon & Schuster, paperback, $30) arrived on my desk, and I discovered I'd been missing something. Along with the well-known Parker of the purple prose ("a wine of tenderness, voluptuous, silky fruit . . . with toasty, smokey notes in the subtle finish"), there is another Parker: an austere, straight-talking debunker of wine-world myths and a crusader against wine-world corner-cutting and deceit. The 40-page introduction to the Wine Buyer's Guide begins, predictably, with notes on how the book is organized and how the author's much-imitated 100-point rating system works. But less than five pages in, Parker widens his field of view. There's a mini-essay on "the role of a wine critic" (essential virtues: Independence; Courage; Experience; Accountability, but also Emphasis on Pleasure and Value). There are notes on storage, glassware, matching wines to food. But by far the longest section is devoted to what the author at one point calls "the dark side of wine": dirty secrets of the trade, including unscrupulous overproduction of grapes, unlabeled additives and mechanochemical manipulation in the winery, heat damage during shipping and warehousing, even faking bottle contents and counterfeiting labels. By the time Parker gets around to "Wine Writers' Ethics and Competence" (he doesn't think much of either), you may be afraid to buy anything from anybody. Maybe that's the idea: Readers, shaken to the roots by 40 pages of grim revelations, will be all the more eager to submit themselves to Parker's guidance in the 1,595 pages that follow. Lucky is the individual who can afford to follow that guidance. If you comb the listings, you will find a few wines in the A, B, and C price grades (under $10, $10-$15, and $15-$25, respectively). But for every C, there are a hundred D's (rated "very expensive," $25-$50) and a dozen E's ($50-$75), and EEs (to $125) and EEEs (the sky's the limit) are by no means rare. Parker is eloquent on the virtues of modest, honestly made wines that reflect the taste and lifestyle of the region where they're grown. But the folks who pay him $100 a year (or $35 for this book) aren't in the market for modesty. With an almost Gallic shrug, he gives them what they want.

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