'He's such an American story," says Elin McCoy, author of The Emperor of Wine: The Rise of Robert M. Parker, Jr. and the Reign of American Taste, about her subject. "The guy who comes out of nowhere and follows his passion, who takes on the establishment and succeeds beyond his wildest dreams. The whole concept of going out there and rating all these products, the 100-point system. It's the Horatio Alger story. You don't find it in France; you don't find it in England."
Horatio Alger? I might have gone with Charles Foster Kane. Remember that moment in Citizen Kane when Kane gets his old Statement of Principles in the mail from his best friend Jed, whom he's just fired for being honest? He shreds the paper, and when someone asks him what it was he just shredded, he snarls, "An antique." The circumstances were complicated, but one thing was clear: somewhere along the way from idealistic golden boy to Master of the Universe, something went awry. I thought I got a whiff of that change in McCoy's account of Parker's shift towards praising the very wines he might have called "overbearing" in his youth -- the "hedonistic" monsters loaded with gobs of jammy fruit.
And if that was a whiff, I got a regular snootful in this devastating paragraph from McCoy's closing. "So much of what Parker says he stands for caused the opposite to happen. He argued for the democratization of wine and yet became the very symbol of the elite expert pronouncing on unobtainable wines.... Though he insisted he valued individual taste, the would-be consumer advocate became the supreme judge." It goes on like that.
"When you see all of these goals and dreams that Parker had," says McCoy, "what he thought he was doing in the beginning -- there are some things about that that are very admirable in many ways." He strove for objectivity, for freedom from conflicts of interest -- he called wine like he saw it. The famous Hébrard story is a case in point. After slamming the '81 Cheval Blanc, Parker agreed to come and retaste the wine. Upon Parker's arrival at the chateau, however, he was bitten on the leg by a miniature schnauzer, who latched on and would not let go. Jacques Hébrard, Chateau Cheval Blanc's manager, stood by and watched "impassively." Then Hébrard said he wouldn't let Parker retaste. Then he changed his mind. Parker tasted, and subsequently changed his assessment, eventually rating the wine 90 points in his book, Bordeaux. It would have been much easier to simply stick to his original opinion.
(The story illustrates one of Parker's virtues, but McCoy notes that it also undermines his chief claim to fame: that of the infallible palate. "I have this great quote that I really love from Louis Martini: 'The wet laboratory of your mouth is not always the same.' Even Parker is not something that you pour wine into and a little digital readout comes out. He sometimes revises his scores. But from what I've discovered, that first score, for the most part, sticks with the wine like it was branded on the cork.")
Though his heart remained with France, he championed new regions (Australia, anyone?) and new merchants -- what a pleasant surprise to read that Parker aided the rise of importer Kermit Lynch and was his comrade in the crusade against filtration. Graciously, Lynch tells McCoy that Parker "legitimized me...He gave me a national presence."
These virtues, says McCoy, are why "how it all played out is sad. It's sad when you start out with these goals and ambitions to create what you think is a good thing, and it ends up having an effect that you probably don't even want to look at, because it's the opposite of what your intention was. The thing that was really sad to me, and really surprising, was how many people I met and talked to who were not willing to rely on their own taste. They became convinced that if they liked something and Parker didn't, then there was something wrong with their own palate." It's hard to imagine Parker longing for such a legacy.
And legacy is something Parker might well be looking toward. He is pushing 60 now, an elder statesman. "In the first phase of his career, he was a consumer advocate. In the second phase, he sort of consolidated his power and extended his reach. He's in the third phase now. He's a brand, a business. He's got a lot of power, but he has to keep defending it.
"Parker is on a plateau now," continues McCoy. "How long he can stay there is an interesting question. This book was about Parker and not After Parker, so I don't want to go into any predictions. But you look around and you see a new generation coming up. A new survey has shown that in the under-28 group in America, 39 percent of people are drinking wine, I think it's once a week. It's a different world now. Will Parker be able to hold on to his power in the face of a younger generation that's not too worried about whether what they drink is a status symbol?"
And status is one of the keys to his power. McCoy writes of dinners "for which the price of admission was bringing a 90-, a 98-, or sometimes even a 100-Parker-point wine." The boom of the late '90s was "the era of '1000-point dinners' -- meals featuring ten 100-point wines." She also says that "if you want to invest, you should be paying serious attention to what Parker says. That's the index. That's the basis for what it's going to be sold for at a later point in time." Serious money follows the Parker score, and serious power follows serious money. But if people stop treating wine like a commodity and a status symbol and start treating it more like something to drink with dinner, things could change. (Not that I'm holding my breath, but it's an interesting idea.)