America's foremost wine critic gets sparkling results with his updated book

December 15, 1991|By Frank J. Prial | Frank J. Prial,New York Times News Service

With the publication of the second edition of his "Bordeaux" (Simon & Schuster, $35), Maryland-based Robert M. Parker Jr. has further solidified his position as America's pre-eminent wine critic.

Much of the book is updated material that appeared in the first edition, published in 1985, and in Mr. Parker's newsletter, the Wine Advocate. Even so, the result is a big achievement.

As the sports writers would say, the stats are impressive. There are some 2,700 tastings notes on the wines of 677 Bordeaux chateaux. For each chateau, every good year from 1961 to 1989 and usually 22 to 24 vintages are covered in detail.

The question of Mr. Parker's immense influence on the wine market has been asked often and the answer is always the same. He came by that influence through hard work and total honesty and he will maintain that reputation until someone with similar qualities comes along.

A book of such dimensions as this one prompts another question: Can one man taste so many wines and still make reliable judgments? Some of the responses are predictable; others are uninformed.

A Bordeaux chateau owner or a California vintner whose wine got a 55 on Mr. Parker's scale of 50 to 100 might question the call and say unkind things about the caller. Someone whose wine earned a 96 will almost certainly insist that Mr. Parker's judgments are impeccable.

Evaluating each wine, as Mr. Parker does, is tougher than simply eliminating it. But there is no mystery to it, as he explains in his book.

He visits the chateaux twice a year and does comparative tastings of recent vintages that are still aging in barrels. Then he asks the Bordeaux wine shippers to set up tastings of 60 to 100 wines, which he goes through in groups of 10 to 15, over the course of a day.

He arranges to taste each wine that interests him at least three times before it is bottled.

His first tasting is in early spring after the harvest, just after each chateau assembles its wine from the batches made from different grapes and from different locations in the vineyards.

Once the wines are bottled, Mr. Parker tastes them "single blind," with the label and vintages hidden but with the knowledge that they are all from Bordeaux.

He spends three months a year tasting in vineyards. "During the other nine months," he writes, "six- and sometimes seven-day work weeks are devoted solely to tasting and writing."

Mr. Parker defended his use of the 100-point scale for rating wines.

"Readers will often wonder what the difference is between an 86 and an 87, both very good wines," he says. "The only answer I can give is a simple one: When tasted side by side, I thought the 87-point wine slightly better than the 86-point wine."

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