The snooty wine world pops its cork when critic Parker sips, then spits

HIS PALATE IS INSURED

March 28, 1993|By Mary Corey | Mary Corey,Staff Writer

Through blinding snow, they have come to sip and spit in front of Robert M. Parker Jr. They are titans of industry, grand dames of Detroit, wine wonks. Some bought tickets a decade ago; others paid $275 for this chance, all with the same goal: to be in the presence of the crown prince of wine.

"Noble," he says, standing before them at a Detroit restaurant, "is a word that doesn't give these wines enough justice."

Almost 10 years ago, when he first tasted the same '82 Bordeaux in Detroit, Mr. Parker was an interloper in the land of Cabernets and Burgundies, a middle-class guy from the Maryland countryside who praised wines the old guard dismissed.

This time around, Mr. Parker is the controversial prince. He's revolutionized wine writing with a 100-point rating system, set new ethical standards for the industry and become the wine consumer's closest friend.

The French noticed, recently acknowledging his contributions with not simply an award, but the country's second-highest honor.

His palate is insured (although Lloyd's of London refused to do it), and his taste buds are worth big money to the $8-billion-a-year wine business.

Dozens of winemakers won't let him on their premises. Merchants offer rewards to whoever first delivers the latest issue of his bimonthly newsletter, the Wine Advocate. And prices skyrocket whenever he gives a wine a perfect score.

Between his newsletter, his six books, speaking engagements and other writing, Mr. Parker, 45, is rumored to earn $1 million a year, a figure he calls "off-base."

"He says something, and it's like the shot heard round the wine world," says Robert Schindler, partner in Pinehurst Gourmet & Spirit Shoppe, one of the area's most respected wine stores.

If Mr. Parker ever needed proof that oenophiles take him seriously, he got it in 1990. Two weeks after his fifth book came out, he received death threats at his Parkton home -- 10 menacing phone calls. Police figured it was a disgruntled winemaker, but the caller was never caught.

"That kind of sick behavior was a revelation," he says, shaking his head. "I thought, 'Geez, all I'm writing about is a beverage of pleasure, a fun thing to drink.' "

But in his heart of hearts, Robert Parker knows that's not true.

When he sips, French aristocracy shudders.

*

He bounds into the Milton Inn in Sparks on a sunny afternoon looking more like the Hereford High School soccer player he was in the mid-'60s than the wine superstar he's become. He's a lot like his favorite wines: big, bold and rich. Since making wine his full-time pursuit in 1984, he's gained 70 pounds, a trend only recently reversed.

He comes bearing wine, but he doesn't act the part of authority. The man, after all, is wearing a Mickey Mouse tie. A souvenir from a family trip to Disney World, he explains.

From the way he describes it, he's living in Disney World. When he's not listening to Neil Young tapes or vacationing in Ocean City, his idea of a great time is taking his 5 1/2 -year-old daughter, Maia, (pronounced MY-ah) to see "Aladdin."

'Silly, elitist beverage'

"When I started writing in '78, wine was a silly, elitist beverage that only rich people bought. Now you find mailmen and truck drivers quoting Robert Parker. It's amazing," says Dan Berger, wine writer for the Los Angeles Times.

In many ways, it is an awesome feat. Mr. Parker spends as much as $60,000 a year tasting some 10,000 wines, most of which he dumps down the drain. He then isolates aromas and flavors: smelling a forest after a spring rain, fields of strawberries or even smoky bacon fat in a glass of wine.

He didn't get to the top of the wine heap by being everyone's drinking buddy. Instead, he became a rebel among gentlemen -- upsetting the establishment, changing the rules and promoting himself.

Critics charge that his 100-point rating system, which became the standard for wine writing after he introduced it in 1978, is unreliable. ("What's the difference between an 87 and an 88?" one asks.) They say that retailers and restaurateurs trust Mr. Parker over their own expertise. And they claim that some winemakers now produce vintages to suit his palate.

"There are entire wineries beginning to make wine to fit the Parker style: big, dark, rich and alcoholic," says a winemaker who asked not to be named for fear of offending Mr. Parker. "These people can't afford to get a bad rating from Parker. It's essentially homogenizing the world's wines."

Mr. Parker calls such statements absurd and defends his ratings.

"If you're in a position of influence and you're at the top of your game, you're going to draw fire. It comes with the territory," he says.

Partner in vineyard

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