Complex, robust, aging well

CATCHING UP WITH ... ROBERT M. PARKER JR.

After more than two decades of passing judgment on wine, Parkton's Robert M. Parker Jr. finds his taste for the critic's life remains undiminished.

July 25, 1999|By REED HELLMAN | REED HELLMAN,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

He is probably the world's best-known wine critic. Over the past 21 years, he has written 10 international best-sellers on wines, published more than 120 issues of his authoritative Wine Advocate newsletter and delivered his opinion on nearly a quarter of a million wines.

But Robert M. Parker Jr. is not even remotely ready to shelve his tasting glass anytime soon.

"If I continue to do my job well," he says, "people become more confident, they learn more about wine, they learn that there is an extraordinary diversity of wines out there."

That has been his credo since he left behind a legal career to begin his life as a critic, first part-time in 1978, then full-time six years later. His studious, principled approach to evaluating wine has brought him both renown -- last month he was awarded the Legion of Honor, France's highest civilian decoration, from French President Jacques Chirac -- and not a little resentment.

His impact can be seen in the wine section of any liquor store these days. Look at the advertising tags hanging from the shelves; more often than not, Parker's pronouncement on the wine's quality -- along with a number grade based on his own rating system -- appears on the better values. A 90 or better from Parker just about guarantees any vintage's commercial success.

That has made him much admired and much loathed by those in the wine world. Some question the validity of his point system. What's the difference between an 87 and an 88? they ask. And should one man's tastes be so influential that, as some have claimed, winemakers have geared their vintages to please Parker's palate?

Parker takes such sniping in stride. In the rarefied realm of fine wines, one noted for its snobbery, pretension and arcane language, Parker stands out, proudly.

"I redefined the role of what the wine critic was," he says matter-of-factly. "Until 1978, most wine critics were essentially on the take. Or they were at the mercy of the industry. They were sponsored on trips, their travel, their lodging, their free samples, etc., etc."

An independent operator

Parker calls himself "a product of the Watergate era" and says he was influenced a great deal by consumer advocate Ralph Nader. As such, he wanted to create a "very independent" publication that spoke for the wine consumer, not for the wine trade.

"I announced those principles in the very first issue [of the Wine Advocate], and I have stuck in a very passionate way to those principles: That I would pay my own way, buy the wines I taste, I would never take free lodging, I would never take gifts."

He has come under fire for another potential conflict of interest, though: For the past several years, he's produced some of his own wines from a vineyard in Oregon. While he's refrained from even mentioning his small Beaux Freres label in public, other wineries suggest the situation could color his reviews of potential competitors.

Parker suggests that it's had a different effect. "Owning a winery and actually doing the work, harvesting the grapes, has made me be a better critic," he says. "It's rounded me out."

A native of rural northern Baltimore County, Parker makes his home in Parkton a few miles from where he was born, though he spends a few months of the year in France. It was on a trip there in 1967 that he first developed his interest in wines.

"When I came back I actually went out and bought all of the leading books on wine and formed a wine-tasting group [at the Univer-sity of Maryland] down in College Park," he says. "We'd meet once each week, pool our resources, buy wines, and sit there and talk about them."

He admits that "a lot of it was just getting high because we were young college kids." But there was a more sober, academic side to it, too, he says. "That came after we really tasted the wines and discussed it and compared our thoughts to what was written in these historical books."

Parker went on to law school at Maryland, became an attorney in 1973, and later, an assistant general counsel for the Farm Credit Banks of Baltimore. But by 1975, he had begun to think seriously about writing about wines, primarily to counter the "paucity of reliable information on wine quality," he says. And in 1978, he mailed out the first issue of the Wine Advocate to 600 charter subscribers.

Gaining influence, and critics

Today, the Wine Advocate goes out to more than 40,000 wine aficionados in every state and in 37 foreign countries. Parker's opinions are quoted, debated, eagerly embraced and furiously denounced.

A 1987 Newsweek article characterized him as "The Merciless Man of Wine," while a recent story in the Los Angeles Times called him "the most powerful wine critic in the world -- the most powerful critic of any kind, anywhere, a man whose writings and ratings have enormous impact in virtually every country where wine is made, bought, or sold."

When asked about such enormous influence -- the power to make or break a wine or even a whole winery -- Parker says:

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