Parker's palate savvy, powerful

Wine: The lawyer from Monkton irks some vintners with his assessments, but his scoring system influences others.

April 24, 2001|By Robin Tunnicliff Reid | Robin Tunnicliff Reid,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

When Robert Parker spits, the world listens. Or so they say in the wine world.

That's because the affable 53-year-old lawyer from Monkton essentially determines whether a wine will fly off the shelves or sit there until it rots. And he can do that in about 20 seconds, with a swirling swish of his tongue.

Vintners fear Parker. Some dislike him, especially some in the Bordeaux region of France, where they have been making wine (and big profits) the same way forever; once, in a fit of Gallic pique, a Bordelaise winemaker unleashed a fierce schnauzer on him.

Right now, many are busy reacting to the new issue of his bimonthly mag, the Wine Advocate, which came out last week. It contains his judgment of the millennium vintage Bordeaux, and more than a few vineyards have waited to see how he rated their wines before they set their prices.

Parker's power irks many vintners, who feel threatened by his concise assessments of their wines. They resent this Yankee infidel whose scoring system treats a bottle of wine like a lowly term paper (a 90 in Parker points is the equivalent of scoring a 90 on a math test). They worry about how much sway he has over a multibillion-dollar industry.

How could a man who never even tasted wine until he was 18 (and that was cold duck) become so powerful?

"He's got talent, and that talent he has is an amazing palate," says one vintner, who begged not to be named for fear of losing his job. "He's got an amazing memory. I saw him taste 90 wines once, not take any notes at all, then review about 30." Every review, the vintner said with a sigh, was right on the money.

Whether they like him or not, folks in the industry cite Parker's integrity. Part of this is rooted in the fact that the Advocate has not taken advertising since it began in 1978. Nor does the critic accept gifts. An American vintner once shipped him a top-of-the-line microwave after he said the wine tasted best with microwaved food. Parker promptly packed it up and politely asked the vintner to retrieve it from a local liquor store within a reasonable time period or it would be donated to charity.

"I do have too much influence, but it's not something I sought out," the critic says. "I'm writing for the wine consumer, and I am a wine consumer. I've never forgotten that."

While he would prefer to be an anonymous consumer, working out of an outbuilding on his farm with his two dogs at his feet, he has been drawn into the spotlight more than ever lately. In December, the Atlantic Monthly profiled Parker in an engrossing cover story. Tonight, he'll be featured on television's "60 Minutes II" (9 p.m., Channels 9 and 11) and "The Charlie Rose Show" (11 p.m., Channel 26).

With the new issue of the Advocate on the Bordeaux out, the timing of the TV shows couldn't be better for Parker. Same for those nervous French vintners; Parker has hinted that the 2000 vintage included some of the more exciting wines he's seen.

But not all take Parker's pronouncements as gospel, says Clyde Beffa, owner of K&L Wine Merchants in San Francisco.

"It's easy to sell the points," says Beffa. "Everybody in the United States wants somebody to make the decision for them. But remember, Robert Parker is writing for his palate, and it's a good palate, but it's not everybody's."

It is a well-seasoned palate, however.

"I taste about 10,000 wines a year, and 99 percent of the wine I drink is red," Parker says. "Seventy-five percent is French, 15 percent Italian, and the rest is California or Spanish."

So, what else does the world-famous nose drink?

"I like beer, but I hate to admit it."

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