Wine critic Parker is a vintage all his own

July 24, 2005|By Rob Kasper | Rob Kasper,Sun Staff



By Elin McCoy. Ecco. 304 pages.

Taste memory is a talent and wine critic Robert M. Parker Jr. has it in magnums. In a mere minute, he is able to judge a wine, swirling it, sniffing it and holding it in his mouth before unceremoniously spitting it out. Moreover, Parker can mentally compare the wine in front of him with all the other wines of the same type he has tasted over the years.

This ability to remember wines he has rated is, biographer Elin McCoy says, Parker's "secret weapon." It is also, she notes, a claim that other wine professionals find hard to believe.

Whether you believe it or not, there is little doubt that Parker, a Baltimore County lawyer turned wine critic, is, as the title of the biography states "The Emperor of Wine." French President Jacques Chirac gave Parker the Legion of Honor award in 1999, saying he was the most influential wine critic in the world. Parker's opinion of a vintage, especially one from Bordeaux, often sets the price on the world market. A saying embroidered on a pillow in Parker's home sums it up best: "When Parker spits, the world listens."

Yet in some vineyards, the critic is not welcome. Some Burgundians, including one winemaker who won an out-of-court settlement against Parker, refuse to let him, or his correspondent, taste their wines.

The tale of how Parker, a kid from the Hereford area, rose to the heights of the testy wine world is an appealing one, and McCoy, a wine and spirits columnist for Bloomberg News and a contributing editor at Food & Wine magazine, tells it well.

The only child of a one-time dairy farmer, Parker, 58, grew up in a wine-free household. He got his first taste of wine at 18, drank too much Andre Cold Duck and got sick. During his college years, Parker followed a girlfriend to France and ended up getting both the girl -- now his wife and editor Pat Etzel Parker -- and a passion for good wine.

He started a wine-appreciation club at the University of Maryland, landed a job as a lawyer at Farm Credit Banks and spent his weekends prowling for buys in the better wine shops of Washington and Baltimore. Sandwiching his interest in wine around his bank job, he began writing The Wine Advocate, a newsletter he envisioned as a Nader-style, consumer-advocate report of what was in the bottle rather than a winery's storied past.

He bought what he tasted and accepted no gifts, a practice that early in his career put a strain on the household budget. The newsletter gained a following among the wine-drinking cognoscenti, a group that was growing nationwide. He catapulted ahead of other wine writers by correctly predicting that the 1982 Bordeaux would be a blockbuster.

Far from a snob, Parker strikes many as a "regular guy," McCoy writes, a family man who roots for the Terps, rides his bike on the Northern Central Railroad Trail to control his weight, and has a loyal cadre of friends in the Baltimore area, known as "The Human Shield" for rallying to his views.

McCoy writes that Parker can be "imperious in his enthusiasm." In the throes of argument about the merits of a wine, she tells us, he dismisses those who disagree with him as being in the pocket of the wine industry.

His controversial scoring system of rating a wine on a 100-point scale gets thorough treatment. Parker says his ratings are an easy-to-understand way of describing a wine. Detractors say they are too simple, reflective more of his tastes, and make wine drinking more a contest than a pleasurable experience. No one says his points don't matter. Instant wine experts have been known to build their cellars based not on their own tastes but on Parker's scores. Some winemakers supposedly specialize in "Parkerizing" wines, making sure they have rich texture, plush fruit and, low acidity (for reds) -- characteristics that they hope will rack up Parker points.

At times the debate gets effete, but McCoy does a good job of negotiating the thicket of wine criticism. There are, she points out, many opinions about how wine opinions are formed. My favorite was put forth by British writer Steven Spurrier. He links wine preferences to body-types. Slim ectomorphs prefer delicate wines such as blanc de blanc Champagne, he said, while big burly mesomorphs like Parker gravitate to big, brawny varieties. An emperor, this theory holds, would naturally drink blockbusters: Anatomy is destiny.

Rob Kasper is a columnist at The Sun.

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