The Emperor Mellows

Reigning wine authority Robert Parker turns his attention from the barbs of critics to enjoying the taste of success

June 21, 2006|By ROB KASPER | ROB KASPER,SUN REPORTER

It is a little after 10 on a Monday morning, and the waiters are arriving at the Oregon Grille for a day of work. Inside, Robert M. Parker Jr. is already at work, tasting wine.

Ensconced in a small, well-appointed room in the Hunt Valley restaurant, Parker sniffs, sips, then spits samples of some two dozen wines from David Powell's Torbreck, a South Australian winery. He records his impressions in a small notebook, soon to be translated into "Parker points."

Those points have earned Parker, a reigning wine expert whose opinions can make chateaux quake, plenty of criticism from those who say he likes only big, concentrated wines, or that winemakers engineer their products to please his tastes.

A recent barb comes in A Life Uncorked, the new memoir from British wine writer Hugh Johnson, who calls Parker a "dictator of taste" and links his ratings system to the tone of "imperial hegemony" coming out of the Bush administration in Washington.

In the past, Parker has bristled at such talk, defending his rating system as an honest way for consumers to navigate the seas of wine. But in recent interviews, this alumnus of Hereford High School and the University of Maryland - whom a biographer dubbed "The Emperor of Wine" - seemed less interested in fighting about wine than enjoying it.

As he tasted wine at the Oregon Grille and rode his bicycle on the Northern Central Railroad Trail near his north Baltimore County home, Parker talked about what makes him a good wine taster, what makes a good wine and what he wants to do next. He came across as a man brimming with passion - he has taken three serious falls while cycling - yet satisfied with life.

He has added the less-intimitating voices of wine educator Kevin Zraly and food writer Alan Richman to his Web site (erobertparker.com). He wants to write a book about low-cost wines. He built his reputation navigating the top-dollar red wines of Bordeaux, but as Parker approaches his 59th birthday in July, he seems quite comfortable with the notion of stopping and smelling the rose.

That was precisely what he did at the Oregon Grille. He sniffed the carefully poured glasses of Torbreck Mataro 2005 Saignee Rose and was ecstatic.

He had an ice pack on his knee, chilling the throb from yet another bike injury. Fixing this one, his doctor tells him, will require surgery. Yet this rose, with its "fresh fruit, terrific nose and terrific length," had the emperor of wine temporarily forgetting his cares.

"Maybe," he mused, "I could drink a bottle of this before the knee operation."

The author of 11 best-selling wine books, Parker presides over The Wine Advocate, an influential wine newsletter with more than 40,000 subscribers worldwide that Parker started writing in 1978, when he was working as a lawyer in Baltimore.

Timing was right

While his points have huge market clout, he has not been happy with the "emperor" label from Elin McCoy's book, published last year. McCoy, in a telephone interview last week, defended it. "He has global reach, influence in every country," she said of Parker. "That is an emperor."

One factor that has propelled Parker's success, McCoy said, is propitious timing. He started writing about wine in the late 1970s as his baby boom generation was discovering the beverage. "He started a little bit ahead of the people who would become his readers," McCoy said. Novices felt, McCoy said, "that if you read Parker, you wouldn't do anything stupid."

That landscape has become more democratic, McCoy said. Many people, not just wine critics, visit vineyards. While buyers for big-box stores may rely on Parker's scores to make their selections, other wine drinkers, especially young ones, rely on recommendations of wine-store proprietors, or bloggers, she said.

"Understanding Parker's writing requires a certain level of knowledge," said Alder Yarrow, 32, who writes "Vinography," an award-winning wine blog from San Francisco.

"There are large numbers of mostly young people who may not even have heard of Robert Parker ... but do know how to type `wine blog' into Google. Even if these folks did manage to find their way to Parker ... what they find there isn't much use to them."

Still, Parker's influential voice and remarkable palate are hard to ignore. He is disarmingly approachable in person. "He is a very decent human being," said biographer McCoy. "He is not a social climber. He is funny, entertaining and quite smart." But he is, McCoy went on to say, "the one who is right. If you don't agree with him, he will tell you you are wrong."

There is rigor at a Parker wine tasting. The glasses at the Oregon Grille have, at Parker's instruction, been "rinsed" with a small portion of the wine that's being tasted. This, he feels, lessens the chance that dish-soap film will interfere with the wine's flavor.

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