Robert Parker and his Wine Advocate have shaped wine markets and consumer behavior more than any other contemporary critical influence. The newsletter continues to fulfill its role as the most useful independent review source available. During the early years as the Wine Advocate cemented that position, Parker did all the tasting. Now, Parker relies on a wider network of regular contributors.
The publication navigates a love/hate relationship with buyers and sellers alike. His 90+ point scores sell wines quickly but make them hard to find and expensive, and his sub 90 point scores have the opposite effect. Score 89 and miss by 1 point and watch a possibly wonderful expression of place, fruit, and winemaker go unnoticed. Live and die by the sword.
Despite the long standing criticism around applying numerical scores to wines and Parker’s preference for ripe and highly extracted wine, his amazingly consistent palate does offer a steady benchmark for anyone to calibrate their personal preferences to. If you follow Parker and he says “minerals” or “grassy”, you get what he means and know pretty well whether you might like that wine or not and if Parker says “fat” or “chewy”, you also can picture your palate’s interpretation, and so on. This was never the case for other high profile wine review media like the Wine Spectator and others that rotate tasters, rely on panels, or change reviewers over varying periods of time. You never really know if the grassy note in the June 2008 issue is the same grassy thing referenced in a review six months later.
In a recent post Tyler Coleman, aka Dr. Vino, suggests Parker is facing a real problem since certain Wine Advocate correspondents are in violation of Parker’s self imposed strict code of operating ethics. Coleman quotes Parker:
“It is imperative for a wine critic to pay his own way. Gratuitous hospitality in the form of airline tickets, hotel rooms, guest houses, etc., should never be accepted either abroad or in this country. While it is important to maintain a professional relationship with the trade, I believe the independent stance required of a consumer advocate, often not surprisingly, results in an adversarial relationship with the wine trade. It can be no other way. In order to pursue independence effectively, it is imperative to keep one’s distance from the trade. While this attitude may be interpreted as aloofness, such independence guarantees hard-hitting, candid, and uninfluenced commentary.”
Coleman stumbled upon some conversation on Mark Squires’ bulletin board which had implications of impropriety. Squires and Jay Miller are part of a growing number of reviewers that Parker brought into the Wine Advocate orbit as correspondents for specific regions. Coleman points to violations by both including free travel and meals with the trade. Clearly a violation, but really not the largest problem for the Wine Advocate as I see it.
I guess it’s practical to bring on correspondents with the wide geography covered and multitude of wines reviewed. But after more than 20 years of calibrating my palate to Parker’s words, I can’t react when another Wine Advocate correspondent describes a wine. Why? Because I just don’t know what they mean when they say “grassy”. Parker has abandoned the Wine Advocate’s “one palate” approach over the years, and it’s an even bigger challenge to the Wine Advocate’s consistent word on wine that many still trust the most….certainly bigger than a trip or a meal with friends in the trade.