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Life after Parker: More proof that the times are changing

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When some bloggers were busily bashing Parker over the last year or so, I rose to his defense or, if that’s putting it too strongly, I offered some reasoned explanations as to why he remained relevant and was not the evil empire some people painted him out to be.

But the erosion has continued, and now, there’s an air of almost conventional wisdom that Parker’s day is done; the sun is setting on that once-esteemed empire, and while The Man From Monkton himself remains the most important wine personage in the world, you can see the grains running out into the bottom of the hourglass. (O.K. no more strained metaphors.) Now comes evidence that the turning point may be occurring faster than I realized.

It’s in the form of this article from Decanter telling how, for the first time in living memory, and maybe ever, a so-called “vintage of the century” — in this case, 2009 — is going to have to “fight for [its] place more fiercely than all the previous ‘vintages of the century.’” Some of the reasons are obvious: the economy, unsold stockpiles of previous vintages, an unfavorable exchange rate here in the U.S., and — more to the point — the inability even of Parker to move the 2009s no matter how highly he scores them. The article’s money quote: Retailers “doubt Robert Parker can score [2009] higher than 2008 anyway.” One expert told Decanter flatly that Parker “has run out of points.”

How ‘bout that! This never could have been said before. In prior years, all Parker had to do to anoint a vintage and a wine was give it a high rating, and that ensured its success. Now, the perception is that Parker has played his hand too heavily. Either that, or his engine has run out of gas. Either way, the inevitable conclusion is startling: Parker no longer matters.

The Decanter article didn’t explore the role of the bloggers in bringing this situation about, probably because Decanter — an old-line, traditional (perhaps the most traditional) wine publication that must be concerned for its future — has tip-toed warily around the revolution social media has wrought. But surely, the constant attacking on old media by bloggers has taken its toll. If, for the sake of argument, you divide the wine world into three parts that are roughly analogous to the political spectrum in this country, you can see what’s happening. On one side are the older, tradition-bound wine consumers who still believe in Parker and will do what he tells them to. On the other, younger side are the Gen Ys and Millennials who never had any use for Parker and wouldn’t lose a wink of sleep if he keeled over today. Inbetween are the “independents,” those who aren’t so ideologically-driven, but can be persuaded either way by a good argument. It is this middle group Parker is losing — a chunk of demographic that increasingly is relying on peer influences, and is decreasingly receptive to the (somewhat shopworn) argument that an RP 100-point Bordeaux classified growth can provide something no other wine can.

I know people are going to say, “Well, if Heimoff’s saying that Parker’s done, then isn’t Heimoff done, too?” No. Heimoff never had Parker’s clout or anything like it. I can’t make a vintage, so a vintage can’t un-make me. The bigger they are, the harder they fall. Or, back to strained metaphors, Parker’s like a President or Governor who’s getting term-limited out of office. Heimoff’s like a little town councilman who can keep on getting re-elected, as long as he does his job.

  1. Larry Brooks is wrong–in my opinion, of course. Not that he is wrong about the potential for depth of personality to win out over wines with better balance and nuance, but in suggesting that any of that has to do with whether Parker and other critics are becoming relics.

    The discussion about what wines do well in blind tastings is always going to be with us. Steve has argued here, and I have argued in my own circle, that balance is more important than intensity.

    Dan Berger, the most ardent critic of overripe, soft and gooey wines around, readily admits that alcohol levels per se, are not the issue but rather that balance and focus on varietal character and regional references trump ripeness.

    In that I agree, and while it is not my place to speak for Steve, he and I have had this conversation before, and we also agree with the notion that syrupy wines are aberrations. That is why Larry Brooks, a brilliant winemaker in his own right, is wrong on this issue. Critics are not monolithic. And Parker’s palate does not speak for my palate or Berger’s or anyone else’s.

    Now, as to Larry’s last point, change our methodology, I would submit that he again lumps all critics into one pot. I would be happy to explain why I think the CGCW methodology is successful. Steve has explained his methodology several times here and also stated his preferences. I don’t see how Mr. Brooks has moved the discussion forward. But, I would ask, if he returns to this page, to suggest a methodology that will be able to review large numbers of wines and provide both detailed descriptions and consumer-accepted rating system.

  2. Steve,
    I work in wine retail at a specialty shop in suburban Seattle. Our salespeople, myself included, have years of formal wine education and our store carries wines from every major wine producing region in the world as well as many of the lesser-known regions. Still, most of our customers are familiar with and prefer our local Washington producers or other new-world style wines. We hold tastings every Friday and Saturday, usually complementary, in part as a service to our customers and to educate them to wines that they can’t get at the grocery store. In the recent past we have conducted tastings focusing on regions like the Loire, Rhone, and Bordeaux. We also do tastings by grape variety and will include old-world wines not labeled as a varietal (Chinon for our Cab Franc tasting for example).

    In the end, 3 out of 4 customers seem to share Robert Parker’s preference for more opulent wines. They often find more traditional styles intriguing, but when it comes time to buy, they simply do not buy these wines. Even if they would personally consider them, I think they feel that the Parker-style wines a safer bet for social situations.

    Do Parker scores still sell wine? They do for us. We have been a strong promoter of a young winery here in Washington state because we loved the wines. When the recent RP scores came in for their three wines at 95, 97, and 96 we sent out an email to our customers that we had been given an extra allocation from the winery as a “thank you” for past support. We sold out in three days for wines at price points that have been a difficult sell over the last year. Most of the customers had never tasted these wines themselves. This was a boon to our business. RP scores still matter quite a bit to many of our customers and to our bottom line.

  3. Hello Steve,

    This is a very interesting perspective. I think the vintners in Bordeaux have a far bigger problem than ratings. The younger generations of wine consumers find Bordeaux, in their words “Boringdeaux”. I have noticed recently in many students that their mastery of the classifications is severely lacking and that their experience with tasting the communes is almost nil. When queried they admit they have no real interest and that the wines are too overpriced. And of course, you’ll love this, overrated.

  4. “The King is dead, long live..your own palate”?
    I can live with that!

    Having one person influence the prices is like…living under Communism. I see wine world after Parker as a bright and beautiful world.

  5. Funny coincidence – long before I became a certified sommelier, I always felt disappointed at the Parker 90s ratings and thought my palate was not as refined. Then later I read an article about how can middle-aged men have similar tastes as us women in regards to ratings. I felt better about my taste conclusions after knowing that wine should be built for women since 75% of us are the buyers! What are ratings worth today? If you can’t afford to buy wines over $100, $200, etc. I guess they are worth only a dream away. My goals are to find awesome wines under $10 – and trust me, they are out there. When someone askes me now – “What are the points on this wine?”, I try and explain that points are worth nothing. All you have to know is this – do you like it or not.

  6. Is it possible that wines are just getting better globally? Maybe 95+ point scores are doled out because viticulture and winemaking have materially improved over the past few decades. Increasingly it’s difficult to buy a bad wine. Maybe the whole notion of wine critics to help consumers hone in on good quality is anachronistic?

    Maybe critics becomes more aesthetic judges… like art critics. Problem is, IMHO, flowery tasting notes are all but useless to most consumers who don’t know that they’re looking for huckleberry or can’t really tell exactly what round vs. polished tannin means.

    Having said that, I still think Parker points will matter A LOT to consumers. Maybe the days are gone of making a very good vintage successful after a string of very good vintages… especially in this economy. And obviously no one can top Parker’s 2007 CDP anytime soon (on a side note, after so much crappy news in the industry over the past couple years, I’m giddy to see so much consumer excitement about anything wine-related!). But consumers are busy and they need someone else to filter and sort their options for them. Parker still seems to be the man to do this.

  7. Brent Clayton says:

    “As events shift, so do my conclusions.” I’ll remember that one the next time I’m running for public office.

  8. parker is a phenome that wouldn’t exist in a wine drinking nation.
    but i will salute parker for keeping the mystique of wine intact while increasing price of any wine he chooses.
    i promise to pour my best bottle over his grave should he precede me; but i will do it only after recycling it through my kidneys.

  9. Daniel Posner says:

    Well said, Brent.

    Waffling, the new way to form opinions in the wine business.

  10. Grapemaster says ” Parker is a phenome (sic) that would not exist in a wine drinking country “.

    You mean like Italy’s Gambero Rosso or Revue de Vin du France or Decanter or Huon Hooke’s Good Australian Wine Guide?

    And you are going to pee on Parker’s grave?

  11. Steve, very humble, I commend the tone.

    In wine as in life we are skeptical of what previous generations tell us. Parker may be a voice of a previous generation, but it doesn’t mean there won’t be a singular voice that rises to take his place. I don’t think we can automatically assume a drop in Parker’s prominence means a drop in the prominence of national critics. Parker was initially a local voice that grew into a national voice. The conclusion that a blogger could fill the void is lacking in that most bloggers operate on the periphary (even of the wine world), because unless Riesling becomes the new Chardonnay, most bloggers are too far out of the mainstream conscious. Parker has always done a good job of “discovering” new wines, while keeping his feet firmly planted in traditional areas (well, except Burgundy).

  12. David Sawyer says:

    I’m a “Millennial” and I personally got into wine seriously due to a gift subscription to the WA. At first I followed points religiously but now not so much. My non-wine enthusiast friends? They follow points blindly and fully. Maybe you should go to a Costco and see who is buying cheap, highly rated wine from WA and WS. The point system is embedded in my generation’s psyche more so than you think.

    Also, the reason the 2008 vintage isn’t moving has nothing to do with Parker. That was just a stupid conclusion and I think anyone can figure out the real reason by reading the newspaper. If not for Parker’s high opinion of 2008, I think the wines would be selling much much less. Just stirring the sh*t on your part, nothing more.

  13. Larry,
    I agree with you, the methodology needs to advance. I do not see this as a condemnation of critics, I see this as the entry to a new conversation on how wines are evaluated.
    Steve,
    Parker is not dead, like lazerous he will come back from the dead. Once our economy is hummimg again and people shake off the fear they will start spending stupid amounts of money on wines he deems 95 points. His will be a slow fade not a sudden implosion.
    Cheers,
    Gregg

  14. Thanks for highlighting my article in decanter.com. I love blogs and wine bloggers and need to get my website in gear for that very purpose! But please the article should not be over-interpreted especially in terms of Parker points. Sure some experts may discount Parker’s points, and I reported what they told me. But I doubt that Parker’s “point influence” is waning all that much, if any. Just take a look at how prices of CndP in 2007 jumped after Parker’s new scores – and this within the midst of a questionable economy… following also a string of good to excellent vintages in CndP since 1998 barring 2002, also with high scores. My personal opinion is that Parker scores still matter very much although he may have “overdone it” in 2008 in Bordeaux. As much as I liked the Haut Bailly 2008, to take one example, I would not have scored it as highly. Certainly Haut Brion is better in 2008. In any case, Parker’s influence remains profound.

  15. Panos, he may remain profound in certain areas, but in other areas his influence is on the wane, including in California.

  16. My 10 reasons for liking Steve’s wine blog:
    1. Parker trademarked his name “Robert Parker” in August (an addition, actually, as his full name was trademarked long ago).
    2. This means that even if Bob retires, “Robert Parker” won’t.
    3. The 2009 Bordeaux vintage is, by very credible accounts very early in this game, fantastic. (I know, I saw, I picked, I talked, and you will see fruit/alcohol levels across the board you won’t believe-and Americans will love.)
    4. The US isn’t the only Bordeaux market.
    5. The US buyers did not buy in 97, 98, 99, 02, 04, 06, 07, and 08 – therefore their 09 allotments will be stingy to say the least. So, why not talk it down? They won’t be able to supply it (with few exceptions such as K&L). The US is known among negociants as a “fair-weather friend” in Bordeaux.
    6. Young Millennials pay attention to good wine, but can’t afford to buy it yet. Millennial/X buy. (They can afford to cellar it. I have Gen X and Millennial kids and have written about Millennials).
    7. It is the 60+ who are on the wane, they won’t be around to cellar and drink it (unless the health care bill is approved by the Senate).
    8. This is yet another fascinating blog, Steve (and all)!
    9. “Parker has run out of points” is a quote that will have a very long shelf life.
    10. I’m going to toast Parker tonight. He provides as much to wine as Johnny Depp does to women. (As a woman who likes wine, I’d prefer to drink it with Depp, though, regardless of the points).

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