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Life after Parker: More proof that the times are changing


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. To me, the key phrase was, “Parker has run out of points”. When a writer begins to give every vintage scores in the mid to upper-90s, he has nowhere to go when a truly great vintage comes along.

    Parker cannot hype the 2009s enough because he and his minions have undercut the 100-point system through grade inflation.

    Take a look at the newest Parker, the one that arrived today. There is a review in it entitled 2007 Oregon Pinot Noirs, a vintage that will be overshadowed according the Parker et al by 2006 and 2008 because of the rain at harvest. So, what is the average rating of this less than satisfactory vintage? You guessed it. Above 90 points. That means that the 2008s are all going to rate at 95, or they are not going to be perceived as better thant the 2007s.

    That is why Parker is losing his ability to sell wine. He no longer has a range of points through which he can draw big distinctions. And the inability to draw big distinctions means that no one need listen.

    Whether Heimoff or Olken or Laube or Steimann or Tanzer or any of the rest of us are also dinosaurs for the same reason will be in the eye of the beholder.

    I do not think that wine ratings are going to go away, and there is zero evidence that the blogosphere is going to have the breadth and specificity of coverage that paid media offer. But, if we all go the Parker route and succumb to grade inflation, we deserve to have our tickets punched and to be replaced by more demanding critics.

    And just for the record, I would disagree with the conventional wisdom that Parker’s day is done. Rumors of his death are greatly exaggerated.

  2. Interesting insights, Steve. Isn’t that change inevitable, though? I mean, it’s primarily generational and Parker hasn’t done anything to reach out to the Millennials for example – and they’re the group with potentially the next biggest pot of wine cash to spend after the Boomers.

    The interesting question to me is, will the freer, conversational style of marketing interaction demanded by the millennials influence the previous generations and erode the RP influence more quickly? Personally, I’ve been heavily influenced by the millennial approach…

  3. More likely the reason is this:

    One expert told Decanter flatly that Parker “has run out of points.”

    Inflation leads to devaluation.

  4. Steve … don’t always agree .. but always enjoy the read. OK .. you’ve got my vote 🙂

  5. Recently I solicited feedback on the disappearance of Parker and its affect on the wine industry:

    In the end, one question remains:

    Who will replace Parker?

    I think it’s time that a REAL whore held the position!

    What do you say, should we have some sort of blogger thunderdome throwdown to decide?


  6. Steve,

    Bloggers take him to task and you defend Parker. Now Decanter writes two paragraphs on the same subject and you bash Parker.

    Which is it, Steve?

    Decanter has so much clout for you that you can do a 180?

  7. Steve, I’m not a Parker fan..but then I’m not much of a fan of anyone…yet that being said the “ratings” systems that are out there maybe the element that may have run out of gas…much of the failure of recent vintage sales can be blamed upon the economy and the incredibly high prices that wine climbed to over the last decade but conspicuous consumption is dead…communication of vital information is so much faster via phones & PDAs. Is the future wine phone apps? If there was a wine I was considering purchasing, I’d rather call a friend who has similar tastes and ask them then trust “a stranger”. People might be surprised if they check out what they are saying about the Millennials and how they communicate wine recommendations.

    Personally, I believe that pressure is mounting from all sides against traditional wine marketing & the three tier system. Nearly everyday I see wine producers from overseas knocking on our door.

    It is time for change…on many levels….if left to the powers to be, things will stay the same, but the influence of the internet and what people want will eventually change many aspects of the wine business and with that the current rating systems need to either adopt or die….and you and I will still be around to record and write about it all!

  8. Daniel, I don’t march to Decanter’s or anybody else’s beat. As events shift, so do my conclusions. Who can say why individuals reach certain conclusions when they do, rather than earlier or later? You can’t expect everybody to be on the same page all the time.

  9. Randy: Sure! I’d suggest Vegas as the venue for the first BLOGGER THUNDERDOME THROWDOWN!

  10. Dude, you hit the nail on the head. “Parker hasn’t done anything to reach out to the Milliennials.” I wonder why. At some point, it’s almost willfull not to. It’s like saying “I know I should, but dammit, I won’t. They can’t make me!” I — Steve — feel like I reached out to the Millennials and Ys and people below a certain age, and I’m happy I did.

  11. Charlie, I just want to point out that Wine Enthusiast and I are quite stingy when it comes to extremely high scores. I think I’ve given about 3 or 4 100s ever. You could argue that I should have given more over the years, but I’d rather be guilty of grade deflation than grade inflation.

  12. Morton Leslie says:

    This might be similar to the case of the music critic who rated concerts based on his personal relationship with the performer and how loud they played. At some point for the music fan, the highest rated concerts consisted of listening to the same tunes over and over at ear splitting decibel levels. Folks eventually had to back away and let their hearing recover.

  13. Steve–

    Grade deflation would be good for all of us. No matter how wine evaluations are disseminated, they are going to have some sort of rating system, and if that rating system gets so jammed up at the top that there is no way to tell the great from the good and the good from the okay, then the maker of those ratings is devaluing their usefulness.

    As a sixty-something, I can’t speak for the Millenials, but the suggestion that they will trade wine judgments with each other by PDA and thus eliminate the role of expert opinion is wishful thinking. Sure, folks communicate digitally, but we have had other means of communication that were almost as effective for quite some time. They have been called things like: telephone, pubs, tasting groups, message boards, chat rooms. And, look at what they have done: Parker, Laube, WE, WS, even my little rag have continued to find substantial audiences.

    I dont “reach out” to Millenials. I make my service known to wine drinkers. Funny thing. I am among the older writers, yet my audience is getting younger and younger.

    Why? Because eventually the redhot collectors subscribe to sources of knowledgable opinion–and it does not matter whether the name is WE and Heimoff or WS and Laube or WA and Parker or CGCW and Olken, part of the folks who take their wine purchases seriously subscribe to us and part of them don’t.

    And by the way, Palate Press, the child of the Millenials, is nothing more than another source of wine journalism. It publishes the opinions of knowledgable folks. If the people writing there were not knowledgeable, there would be no earthly reason for anyone to read Palate Press.

  14. I wouldn’t dance on Parker’s grave just jet.

  15. I have looked at WA vintage charts and the key says a 75 is an average vintage. But practically every vintage in every region is rated 85+. If I crucned the numbers, an average vintage would probably be something like 88-90. Not self-consistent at all.

    The other interesting note is that Parker is attributed as saying 2007 in the Rhone was the greatest vintage ever in any viticultural region. How do you top that?

  16. Charlie,

    Tish a millennial?

    Tish, s

    Send Charlie a thank you note.


    I really believe this millennial vs old guard thing is nonsense, a construct.

    A normal friction of what was and what claims to be or to become doesn’t have the power to bring Parker down; only he has that power, and I submit that his ratings tactics, plus the rather acrid way he responds to criticism have done more to devalue the brand than any whining opposition could hope to have done.

  17. What changed in just one month?

  18. Hard to explain, Daniel. Kind of like when Obama was elected and it felt like everything changed overnight. The Decanter article struck me as telling. Sometimes, in retrospect, you look back at an event and you think, “Oh, that’s when it all began to change.” I could be wrong.

  19. Steve, I think you confuse two different issues. In this case, as many have noted above, the issue is not one of old media vs. new media, but rather point inflation. Parker can’t rate this vintage higher without turning the volume to 11, and we know how that worked out for Spinal Tap.

    The question of his future relevance through a generational divide, on the other hand, addresses a different issue. We recently ran three different stories about the Millenials and how they approach wine differently, looking for learning experiences and always something new, rather than a point-winner. I suspect much of that is anectodal, or at least limited to true wine geeks, and the casual buyer will still respond to shelf talker numbers, though that casual buyer won’t know the difference between Robert Parker and, well, Steve Heimoff.

  20. Interesting post Steve but I don’t think anyone will replace Mr. Parker. In the future wine reviews will be coming from multiple sources and no one will have the power to move wine with scores like we have seen in what I am calling, “The Parker Era.” My money is on aggregators of such reviews but the issue of authority rears it’s head here. Perhaps aggregators of selected reviewers will win or publications will have tasting panels?

    It’s hard to figure out what will replace Mr. Parker’s influence once he hangs it up… maybe there will be no replacement.

  21. Fair enough.

    My quote did not make it into the article. Panos had emailed me as well.

    FYI, I think if you look at the current state of the wine markets, Parker’s ability to move wines is variable. 2007 CDPs are flying, but 2008 Bordeaux was soft. How do you figure that?

    Jay Miller’s categories are dead. Today, I was offered a Malbec from Argentina (92 points) that retails for under $20/btl. Sitting in importer’s warehouse.

    Aussies are dead dead dead.

    Spain is a slower death.

    Italy is doing well as people respect Galloni and his reviews.

  22. Hi Steve,

    mention of the word deflation has come up a number of times and it’s a tenuous link with my question, not specifically aimed at Parker but at all of us.

    As we age, our eyesight, hearing, memory and cognitive powers deteriorate. Surely this is the same for our palates?

    Middle age is when a broadmind and a narrow waist exchange places.

  23. Re: Parker running out of points

    He could always pull a Spinal Tap / “These go to 11” and give the 2009 vintage a 101.

  24. I think this reflects less about parker and more about the flaws in any point based wine system. To give a wine 100 points is to say it is perfect and that no wine will ever be made to exceed it in quality. Wine styles and qualities change over time so wine that was a 95 points in 1985 may very well be a 89 in 2009 as overall quality improves. The great wines of the 1890’s may not hold a candle to Gallo hearty burgundy. To put points into absolute judgment of quality is simply not going to work.

    In the end parker is his own worst enemy. With his homogenous taste for wine the market has cornered him making wine to his style and eliminated his ability to be a balanced reviewer.

  25. NOOOOO! Consumers are going to have to think for themselves? This is an outrage!

  26. The problem with Parker isn’t necessarily Parker, it is the other writers. Dr J, who does the reviews for Oregon I do believe, has been under the gun since he first began covering Spain, Australia, South America, Washington and Oregon. Wasn’t there an issue of his that had six 100 point wines in it? I think it was a Spanish issue.

    For me, I read all the sources, if for no other reason to compare scores. I was just reading an email regarding a 2005 Napa Valley Cabernet, so I looked up the scores. 83, 89 and 94. Now that is diverse. It makes me wonder about the wine and actually, sort of eager to try it just so I can see whose palate (in this one case) I align with most. Of course I realize every taster has a different palate and tasted the wine at a different time, not to mention different circumstances. But it is wines like these that always fascinate me just a tad bit more.

    One more reason I love wine so much, it generates such vibrant discussion!

  27. Dear Lar, I think what you said is poppycock. Maybe when people get REALLLLLY old but the wine people I know are getting more sensitive in their 60s and 70s. It’s also important for a wine critic to stay very healthy, which is why I work out everyday at the gym, run, eat right, etc.

  28. sao anash says:

    From the perspective of a publicist, Robert Parker is still considered to be extremely influential by the wine industry, at least the folks I talk to, and, by extension, members of the wine trade. It’s hard to imagine that changing any time soon. The names that I hear, again and again, when I talk wine to folks around the country are Parker, Tanzer, Laube, Meadows, Heimoff, Asimov….and to a lesser but signficant extent, Yarrow, Wark, Bonne, Comiskey, MacNeil… get the picture. These are critics/writers that are taken seriously and that resonate with the public; trade and consumers. But the name that I hear the most is Robert Parker. And, with improvements made to his website, I imagine that the milliennial audience for Parker reviews will be growing, too. There is plenty of room at the top, so I guess I’m puzzled by the constant wondering by some if Parker is done or not. At least to me, it’s kind of like asking, when will David Denby be done? Or Elvis Mitchell? Or Anthony Lane? Pauline Kael was very controversial in her day at the NY Times, but to this day, she’s quoted constantly, and many consider her to have been a national treasure. An influential critic becomes a part of the cultural landscape.

  29. David Cole says:

    Steve, good read. It’s ok to change your mind, don’t let Daniel tell you differently. However, Parker is not dead yet.

    This may sound strange, but this issue is bigger than Parker’s scores. I have drank many wines that he gave 88-90 points and they were very good! The scoring system has people convinced that to truly drink great wines, the scores must be over 90 points. People don’t read what the scale means, because most that buy off scores are the folks in the middle, just as you stated. I don’t know what to do about it, but I think that is why Gary V has gotten so popular, because people can watch him taste, hear what he has to say. And if they like what they hear, they buy. Yes he gives scores, but he does take time to explain, something that is hard to do in written forum.

    The other thing interesting here from my seat is I don’t see a lot Millenials collecting wine! Yes they are drinking it, but it’s more of a social thing. It’s not a driving passion to try all the best wines and collect them. I’m sure there are some out there, but I do not see or hear a lot about them. I’m not sure what the ROI for premium wines will be to that segment as the market is changing. Would love to read or hear some thoughts on that.

  30. “Blogger Thunderdome Throw down” ? Interesting.

    Is this where everyone texts in CAPITAL LETTERS really fast and nobody reads what anyone else texts thereby nothing significant is accomplished?

    as far as running out of points. don’t be too sure; in the early 80’s, a well known wine competition created a Platinum award because they found a certain wine eclipsed all the gold that was given out. It was done in the music industry too, so I am waiting for the 200 pt scale any day now.

  31. OK, David, I’ll bite.

    To the millennials I say: collect stamps; drink wine. Since every vintage is the vintage of the century, you won’t miss anything by not collecting…

  32. Daniel Posner says:

    @ David,
    Never said it was not okay to change your mind, however Steve has posted multiple blog entries this year, asking bloggers and others to get off of Parker’s back, and that he deserves none of what he is getting.

    Now, today’s post, all because of two paragraphs on, written by a blogger, who interviewed American retailers.

    I find that interesting.

  33. Thomas, I’m looking forward to the deals that will arise from this constipated system filled with so many highly rated (inflated) wines. Fiber in the form of discounts must be added to this point-laden diet.

    While collectors pounce on the latest and greatest, less heralded vintages with a bit of age should pop up on sale. The funny thing is, it seems the point chasers are most often the ones who commit infanticide. In an effort to drink the points, they drink a wine that is less good than a mature version from a less lauded vintage.

    This should make prices somewhat more reasonable.

  34. Phil Ward says:

    Steve thanks for an interesting read that seems to have sparked lots of good conversation. RP is not dead yet in the mind of many retailers. I work ITB in wholesale and visited a top retailer in NJ today. The only wines he is selling from the current WA are the Rhone wines (and at a rapid pace.) He says everything, including the highly touted Italians, in the issue is VERY slow moving. RP has had a huge influence on the development of fine wines in the US, and other markets, and now there are other avenues for wine drinkers to go down for their infomation and reviews.
    Just my $.02 after 25 years ITB and over 35 years as as a collector and “amateur” of wines.

  35. Christopher O'Gorman says:

    Great post today Steve.

    In my recent experience out in the market, scores still matter with the trade buyers, but to a less extent than at any time in my 23 years around the wine biz. The more experienced buyers tend to be less impressed, relying more on their own impressions of the wine.

    Similarly, Millenials are less impressed by scores than past wine generations, but you’ll still hear them tossed around in discussing the wines.

  36. So many good points made, I’ll just make a few myself if you don’t mind:

    Parker is still the guy with no advertising, thus theoretically un-influenced, yet that gets messed up when Dr J goes on vacations paid by importers, etc.

    The wines he publishes are his recommendations, therefore there could be thousands of wines tasted that would skew an “average” downward. WS seems be be the only one actually publishing scores in the 60s and 70s.

    There’s a saying in the wine biz that “Parker builds reputations and WS sells cases”, but I think that is changing for sure.

  37. Everyone beat me to what I’d say, so I’m only left to say this; love the metaphors, Steve. They flow like a river that always ends just beyond the horizon.

  38. I’m going to say one more thing: it’s spelled millennial–double the n.

    Couldn’t resist, and as a writer, what choice did I have? 😉

  39. never trust the opinion of a cig smoker. I’ve said it over the years now. RP smoked cigs. How can anyone discern nuances from wine when they’re chocking down what has been rumored as many as two packs per day. why doesn’t anyone ever discuss this point?

    This is why he rated the big wines with big aromas and flavors so fondly. Registered on pallate. This guy for me was a non-starter, but then again who am I but a young, millen grower and winemaker. My generation never got the guy. He was, like some folks say here, for my parents generation of wine consumers. We are the future. DTC is the future.

  40. Thomas, every time I write “millennial” with one or two n’s my spellcheck busts it. I don’t know what the proper spelling is. Thanks for weighing in. I try to have good spelling and grammar on this blog but it’s not always possible.

  41. Randy,

    I’m a b.boomer and I have never followed RP, or any other wine critic. I didn’t even know that the guy smokes. So, I don’t recommend that you generalize.

    Of course, you are the future. The young is always the future–even RP was young once, and he was the future, too.

    It’s what one does with his/her future that matters, and like him or not, you can’t argue that RP didn’t make his own future.

  42. Took me a glass and a half to get through the comments. And that was after a few sips to read the original post.

    Insightful stuff here. No doubt 2009 is a watershed year for wine blogging.

    Steve, I like your humble, councilman analogy. But based on the # of comments and your increasing blogosphere impact, I’d say you’re more of a Mayor these days.

  43. Whenever someone tells me that they are the future, I know they are not.

    As always, the future will belong to folks who can convince with their brilliance that they are the future. They do not announce it. They are it.

    Muhammed Ali notwithstanding. He actually was the greatest.

  44. Wow! Let me repeat that – WOW!

    So let me get this straight . . . . We are in the world’s worst financial crisis in two generations; people throughout the world are struggling to find JOBS to make money to eat; and, OMG, a reviewer’s ratings are NOT able to move the market to ensure that wines sell out at astronomical prices . . .

    Geez . . . you THINK there might be OTHER factors then the ‘kinks in the armor’ that have been discussed ad naseum these past few months across the blogosphere?!?!?!?!?

    As Arthur and Sao stated, Parker STILL has plenty of clout in the internationsl marketplace; his scores STILL move markets; his palate is STILL respected by many.

    But no one stands a chance of ‘moving the market’ in this current economic environment as well as they did just a few years ago . . . Period.

    Perhaps this situation will cause those the produce and continue to sell wines at simply astronomical prices to reevaluate their cost structures . . . I am really, hom many $100 plus wines can there be in the market that continue to sell well?!?!?!?

    Just another date point this morning . . .

    And one last thing – instead of spenging time ‘bringing folks down’, perhaps WE as a collective wine group can channel our energy to finding ways to get more consumers to enjoy wine, thus INCREASING overally sales . . . and perhaps keeping many of our jobs intact . . .


  45. Sorry for the many typos – I think faster than I type!


  46. Larry Chandler says:

    How many bloggers actually get to go to Bordeaux to taste wines in barrel? So it’s not likely that they will have any influence on the purchasing of futures. And as Larry Schaffer said, the recession, which is pretty much worldwide, is a major factor in the decline of expensive wines.

    But Robert Parker displaced others (esp. Robert Finnigan) and someone or someones will displace Parker.

    And just a slight correction, Sao: Pauline Kael wrote for the New Yorker, not the NY Times.

  47. I feel that a more basic point needs to be made about the current general situation in wine criticism and connoisseurship. The issue to me is not a powerful individual critic vs. the renegade blogger. Nor is it some sort of score compression or “grade inflation” that is the problem. The problem is more the structure of how wines quality is ranked in general. Most critics of all stripes take a set of wines (blind hopefully) and rank them. The result is always that the most intense wine is preferred. I have seen this in countless tastings over the 31 vintages of my proressional life. My winemaking peers complain that Parker or Spectator or whomever always goes for the most intense syrupy wine in a group. Yet, when you present them blind a similar group they too will pick the most intense wine as their favorite. The fault lies not in our critics, but in the intereaction of our flavor physiology with our methodolgy. As our flavor physiology is only going to change at an evolutionalry pace our only quick way out of this dilemma is to change our methodolgy.

  48. Regarding David Cole’s point: “The other thing interesting here from my seat is I don’t see a lot Millenials collecting wine! Yes they are drinking it, but it’s more of a social thing. It’s not a driving passion to try all the best wines and collect them. I’m sure there are some out there, but I do not see or hear a lot about them. I’m not sure what the ROI for premium wines will be to that segment as the market is changing. Would love to read or hear some thoughts on that.”

    David, this is spot-on. THEY HAVE NO MONEY! Trust me, from the perspective of a wine bartender AND as a retailer (my place of employment has both a large store and full service wine bar) I have yet to discuss collecting wine with any customer in the 21 – 25 age group. That being said, OF COURSE folks like Parker don’t mean much to them. If a Bordeaux is over $15, they’re not interested – regardless of the score.

    I’m not sure reaching out to the Millennials is what Parker and his publication should have done – he should have reached out to US – the next generation of collectors (ahem, I have a modest one started already and I am 29 years old.) We DO care about critical wine reports. I’ve been a subscriber to a number of print wine publications for years, including two years of the Advocate. I feel my generation was skipped, and all of the focus is on the Millennials as if they can make or break this industry. To be frank, I’m tired of that rag.

    Parker is definitely not dead yet – I wish my industry would set their sights on me – I’m spending. I’m collecting. I’m reading.

  49. I think that Larry is on to something. I was a wine lover and collector long before I became a winemaker 23 years ago and I have had a love/hate affair with wine rating systems that emphasize points. On the one hand, they are easy, convenient and somewhat universal. Yet they are frought with flaws too. As Larry said, if a reviewer is tasting through 20, 30, 50 wines in a session, after awhile (probably after 5 to 8 wines) the palate hits fatigue and anything big and concentrated stands out to the taster.

    We recently sent our 07’s out for review to critics including about 25 bloggers. The most unique (read time consuming) reviews took place over the course of 4 days, which is impractical for large scale critics that must taste through hundreds of wines each month. He sampled the wine at least 8 times over the course of 4 days and noted the changes as the wine opened up. Here is the link for those interested:

    This probably won’t solve the question of how to effectively evaluate young wines properly but it’s a step in the right direction. Cheers.

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