Au revoir Parker, it’s been good to know you
It is ironic that Robert Parker’s 200th issue of The Wine Advocate should occur at a time when his influence is waning, at least in the United States, while alternative means of wine reviewing, particularly on the Internet, are rapidly arising.
Ironic–and inevitable. Nothing lasts forever, especially meteors that light up the night sky and then fade back into darkest space, never to return.
It’s instructive to take a bird’s eye view of the Parker phenomenon, not this time in terms of understanding his impact on wine style–which was vast–but to learn lessons about how the media is changing. If we understand where we’ve come from, we might be able to discern where we’re going. That would be nice, wouldn’t it.
Parker was not the first modern wine critic, which is sometimes what people think. There were plenty of wine critics around in the early 1980s, in California and elsewhere. Parker was a classic case of being in the right place at the right time. Wine criticism was regionally based. What Parker did was to make himself the first truly national wine critic. After that, he became the first truly international wine critic (and perhaps the only one, to this day). He rode the coattails of several converging phenomena: the rise of wine consciousness in America by the Baby Boomers, and the Boomers’ penchant for–and dependence upon–mass media to allow them to feel part of a tribe. Boomers, who were reared on television, needed a centralized–a chief, guru, medicine man, call it what you will–voice that would speak to them no matter where they lived in the country, just as television had done: “I Love Lucy” could be seen from Maine to Malibu, Kansas to Key West. In the same way, Parker spoke to wine consumers across the country, and it was refreshing for the average Boomer to know that what he was reading, in The Wine Advocate, was what everybody else was reading. It united wine lovers, into a mystical union whose priest was Parker.
Today we have just the opposite situation. Wine lovers do not want to be considered part of a huge collection, of which they’re just tiny little cogs, with no say in things. Instead, imbued with self-esteem, they crave individuality. They want to be part of the conversation–not just listening to pronouncements, but truly engaged in a back-and-forth, where authority flows from both sides. They’re willing to listen respectfully to somebody who knows more than they do, but they want to know that the other person will acknowledge their point of view, too.
Print can no longer fulfill this parameter. It might want to, but by its very nature, it cannot. The Internet can, and does. That’s why Parker’s day is nearing its end: because he has not taken full advantage of the Internet to engage with people. It’s not that he’s too old; it’s that he has chosen to be stodgy and isolated. I have never understood why. Engaging through social media is easy, fun, instructive, and good for branding: all positive things. Perhaps Parker figured that he didn’t need any help branding, thank you. But everyone does. Apple didn’t need help branding, until it found itself on the receiving end of bad P.R. (worker rights violations in China, tax-dodging in the U.S.). Parker, too, has had his share of tsouris [look it up] lately. Had he already had a presence on the Internet (I don’t mean his subscription site, I mean the open, free Internet), he might successfully have fended off the attacks. But he didn’t. Like John Kerry in the Swift Boating incidents, he failed to defend himself, early and strongly. It took its toll.
What we can infer from this for the future are several things: The Internet will continue to become more centralized in wine criticism, as people (especially younger ones) turn to it, rather than to printed publications. At the same time, wine criticism itself will become increasingly de-centralized, precisely because that is the nature of the Internet. There will never again be another Parker, just as there never will be another Napoleon. America is too fractured and splintered to allow one person to dominate it.
I said at the beginning of this post that Parker’s influence is waning in the U.S. At the same time, it could be waxing in China, where he has been investing considerable energy for the last several years. The reason for this is simple: the Chinese–speaking of them as a broad market, and with no other implication–are terribly naive when it comes to wine. Naive people need guidance from a super deity, to hold their hands as they walk through the Valley of Ignorance. Americans, thirty years ago, were a naive people, when it came to wine. That is no longer the case. They–we–can finally think for ourselves, make up our own minds, be freed from the shackles of blind obedience. And that, ultimately, is why The Wine Advocate has lost traction. In attempting to talk to everyone, it has finally succeeded in speaking to no one, except a few who continue, like street addicts or zombies, to be hooked.
I myself will miss Parker. I thank him for what he has done. I respect him and wish him a happy retirement. He is a historic figure in wine writing, and although his day is done, what he has accomplished cannot be underestimated.