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Au revoir Parker, it’s been good to know you

43 comments

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.

  1. “Like John Kerry in the Swift Boating incidents, he failed to defend himself, early and strongly. It took its toll.”
    Steve, unlike John Edwards, right! You just can’t help yourself; you were writing a perfectly interesting article, then you had to once again interject this crap.

  2. Amen Dennis! Also, I wouldn’t bid Parker a fond farewell just yet. . . walk through any but the tiniest of wine retailers and most of the shelf talkers still have his John Hancock on them. In my regular conversations with wine newbies and enthusiasts, many still feel that he is one of the tougher critics whose opinion holds some weight.

  3. James McCann says:

    Steve,

    Did you ever consider that the reason Americans are no longer naive about wine was because of Robert Parker? It’s truly sad to see critics bashing the man with more influence than all of the others combined. (and I seem to remember that Robert Parker was the FIRST wine critic to understand the power of the internet, going back to the Prodigy bulletin board)

  4. “hold their hands as they walk through the Valley of Ignorance.”

    I’ve never had a decent wine from the Ignorance Valley region. Their techniques are outdated and they can’t seem to find the right varieties for that climate.

  5. Americans not naive about wine? I respectfully disagree. I think we’re at the same place we were 30 years ago namely because the Robert Parker’s of the world have perpetuated this myth that there is something “more” there that requires an expert’s careful deciphering.

  6. Dennis, Whether you agree or disagree with the substance of the allegations against Kerry, the historic fact–conceded by both sides of the political spectrum–is that Kerry harmed himself by not fighting back. That is the only point I was making. So this is not “crap” that I interjected, it’s a simple analogy. Calm down.

  7. Tina, I don’t know how old you are, but I guarantee you that Americans are not at the same place we were 30 years ago! I’m old enough to remember 1982 distinctly. Most people didn’t have a clue about wine. Young people in particular didn’t drink it. Totally different situation today. Granted, America isn’t as sophisticated about wine as, say, the French, Spaniards or Italians. But we’ll get there.

  8. raley roger says:

    No disrespect meant, Steve, but that strikes me as a rude headline. He has not announced his retirement; he’s merely celebrating his 200th issue. Can we just let the man celebrate the building of an amazing publication from scratch? What a feat he achieved, so perhaps we ought to just give him this celebration, instead of, once again, picking apart his career.

    He is a great wine critic and changed the American wine scene forever, if not the world’s wine scene, and I believe he did it all because of a very genuine love of wine.

    He was and remains perhaps far too busy to stop and criticize the careers of other wine writers and what they each are trying to achieve.

    He changed and deepened the way I look at wine, and I will always be grateful for that.

    You do throw some nice compliments in at the end, but the headline and tone were unnecessary.

    Surely, there is more to write about with regard to this vast world of wine?

    He remains so relevant: it’s obvious, otherwise why would all of these wine writers continue to spend so much ink on bashing the “Parkeriztion” of wine. Perhaps secretly, you all wish you had that kind of influence?

  9. James Rego says:

    Steve, You are a master at getting people riled up! Then, again, perhaps, they are already riled up!

  10. James McCann says:

    All one has to read is the following sentence to understand how this post is shallow and misinformed:

    “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.”

    When Robert Parker writes an article stating that Steve Heimoff is irrelevant, then we’ll know that Parker is through.

  11. Patrick says:

    Folks are correct to point out that Parker has not, strictly speaking, retired (though he’s stopped covering CA). But Steve is also correct to point out that his influence is waning, and his top-down model could well be out of step with today’s more interactive and locally-based style of crit.

  12. >>“hold their hands as they walk through the Valley of Ignorance.”

    I’ve never had a decent wine from the Ignorance Valley region. Their techniques are outdated and they can’t seem to find the right varieties for that climate.<<

    Yeah`, but it sure pumps out a lot of volume.

  13. I pour wine in Napa occasionally, the people I engage with usually know almost nothing about wine (unless they are from California) and they don’t know who Robert Parker is at all. Mainly, I think Parker is not relevant to the casual wine drinker. I don’t read him at all and I enjoy all types of wine.

  14. Kurt Burris says:

    A brewer friend of mine has commented on the occasional customer “vomiting ignorance”. No I know what he means and that I should capitalize Ignorance.

  15. Marlene Rossman says:

    Steve, you need to chill with a mental margarita…

  16. Even the most successful wine writers (note that I did not say critics) retire eventually, the wise ones do it gracefully. I think of Gerald Asher, and wish he would start a blog. Steve has captured a real sea change in this post. Thanks.

  17. Dennis Schaefer says:

    Apparently you came to bury Ceasar, while damning with faint praise?

  18. Steve Nelson says:

    Street Zombie 1: Cherrrrrrries!
    Street Zombie 2: ooooooooooooak!

    Sounds about right to me

  19. Yeah, thanks parker for encouraging sloppy, fat wine devoid of anything natural (like acids and flavor). Thanks so very much for your enlightened perspective on all things out-of-balance and full-throttle. Thanks very much for giving high accolades to those who leave their precious clusters two-three weeks longer on the vine for the sake of “hang time”. Thanks for supporting such a disrespectful approach to a time-honored traditional format of balanced winemaking. Now float away in a cestpool of high-alc and expensive fresh oak. May you be exposed for what I think you really are. A fraud of a wine writer.

  20. Being *extremely* close to the Gen Y age group, I can say for certain that most wine drinkers of that age don’t know who the hell Robert Parker is, except that he’s some old dude who’s been writing (on paper!) about wine for a very long time. In terms of shelf talkers having his “John Hancock” on them, the fact that they are there is in the hands of distributors and/or store managers/owners. It doesn’t mean that anyone knows who RMP is. Many newbies DO find ANY sort of rating or tasting note helpful though.

  21. Sin City says:

    Gallo had a lot of influence too on what people thought of wine. Especially pink wine. Too bad they are not on the verge of retirement.

  22. Steve, although a thoughtful post- I think you love getting us all worked up. Bob has not retired and was a wine consumer “advocate” in the early 80s, and still matters today.(just not as much)Perhaps because we are all more informed than ever. Keep in mind there were plenty of wine magazines and other newsletters which helped the uneducated wine drinkers buy the right bottles. There has always been the influence from wine journalists…Newspaper columns most of which were nationally syndicated like Robert Lawrence Balzar, Frank Prial,etc. Wine Spectator, Quarterly Review of Wines, Wine Trader, Underground Wine Journal, Wine & Spirits, even The Wine Enthusiast among others. He helped wine drinkers during a time when Paul Mason sold no wine before its time and Riunite on ice was nice, and then the accidental invention of white zin and wine coolers. Bob’s newsletter and other wine magazines still matter…I bought a bottle of wine yesterday because of what you said about it in the most recent Enthusiast. Today we have thousands of additional ways to get wine advice as opposed to dozens. It is a good thing to have progress and see the USA becoming more of a wine drinking culture. good post except for the headline…Cheers!

  23. Richard says:

    Steve, You just had to bring up Napoleon, didn’t you… dredging up all that old historical fact! I’m shocked, just shocked…

  24. I’m glad Parkers influence is waning.I’ve never had much respect for non-blind tasting results. Generally I cant afford any wines that Parker would bother to review anyway. I hope that CA wine producers will trend towards more balanced wines rather than trying to create “trophy wines” that will show well in a “horse race” but are not suitable for the dinner table. The goal of a +90 rating from the WA, has dramically shifted the production protocol from the original goal of creating balanced wine, expressive of it’s origin & cultivar. lets get back to creating delicious wine that is natutally beautiful, and not “augmented” so to speak, to fit a narrow definition of beauty.

  25. I was drinking wine for 4 or 5 years in 1982. I was a young person drinking wine. I was exposed to the wrong people and started making it in 1981. Started growing vines in 1985. In a few years later I was managing a wine shop and quickly found after a year or so where Parker was headed. I read his early books, etc. I pretty much agree with Randy. Parker has a great nose, but a horrid palate. The other thing that needs to wane is this penchant for sterility in the wine making business. Makes pretty darn uninteresting wines these days. The food processing concepts need to be removed from wine processing.

  26. TomHill says:

    Tim sez: “accidental invention of white zin”

    I’d not heard that white zin was “accidentally” invented. I’d like to hear
    the rest of the story.
    Tom

  27. Hi Tom, although Rose was produced by many a winery here in California for over 150 years, it was Sutter Home’s Bob Trinchero who tells the story of a saignee of Amador zinfandel in the mid 70s which led to the coined term White Zinfandel. He has always said that it was a wine resulting from an arrested fermentation of this saignee that he liked as did many a visitor to the winery. Bob does have a sweet tooth and lucky for the winery so did the American public…I don’t believe Parker or most wine writers ever scored the wine. ;-)

  28. Steve–Am off on holiday in Normandy looking for old Calvados these days so I am late to the party.

    Parker’s influence may be waning a bit, but his publication will only want if he lets it. The same is true for the WE and WS and the rest of us.

    BUT, wine criticism on a national basis has existed long before Parker. Robert Lawrence Balzer and Bob Finegan were there years earlier with followings bigger than Parker’s if one looks at the growth of American wine drinking.

    I only go back to the 1970s, so who knows what wine criticism looked like before that. Perhaps you should interview a historian like Charles Sullivan.

    By the way, Parker was not responsible for the shift to richer wines. Many winemakers, including lots of young winemakers, understand that increased ripeness does not, a priori, mean out of balance or short on flavor. Those who have pilloried Parker on that score apparently ignore his high scores for wines like Ridge Montebello or his early coverage of Spain and other areas.

    Parker’s age, like yours and mine, will, in years–not decades, change the Wine Advocate. Whether it will cease to exist is far less clear. It has so many readers that it can, like the WE, exist as a professional publication long after Mr. Parker decides to severely limit or even end his writing responsibilities. And do not for a minute ignore the possibility of someone taking it over and bringing plenty of energy. It has happened to Connoisseurs’ Guide, and my pub is a lot smaller.

    Finally, about White Zin. There was plenty of White Zin back 40 years ago. Full credit to the Trinchero’s for making a virtue of it. Interestingly, the existence of White Zin wound up saving a lot of old-vine Zin as the world was changing from generics to varietals.

  29. Tone Kelly says:

    What happened to Parker isn’t a decline or a fade to irrelevance. But a different phenomenon. When TV was young (1950s and 60s) there were only 3-4 channels (ABC, NBC, CBS and a few others). Only the highest talent had access to the American public. The big 3 had 97% market share. So what changed? Cable TV brought all this single issue, narrow focus, specifically targeted entertainment. Today, we have a very highly fragmented audience. Each person watches the programs that fit their profile.

    The same with wine reviews. In the 1970s and 80s you had to have a printing press to get your message out. Today we have the Internet and everyone has a voice and a means to publish.

    Parker hasn’t lost his way or gone into decline. Today we have many people proclaiming their message and voicing an opinion. The question for the audience today is to decide whom to listen to. Do the new voices have credibility? What is their track record. Do they have staying power? What do they like and more importantly what don’t they like?

  30. Steve,
    This is the first time that I have read your Blog….it will be the last! Not because I am a disciple of Robert Parker, but because your Blog post appears to be written with a shallow perspective on human nature. People will always look to industry experts when seeking information/advice on any topic. I agree that the internet has provided us a greater base for that discovery, but to negate Robert Parkers’ ongoing influence is naive at best and more appropriately borderline idiocy. Take a look at how many times his site is visited and the ever day mention of his name/opinions in wine circles. Also, you cannot diminish the ongoing growth of wine newbies who look to the “stodgy” Robert Parker and his staff for wine advice/opinion. Whether or not one agrees with his ratings, stylistic wine preferences or opinions, he cannot be dismissed “past tense” or outdated. I have 30+ years experience in the wine industry and have seen first hand the growth and development of the wine industry from within and the exceptional growth in sophistication of the public market in the U.S. Availability of information and exposure to wines from all around the world have aided in this growth. What you should realize about the U.S. market, when assessing the American level of overall wine sophistication, is that we have greater exposure to the wines from all over the world. No other country in the world has so many choices and therefore, so much information to digest. You mention France, Spain etc. as having a greater knowledge and sophistication regarding wine….that is true. Countries such as this have been drinking wine (mostly there own wine) for hundreds of years longer than the U.S. has been around. Robert Parker has done the most to try and even the playing field and cannot be dismissed ans “over the hill, stodgy, finished, on the way out……” Do yourself a favor and stick to what you know or you will lose any credibility you may have left.

  31. TomHill says:

    Thanks for responding to my query, Tim.
    As for the origins of WhiteZin, my understanding/recollect is a bit different.
    Actually, both DavidBruce and DaveBennion/Ridge made a (or several) WhiteZins back in the late ’60’s. And I seem to recall they called it “White Zin” on the label. Both were made using saignee juice.
    The first SutterHome WhiteZin was made in the ’73 vintage and it was labeled Oeil de Perdrix (Eye of the Partridge) at the suggestion of DarrellCorti. Thru the early ’70’s, KenDeaver’s ShenandoahVlly Zin was the only Zin source they used…maybe a bit of JohnFererro’s vnyd as well.
    I had heard a story from two different sources that that first ’73 WhiteZin was an accident..a screwup (hence the reason for my original query)..the result of a cellar worker accidentally pumping some (red) Zin into a tank of Chardonnay until he realized his mistake. I understand Bob was perplexed about what to do with it and Darrell tasted it, thought it was pretty decent, and suggested he call it Oeil de Perdrix and sell it for a song. Not even sure those first ones actually said WhiteZin on the label.
    I can assure you, though, that those first 4-5 SH WZ were NOT arrested fermentation of saignee. Those wines were bone dry and actually quite delicious and refreshing. But they found by sales of the WZ in their tasting room that leaving a bit of RS in the WZ, the sales increased. They gradually made it sweeter & sweeter till we got the pretty sickening sweet glop we have now. And, of course, they quit using primo Deaver grapes and went to cheaper (Clarksburg?) grape sources. So sad…cause those first ones were really lovely wines.
    On a related subject, they used to make a SH TripleCream Apertif (maybe still do). The base was some very old stocks of CreamSherry from EastSideWnry over in Lodi. Is was flavored with various herbs & spices (including nutmeg/oris root/orange peel), using a recipe that Darrel provided to Bob. The wine was an incredible, sweet dessert wine…very complex because of the old CreamSherry. EastSide is now gone (wonder what happened to that old stuff they had??) and they went to a far inferior cream sherry, which pretty much gutted the wine.
    And…not done yet…Bob had a small shed out back where he made several barrels of Orleans-process red wine vinegar. It, too, was absolutely terrific. And, of course, the famed Smoot-Hawley WhiteZin was produced only a stone’s throw away from the SH winery.
    Tom

  32. Right on Steve, as always!

  33. raley roger says:

    Once again, Charles Olken inserts a voice of reason.

  34. Rick Kushman says:

    Just FYI on the White Zin:
    I just wrote a profile of Darrell Corti for the current issue of Sactown Magazine – it’s not online yet and, yeah, this is a bit of blatant self-promotion; sorry – and talked with both Corti and Bob Trinchero about that. Here’s the excerpt as they told it. Keep in mind, this is simplified for a general interest magazine, but it has the sequence:

    Corti loved the zinfandel Charlie Myers was making from Ken Deaver’s vineyard in Amador County, so in early summer 1968, he and Myers took Trinchero to meet Deaver and look at the vineyard.
    “We went up on this hill under a great big oak tree,” Trinchero says. “Darrell took out a tablecloth and laid it over the hood of the car, then laid out the food. We had a great time.”

    Trinchero bought 20 tons of grapes from Deaver and made it into a national-class zinfandel.
    “The best red wine I ever made was those early Deaver Vineyard zinfandels,” Trinchero says, “ and that led to a very fortuitous event called white zin.”

    In 1972, Trinchero pressed some juice out before it was fermented with the skins to concentrate the color and flavor of the rest of the juice. He made that removed juice into a steely, bone-dry white wine they called Oeil de Perdrix, but because federal regulators required an English name on the label, they also called it White Zinfandel. Corti took half of it for the store every year Trinchero made it, though it barely sold. “If he didn’t take half,” Trinchero says, “I just would have blended it up into my Chablis tank [for his white jug wine].”

    That was another piece of Corti’s influence, supporting wineries he believed in, encouraging people like Trinchero to try things, and connecting winemakers to vineyards then to his store. What happened a few years later was not something Corti, or anyone, planned, but Trinchero would have never gotten that far without Corti’s backing.

    Trinchero didn’t make White Zin in 1973 – he needed every bit of juice he had for the red zinfandel – but did make it in ‘74. Corti took half the cases again in support, and again they barely sold. Then in 1975, Trinchero accidently messed up.

    The White Zin had what winemakers call a stuck fermentation, meaning it didn’t ferment completely and came out a bit sweet. Trinchero figured it also had a little accidental skin contact, so it also came out a little pink — and wine drinkers snapped it up. Over the next few years, Trinchero kept it pink and sweet on purpose, increased production, and turned Sutter Home White Zinfandel into a national phenomenon that opened the wine door for millions of Americans.

    “We sold 1.5 million cases in 1985,” Trinchero says. “It saved zinfandel—people were ripping up all those old vine zinfandel vineyards—and it saved our winery. None of that would have happened without Darrell.”

  35. Hey Kush! Thanks for weighing in. Great to hear from you. That’s a great story.

  36. TomHill says:

    Thanks for the correction, Rick. You’re right…it was ’72.
    ’72 was the rain-plagued yr, so Bob would have been saigneeing the juice.
    And that’s where I got my btls…from Darrell.
    That was a great article you wrote on Darrell. Several Sac friends sent me a copy of it. I was hoping it’d be online sometime so I could link it to a few wine boards I hang out on.
    Tom

  37. Rick Kushman says:

    Thanks, Tom. And I’m pretty sure the story will be online when the new issue comes out in June.

  38. Robert Parker’s waning influence is a very positive development, although it’s sad to witness his recent behaviour. Several of my fellow winemakers have pandered to the guy over the years, making wines that fit into his stylistic wheelhouse [sic] to get a big number (hey, it worked for some, right?). Then there are others, such as Jim Clendenden, who has my respect for making wines that take a different path. Perhaps we’ll see more risk-taking, the use of less-known varietals, etc.

  39. Better to be a “has-been” than a “never-was.”

    Any ex-high school jock will tell you that.

    Good advice for the rest of the wine world, methinks.

    Jeff

  40. Ryan C says:

    Steve – This sounds more like the eulogy of a disgrunted business partner than a wine blog post. If you tried to sell a bottle of wine anywhere around the world in the last 12 months, you would see RPs influence is stronger now than it ever has been. America’s wine buying populace is what is actually waning in terms of global market share. Get out and see the world while you have the time.
    – Someone younger and less jaded than you…

  41. Allen Clark says:

    Actually, I would agree that one key aspect of the Parker phenomenon is already gone, that of the wine critic who Knows All Wine. Parker did it in the beginning, when the wine world was a hell of a lot smaller, far fewer producers of “premium” wine than today. And he gave up the mantle willingly, as it was simply overwhelming, and he deserves a lot of credit for making it truly a wine review newsletter (several reviewers) instead of one man’s palate. You could even look at that as a humble bow to the Wine Spectator model, proven successful.

    I’m more willing to listen to the opinion of someone who has proven their consistency of analysis in a particular part of the world or type of wine, which is what Parker has done by relegating himself to Bordeaux and Calif. cab (essentially). By corollary, I don’t think any critic who tries to do it all in future will garner any credibility.

  42. Allen Clark: “I don’t think any critic who tries to do it all in future will garner any credibility.” Hmm. An interesting and controversial statement. I don’t agree or disagree; I simply don’t know.

  43. Insightful post. Thanks. And what a lovely lagniappe in the form of the story from Rick Kushman. :-)

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