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“Parkerization” is real. Lisa Perrotti-Brown has it wrong!



There is much to admire but also to object to in Lisa Perrotti-Brown’s op-ed piece in Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate, about Parker’s influence on wine. I hardly know where to begin to address the misinformation, but perhaps the biggest refutation of her claim that “parkerization is a lie”—repeated so often it sounds like it came from the telescreens of 1984—is that winemakers themselves say “parkerization” is real, and has dramatically changed their approach to winemaking.

“Parkerization,” or “wine parkerization” to be precise, even has its own place in Wikipedia, where it’s defined as less-acidic, riper wines with significant amounts of oak, alcohol, and extract.” That wines, especially in trend-setting Napa Valley and Bordeaux (where Parker’s influence always has been outsized), have undergone this stylistic development is made clear by the facts: “Alcohol levels of Napa Cabernet have increased more or less steadily since the seventies,” writes the Master of Wine, Benjamin Lewin, in his book, Claret and Cabs. Lewin cites studies showing that from 1975 until 1995, average alcohol levels in Napa Cabernet were between 13% and 13.5%. (The first issue of The Wine Advocate was in 1978.) From 1995 to 2000, they rose to around 14%, and then, after 2000, they went sky-high, in many cases reaching if not exceeding 15%. Lewin, citing a Napa winemaker, Anthony Bell, writes that “a deliberate change to riper styles” came in the 1990s, and that Bell “attributes it to Robert Parker’s influence.” This fully comports with the scores of winemakers I interviewed over the years, who all told me the same thing.

Perrotti-Brown’s contention is that Parker, who remains a co-owner of Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate and thus is one of Perrotti-Brown’s bosses, is not the cause of this phenomenon. Instead, she says, consumers are driving the change; Parker is simply an objective journalist reflecting this trend. We could, of course, debate forever the question of “Which came first?”, the consumer’s taste or Parker’s scores. That would be a fruitless pursuit. But to me, after close to thirty years of being at the center of the wine reviewing business in California, the answer is clear. While the old saying, “Correlation isn’t causation,” is, strictly speaking, true, we usually assume that blatant and repeated correlation is a form of causation. For instance, when we see the cue ball hit the eight ball, sending it careening, we infer with a high degree of certainty that the collision of the cue ball with the eight ball sent the latter on its merry way, even though, as David Hume reminded us, we cannot prove that to be the case.

So too is it with Parkerization. Over and over during my long career as a wine writer and critic, California vintners described to me how Parker scores forced them to change their winemaking style, even when they didn’t like the new style they felt compelled to adopt. I first heard this in the mid-1990s, not only from Napa winemakers but from others up and down California. By the early 2000s, the argument over whether wines, especially Cabernet, should be picked ultra-ripe was essentially over. Parker and parkerization had won. Only a handful of challengers, like Cathy Corison, could make “non-parkerized” Cabernet and get away with it.

There is something arch about Perrotti-Brown’s argument, a bit of “Methinks she doth protest too much.” It’s part of her job, I suppose, to defend her boss. Now, I don’t mean to disparage Robert Parker himself. As Perrotti-Brown points out, Parker has made “an incredible contribution…to our wine world,” and few understand this better than someone like myself, whose career overlapped his for many years. Working as a wine critic, in such a critic-sensitive place as California, I couldn’t help but be super-aware of Parker’s gigantic shadow, which made the rest of us mere fledglings beneath his eagle wings. I always defended Robert Parker; I thought he was entitled to every plaudit he got, and in fact our tastes in wine often overlapped. His high scores matched mine, almost bottle for bottle, in the areas, such as Napa Valley, we both covered.

I just think that Perrotti-Brown is a bit too outraged by the allegations of “parkerization” and I’m not sure why her outrage is in such high dudgeon. “Parkerization” is not “an erroneous slur,” as she characterizes it; it’s a description of reality. Every winemaker knows it; every critic knows it; every merchant and sommelier knows it.

Thought experiment: If Parker had not existed, would Napa Cabernets and Bordeaux have gotten as ripe and “big” as they did over the last 25 or 30 years? I can easily conceive of a reality in which the old style of red wine—anywhere from 11-1/2% to 13.2% or so—continues to be popular. After all, Bordeaux, upon which Napa is based, became celebrated hundreds of years ago, when alcohol levels were so low, the wines often had to be fattened up with Syrah from the South of France (or even, perish the thought, with Algerian wine!). There was nothing inevitable about people developing a preference for richer, higher-alcohol, oakier wines.

Yet the consumer did. Why? Here’s a little secret: as a critic, I have long thought that people will like the wines they’re told to like by the critics. This may sound cynical, but in fact, when people buy a wine based on a shelf talker that advertises a high score, they’re being very human about it: With so many wines, they do need help making choices. It’s perfectly natural for someone to think, “If a famous critic loves this wine enough to give it a high score, it must be a very good wine, so I should like it, too.”

Nor does this way of thinking characterize only beginning or uneducated drinkers. Connoisseurs, too, are psychologically influenced by the critics (believe me, the richer they are, the more enslaved they are to Parker scores); and when the critic is so famous as to have his last name turned into an adjective (“parkerized”), even the savviest, wealthiest collector will find himself under pressure to like a high-scoring Parker wine. So, while it may ultimately be impossible to say which came first, the chicken or the egg (the consumer’s taste in big, ripe wines or Parker’s scores), common sense tells me that Parker did: he drove the modern style. It’s called “parkerization,” and my suggestion to Perrotti-Brown is not to attack it but to celebrate it. Her boss created the modern wine industry; he, and she, should be justly proud, and own it.

  1. Bob Rossi says:

    A refreshing break from politics (I wish I could take a break from reading about politics more often). I didn’t read the linked piece, but I’m puzzled why Perrotti-Brown chooses now to try to refute the concept of “Parkerization.” After all, that term has been used by critics, consumers, and winemakers for many years.

  2. Good question, Bob Rossi!

  3. Bob Henry says:

    There is an antecedent phrase: The “[Émile] Peynaud-ization” of wine.

    Catch his obituary here:

    Excerpt from Slate online
    (posted July 30, 2004):

    “The Tastemaker;
    Émile Peynaud invented modern winemaking, but don’t blame him for what’s wrong with modern wine.”


    By Mike Steinberger

    “Émile Peynaud, the legendary French enologist who died last week at the age of 92, spent most of his professional life showing other people the error of their ways. Oddly enough, they loved him for it. This can be attributed partly to his disposition — he was, by every account, a mensch. But the reverence he commanded was mainly a function of his infallibility: On the subject of wine, pretty much everything Peynaud said was right. Having revolutionized winemaking in Bordeaux and beyond, he is justly considered the father of modern enology. If the term ‘modern’ has lately acquired a pejorative connotation in wine circles — and these days, it usually connotes a jammy, oaky, rather anonymous wine — that’s no fault of Peynaud’s.

    “Peynaud achieved renown both as an academic and as a consultant. A faculty member of the University of Bordeaux’s fabled Institut d’Oenologie, he was a beloved instructor and prolific scholar — during his career, he churned out hundreds of papers on all aspects of the vinification process. But he also put his knowledge to practical use: Over the course of his career, he served as an adviser to more than 100 wineries in Bordeaux alone, among them some of the most celebrated chateaux. (In later years, he also did work in Italy, Spain, and the United States.) In spreading his insights so liberally, Peynaud helped pioneer the role of the consulting enologist, and it was the time he spent in the cellars that set in motion sweeping changes in the way wines were made.

    “In the 1950s, there were good wines being produced in Bordeaux, but not a lot of them. Most were thin and tart, and many showed signs of spoilage. While the problems may seem easily diagnosable now — grapes were being harvested too early and cellars were unhygienic — that wasn’t the case then; early harvesting had long been the norm, and a dirty cellar was considered a noble eyesore. It was Peynaud, in his genial but persistent way, who persuaded the Bordelaise that their viticultural and vinification practices were yielding oceans of plonk, and it was at his urging that they began picking riper fruit with softer tannins and threw away their old, bacteria-laden oak barrels to replace them with newer ones.

    “His recommendations resulted in cleaner, fruitier, more supple wines that were accessible in their youth but also built for the long haul. His approach was not without controversy. In the 1950s and ’60s, there were skeptics who decried the ‘Peynaudization’ of Bordeaux — they believed that a fine Bordeaux had to be hard-as-nails in its infancy and generally took a dim view of any wine that was especially pleasurable. But in time, Peynaud won over even his most recalcitrant critics, because his advice yielded clearly superior wines. “Using only the very best grapes is a new phenomenon,” he told “Decanter” magazine in a 1990 interview. ‘For me, this is the crowning achievement of my work.'”

    (Bob’s aside: one of his pupils was Michel Rolland. You can consult the Wikipedia entry.)

  4. Richard says:

    Interesting comments Steve (hope you do more? Is this a comeback?). But I have to disagree (with much respect to your opinion) with you and agree with Ms. Perrotti Brown. I’ve always gravitated toward the oak, high alcohol wines that Parker loves – and I didn’t know who Parker was until the mid 90’s (embarrassingly). And Bordeaux wines were generally made based on climate – the 1947’s were very extracted and high alcohol as were some of the other great vintages. Though they were exceptions, I’ll admit. Having said that, and while Parker was certainly influential, I think the market supported what people want(ed). And still does – though perhaps it’s all an illusion…

  5. Dear Richard, thanks for your comment. I think History will record that parkerization was real and that winemakers around the world adapted their style to his tastes. I don’t think it’s “a lie” and I still feel that Lisa was a little too defensive in her op-ed piece. By the way–this is not a “comeback” on my part. I’m out of the wine business forever but every once in a while I’ll write about it if something interests me. Meanwhile, it’s far more important for me to Resist this current unnatural and twisted regime of trump.

  6. Only my second comment on posts in my career (1st was on the over/under 14% controversy), I have to comment on this one. I was dismayed in reading Lisa’s piece and am in agreement with Steve. I will let his piece stand on its own.

    In the 80’s when I was a young winemaker, I was shown the “Parker” barrels by a famous winemaker, with the right amount of ripeness and oak to influence a high score when shown to Robert. It worked.

    As one of the last pupils of Andre Tchelistcheff, and directed by him to research his collaborations with Peynaud, Dinnie Webb, Maynard Amerine and Ribereau-Gayon, I can say that Parker and Peynaud may have indeed had at least in common a somewhat profound effect on style and character of winemaking, but in different directions. No Lie – ask any winemaker.

    In Vino Veritas,
    Greg La Follette
    Alquimista Cellars

  7. PETER W GEILER says:

    I agree with Lisa as the first statement on the Wine Advocate is about tasting for yourself!

    I like low acid, big flavored Cabs from anywhere!!

  8. Bob Henry says:

    Let’s quote the man himself . . .

    From The Wall Street Journal “Off Duty” Section
    (November 9, 2012, Page Unknown):

    “Drinking With Robert M. Parker Jr.;
    Over a crab-cake lunch, the influential wine critic reveals a surprising taste for simple Spanish whites.”


    By Lettie Teague
    “On Wine” Column

    “It’s not often that a man achieves so much power that his name is transformed into an adjective, but that’s exactly what happened with Robert M. Parker Jr. , the famous wine critic. Mr. Parker is not only the most influential wine critic in the world, he has also inspired the creation of so-called Parkerized wines.

    “What is a Parkerized wine, anyway? I asked Mr. Parker, who was sitting across from me in his Maryland living room. (When I’d asked Mr. Parker if we might meet for a chat, he had suggested lunch at his house featuring crab cakes made by his wife, Pat.) ‘Well, it’s not a word you’d find in Larousse,’ Mr. Parker said. But he added, more seriously, that ‘Parkerized’ was a term generally employed in a negative fashion to describe a wine that was ‘oaky, alcoholic and bombastic — which I totally disagree with, by the way.’

    “Mr. Parker believes that the more accurate definition of a ‘Parkerized’ wine would be ‘one produced from previously underachieving vineyards whose winemakers got serious about creating a quality wine.’ After all, the 65-year-old Mr. Parker has spent his entire 30-year career championing talented winemakers who produce wines that outperform the standards of their country, their region and their peers.

    . . .

    “. . . Mr. Parker is an unabashed fan of deliciousness — his pleasure is practically palpable, his excitement truly infectious, even if it occasionally goes over the top.”

  9. Bob Henry says:

    Steve wrote:

    ” ‘Alcohol levels of Napa Cabernet have increased more or less steadily since the seventies,’ writes the Master of Wine, Benjamin Lewin, in his book, ‘Claret and Cabs.’ Lewin cites studies showing that from 1975 until 1995, average alcohol levels in Napa Cabernet were between 13% and 13.5%. (The first issue of ‘The Wine Advocate’ was in 1978.) From 1995 to 2000, they rose to around 14%, and then, after 2000, they went sky-high, in many cases reaching if not exceeding 15%.”

    Back in the 1970s and into the 1980s, historical earlier picking practices (harvesting based on textbook brix levels, not “physiological ripeness”) combined with older vines and diseased vines acted as a de facto restraint on ripeness.

    The later replanting of North Coast vineyards due to phylloxera led to experimentation with a matrix of new practices: different variety clones planted in new locations; higher density vine planting; new trellising schemes; drip irrigation (less dry farming); new canopy management schemes; later picking of grapes (“physiological ripeness”) and rigorous sorting tables; more efficient alcoholic conversion strains of yeast; replacing older and less hygienically “clean” barrels with new barrels from different oak forests and different toast levels; et cetera.

    Peynaud had an influence. Parker had an influence. Rolland had an influence.

    No one person can take the lion’s share of credit — or blame.

  10. Bob Henry says:

    “Here’s a little secret: as a critic, I have long thought that people will like the wines they’re told to like by the critics. This may sound cynical, but in fact, when people buy a wine based on a shelf talker that advertises a high score, they’re being very human about it: With so many wines, they do need help making choices. It’s perfectly natural for someone to think, ‘If a famous critic loves this wine enough to give it a high score, it must be a very good wine, so I should like it, too.”


  11. Bob Rossi says:

    That cartoon that Bob Henry links to is fantastic. I think I’ve seen it before, but it still makes me laugh.

  12. Bob Henry says:

    A celebrated ultra-ripe, high alcohol California wine that predated Robert Parker and his influence.

    Received a rare and rave “20 point” (“perfect”) score from Robert Lawrence Balzer of the Los Angeles Times.

    The 1968 Mayacamas Late Harvest Zinfandel.

    From Wines & Vines magazine
    (January 2009):


    “Handling Extra Ripeness

    “1968 Mayacamas Late-Harvest Zinfandel Robert Travers was in the process of buying Mayacamas Winery in 1968, when he and then-winemaker Bob Sessions (who later moved to Hanzell) made what he believed to be the first wine to be labeled late-harvest in the U.S. It wasn’t a Riesling or a botrytized Sémillon, however, but a red Zinfandel. This accidental wine made waves with critics, such as Robert Balzer, and the wine trade. It showed other California winemakers for the first time how attractive full-bodied, ripe-flavored wines could be.

    “It also demonstrated that standard yeasts could tackle higher sugars than previously believed. Travers, who still runs Mayacamas with his sons, said he and Sessions were processing the other grape varieties and couldn’t bring in the Zinfandel when they wanted to. A week or 10 days later, the sampling showed 28º Brix. The true level was closer to 30º, he said, after the raisined berries soaked. The final alcohol level was 17%. In those days winemakers didn’t wait for ultra-ripeness, and no one knew if the must would ferment dry before it killed off all the yeast. But after six months of slow bubbling on 505 Montrachet, rather than the usual six days, the Zinfandel went nearly dry and retained surprisingly good acidity, Travers recalled. “I thought it was tasty and enjoyable right away. To me it was significant because it made an interesting wine with a different character to it — jammy, pruney, you could say raisiny, but very attractive.”

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