User login

Robert Parker: Bordeaux’s Point Man


Wine critic Bordeaux

Robert Parker: Bordeaux’s Point ManRobert ParkerRobert Parker owes his wife, big time. If she hadn’t been quite so fetching—and he so afraid of losing her—he may never have traveled to France to see her during her junior year abroad. He may never have tasted French wine, and his oenological experiences may never have gone beyond that one bottle of Cold Duck that made him sick. Years later, were it not for her threats to divorce him over t-he small fortune he was spending on wine,
he may never have tried to figure out a way to turn his newfound passion into a business.

But he did, and the result was « The Wine Advocate », which Parker—then a practicing lawyer-launched in 1978. Still sold by subscription and devoid of advertising, the now famous newsletter was strongly influenced by one of the activists of that period: Ralph Nader. “At the time, there were some terrific writers and wonderful books about

the history of wine, but there was nothing that was pro-consumer,” he explains. “I wondered why no one was simply tasting wines and giving a candid opinion of what they thought of them.” So Parker decided to do just that, accompanying his comments with scores based on the 100-point scale familiar to every American student.

The ethical approach he brought to this endeavor was shaped by a law school class taught by Sam Dash, who later became chief counsel to the Senate Watergate Committee. “It was all about conflict of interest” recalls Parker. “So when I realized that even the best wine books of the era were written by people involved in the wine trade in one way or another, I knew they couldn’t really be critical of sacred estates.” He therefore resolved to remain independent, purchasing his own wines, never soliciting samples and paying for his own trips and lodging. While acknowledging that many unsolicited samples make their way to his office in Monkton, Maryland, Parker also says that he typically spends some $100,000 on wine annually. In addition to « The Wine Advocate », Parker has published 11 books on wine, including the renowned « Bordeaux », whose 2003 edition received the new subtitle, « A Guide to the Best Wines in the World ».

His writings have been translated into numerous languages, and his work has earned him international fame, honors and awards including the prestigious Legion of Honor presented by President Chirac himself. Not surprisingly, Parker has also received a good dose of the criticism that inevitably accompanies such influence. « FRANCE » Magazine recently talked with him about his detractors as well as his extraordinary talent and the striking evolution in the winegrowing region that remains dearest to his heart: Bordeaux.

Your palate is legendary. You taste some 10,000 wines a year, often 100 in a single day. How do you do it?

I don’t know that there’s any one answer except to say that I’m passionate about what I do. I absolutely love it and have from the beginning. Actually, it took me a while to realize that I was better at tasting than most people, and even then
I thought it was simply because I was more single-minded and immersed myself in the field more than anyone else.
But I think tasting is really a question of concentration and focus. It’s not something that I bring to other areas of my life-my general practitioner jokingly says I’m a sort of idiot savant. And maybe there’s a little truth to that. I don’t have a photographic memory for anything else, and when I was practicing law, I couldn’t absorb a lot of the research.
I just had no interest in it.

Well, it’s a good thing then that you made that first trip to France. Otherwise what would have become of you?

That’s a distressing thought! Luckily, when it comes to wine, I do have this extraordinary photographic recall of smells and textures. I always remember where I had it, whom I was with. And I’ve always had that ability. Even in a noisy crowded room, when there’s a glass of wine under my nose, it’s like the entire energy and faculties of my brain become compressed into a little zone that smells, tastes, analyzes and breaks down the wine. I just love doing that and never get tired of it. What’s great about wine is that with each new vintage, you basically go back to school, you’re forever a student.
And you know there will be exciting new wines and depressing disappointments. So there’s always the thrill of the chase.

Do you do anything in particular to stay in shape for tasting?

When I’m on tasting trips, I don’t go out at night and haven’t for the past 15 years. When I was in my thirties, I could burn the candle at both ends, but these days, I start around 8 A.M., work until 6 or 7 P.M., then go back to the Novotel or Sofitel and have a salad and some water, do some reading and go to bed. So I’m fresh and don’t have the fatigue factor to worry about. I have also learned through experience to avoid certain foods, since they provoke undesirable reactions on your palate.

For example?

Well, I’m not much for sweets, but chocolate is a real no-no.
It leaves a bitterness that throws off textures and flavors. Watercress also imparts an incredible bitterness, and I avoid all spicy foods on tasting trips. I don’t think I’m as influential as some people say, but I’m not naïve either, and I feel that
I have a responsibility to be fair, to bring to the tasting table-not only at 8:30 in the morning but at 6:30 at night-every bit of my ability to judge someone’s wine fairly.

How do the wines in your personal cellar rate on the Parker scale?

I tell people all the time, “If you think Parker sits at home every night drinking 99-point wines, you’re wrong.” I drink a lot of wines from the Côtes du Rhône, the Loire Valley, Alsace.... My cellar is 90 to 95 percent French. My tastes are certainly diverse enough to recognize that there are some great wines from South America, Australia, Italy, Spain and so on, but I’m a Francophile. France is where I learned about wine, it’s my point of reference, and regardless of what anyone might say, no one beats the French in making wines of extraordinary longevity and elegance that actually work with food. A lot of people try, but it’s really hard. The French have centuries of experience and very special regions where these wines are produced.

Do you ever go for a stretch without drinking at all?

Every August I take off two weeks, and at the end of that period, I always ask myself, my God, how did I get through two weeks without good wine?

You’ve been visiting Bordeaux vineyards for more than two decades. What changes have you seen during that time?

Bordeaux today is certainly a higher quality, more consistent wine, and there is now a greater diversity of wines produced in this region. When I started writing, only about 20 to 25 percent of the top 100 estates-those in the 1855 classification as well as St. Emilion and Pomerol, which are not part of that classification-were producing wines of high quality that were proportional to their reputation and pedigree. Today, I would say that number has increased to 90 or 95 percent. Plus you have a new generation of men and women who have been pushing quality and making names for estates that I had never even heard of 10, let alone 20 years ago.

What brought on this evolution?

It really started with Emile Peynaud, the famous professor who died recently. When he began working as a consultant, his leading advice was that you have to pick ripe fruit. In his book, The Taste of Wine, he says that to make great wine, you can’t rely only on terroir, you have to pick ripe fruit; otherwise you end up with green tannins, high acid and unripe flavors. Just like when you eat an apple or peach, you want grapes to be ripe. He was the first to get people to realize that quality has to come from the vineyard, that conservative viticultural techniques are important.

What exactly are “conservative viticultural techniques,” and to what extent have they been adopted throughout Bordeaux?

Unlike New World vineyards, which are located in sunny climates and have no trouble producing ripe fruit, French vineyards have to contend with more difficult conditions-rain, cold and so on. The French have learned to deal with this in various ways. For example, if there are six bunches of grapes per vine, they will ripen faster and reach greater maturity at an earlier date than if there are 10 bunches. And if you pull off certain leaves by hand-an expensive, laborious process-you’ll get more sunlight and air circulation around the grapes, which will also promote ripening. This has been done in France for only about 10 or 12 years, but it makes sense because in the fall, they tend to get more rain, and that moisture and dampness can cause rot. Bordeaux vineyards may be producing better fruit than ever, yet they are also discarding more of their harvest than ever....
I think that’s one of the biggest changes I’ve noticed during the past 25 years. Nearly all the great estates have introduced second and even third labels, and they often declassify cuvées-that was virtually unheard of when I started in 1978. Yes, Château Margaux had a second wine in the early 1900s, as did Léoville Las Cases, but the percentage of their wine used for this purpose was minuscule. For the past 10 years, practically every top Bordeaux estate-whether it’s listed in the 1855 classification, a Pomerol or a St. Emilion-has been eliminating anywhere from 20 to 50 percent or more of its crop. Those grapes are either going into the estate’s second wine or being sold off in bulk. Cynics say that this is just a way of creating an artificial shortage, of keeping prices high, but that has nothing to do with it. It’s all about quality.
The Bordelais are very sophisticated and travel a lot, and they know that it’s a global marketplace now, that there is extraordinary competition. Theirs may be the number one wine, but it’s also the number one target: Every winemaker in the world has Bordeaux in its crosshairs. I think the Bordelais have responded to this challenge. Their rigorous selection allows only the crème de la crème, the very best cuvées, to get into the bottle, and this has a profound impact on quality.

A number of new vinification techniques have also been introduced. Without getting too technical, what do you think of the changes that have taken place in Bordeaux cellars over the past two decades?

Some of the biggest changes have been the enormous investment in triage tables to sort out only the healthiest fruit and the installation of temperature-controlled steel and oak fermenters. Wineries have also instituted soft (non-bruising) techniques, such as moving wine from tank to barrel or barrel to barrel by gravity or inert gases. And the new clarification techniques are much less eviscerating. All of these innovations have resulted in wines with more bouquet, flavor, texture and aging potential, and they are to be applauded.
Of course, you also see traditional Burgundian winemaking techniques in Bordeaux cellars-cold pre-fermentation macerations, malolactic fermentation in the barrel and aging on the lees. These are more common in St. Emilion and Pomerol but are increasingly being adopted throughout Bordeaux.

Your descriptions of the wines you score well often contain the words “rich,” “ripe,” “deeply fruited,” “round,” “voluptuous”-they conjure up a Mae West rather than a Princess Grace. Have your preferences remained pretty much the same over the years?

First of all, I don’t like to use the word “elegant,” even though I think it’s a given that Bordeaux are wines of lightness and elegance even in the more powerful, concentrated vintages. Why? Because I railed against its use by the British press as a euphemism for wines that were diluted and insipid. In retrospect, that may have been a mistake, since I am often accused of liking over-extracted, heavy-duty, new oaky wines, and that’s a myth.

Your famous “fruit bombs.”

Yes. A fruit bomb is Beaujolais in a great vintage. It’s fruity, it’s superficial, it’s a hedonistic wine but not all that satisfying. Bordeaux is not a fruit bomb. Even in its greatest and most concentrated vintages, Bordeaux is irrefutably an elegant wine in the truest sense of the word. And I think that Peynaud would have said the same thing. I was at this restaurant in Switzerland recently, and a man came up to me and said, “You like all these big, overly concentrated wines,” and I said, “OK, what are your favorite wines?” He listed a couple of Bordeaux and Burgundies, then I asked him what his favorite vintages were. Every one had been, when it was young, among the most concentrated, deepest, richest, fruitiest vintages ever produced.
You see, as wines evolve, they digest their baby fat, their fruit, and if they don’t have enough at the beginning, they’re not going to have any down the road. So if you judge a wine in a very short window—six months to two or three years-you could say, well, this is a fruit bomb or it’s a round, deep, fruity concentrated wine and doesn’t show elegance. But it’s those wines that do in fact show the most terroir character later on. They have more to them in the beginning, so they have more 10 or 20 years down the road.

This was something you learned from the ’82 Bordeaux, no?

Yes, that was a watershed vintage for me. I thought it was great, but other prominent American wine writers didn’t agree and actually thought it was a grotesque vintage and described it in pejorative terms. I never thought that. I had only five years’ professional experience at the time, but I remember this extraordinary opulence and richness. So I looked at cellar masters’ notes and talked with the old timers in Bordeaux about the great classic vintages such as 1961 and 1959, 1947, 1929, 1921 and 1900, and all of them said that they thought all those wines had been too delicious when they were young, that they had too much fruit, that they were atypical, not classic. It was only after 10 or 15 years when the baby fat was gone that you saw their structure, that the great terroirs they came from emerged.

Recently, you predicted that in 10 years, first growth Bordeaux would be going for more than $10,000 a case. Do you think that this wine will be drunk by anyone who appreciates it, or will it become merely a status symbol?

Already, Mouton Rothschild, Cheval Blanc, Haut Brion, Pétrus and others are becoming luxury items. Barring any major unforeseen developments in the world economy, I think that these wines will be increasingly seen as collectors’ items, which is rather sad. It’s the rule of supply and demand:
The production of all these famous wines is finite. It’s the same as it was 100 years ago, yet every year, the number of people around the world who come into the market with enough discretionary income to buy them increases significantly. Look at the Chinese - I think we’re going to see an extraordinary demand for fine wines from them. They like alcohol, they like the color red - it denotes good luck - and they are a tea culture that loves the structure, astringency and firmness of tannin. And I think that’s why they love Bordeaux. For Americans, weaned on sweet cola beverages, tannin is practically an alien component on the palate.

Speculation is another byproduct of rising prices, and a lot of people blame you for that.

Speculation is certainly the dark side of what I do. People have taken big Parker scores and speculated on wines in the hopes of turning profits. That has never been my intention, and I am completely against it. There is probably less speculation than my critics allege, and I think that for various reasons, it is getting harder to make a killing on wine. But it remains an unfortunate byproduct of my work.
I believe that wine is for consumption, for pleasure, but there will always be a few people who will see it as a way to make money. I am totally against that concept.

What do you see happening to prices for the other Bordeaux, those below the first growths?

I see a caste system. Given the supply and demand situation I just described, the prices of wines from very famous estates that deliver high quality will keep rising. They will pull up other top Bordeaux estates - not all of them, but many of them. The same will happen in Burgundy, where there is limited production of top wines, and in the northern Rhône. Below that level - and this goes for the great wines of Italy and Spain as well - the proliferation of vineyards in other parts of the world will bring a leveling and perhaps even a decline in prices. You’ll see more branded wines and a lot of competition for consumer interest.

What do you think Bordeaux winemakers think of you?

I think a lot of them have ambivalent feelings - most of them know me and probably have a great deal of respect for the way I work and think I’m a nice guy. But they also resent that anyone -whether they are French or foreign - has such influence or perceived influence on the marketplace. If I were a producer, I wouldn’t like it either.

The U.S. documentary film Mondovino recently caused quite a stir in France.
The general message is that wine is becoming globalized -nearly everyone is now growing the same few grape varieties, using synthetic fermentation yeasts engineered to impart tastes that are not naturally part of the wine and so on.
The implication is that all this is being done to produce wines with the same characteristics -ones that will please a certain Robert Parker. How do you plead?

Not guilty. I’ve been the subject of some very critical articles over the years, but I think that in any field there’s a tendency to want to look at things in black and white, to pigeon-hole people. I’ve seen it written that Parker likes only big extracted wines, fruit bombs, and that notion is totally alien to me. There are fruit bombs that I do give good reviews to - generally Australian wines, because that’s what they do best.
But I think that anyone who looks carefully at my writing -and not just my scores - and tastes some of the wines will see that I have amazingly diverse taste. I try to recognize what people do best in all different parts of the world. The truth is, there is more diversity and significantly higher quality in wines today than ever before. But this doesn’t get reported by journalists who are more interested in provocation than reporting the undeniable truth.

Do you think that Bordeaux is better off today because of 25-plus years of Robert Parker?

No question about it. I think I could argue that case and get a unanimous opinion in any court of law in the world. First of all, just look at the prices that they’re getting for their wines. Take every château that was selling wine back in 1978 and see how well they’re selling now, how well the owners are living now. Then look at how many wines that weren’t even reviewed 25 years ago are now being reviewed positively by me and other critics. Winemakers who are trying to do something special now know that there are critics who will recognize what they’re doing. Quality wine is expensive to make and involves taking risks, so if a wine does get good reviews, that exposure ensures a certain consumer interest that will support their courage, their financial commitment and their sacrifice in trying to make something special.
The result is a proliferation of quality wines.

To put it in another context, visit a top wine shop in the USA today. At least 100 to 150 Bordeaux châteaux are represented and sold to consumers. A quarter of a century ago, there were no more than 20 to 25 estates.

This article originally appeared in FRANCE Magazine -