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.
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