Robert Parker retires

It has been announced today that the world’s most famous wine critic has retired. The critic in question, Robert Parker, pretty much invented the genre, and was the first to use the 100 point scale that has now almost universally been adopted by wine critics. There are now perhaps 25 wannabe Parkers plying their trade as serious, professional wine critics, 10 of whom are employed by the newspaper he set up, The Wine Advocate (TWA). Lead critic there, Lisa Perrotti-Brown, today broke the news of Parker’s final retirement at the age of 71 (he’d pretty much pulled back from most reviewing already).

I never met Parker. I almost did, once, when the new Singapore-based owners of TWA arranged for him to come to London in 2015 for some events, including a press conference. But they had blacklisted Tim Atkin and I for our perceived negative approach to the publication (see [Not] Meeting Robert Parker.]

Like many, when I discovered wine, his book was one of the first I consulted. I loved the way it was opinionated, pretty comprehensive, and written with such obvious enthusiasm.

I had no idea at the time that he was a controversial figure, or that some people disagreed with his preferences. At the time (mid-1990s), I didn’t realize that respected professionals actually disagreed on the merits of some wines. I just thought good wine was good wine, and his strongly expressed opinions were therefore worth following.

Then I began discussing wine on internet Bulletin Boards, such as the Wine Lover’s Discussion Group (WLDG). This had spun off from a previous wine board operated by a service provider called Prodigy, which Robert Parker was a frequent contributor to. Hanging around on the WLDG was a great way to learn about wine, because you could eavesdrop on the conversations between experienced collectors and professionals, and hear what they really thought. And on travels to the USA with work I used to meet up with some of the contributors in events called ‘offlines’. This was the late 1990s, and it was a fertile time for wine on the Internet.

Indeed, there’s a really interesting write up of a dinner that Robert Parker hosted for some of the people who were on the Prodigy board. This was back in 1996. It’s a fascinating read.

Lots has been written about this important figure in the world of wine.

  • There’s the interview in The Atlantic, from 2000, titled The Million Dollar Nose.
  • There’s a review of the biography that Elin McCoy wrote (she had a difficult job: Parker thought it too mean; people who don’t like Parker thought it too soft)
  • And an insightful report of a session that Parker led at the Symposium for Professional Wine Writers in 2015.

Parker kicked things off, and now wine criticism is here to stay. Is there a new Parker? He nominated Antonio Galloni as his successor, but things went sour and there ended up being talk of legal action. The fiercely ambitious Galloni now has his own wine review empire. James Suckling, once of The Wine Spectator, also has a team of reviewers and holds events around the world. It seems that the future lies with a range of critics, each with their own audience, rather than one kingmaker.

The cloud on the horizon of wine criticism is score creep, though. When Parker established his reputation, he used a much wider range of scores. The competition to be the critic that is quoted has led most to score ever higher, so now the effective score band for fine wines is much smaller. Soon the high-90s will be so cluttered that all fine wines will effectively get the same score.

For now, let’s raise a toast to Bob Parker.

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