New in the Journal of Wine Economics: my book review of Parker’s Wine Bargains

Released today in the new issue of the Journal of Wine Economics is my review of Robert M. Parker, Jr.’s Parker’s Wine Bargains: The World’s Greatest Wine Values Under $25 (Simon & Schuster).

The full text of my review is available for free (PDF; begins on p. 209). I also encourage you to subscribe to the JWE to get the full text of all other JWE articles.

Here’s an excerpt from my piece:

…Even if the exaggerated style of winemaking championed by the critic Robert M. Parker, Jr., has fallen out of fashion amongst wine geeks these days, there are a hundred legacies that will endure for generations beyond the particulars of the man’s palate: his points.

Robert Parker was not the first wine critic to employ a 100-point scale, but it was he that etched the paradigm of attaching numbers to wine into the collective consciousness of the gustatory media. Parker’s leading competitors in America—Stephen Tanzer, Wine Spectator, Wine & Spirits, Wine Enthusiast—all currently use 100-point rating scales. Even the divergent foreign competition now gravitates toward other functionally numerical forms of secondary-school-test-mark mimicry: letter grades from A to F, points out of 10 or 20, glasses out of three, stars out of five.

If attaching numbers to wine turns out to be Parker’s main legacy, it’s a major one. A few decades ago, the wine writer’s primary role was merely to describe wines. But the purpose of the wine writer after Parker is to quantify their quality. The few prominent modern wine critics whose reviews don’t revolve around numerical ratings are in the minority, and they tend to be interpreted by some observers as an anti-Parker faction—even when they have no intention to be. You know that a framework has become canonical when anything in the field that doesn’t adopt it is understood as an attempt to refute it.

Canonization can have a stifling effect on the developing talent in the enterprise of writing. The literary scholar Harold Bloom has suggested that the canon can be a paralyzing force in the lives of up-and-coming poets, who struggle with the task of differentiating themselves from the same voices that inspired them to pursue poetry. Read too much, in other words, and you might convince yourself that there’s nothing new to write. The novelist Benjamin Kunkel, asked by London’s Observer whether he was influenced by the more famous novelist Dave Eggers, expressed that tension in a way that will be familiar to many writers: “Everyone I know has read him, but I don’t read very much contemporary fiction. I wanted very much to create my own sound, and I didn’t want to feel that I was either running to meet him or deliberately running away from him.”

Not reading Eggers is a choice that any fiction writer can make. But not reading Parker is hardly an option for the modern wine writer: the shelves of most upmarket wine stores are strewn with past and present Wine Advocate shelf-talkers, which function like permanent retrospective installations of Parker’s work. So we have no choice but to engage, and in so doing, we often divide: into those who run to meet Parker, perhaps with deference to Jacques Chirac and decades’ worth of popular wisdom from industry veterans; and the increasing numbers that run away from him, perhaps with complaints of global convergence on a big, oaky, high-alcohol style of winemaking, the marginalization of terroir, and maybe just a tinge of jealousy toward the man who made millions tasting wine.

If contemporary critics are split on the merits of Parker’s exaggerated palate, though, their revealed behavior of replication shows there to be supermajority support for his points methodology. Parker points were first imagined, in the spirit of Ralph Nader, as the guerilla ammunition for the consumers camping out in the vineyards, their last line of defense against wine bullshit. The funny thing is that the vision of independence from producers that originally inspired Wine Advocate seems to have been completely lost on the modern copycat magazines, many of which display full-page ads from the same producers whose wines are rated. Some even solicit application fees to be considered for wine awards. (Ashenfelter et al., 2010). Decanter, for instance, charges up to £103.70 or US$156 per bottle.

Meanwhile, to his great credit, Parker has more or less maintained his independence. He still doesn’t accept ads from wineries, and he still makes his money by selling subscriptions and books. Although, inexplicably, he doesn’t always taste blind—and although he was recently embarrassed by a lavish junket bestowed by the Argentine wine industry lobby (later documented by wine writer Tyler Colman) upon his right-hand man, Jay Miller—Parker’s core principles appear to be almost as unique in the industry as they were when first introduced 30 years ago.

Why, then, has he left behind his points system in his newest book and first foray into the world of inexpensive wine authorship, Parker’s Wine Bargains, a 512-page tome whose mission is to reveal “the world’s best wine values under $25”?…

[skipping forward to later in the review...]

“Three-quarters of wine produced in Provence is rosé, so that chapter, written by David Schildknecht, might seem a natural place to start. But Provençal rosé is dismissed wholesale by Schildknecht as an “ocean of pink plonk,” whose “existence” is blamed largely on the “uncritical comportment” of the “tourists who flock there” (although the “natives” share some blame as well). As a result, only the “small upper echelon” of rosés is “interesting.” How ignorant, those vacationers on the seaside who gaze out at the waves and simply enjoy the refreshing local wine with their grilled seafood instead of complaining about how uninteresting it is!

Of the more than 1,000 French wines under $25 recommended in the book, just seven are rosés from Provence, and even these seem chosen for their un-rosé-like qualities: one displays a “white-wine-like personality”; one has “carnal undertones…impressively concentrated”; another is “meaty.” One wonders whether Schildknecht has sworn off bread and salad as “plonk,” too, and eats only boar and venison, even at the beach. It would behoove Parker to assign Provence to a critic who actually enjoys the region’s archetypal style: not “carnal” rosé, but rather crisp, thirst-quenching, rosé-like rosé, the savior of many a summer afternoon for the fishermen of Marseille, for the billionaires of Antibes, for the vacationing winemakers of Bordeaux and Burgundy. To everything, there is a season…

…[In the South Africa chapter,] Schildknecht surpasses [Mark] Squires’ chapter-long specific-adjective count in a single review, his fourth of the chapter, which describes Backsberg’s Klein Babylons Toren as having a “rich, polished, barrel-enhanced mélange of tobacco, sealing wax, plum, blackberry, humus, iodine, underbrush, and sweetly floral notes, all suggesting a Bordeaux wine that would cost at least three times its price.” Ah yes, that unmistakable sealing wax-underbrush-iodine profile of Bordeaux costing at least $63. Maybe that’s what those ignorant tourists in Provence should be yearning for.

By the end of Schildknecht’s eighth South Africa review—we’re still only on the second page of the chapter—he has also mentioned quince, wet wool, lime zest, mulberries, sage, fresh green beans, apple, nuts, lemon, rose hip, more flowers, saddle leather, licorice, “smoky black tea,” vanilla, “lightly cooked blackberry and blueberry,” mint (twice), tobacco (twice), black pepper, sap, “dried black currants,” tar, (just plain) tea, baking spices, black olives, acacia, peach, cress, and white pepper. Later in the chapter, he identifies such pomposities as “salted grapefruit,” grapefruit rind, winter pear, “restrained gooseberry,” milk chocolate, roasted red peppers, “smoky Latakia tobacco,” beef jerky, soy, baked apple, tangerine zest, “salt-tinged nuts and grains,” and “tomato foliage.”

If the small size, friendly cover, and omission of vintages and point scores in Parker’s Wine Bargains invites in a new audience of everyday wine drinkers, then adjectives like that cast them right back out again. This spotty but persistent out-of-touchness with the mainstream audience is the central tension of Parker’s Wine Bargains. Consider, for instance, how little attention is paid to dry sparkling wine, a category much sought out by American consumers, whether as a dinner-party apéritif or for one of the “special occasions” mentioned on the book’s back cover. The past few years have seen an explosion of widely available méthode traditionelle wines under $25 from Spain, California, and Washington State. Yet of the 3,000 bottles listed in Parker’ s Wine Bargains, only 19 (0.6%) are dry sparkling wines, of which only three are Spanish Cavas and none are American…

…[B]ut the biggest flaw in Parker’s Wine Bargains lies not in its poor organization or arbitrary adjectives, but rather in the fact that many of the wines reviewed in the book are unavailable in the marketplace. It’s not clear whether or not there’s a production or breadth-of-distribution minimum for inclusion—none is mentioned in the introduction—but a good portion of the recommendations turn out to be practically useless, even to the savviest of Internet-ordering readers. Take, for instance, the listing of Veldenzer Grafschafter-Sonnenberg feinherb, a Riesling from a Mosel producer named Günther Steinmetz. If this wine is currently available for sale at any store in the United States, this reader, at least, was unable to locate it after an exhaustive search, which included a lot of time on Google and an inquiry with Mosel Wine Merchant, Steinmetz’s importer, who told me that 2007 was its last imported vintage, of which only 21 cases were distributed, all of them in Oregon and Washington State.

Some of the 100-point cult wines in Parker’s Wine Buyer’s Guide No. 7 may be famously elusive, but if wines recommended in Parker’s Wine Bargains, whose stated mission is to recommend bargain wines for “everyday drinking,” are impossible to find, even in America’s largest cities, it brings the book’s central function into question. What is Parker’s purpose, exactly?

Certainly his longstanding success does not derive from his ability to catalog the current inventory of your local supermarket, nor does it derive his ability to pick out blackberry or tobacco from a wine’s bouquet. It does not derive from the consistency of his observations, from his stated purpose of sorting out the good wine from the bad, or from any other of kind consumer advocacy. It comes, rather, from Parker’s talent for escapism, from his confident use of superlatives to capture the sensory imagination.

For most readers, flipping through an issue of Wine Advocate and reading about 100-point wines is like flipping through an issue of Motor Trend and looking at pictures of a Lamborghini: it’s an act somewhere between aspiration and entertainment. You’re not really considering whether the Diablo’s 5992 cc of displacement would be sufficient to get you where you’re going quickly and comfortably. You’re not even looking to buy a car. You’re reading the magazine because imagining yourself behind the wheel of a Lamborghini recreates the seventh-grade psyche of perfect possibility that is still buried somewhere in your weary folds of cortical memory.

Teenagers feel immortal, people always say. They think the finish really lasts forever.

It is the mix of idolatry and attainability that make Parker’s prose so compelling: these wines that win 100 points are described as Platonic forms, yet they’re also physical objects with real molecular structures; they’re liquids that can, at least in theory, come into contact with your mouth. Your local wine store doesn’t have the object of worship, and you couldn’t afford it anyway, but that’s hardly the point. It’s the ontology that matters: the idea that some wines really do win 100, that it is concretely possible to taste perfection, is irresistible. The very thing that invalidates Parker’s writing as nonfiction is what redeems it as fiction: his topic isn’t wine. It’s human contact with the divine.

Many of the people within the wine world that have become increasingly disgusted with so-called “Parkerization”—the tinkering with a style of winemaking to bring out more fruit, more oak, and more alcohol in hopes of improving a Parker score—would paint the celebrated critic as a power-hungry dictator with designs on reshaping the wine world just to please his palate and fortify his wealth. But to adopt that view is to misunderstand the fundamental human mechanics of Parker’s vast appeal. Winemakers may feel obliged to please him, but consumers are under no obligation to follow him. If you want to understand
Parker, look in the mirror.

Robert Parker is no dictator. He is a storyteller. The magnetism of his prose is that of J.K. Rowling’s, too: you’re first presented with a set of familiar facts and situations, and then, slowly, you’re seduced into suspending reason and believing in the perfectly impossible. Escape into a Parker review, and for a few sentences, there you are, back in junior high, the great critic’s palate—and yours, too—cured of its nagging mortality. In this counterfactual place, there is no perceptual bias, just perception. There is no confidence interval, just confidence. Parker’s 100-point wine is Gatsby’s green light, the orgiastic ghost of taste’s future, the tongue a sudden lattice of infinite resolution, the nose a sudden instrument of preternatural whiff.

Take away the Parker points—a slight disturbance that might at some point have seemed merely cosmetic to the book’s editors, like a font change—and that alternate reality suddenly slips away, like the memory of a dream in the seconds after you awaken. All that’s left in the sober morning light is an iterating network of fruit-adjective configurations in black and red type violating 512 sheets of white paper.

It’s not easy to be a wine writer after Parker. This fact, even Parker must face.

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3 Responses to “New in the Journal of Wine Economics: my book review of Parker’s Wine Bargains”

  1. Jason M 2011 02 July at 1:48 pm #

    Robin,

    As you revealed your potential biases in the article, I will gladly reveal mine: ANYTHING that takes Robert Parker down a notch is good in my book.

    Perhaps I missed it in your article, but I think you’re omitting a rather obvious theory to explain why Parker scraps his 100 point system in his tome of wine bargains. Is is possible that he, god forbid, likes some of these sub-$25 bottles as much, or even BETTER than the $100-plus bottles that grace the pages of his wine buyer’s guide?

    Although Robert Parker is a complete bullshit artist, I think we can both agree he is nevertheless a powerful figure, perhaps the most powerful in the wine industry.

    Imagine the repercussions of publishing wine ratings for cheap wines that were even CLOSE to those of the financially untouchable ones. Not only would such a practice completely invalidate the embarassingly high price of some wines, it would also deal a crushing blow to his own self-proclaimed expertise!

    In the interest of self-preservation, would Robert Parker ever consider doing such a thing? Of course not. Suggesting that there are cheap wines out there that are just as enjoyable as the expensive ones? Sound like a familiar concept? :) .

    Just some food for thought. I truly loved your book review, and public castration of Robert Parker. Cheers.

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