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Wine

Sympathy for the Devil

August 05, 2022

Story: John McCarroll

art: Kine Andersen

Wine

Sympathy for the Devil

August 05, 2022

Story: John McCarroll

art: Kine Andersen

Robert Parker has long been the wine world’s favorite villain—a critic who used his unprecedented power to flatten wine into an alcoholic, fruity mass of sameness. But “Parkerization” was always much bigger than one man.

For the last 40 years, the wine world has been living in the shadow of Robert Parker. For those unfamiliar, Parker is the most famous wine critic (some would even say critic, period) who has ever lived. He rocketed to fame by rating wine on a simple-to-understand 50- to 100-point scale and through plain-spoken, enthusiastic wine descriptions. Through his newsletter-cum-magazine, the Wine Advocate, Parker, until his retirement at age 71, rated hundreds of thousands of wines. As his star rose, he became subject to his own criticism and controversies, which ranged from death threats and lawsuits to, in one particularly notable argument over a score, a dog attack.

Due to the nature of Parker’s fame, he elicits a warping effect on wine discourse, perhaps most apparent in the term Parkerization, which refers to a massive suite of changes to wine aesthetics that are laid at his feet. Were it any other industry, certainly we would be suspicious of such power attributed to a single critic—he was, in a way, everything to everyone in the industry, a god-shaped hole in the center of the wine universe. To his supporters, he is “the father of wine criticism,” an almost-Churchillian figure slandered by history. To his detractors, he nearly ruined wine, instituting a reign of points that snuffed out all that was good and local, leading to wines that were, in the words of wine writer Alice Feiring, “soulless.” That’s a fair criticism of the wines, but I’d argue that it puts too much blame on a single man who unwittingly became the face of wine’s first globalized turn.

Parker and his points helped a certain class of consumers rationalize the choices they already wanted to make; in his own words, he was an 'ombudsman.'

Parker certainly didn’t invent the American palate, nor did he have to convince his audience—upwardly mobile members of the baby boom generation who cut their teeth on whiskey-based cocktails—to seek out fruit, sugar and oak. Instead, Parker and his points helped a certain class of consumers rationalize the choices they already wanted to make; in his own words, he was an “ombudsman.” The wine writer and longtime Punch contributor Jon Bonné summed it up best when he called Parker “the tip of a spear for a boomer movement,” for people who “needed something kind of reductive.” Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, the wine world was indeed wracked by a cavalcade of sameness: gobs of fruit, high alcohol and the dreaded dominance of international varieties—i.e., the cabernets and merlot—at the expense of local varieties. Wine certainly wasn’t the only victim of this globalized world, which saw nearly every aspect of our food systems and lifestyles transformed by global forces. If we zoom out to place it within a larger shift toward standardization of goods and craft, our Parkermania begins to look like a classic case of missing the forest for the trees.

Parker’s rise also coincided with Bordeaux, long the American ideal of French wine, in desperate need of a financial lifeline. Due to a string of bad vintages, falling currency values, labeling scandals and, most importantly, a glut of very expensive wine that wasn’t very good, by the end of the 1970s American confidence in French wine was bottoming out. In 1976, the much-ballyhooed “Judgment of Paris,” in which American wines outperformed the French classics on their own home turf, similarly pointed toward a Gallic decline. Parker, then relatively unknown, proved to be the miracle Bordeaux needed when he tasted the 1982 vintage in barrel. While other critics were more hesitant with praise, he adored them, writing, “There may not be another vintage this great for 50 years.” Parker’s say-so proved to be the key factor in the triumphant rebirth of Bordeaux futures, a form of speculative wine investment where wines are sold still in barrel, often with the promise of fabulous returns.

Where Bordeaux went, the rest of the wine world followed, and Parker quickly became its North Star. “Nobody ever forced winemakers to make those wines,” New York Times wine critic Eric Asimov says, speaking of Parkerized wines that began popping up in places like Spain’s Priorat and Italy’s Campania. “But the reason many of them did is because they wanted high scores.” By planting cabernet and mimicking Bordeaux, there was a path toward making money quickly, critical for regions wracked with debt and, in the case of Spain, recovering from a right-wing dictator with a very dim view of indigenous grapes. That the new wines didn’t speak of the region’s history or terroir was irrelevant—after all, what were the 1990s if not “the end of history”? Parker wasn’t always the source of Parkerization, though. In eastern Austria, for instance, plantings of Bordeaux varieties and syrah during an ill-advised shift toward big fruity reds in the 1990s were attributed to the desire for higher scores in Falstaff, a German-language magazine published in Vienna. “I always had the feeling that in Austria, Robert Parker was not that important,” says the Burgenland winemaker Maria Koppitsch. She cites instead the widespread adoption of the point scale, which Falstaff also uses, as the ultimate culprit. 

Rather than retiring along with Parker, Parkerization continues—a conforming force that can adapt to nearly any aesthetic.

Although Parker helped shape the market, he ultimately grew to resemble it more than it did him, a phenomenon Jordan Michelman, Punch contributor and founder of Sprudge, calls “meta-Parkerization.” The wine writer Elin McCoy references the same curiosity at the end of her 2005 book on the rise of Parker, The Emperor of Wine, noting that “so much of what Parker says he stands for caused the opposite to happen.” Originally an advocate for lower-intervention winemaking, going so far as to rant at winemakers for daring to filter their wines, in the 1990s Parker began to award high scores to wines, which he tasted blind, that had been manipulated. “[Parker’s] writing was anti-manipulation, but he liked a lot of spoofed wine,” says Asimov. The exact nature of that manipulation is detailed in Feiring’s The Battle for Wine and Love: or How I Saved the World from Parkerization, which includes a deep dive into all the tools that helped ensure a high-scoring wine, from laboratory yeasts to Mega Purple, oak extract and reverse osmosis. In her book, the Parker she presents—a bit of an oaf, but one who “charmed” her—is spared the brunt of her criticism. It is instead lavished on the industry, which clinically oriented itself toward what he liked to taste. In other words, Parker himself was Parkerized.

While the distinction between Parker the man and Parkerization can be a bit fuzzy, it’s important to make it. We can certainly see how instrumental he was in forming a lowest-common-denominator wine economy, but by blaming one man for the excess of the global palate, we tell ourselves that it’s over. In a way, it is. The current zeitgeist is not oriented toward wines Parker would like. (Famously, he disliked the Loire, and he’d likely be uncomfortable among the sea of chillable reds.) Yet it’s clear that the tools of Parkerization—the technological wonders that can make wine taste like pretty much anything—and the blunt force of global capital can easily be turned toward new targets. We’re already seeing industrial orange wines and mass-produced pét-nat show up on shelves—what Bonné calls “a cynical army of copycats” that follow the data points and trendlines with a similar lack of soul—and that process shows no sign of abating. Rather than retiring along with Parker, Parkerization continues—a conforming force that can adapt to nearly any aesthetic. Next time, it would probably save us a lot of trouble if we ignored whatever Emperor of Wine pops up and instead, we dismantled some of the infrastructure that makes one possible.

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Tagged: culture, wine

John McCarroll is a co-host of "Disgorgeous” a very loosely wine-based podcast. He lives in Brooklyn.