Elin McCoy, The Emperor of Wine: The Rise of Robert M. Parker, Jr., and the Reign of American Taste

[Note: This is another comment dating from 2006, written for the same group of high school friends who were the original audience for my review of John McWhorter’s book, posted below. I remember going through the book during my summer vacation back in 2006 in little more than a day, hiding from the rest of my family.]

Those who follow the American wine trade even minimally know that Robert Parker is today’s undisputed arbiter of quality in wines. Imagine that in the art or film world, a single critic will decide whether a painting has value or a film is worth seeing. That’s the role of Parker today. How he got there is the nub of Elin McCoy’s story, of which I knew nothing previously. I learned that Parker is a guy roughly my age, born in 1947, who grew up in rural Maryland. His family sounded much like mine, with rarely anything other than milk on the table. His college girl friend, who was to become his wife, spent her junior year in a university in France. Parker visited her and became entranced by the centrality of good food and good wine in French society, like many Americans in the ‘70s, (I am another). He also found that he had a sensitive palate and was able to see differences in wine that sail by most of us.

 McCoy tells the story of how Parker went from a lawyer writing a Baltimore-Washington area wine review in his spare time to the most powerful wine critic today, maybe ever. While in law school, he was very much drawn to Ralph Nader (the Nader of the ’70s, not the guy who helped Bush into the White House), and saw his wine newsletter as part of a Nader-like mission – perhaps the better analogy is to the magazine Consumer Reports. Parker was convinced that the public paid too much for wine. Many wineries were living on their reputation and overcharging shamelessly. Parker’s newsletter was designed to rectify this situation. It was a strictly no-nonsense wine review – no pictures, no advertising by wineries that might compromise the objectivity of his work, no fluffy life-style pieces. It carried a rating for each wine he reviewed, on a scale of 100 – an 89 was much better than an 86, but not as good as a 91 (like a lot of term papers we wrote in college). McCoy shows how Parker wore down the competition, to the point that he became the “only game in town.” His ratings carried the day with wine consumers, and so with the wine makers. As a vintner, getting a 95 from Parker meant the good times were about to roll; getting an 78, by contrast, meant you were in for a long winter.

Today, Parker’s books on wine, with their 100 point ratings, have been translated into a zillion languages, and have driven the price of quality wines through the roof – people will now pay $200-300 per bottle for a wine that Parker has rated 95 or up. “The Irony of Success” might have been a good subtitle for this book. The consumer watchdog who wanted to make sure the little guy didn’t get burned when he shelled out for a good bottle of wine has driven the price of wine way beyond what we little guys can reasonably afford.

The sub-themes in this book are as fascinating as those involving wine: the herd mentality that often pervades the market for luxury goods; the American tendency to want to reduce everything, from cheese cakes to colleges to college term papers, to an “objective” point scale; the awakening of Americans in the ‘70s and ‘80s to the virtues and pleasures of quality cuisine (very much a baby boomer phenomenon, according to McCoy, as the boomers grew out of their more spartan ‘60s pleasures); the rise of the California wine industry, also in the ‘70s and ‘80s; and, because Parker’s favorite wine area is Bordeaux, insights into differences between French and American business ways and how a hard-charging American can win friends and influence people in the very different French culture and society.

McCoy is a former food critic for Food and Wine. She has written a scrupulously objective study of a very polarizing figure, who has both fanatical followers and those who consider him to be a diabolic force. You don’t have to love wine to enjoy this book.


Filed under Food and Wine

3 responses to “Elin McCoy, The Emperor of Wine: The Rise of Robert M. Parker, Jr., and the Reign of American Taste

  1. You summarize the Parker phenomenon well, and it would seem that the book does too. I am struck by the generational thing. Robert Parker is one of us, the now aging baby boomers, and I and I’m sure others instintively identify with his desire as a young man to opt out of sanitized American suburban culture in favor of adventure. Many of us acted out those years with a similar sensibility, although Parker did so with an admirable fixity of purpose. But in a sense, as an American of our post-World War II generation, he came to wine from nowhere, and the critical milieu of wine he has created reflects that disconnect.

    As you say, Parker did bring an American democratic sensibility to the encrusted chauvinism of old world views of wine (although he has a very “old world” obsession with the classic wines of Bordeaux). I think that much of that encrusted chauvinism was to be found more among rich, “arriviste” Americans than among Europeans. In, say, France or Italy, such tastes come naturally and unselfconcsiously as part of growing up; here, one has to make a decision and an effort. Something about that doesn’t seem right. Maybe in a few more generations our American culture will not require such conscious effort for the better things in life.

    I admire many things about Parker, but there is one way in which Parker has been bad, bad, bad. His rating system and aesthetic has had the effect of taking the wine out of its natural setting amongst the food and the table, the racket of family and friends, the tones and glances of lovers. I don’t think wine is meant to be a standalone experience, and Parker’s approach, perhaps unintentionally, treats it that way.

  2. Tom Peebles

    Tom makes some good points, as usual. It’s interesting that in our time, wine in the US has gone from being associated with winos and skid row drunks when we were in our early teens to now being a somewhat effete and elitist preoccupation. If Rick Santorum drinks wine – and he may well – I’d guess that he’s not advertising it as he courts votes. In America, we never hit the mid-point where France (and to a slightly lesser extent Italy and Spain) have always been, as a very natural adjunct to good food and good conversation around a congenial, animated lunch or dinner table for almost all income levels. One amusing mention of Parker deserves note: I was reading an article the other day about a fairly rich guy, probably what would qualify in today’s jargon as a 1 per center, bragging to another fairly rich guy that he had a cellar full of “Robert Parker wine.” Not Bordeaux, not Napa Valley or Burgundy, but Robert Parker wine. Parker has arrived, at least for these arrivistes.

  3. Tom Thompson

    That anecdote is very funny, and, as you suggest, all too telling.

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