They called it a tempest in a wine glass: two of the world’s most respected wine writers facing off against one another over one bottle of wine. Of course, there’s nothing unusual about critics disagreeing, even vehemently. But this time, the debate degenerated into a rumble over the definition of wine itself—and the integrity of the critics.
In the American corner was Robert Parker, whose wine scores carry so much weight that they move the market. From Britain, was author Jancis Robinson, Master of Wine and columnist for the Financial Times of London. Both have written more than a dozen books and both have been experts on wine for more than twenty-five years.
The power of these writers reflects the overwhelming choice and confusion consumers face when they buy wine. There are more than a million wine producers worldwide, most quite small.
No other industry has such a wide range of brands and prices, from boxed plonk for $10 at the liquor store to cult bottles for several thousand dollars at auction. Without a critic’s tasting note and score, most consumers have to guess if they’ll like the wine just by looking at the label.
At issue was a red wine from Bordeaux: the 2003 Château Pavie made by the controversial businessman Gérard Perse. In the 1990s, Perse, who had made his millions by founding a Paris grocery chain, bought several prestigious properties around the medieval town of Saint-Emilion: Château Monbousquet, Château Pavie Decesse, Château La Clusière and Château Pavie. He also invested millions in his new estates and in their winemaking facilities. (Though one traditionalist grumbled that his floodlighting of Château Pavie at night looked “like Disneyland.”)
Bordeaux has fifty-seven appellations, but the five best known for their wines are Graves, Sauternes and Médoc on the left bank of the Gironde estuary and Saint-Emilion and Pomerol on the right. Perse was part of a small group of nontraditional winemakers on the right bank, some of whom were called garagistes because their production was so small it could fit into a home garage. Others, like Perse, had revitalized larger, existing wineries. Pavie, for example, produces about one hundred thousand bottles a year.
These winemakers cut their yields dramatically and picked late in the season to get extra ripeness from the grapes. (In fact, many vintners considered 2003 hotter than the past fourteen vintages, which exaggerated this ripeness.)
They used winemaking approaches unconventional for the region, such as letting fermentation and maceration go on for about thirty days compared to the average twenty days to extract more color and flavor from the skins. Some used micro-oxygenation, a technique that pumps tiny amounts of oxygen into the wine as it ferments in the tank. The extra oxygen accelerates aging, which normally happens slowly in the barrel. As a result, the wine feels rounder and more full-bodied in the mouth earlier in its life.
Others went so far as to finish fermentation in new oak barrels rather than the customary stainless steel vats—and some even did it twice, transferring the maturing wine from one extra-toasted barrel to a second one to extract the maximum amount of those sweet, smoky aromas. (They called this 200 percent new oak.) Many of these wines weren’t made from particularly exalted land or grapes, but their style was an extraordinary departure from what was typical in Bordeaux, usually a paragon of balance and elegance: they were rich, robust, deeply colored and high in alcohol.
Some of these wines—Pavie, Le Dôme, Gracia, Valandraud—were strikingly similar to the cult cabernets of California, such as Screaming Eagle, Bryant Family Vineyard, Colgin Cellars, Harlan Estate and Staglin Family Vineyard. In fact, traditional winemakers on the left bank criticized them for being more Californian than Bordelais. What really got up the noses of the establishment, though, was that these arrivistes had no track record—and worse, didn’t price their wines according to the conventional pecking order. For French aristocrats, this was as deplorable as if their only daughter had eloped with a Las Vegas blackjack dealer.
The traditional order in Bordeaux had been established in 1855: to prepare for the Universal Exhibition in Paris, Napoléon III asked the Bordeaux wine brokers to rank the top châteaux. They classified the red wine, which is 88 percent of what the region produces. Sixty-one châteaux were put into five tiers. The top-ranked wines, called first growths, included Lafite-Rothschild, Latour, Margaux and Haut-Brion. In 1973, Château Mouton-Rothschild was elevated from second growth to first, the only change to the original classification.
The classified wines all came from the left bank—they were thought to be more serious, with greater aging potential than those on the right bank. All Bordeaux wines are blends of grapes: the whites are made from sauvignon blanc, semillon and muscadelle; and the reds from cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, merlot, petit verdot and malbec. However, left bank wines use more cabernet sauvignon in their blend, a tannic grape that gives the wine structure and the ability to age for decades. Right bank wines use more merlot, a less tannic grape that creates a plusher, softer texture that allows the wine to be consumed earlier (though these can also be aged to distinction).
The 1855 classification was based largely on price, which at the time was the best indicator of quality. The top-ranked wines are still generally the most expensive today, though in the intervening century and a half, many of the châteaux have changed ownership. A new owner, for better or worse, can affect vineyard practices, quality and even the exact boundaries of the vineyard.
Yet the garage wines sold for stratospheric prices, often higher than for the established first growths. Newly released bottles of Valandraud started at $250. The French may have been outraged, but New World buyers weren’t. New York retailer Sherry-Lehmann sold the 2003 Château Pavie for $190 a bottle in 2006.
In his newsletter The Wine Advocate, Parker described the 2003 Pavie as “off-the-chart” and created by perfectionists. “It is a wine of sublime richness, minerality, delineation and nobleness,” he enthused. “Inky/purple to the rim, it offers up provocative aromas of minerals, black and red fruits, balsamic vinegar, licorice, and smoke. It traverses the palate with extraordinary richness as well as remarkable freshness and definition…. A brilliant effort, it, along with Ausone and Pétrus, is one of the three greatest offerings of the right bank in 2003.” Parker gave the wine a rare score in the range of 96 to 100 points out of 100. (He would give the wine an exact score after it was bottled in 2006.)
In his view, the Pavie property possesses “one of the greatest terroirs,” and its limestone and clay soils “were perfect for handling the torrid heat of 2003.” He was bullish on the wine’s ability to age too. “The finish is tannic, but the wine’s low acidity and higher-than-normal alcohol (13.5 percent) suggests it will be approachable in 4-5 years,” he wrote.
Jancis Robinson was unimpressed with Château Pavie to almost the same degree: she gave the wine a score of just 12 out of 20, describing it as having “completely unappetizing, overripe aromas. Why? Porty-sweet. Port is best from the Douro, not Saint-Émilion. Ridiculous wine, more reminiscent of a late-harvest zinfandel than a red bordeaux with its unappetizing green notes.”
The Pavie debate helps to crystallize the differences between two of the most powerful figures in the world of wine. They approach their subject from almost opposite perspectives. When it comes to scoring wine, Robert Parker is acknowledged to be the world’s most influential critic. Jancis Robinson is considered one of the best writers for chronicling the people and places in the wine world. Knowing about their training and experience helps to understand these differences and how they influence the wine we drink.
No one in the wine world is more followed or feared than Robert Parker. Few topics provoke more controversy than his 100-point scale. Retailers refer to the “Parker effect”: a wine he scores above 90 can’t be bought (because demand for it is so high), and one below 80 can’t be sold (because drinkers think it’s inferior).
Parker seems to attract both honors and controversy. He’s been presented with two of France’s highest civil awards; and he raised $24,000 at a U.S. charity auction from a bidder who just wanted to dine with him. He’s also been slapped with a libel suit and has received death threats. His palate is viewed as the vinous equivalent of Michelangelo’s right hand.
Parker has been described not just as the most powerful wine critic, but as the most powerful critic in any particular field. As Adam Gopnik wrote in The New Yorker in 2004: “Not since Bernard Berenson made his lists of true and false Italian pictures had an American expert on the arts so fundamentally changed the economics of European culture. As with Berenson, what mattered was not so much that the list was right—who could tell for sure?—as that the list existed.”
How did this happen to the man who was born a dairy farmer’s son in a small Maryland town in 1947? Parker’s parents didn’t drink wine, or even milk—they were Coca-Cola folk. He was 20 before he discovered wine. During Christmas vacation from law school in 1967, he went to France to visit his high school sweetheart, Pat Etzel, who was studying at the University of Strasbourg. Since they were eating on student budgets, Etzel encouraged him to drink the local table wines, which were cheaper than Coke. Parker was immediately smitten—both with French wines and with Etzel, whom he later married.
Parker rose to stardom on the flood tide of wine appreciation in late-1970s America, as a newly moneyed middle class developed a thirst for the finer things in life. But the country didn’t have a traditional wine culture, nor the knowledgeable merchants of Britain. (Wine was, and still is, sold through a three-tier distribution system that effectively keeps most of the importers who taste the wines well away from the consumers who buy them.) Although the domestic wine industry was making strides, Americans tended to choose from a far wider range of wines than did Europeans, who mostly drank their local wines. Those fledgling U.S. consumers had few resources to guide them, so they quickly latched on to Parker’s guidance—particularly since he seemed to be an ordinary person like themselves, not some bow-tie connoisseur. His newsletter, now called The Wine Advocate, quickly established itself as the Consumer Reports of wine and today has some 45,000 subscribers.
Parker considers himself the Ralph Nader of wine. Like Nader, this self-taught critic crusades on behalf of consumers rather than cozying up to the industry. “When I started, most wine writers existed at the largesse of the wine trade,” he explained to me when we spoke by phone. “But I went to law school during Watergate, and the professors really beat into us what a conflict of interest was.”
The Advocate’s front page announces that it “relentlessly pursues the goal of providing valuable, uncensored, totally independent and reliable information on wine and issues affecting wine quality to those consumers in search of the finest wines and best wine values.” The newsletter’s graphic, a corkscrew, is designed in the shape of a Crusader’s cross.
“Early in my career, producers offered me Napoleonic music boxes, a Porsche and their daughters,” Parker tells me with a chuckle. One enterprising Burgundian winemaker Dominique Lafon, once took it upon himself to include two free cases of his 1987 vintage with Parker’s order—knowing that Parker’s daughter was born in 1987. But Parker deflected the gesture: he sent Lafon a check for the wine he’d ordered, and a note saying that he had donated the estimated value of the 1987s to charity.
Another time, when Parker sardonically observed that one vintner’s wines tasted good with microwaved food, the producer actually sent him an expensive microwave oven. Parker had the appliance delivered to a local liquor store and told the vintner to pick it up there or it would be donated to charity. By now, he says, most vintners know that such tactics are a “no-go.”
Yet Parker has been criticized for co-owning with his brother-in-law an Oregon winery that produces pinot noir. He tries to head off any accusations by declaring this interest publicly in The Wine Advocate and by giving his colleague Pierre Rovani responsibility for evaluating wines from the Pacific Northwest and Burgundy.
What established Parker as the world’s leading critic was going head-to-head with several leading writers of the time by declaring the 1982 Bordeaux vintage to be one of the best ever. (He calls it the vintage that allowed him to leave the law.) Those who believed his assessment scrambled to buy the wines from that year; and eventually, consensus moved to his side. Subscriptions to the Advocate leapt from 7,000 to 10,000. (One Chicago retailer recalls a taxi driver coming into his store brandishing the newsletter: he wanted to buy all his cases of the 1982.)
The Bordelais were delighted, of course, though they haven’t always welcomed Parker’s judgments. For one thing, he has the annoying habit of ignoring the 1855 classification. To their horror, he has even rated unclassified wines ahead of the established châteaux. In the good old days, their system meant that top-tier wines could command hefty prices even in poor years. (If you thought the wines tasted unripe or bitter, you were told that you just hadn’t developed a palate to appreciate their elegant restraint.) Parker has turned that hierarchy upside down for the benefit of wine drinkers; and many Bordeaux vintners now wait to price their wines until he has sampled and rated their products.
Parker himself puts it this way: “I don’t give a damn that your family goes back to before the Revolution, and you’ve got more wealth than I could imagine. If the wine’s no good, I’m gonna say so.”
In 1993, President François Mitterrand recognized Parker’s contributions to raising public awareness of French wines and presented him with the l’Ordre National du Mérite. In 1999, President Jacques Chirac awarded Parker the Légion d’honneur (an award created by Napoléon Bonaparte in 1802) and described him as “the most respected and influential critic of French wines in the entire world.” No French wine writer had ever won that coveted award. Other American recipients have included Neil Armstrong, Colin Powell and Ronald Reagan.
Part of Parker’s success is that his passion for wine leaps off the pages. When he likes a wine, he tosses around descriptors like “gobs of fruit,” “prodigious,” “mind-blowing” and “immortality in a glass.” Unlike more traditional writers, he doesn’t hedge his opinions. There are few “somewhats” or “appears to be.”
Jancis Robinson describes him as “completely untroubled by self-doubt” and says that “you don’t have to have a keen grasp of the English language to understand his views, or what is a Parker pick.” She also thinks he’s a purely American phenomenon: Britain could never produce a Parker. “The British traits of self-deprecation and irony are at odds with the Parkeresque pitch of omniscience.”
Fellow Brit Hugh Johnson has harsher words for Parker. In his 2005 autobiography, Wine: A Life Uncorked, Johnson writes, “Robert Parker deals in absolutes and castigates those he sees as backsliders.” Parker, he says, assumes that there is “better” and “worse” when it comes to wine, whereas Johnson himself perceives differences. He even compares Parker to the George W. Bush administration, linking “imperial hegemony in Washington” with “the dictator of taste in Baltimore.” In the past, Johnson writes, taste was largely a matter of harmless fashion. Today, in American hands, “it feels more like a moral crusade.”
Along with its moral tone, The Wine Advocate has been described as a triumph of content over style, especially when compared to the glossy, full-color magazines filled with photos of celebrities holding glasses of wine. Parker’s beige-colored pages, printed in basic typeface, carry no ads or pictures. If the Wine Spectator looks like a Town & Country-style photo album of a society wedding, the Advocate resembles the prenuptial agreement. But its simplicity is part of its success: the no-frills format makes it easy for wine stores to photocopy for their shelves, and for subscribers to pass along—which is part of the reason its readership is much higher than its subscriber base.
The other reason is the scores themselves. Although Parker didn’t invent the 100-point scale, he was one of the first critics to use it consistently. Consumers embraced his ratings because they were easy to understand and their mathematical judgments seemed unbiased. Think of school grades: 90 or more (points or percent) is an A, 80-89 is a B, 70-79 a C, between 50 and 69 a D or E and anything below 50 is a failure. (Wines, it seems, are rarely rated below 70.) As a result, many North American critics now use the 100-point scale, including the Spectator, Wine Enthusiast and Wine & Spirits.
In a 2005 biography of Parker entitled The Emperor of Wine, Elin McCoy writes that the wine scores “tapped into a deeper fascination with numbers and ratings that was peculiarly American. To outsiders, Americans were preoccupied with who or what was numero uno—whether it was a baseball team, a rock album on the top-20 chart or the person with the highest IQ.” She quotes British writer Andrew Barr, who observes that wine scores are “a victory of American pragmatism over French mysticism.”
In 2001, Robinson started using a 20-point scale in response, she tells me, to her readers’ request for scores. But only on her web site: her books are “point-free zones” as is her Financial Times column. “The 100-point scores don’t mean anything to us in Europe,” she observes. “Points will never be as emotive on this side of the Atlantic. Traditionally, if scores were used here at all, it was simply to achieve consensus on a tasting panel.”
She also believes that the most useful assessment of wine comes from a single palate rather than a panel, which drags distinctive wines into the “innocuous middle ground of communal assent.” However, scoring wines was “so inimical to traditional British wine lovers that when in 1985 Hugh Johnson was sent proofs of Parker’s first book on Bordeaux, he thought [the ratings] were printer’s marks.”
Johnson himself refuses to rate wines at all. “It’s a very useful shortcut for people who don’t want to make up their own minds or become involved, or even bother to read tasting notes,” he writes. “The idea, that you can score quality is “fundamentally strange… I’ve never seen it tried on works of art.”
Besides, he points out, great wines “never end in an exclamation mark… they always leave questions unanswered. They tease you. Short wines just say what they have to say and shut up, but all great wines stay with you. They keep asking you to come back, try me again, see what’s happening to me.”
The French find rating wines odd. As Adam Gopnik writes in The New Yorker: “A man who makes love to fifty-some women and then publishes a list in which each one gets a numerical grade, would not be called a lady’s man. He would be called a cad. And that, more or less, is how a good many Frenchmen think of Parker: they don’t doubt his credentials; they question his character. A real man likes moles and frailties; a real man marries his wine, as he marries his wife, and sees her through the thin spots.”
Can critics even quantify something so elusive, ethereal and subjective as wine? Many wine lovers believe that the numeric system lends a spurious air of scientific accuracy to what is simply someone’s opinion. After all, an emotional response can’t really be captured mathematically.
The problem with scores, Robinson observes, is that there is no absolute objective truth when it comes to wine. The easily understood shorthand of scores is actually quite difficult to pin down. Is an 85 good, very good or great? Is there really a difference between wines rated 91 and 92?
Even good critics have their off days, blind spots, inconsistencies, prejudices and palate differences. To compensate for this and for the fact that wine changes and evolves over time, some critics (like Parker) re-taste wines every few years to see if the rating should be changed. Parker points out that his scores rarely change by more than a couple of points, if at all.
Language, a more descriptive tool than numbers, has its inadequacies too: is brilliant better than outstanding? Is zesty better than refreshing? At her first formal tasting, Robinson recalls a gathering of writers, including Hugh Johnson. “The most extraordinary thing was that they all used contradictory expressions and yet acted as though they were in complete accord.” She felt reassured that “wine appreciation is an entirely subjective process.”
I didn’t score wines for the first five years I wrote about them. But like Robinson and others, I eventually responded to readers who wanted them. Many people buy their wine as they do their toothpaste: they want to make a quick decision, but a good one (or at least, a safe one).
A good score may give novice drinkers the confidence to make that precipitous leap from bladder-box swill to bottled poetry. So I’m conflicted: while I agree that the essence of wine can never be trapped in a number, I do want as many people as possible to experience the pleasure of wine. If that means using a tool they can relate to, so be it.
Points don’t represent the essence of the wine itself, but rather your opinion of it. The debate over scores is a testament to how wine makes us feel and to our need to both quantify and qualify the feeling in a way that we don’t with other food and drink. We certainly don’t rate orange juice and there are no cabbage critics talking about the leaf set each year.
In a bolded disclaimer on the cover of the Advocate, Parker himself acknowledges: “There can never be any substitute for your own palate.” Then again, his success is built on the fact that most wine buyers don’t rely on just their own palates. Those who mindlessly follow his recommendations, replacing their own judgment with his are dubbed “Parker sheep.”
Winemakers who craft their wines to get high scores are said to “Parkerize” them. They make their wines denser, darker and more alcoholic to cater to his apparent preference for “fruit bombs.”
The grapes for these brawny wines (dubbed “TEC” for their use of technology, extraction and concentration) are picked much later in the season than usual, so that they’re riper and have more grape sugar. This converts into higher alcohol levels and rounder, fruitier flavors. The downside is that they lose their balancing acidity and the tannins that give a wine structure but need time to smooth out. These wines tend to muscle out other wines in tastings, much like steroid-fueled weightlifters strutting on a beach of 90-pound weaklings.
Parker disagrees with the charge that he only likes big wines. He claims to be a “wine omnivore” and asserts that he especially likes French wines, which are often balanced and elegant. However, as McCoy points out in her biography, “With few exceptions, the wines that received 95+ scores and set the markets moving had certain things in common—rich texture, intensity and concentration, plush fruit, and, for reds, low acidity. In fact, they were mostly red. The 100-point wines were most often those Parker described as ‘massive and powerful.’”
Some vintners feel it’s not so much Parker himself they’re trying to woo, as the consumer tastes he represents. In their eyes, his reviews just reflect the ratcheting up of our entire sensory environment, from spicier sauces on our food to bigger special effects in the movies.
Still, even if vintners are just responding to market tastes, the scores themselves have some redeeming qualities for the wine industry too. They can help to recognize excellence in winemaking and to weed out faulty or poorly-made wines. They can help consumers in liquor stores, particularly in those without knowledgeable staff. (Even when the staff is highly trained, many customers don’t know what questions to ask.)
Shelf slips that offer ratings and tasting notes can guide buyers in their decisions. The downside is when some dishonest retailers misuse such information by posting the same shelf slips for wines of different vintages, or more egregiously, for entirely different wines. Parker has actually hired a law firm to send warning letters to those who misuse his scores.
Whether it’s Parker or the market driving public demand for the big new style, tasting these wines is a punishing exercise. I know that no matter how dedicatedly I spit, the build up of alcohol and tannin will eventually numb my palate. It’s a marathon for the mouth. Everyone thinks how wonderful it must be to drink wine all day; but really it’s quite sobering to face fifty cabernets at 8 a.m.
Reviewing wines also means avoiding many strong-tasting (and delicious) foods and drinks that can skew your palate: coffee, soft drinks, juices, chocolate, sweets, garlic and spicy dishes. This is the difference between drinking wine for enjoyment and tasting it as a piece of information you need to do your job.
There’s also the problem of olfactory adaptation: after a few glasses, I stop smelling certain aromas because I’ve got so used to them. (It’s analogous to the way some women stop smelling their own perfume after a few hours of wearing it—even though others may be reeling backward in the wake of their scent.) When tasting, I perceive each wine relative to the one before; so after twenty or thirty wines, it’s mostly those big, alcoholic fruit bombs that shock my palate out of its stupor.
After sampling seventy-odd wines, I can barely move my lips and my tongue feels riveted to the parched roof of my mouth. (After one parent-teacher interview that followed a tasting, I discovered that pressing my face into my glass to smell deeply had left a large purple stain across the bridge of my nose.)
Where I taste about 3,000 wines a year, Parker tastes 10,000 (more than a quarter million wines over his career so far). He tastes as many as a hundred wines at one sitting, spending about a minute on each one, sniffing, swirling and spitting. To compensate, he drinks ten glasses of water a day to keep hydrated and sprays his nose regularly with saline solution. His doctors check his mouth and liver three times a year—and yes, a clause in his disability insurance really does insure his nose for a million dollars.
That en masse tasting is the wine critic’s dilemma. If you only drink one bottle a night with dinner, you don’t taste enough to find the range of good wines readers want recommended. But tasting large numbers of wines distorts your perception and takes them right out of the context in which readers will eventually consume them. I’ve often been surprised by how much I love a certain wine in a tasting and then later find it monstrously heavy with dinner. It’s like meeting a person at a noisy bar who seems interesting; but when you bring him home, he doesn’t lower his voice—or shut up.
The New York Times wine critic Eric Asimov once described the challenges his paper’s tasting panel faces. “We do the strangest things in the name of judging wine,” he wrote. “If we’re visiting a winery, we stand in cold, dank cellars spitting wine into buckets, scribbling notes on smeared slips of paper. In the office, we sit around a table with dozens of glasses of wine before us, sipping and spitting, sipping and spitting, scribbling notes on smeared slips of paper. From these artificial situations, we try to extrapolate how a wine will taste when it’s ready to be drunk, or we try to imagine how a wine will accompany various types of food.”
It almost seems, Asimov mused, as if he and his colleagues “taste wine every way but the most natural way: slowly with friends or family at a meal, with plenty of time to savor—and swallow—a glass or two.”
Still, Parker himself is confident of the wines he likes among the thousands he tastes. Anyone lucky enough to find his favor feels the effect almost immediately. Case in point: California winemaker Donald Patz. Critics had panned the entire Californian 1989 vintage and it was tough selling for all winemakers, including Patz. Then a friend of a friend gave Parker a bottle of the 1990 to try—and he gave it a rating of 92, with an effusive note on the Advocate’s back cover.
“The phone lit up like a Christmas tree,” Patz recalls. “Customers were begging to get on our mailing list, and distributors were calling back every fifteen minutes like stockbrokers: ‘I’ve got five cases, I can move five more.’” In an industry increasingly dominated by mega corporations, favorable ratings are often the only way for smaller wineries such as Patz & Hall to get recognition.
The euphoria didn’t last. “We’ve had high ratings from Parker since then, but never quite the same response,” Patz noted. “We weren’t the hot new label anymore, so it didn’t have the same impact. But you can’t ever discount his influence: when he speaks, people do crazy things.”
Parker clearly has more impact with high scores than low ones. According to a 2005 study by economists at National Institute of Agronomic Research in France, Parker’s scores can affect bordeaux prices by up to 15 percent. The researchers found that his score could add up to $5 to the price of a bottle and that the “Parker effect” is strongest on Pomerol wines from the right bank, of which he’s a big fan.
Despite the genuine effect of his influence, reports of it can sometimes be overstated. When Parker decided to delay tasting the 2002 Bordeaux vintage, many in the wine industry believed that the move depressed futures buying in America. But other critics had already characterized the vintage as not a great one and the wines overpriced—which would certainly have dampened enthusiasm for them.
And a 2005 study by the California-based Wine Opinions found that 48 percent of respondents said that Parker’s recommendations have no influence when they buy wines costing $20 or more. According to researcher John Gillespie, the backlash against Parker’s ratings is evident in that the negative survey response toward his scores is twice as high as for any other media or referral source. Some 61 percent rated friends and relatives as having the greatest influence on their purchasing decisions.
Even viticultural practices such as low yields and unfiltered wines, often attributed to Parker’s preferences, were already well under way when he started writing about wine. Those techniques were first advocated by the French consulting enologist Emile Peynaud in the 1950s and 1960s. His efforts to improve French wines reached fruition with the famous 1982 vintage—the one that also made Parker’s career.
As might be expected, Parker’s scores and comments have provoked the indignation of some winemakers. However, few expressed their ire as openly as the manager of the Saint-Emilion estate Château Cheval Blanc. After Parker called its wine “a disappointment,” the manager invited him to visit the château and re-taste the wine. But when Parker entered the front door, the manager’s dog, a fox terrier, attacked the critic—biting his leg hard enough to make it bleed, while the other man stood by and watched. Parker asked for a bandage; the manager instead handed him a copy of The Wine Advocate.
Parker has even received death threats, most notoriously from a disgruntled American wine merchant. Parker tried to prosecute, but couldn’t: the man hadn’t said that he would personally kill Parker, just that Parker would be killed. “He’s still selling wine in New York and using my scores, but I don’t buy wine from him,” Parker told me dryly.
Although Jancis Robinson’s style may be different from Parker’s, their beginnings are similar. Like Parker, Robinson grew up in a small village: she was born in Kirkandrews-on-Eden in northern England in 1950. Her parents also were not wine drinkers; they preferred gin and tonic. She too went to university to study subjects unrelated to wine, taking her degree in math and philosophy at Oxford. (Her love of food found an early outlet in reviewing restaurants for the student magazine Isis).
After she graduated, she took various jobs in search of a career. One job as a tour guide took her through France, reigniting her love of food: its flavors and textures, its “mental stimulation and the physical comfort.” That passion eventually led her to wine, “food’s quintessential companion, liquid food.” She was determined to get a job that would combine her love of both; and in 1975, she started writing for the British industry magazine Wine & Spirit.
Robinson attended trade tastings and developed her expertise both as a writer and critic. At that time, many British writers had come from the wine-sales business or were still in it: they wrote reviews of the wines they sold to their customers. That’s the cozy relationship to the trade that Parker criticizes.
In his sixth edition of The Wine Buyer’s Guide, he wrote, “Until most of the English wine media begin to understand and adhere to the basic rules of conflict of interest… then and only then will the quality of wine writing and the wines we drink improve.”
However, Robinson had no such ties and remains independent to this day. Like Parker, she pays for her trips to wine regions; and she’s even wary of being photographed holding a bottle for fear of looking as though she’s endorsing the winery. (“I’m always turning the label to the back,” she says laughing.)
The most egregious assault on her professionalism, she told me, came during a trip to China, when the organizer suddenly departed from the agenda. He whisked her away to a hotel room, where she found herself seated beside a winemaker for a press conference—in front of a backdrop bearing the winery’s logo and brands.
“I tried to act as independently as I could,” she recalls. “But I was rather thrown by the first question, from a beautifully dressed Chinese woman journalist: ‘Tell me, Mrs. Robinson, what in your opinion, is the difference between red and white wine?’
The closest Robinson gets to any commercial involvement is as a wine consultant for British Airways, helping a panel to select the airline’s wines for its passengers. (The other consultants are Hugh Johnson, Michael Broadbent and Colin Anderson.) As a result, Robinson says, “I’d never write about airline wine.” As well, she’s a member of the Royal Household Wine Committee, which chooses the wines for the queen to serve to her guests. Both committees taste the wines blind and have no affiliation with any particular producer.
One of her proudest accomplishments was becoming the first person not in the wine trade to pass the notoriously stiff Master of Wine exams in 1984—a feat she accomplished while pregnant. Even as of 2005, the pass rate for both parts of the exam (theory and tasting) was only 10 percent and there were just 250 Masters of Wine in the world. Although now there are fifty women Masters of Wine, in 1984, there were only eight.
In 1999, as a tribute to her work, the readers of the leading British wine magazine Decanter voted Robinson “(Wo)Man of the Year.” Members of the British Circle of Wine Writers voted her “Most Influential Writer” as well, with three times the votes of runner-up Robert Parker. In 2003, she was appointed to the Order of the British Empire for services to broadcasting and journalism.
In her autobiography Tasting Pleasure, Robinson writes about her “old-fashioned need to see ticks and ‘VG’ in her exercise book,” referring to the teacher’s check marks and very goods on her homework when she was a student. She adds, “The more I read biographies of women writers, however, the more I am convinced that this need to achieve has nothing to do with education and probably reflects some sort of driven escapism.”
Robinson believes that it’s mostly been an advantage to be a woman in a traditionally male-dominated field: based on traditional etiquette, she was often seated beside the host at winemaker dinners and tastings. This allowed her to get the inside scoop or, at least, a more detailed story than the journalists sitting farther away. She also says that “medical specialists acknowledge that the tasting faculties are generally better in women” and that many male vintners have told her that their wives or girlfriends are far better tasters than they are.
In all of her career, Robinson can recall only a couple of instances of sexism. One was just after the Sunday Times of London had appointed her its wine correspondent in 1980. “I was at a tasting in the financial district of London, run by one of these pin-striped wine merchants,” she recalls. “I wasn’t taking notes, but most of the other people there weren’t, and they were treating it more like a social gathering.” One of the fellows peeled off from his group, came over to Robinson and asked: “I say, do you come to these things to taste for your boss?”
“For once, I did think of a suitable riposte,” she reports with satisfaction. “I said, ‘Not unless you count Rupert Murdoch’—who had just taken over as owner of the Times newspapers, so was effectively my boss.”
Then there was the time she had just been appointed one of British Airways’ wine consultants. When Robinson told an airline manager how pleased she was to be on the panel, she was informed, “Well, we thought we needed a woman.”
Musing about this, Robinson thinks it might reflect the flip side of that lingering sexism: because society expects less from women, they’re free to have a more relaxed relationship with wine. “Men, to a certain extent and in certain circles, are expected to know a bit about wine. There is an obligation on them to order the ‘right’ wine—rather like driving the ‘right’ car,” Robinson says. “Competitive wine tasting and wine ordering is very definitely a male sport.” Women, she thinks, “are much more likely to choose not the wine they feel they ought to choose but the wine they feel like drinking.”
Another career milestone was becoming editor of the Oxford Companion to Wine, published by the venerable Oxford University Press. The book stands as one of the best endorsements of wine as a serious subject. Until then, writing about wine (like other niche writing, such as food, sports, gardening and home décor) had long been considered as belonging to the “how-to” service category, rather than to “real” journalism, and still less to literary or scholarly writing.
Now in its third edition, the Oxford Companion to Wine features the work of more than a hundred contributors. It covers over 4,000 topics, with 600 grape varieties and 72 countries, including newly emerging ones such as Ethiopia, Korea, Thailand, Vietnam and even Nepal. Robinson herself edited nearly a million words for the tome.
Reflecting on her own approach to writing about wine, Robinson says in her autobiography, “As a visitor I try to be scrupulously polite; but in print I find myself being dispassionately objective, even sometimes to the point of brutality. “I try never to think of the effect of what I write on its subject until after I have written it. Perhaps this is all a reaction against the relatively indulgent school of wine writing that prevailed when I started out.”
She says that most American wine writers believe that critics should remain as distant as possible from those who make and sell wine for fear of clouding their judgments with personal feelings. But how, Robinson asks, are we to learn about wine without spending time with the people who make and sell it? In her experience, “wine people are congenitally generous hosts.” This, she observes, “may occasionally bring the wine writer into dangerous contact with not only the wine producer but also his family. Perhaps our critical faculties might be swayed by exposure to a pretty wife, wise parent or particularly cute child?”
In this way, Robinson differs vastly from Parker. Although she was the first to introduce British wine lovers to Parker through her Sunday Times column in 1986, she observes “one has the impression that he would really much rather stay at home in Maryland and [have] anonymous glasses pushed through a hatch for evaluation.” By contrast, Robinson’s own views are openly subjective. Her web site, www.jancisrobinson.com, welcomes visitors to a “very personal, obsessively updated, completely INDEPENDENT source of news, views and opinion on fine wine and food.”
Robinson relishes the human context that surrounds wine. “For me, wine is so much more than a liquid in a glass; the liquid is merely our link to what is so often a fascinating story, a spot on the globe, a point in time, a fashion in winemaking, an argument between two neighboring farmers, rivalry between old schoolmates, perhaps proud new owners who want to make their mark at any cost.”
Those differences in approach lie at the heart of the debate over both Château Pavie and the role of the professional wine writer. Where Parker sees himself as a crusader on behalf of beleaguered consumers, Robinson views her role more as an educator and entertainer. (“I don’t aim to be laugh-out-loud funny, but I hope that when people read my work, they occasionally say, ‘Huh!’ because they’re amused.”) She recommends wines that are good buys at various price points and helps readers understand where wines come from.
More fundamentally, the Pavie debate also raises the issue of what wine is and what it should be. Must it always taste of its origins, the place where the grapes are grown? How much intervention and innovation can winemaking take before it becomes a soulless manufacturing operation? Are concentrated and fruit-forward wines necessarily less sophisticated than restrained and medium-bodied ones? Is a traditional wine more authentic, more honest than a non-traditional one? Are new wines that try hard to please intrinsically less worthy than those that are already effortlessly established? Are New World and Old World palates different? Is Old Money better than New Money?
When Robinson praised the 2001 French “garage wines” for backing off the big, bold oaky style that had earlier brought them to the world’s attention, Parker interpreted this as thinly veiled criticism of his own taste, according to McCoy. “It’s her British DNA taking control of her logic,” he responded.
“First of all, they couldn’t make big rich wines in 2001 because Mother Nature didn’t give them the raw materials. So they’re spinning it like they’re making more elegant wines. She’s just parroting the viewpoint of some old reactionaries in Bordeaux, and it is surprising that someone of that stature and intelligence would do that. And it’s a way of cleverly taking a shot at me—saying Parker just likes these grotesque, overweight, overly woody wines, which is a total bullshit story.”
As other leading writers waded in with their opinions on the 2003 Pavie, the world of wine criticism—usually as sedate as an afternoon croquet game—started to look more like a private-school brawl. The Americans tended to line up with Parker. This included the Wine Spectator’s James Suckling, who also rated the wine highly (95-100) and Stephen Tanzer (92-95).
Perhaps not surprisingly, British critics sided with Robinson. Michael Broadbent observed, “Parker is looking for concentration, opulence, impressiveness. He should be looking for a wine that is civilized, that is for drinking with food.” Another Brit, Clive Coates refused even to rate Pavie: “Anyone who thinks this is good wine needs a brain and palate transplant.”
One of the most thoughtful opinions came from the Japanese writer Katsuyuki Tanaka. Although not a fan of the wine, he observed, “It is a true horror to imagine a stage on which wines line-dance lifelessly with the same smile on their faces. I appreciate 2003 Pavie because it stirred our conception of what fine wine should be.”
Then the Pavie debate moved from critiquing wines to questioning wine critics. Michael Bettane and Thierry Desseauve, of the magazine La Revue du Vin de France, blamed some critics’ lack of enthusiasm for the wine on personal animosity. “Perse has many enemies in Bordeaux and elsewhere. I think some tasters get carried along by this. He [should be] judged by who he is, not by the wines he produces.”
Robinson had been vocal about Pavie’s owner in the past. “Chief among the current practitioners of caricature winemaking is Gérard Perse, who has used a supermarket fortune to buy such extensive properties. Robinson went on to say that Perse had “just amazed le tout Bordeaux” by offering the wine division of the insurance company AXA-Millésimes more than 300 million francs for Château Petit Village in Pomerol. (Perse eventually withdrew his offer before the deal could be completed.)
Robinson also wrote, “The big force in all this, of course, is the extremely powerful (and admirably conscientious) American wine critic Robert Parker, whose points out of 100 dictate demand and therefore prices in the international wine market.
However much he may write that he values subtlety, he has continued to reward sheer size. And whatever sort of wine individual winemakers may wish to produce, it is the château owners who call the tune. What they tend to seek above all is a high score from Parker.”
Parker kicked the debate up a notch. On his web site, he wrote that Robinson’s review of the 2003 Pavie was “very much in keeping with her nasty swipes at all the Pavies made by Perse.”
Robinson fired back, “What is the difference between a nasty swipe and a critical tasting note? Perhaps the former does not chime with the most powerful palate in the world while the latter does? Wine assessment is subjective. Am I really not allowed to have my own opinion? Only so long as it agrees with Monsieur Parker’s, it would seem. I do wish we could simply agree to differ.”
She also defended her dislike of the wine itself, irrespective of the maker, saying that she had tasted the wine blind, without seeing the label. “I should make it clear that these notes were written long before I knew what the wine was—and I have witnesses!” (Every March, Robinson attends the en primeur barrel tastings of the new wine at various French châteaux, along with many other writers. By contrast, Parker tastes samples delivered to him in his Bordeaux hotel room and he sees the labels.)
Parker wasn’t buying her explanation. Robinson would have known what she was tasting, he wrote, because “Pavie is the only premier grand cru estate to use an antique form of bottle that, even when covered up, stands out like a black sheep.”
Then Perse himself waded into the fray. “Never did I imagine that trying to make the best wines possible could elicit such virulent criticism and even vicious personal attacks,” he fumed. “To portray those who enjoy my wines as ‘imbeciles’ is insulting and malicious and has no place in contemporary wine criticism.” His suggestion was that some British wine critics “would have us go back to a time when they feel Bordeaux wines were made the way they [feel they] should be.”
Whatever your view on wine and the role of wine writers, there’s little doubt that both topics matter a great deal to an increasing number of people. Ratings, in particular, are becoming the main criteria wine lovers use to buy wines.
As much as I dislike personal mudslinging, I actually find it reassuring that there’s so much heat in this debate: it shows that many people care enough about wine to duke it out verbally. If we keep our passion for wine—whether it’s expressed in numbers, words or just sighs of pleasure—something vital still lives in the glass and on the page.