At the beginning of this year, Robert Parker Jr., the most powerful wine critic in the world, announced that he had sold a large part of his publication, The Wine Advocate, to Singapore investors. People in the wine business the world over flinched at the news, wondering if Parker’s approval, which they had courted for the past 30 years, might no longer matter. But no worries, he had an heir apparent, Antonio Galloni, who had become Parker’s right hand man for the last six years. The wine world hung on Galloni scores almost as it had on Parker’s, and there appeared little difference in preference between the two. But then the second shoe dropped when, several weeks ago, Antonio Galloni announced his departure from The Wine Advocate to start his own wine criticism activity.
No matter whether or not you’ve ever even heard of Robert Parker Jr., he has arguably influenced the flavor profile of every bottle of wine that you may have purchased in the last 30 years. Since he began to publish The Wine Advocate in 1978, the number of paid subscribers grew from 600 to 50,000 over the next twenty years. Recently, he said that he had more subscribers to his on-line site, eRobertParker.com than for The Wine Advocate. Still, while the numbers are large, they are nothing compared to the number of wine drinkers in the U.S., now the largest wine-consuming nation in the world.
The instrument of Parker’s influence has been the rating system that he created, scoring wines from 50 to 100 points, which he has said he was sorry that he didn’t patent because nearly every magazine or journal that evaluates wine has copied it. His intention was to be an impartial guide for consumers because, before he started The Wine Advocate, most wine writers came from the wine industry and wrote biased opinions. In fact, Parker has never been accused of the kind of bias that he set out to avoid.
Robert Parker’s nose and palate are famously insured for one million dollars, probably not enough. Because he could marshal an army of high-end wine-buying Americans, his opinion could make or break an entire vintage and certainly any given wine. Scores in the nineties dramatically influenced both pricing and sales. Many have attempted to quantify the importance of his scores. Do they raise prices and demand by 20 percent, 30 percent, or more? And how much does a poor score depress prices and sales or the willingness of a consumer to buy from a certain vintage?
Retailers and wine producers have enthusiastically supported the numerical rating system because it has been an incredible aid to pushing wines out the door. And in a world of burgeoning wine choices, scores have been equally important to many consumers, who have been grateful for a simple guide. But no matter how many magazines, journals, or blogs are using the 100-point system, including Wine Spectator, none has been more important than The Wine Advocate.
So what’s wrong with this picture? Robert Parker may not be biased in terms of accepting gratuities for scores, but eventually wineries began to understand that Parker liked a certain style of wine, which has mostly been described as fruity, dense, high in alcohol, low in acid, and aged in oak barrels to the point that wood is an important component of flavor. In other words, we’ve had three decades of wine makers and consumers, whose taste has been formed by Robert Parker even if they don’t know it. And even though his influence has been most dramatic in Bordeaux and the Rhone region of France and in California, it has extended throughout the entire wine-producing world as Parker began to cover other countries. Even winemakers, who had no enthusiasm for this style of wine, attempted to emulate it because high scores and what they thought consumers wanted were powerful motivators.
And besides, there’s little to dislike. Smooth and fruity is a great recipe, except that it obscures the differences in wine at a time when world wines have all improved enormously from what they were when Robert Parker first weighed in on what was good and what was not. Twenty years ago, I remember attending a tasting of Barolo wines from the Empson portfolio. They were so tannic that I was afraid I might leave with lockjaw. Today, some Barolo can be as smooth and juicy as Napa Cabernet with the same 15 percent alcohol. So why should I buy one instead of the other or neither?
And maybe that’s exactly the point. At a time when science has given the winemaker so many tools, including additives and machinery, and viticulturists can mostly handle any difficulty with the right mix of chemicals, style can be manipulated, and most wine can be delicious at any price point. So how does the discerning consumer make a choice? A customer recently told me that he invited a dozen friends to a blind wine-tasting party. He found a great little Cabernet for $4 and purchased another from Napa for $50. Half of his guests thought the $4 wine was the more expensive one. They couldn’t tell the difference between the industrial wine from California’s Central Valley and the Napa Cab with Parker points. Both wines were deliciously smooth and fruity. The outcome points out, not how dumb half of the guests were but how high the bar is for all wine these days and also how generic many wines have become as they attempt and achieve the particular flavor profile that Robert Parker has supported.
Scores evaluate only taste, and perhaps other concerns are dawning on people, especially younger ones. For some time now, diners at high-end restaurants and even sandwich shops and cafes are confronted with menus that tell them where vegetables were grown, how animals were raised, where fish was caught, whether foods are local, organically farmed, nitrate free, or fairly traded. The list of concerns is long and may be transferring over to wine production. Robert Parker scores or anybody else’s do not reflect these issues. Or maybe as consumers switch to a diet that is less meat based, they are finding that “big” Parker style wines are inappropriate. Light reds do not get high scores nor do whites. Maybe “different” is beginning to impress more consumers. At a time when communication through social media is so easy, a quick tweet from a friend about a Valpolicella that a bartender suggested is more valuable than the Amarone that Robert Parker recommends.
Which brings us back to 42 year-old Antonio Galloni. In the New York Times, he told Eric Asimov that he would soon start his own on-line wine enterprise, aimed at younger wine consumers, particularly that huge wine-loving Millennial generation that has no idea, who Robert Parker is and doesn’t care about scores anyway. Galloni will engage them through new media and technology and, conceivably, address their concerns with their own communication tools.
So the King has vacated the throne, and no other King or Queen is willing to take his place. No doubt, wine criticism will now diversify, and different people will tell the story of wine in many different ways. No longer will Robert Parker’s monolithic standard prevail. It worked just fine for a very long time, but things change as the world turns.