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Robert Parker’s legacy

Robert M. Parker Jr. roiled the wine world this week when he unexpectedly dropped  a series of bomb-like announcements: he is relinquishing editorial control of The Wine Advocate, has sold his interest in the periodical to a trio of Singaporean businessmen, the main office is relocating to Singapore, and The Wine Advocate will immediately begin phasing out its print publication.

I’ll give the reader a moment to calm his quickened pulse--this is all momentous news to be delivered in one breath. And it’s especially surprising since Parker told the Wall Street Journal last month that, despite persistent interest in The Wine Advocate, he had no immediate plans to unload it and would never abdicate his throne as chief editor. One is compelled to wonder how attractive a price he fetched for the now iconic consumer report that it inspired him to overturn his prior conviction.

Nevertheless, this is a good opportunity to reflect on the resounding impact Parker has made on wine selling and buying, not just in America but across the world. Once an attorney in Maryland for Farm Credit Banks of Baltimore, and without any fancy educational pedigree in vinicultural science, Parker seems an unlikely candidate to have become the most influential wine critic the world has ever seen (or depending who you ask, has been plagued by).

The paradox of Parker’s ultimate legacy seems to be this: in making wine accessible to the multitudes through an impersonal ratings system, he has reminded us of the singular power of personality, and of the irreplaceableness of personal taste.

But it is inarguably the case that his impact has been deep and wide, helping to transform the industry from a redoubt of mysterious terroir and ancient tradition into a modern commercial sector. How has one man, and an American no less, managed to achieve such an outsized effect on a world notoriously closed to new power brokers?

It all starts with The Wine Advocate, Parker’s bi-monthly report which debuted in 1978 and was inspired by the consumer advocacy of Ralph Nader. It was intended to accomplish for wine what Car and Driver magazine did for automobiles: provide objective guidance for the consumer, unvarnished by industry influence and independent of advertiser interference, regarding the dizzying options available for purchase. Parker aimed to demystify a product a lot of shoppers, especially Americans, found daunting to buy because it was so confusing, even embarrassing to approach.

The crux of this demystification was Parker’s new 100 point system, a ratings tool meant to judge the overall quality of any particular wine. Instead of the sometimes impenetrable judgment of wine professionals, often written in the esoteric code that is the patois of wine description, Parker proposed a quasi-mathematical scoring instrument. As he once put it: “No scoring system is perfect, but a system that provides for flexibility in scores, if applied by the same taster without prejudice, can quantify different levels of wine quality and provide the reader with one professional's judgment.” The nebulousness of wine appreciation is presumably conquered by objective precision.

Many in the industry have complained, though, that instead of promoting unbiased judgment the 100 point scale elevated Parker’s own idiosyncratic tastes at the expense of others. Often resentfully referred to as the “Parkerization” of wine, this means that the big-bodied, heavily oaked, alcohol rich juggernauts Parker tends to fancy have crowded out subtler varietals, and alternative wine making techniques. For example, Parker could rightfully claim considerable responsibility for the rise in popularity of the food friendly Chateauneuf Du Pape, and maybe just as much culpability for the relative neglect for the wines of Burgundy. His judgment sways the market as well: winning an elusive score of 100 can quadruple the price of a bottle.

Still, even Parker has admitted his scoring system has its limitations: “Scores, however, do not reveal the important facts about a wine.” Parker’s enormous imprint has just as much to do with his larger than life persona: the zealous protection of his independence, the bombastic boasts regarding his own tasting prowess (he claims to taste 10,000 wines a year and remember every single one of them), the unwavering confidence in his own judgment. The paradox of Parker’s ultimate legacy seems to be this: in making wine accessible to the multitudes through an impersonal ratings system, he has reminded us of the singular power of personality, and of the irreplaceableness of personal taste.

Ivan Kenneally is the Editor in Chief of Dailywitness.com. His essays have appeared in numerous periodicals including The Christian Science Monitor, Washington Times, National Review, Weekly Standard, and The Jerusalem Post, as well as many academic journals. He has taught philosophy and political science at SUNY Geneseo, the Eastman School of Music, and the Rochester Institute of Technology.