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The Emperor of Wine: The Rise of Robert M. Parker, Jr. and the Reign of American Taste (August 10, 2005)

book review
by Dean Tudor

The Emperor of Wine: The Rise of Robert M. Parker, Jr. and the Reign of American Taste (Ecco, 2005; distr. HarperCollins, 342 pages, ISBN 0-06-009368-4, $36.95 hard covers) is by Elin McCoy, who has been writing about wine for about 30 years. She is currently the wine and spirits columnist for Bloomberg Markets. She also had full access to Parker during the writing of this book (by telephone, in his home, and on the road).

This is the first (and hopefully only) book to chronicle the rise of Robert Parker, the world's most powerful wine writer. His newsletter The Wine Advocate (45,000 subscribers plus shelf talkers) is the single most significant influence on consumers' wine buying habits around the world. He has ruled the wine world, as Emperor, for the past 20 years. His power has established US tastes. His methods? His simple, unabashed enthusiasms, plus consumer crusades and high moral principles, were numerically rated on your basic high school grading system. This "aw shucks" style, Ralph Nader approach, no conflicts-of-interest attitude, and the numbers were things that most Americans could identify with. He is also polite: I remember viewing a video shot in the 1980s, about tasting Burgundies. Robert Joseph, Clive Coates, and others were swirling, tasting and spitting before commenting on a dozen wines. Parker, in one of his first public appearances, never spat, and as he progressed through the wines his face became more and more flushed.

McCoy takes us through the early newsletter years and the vapid competition of other wine publications, the Brit writers who couldn't stand the "holier-than-thou" Parker crusades (mainly against their conflicts of interest), his over-the-top love for the 1982 Bordeaux wines (it is interesting that only three North American writers tasted the 1982 futures by March 1983: Robert Finigan didn't like them, and soon after, his newsletter declined in influence), the book writing, the Faiveley lawsuit, the tasting circuit and his quickness to feel slighted.

The book is also about the rise of the globalization of wine: what sells well are "fruit bomb" wines that Parker raves about. The easy solution is to make wines that Parker likes. Thus, fruit bombs dominate the marketplace – no matter what the country of origin. Terroir loses as every wine begins to taste the same.

Parker's main problem? His unbridled enthusiasm in the 1970s and 1980s turned off many people everywhere (US, France, UK, Italy). In reading through this book I was struck by the tremendous amount of jealousy, the love-hate relationships, the finger-pointing, and the pissing contests. It's a male thing, and it is all about power. It is also compounded by the fact that Parker is hypersensitive. Yet it is one of the Laws of Journalism that writers absolutely must have a thick skin.

McCoy's book gives a good context and history of wine writing and appreciation in the U.S. before Parker's emergence; she brings back memories for me, as I had written about this period in my 1975 book.

The book concludes with a wine tasting glossary, a bibliography of Parker's writings, and a bibliography of general wine books, magazines, articles, and websites.

Audience and level of use: Anyone interested in the fascinating world of wine writing and wine criticism. It's all about power.

Some interesting or unusual facts: From Parker: "until 1978 most wine writers were essentially on the take." From McCoy: "the Parker of the twenty-first century now routinely praised over-the-top Cabernets that the sideburned publisher a quarter-century before would have slammed as overly alcoholic, corpulent Bordeaux wannabes."(p. 278). "So much of what Parker says he stands for cause the opposite to happen" (p. 298), and she then proceeds to list seven of them. From Michel Bettane (a major French wine writer): "Parker is just doing his job as a wine writer. The [Bordeaux] wine trade helped create the problem. When he helped them with the 2000 vintage no one complained. Now he says the prices are too high, don't buy, so he's a bad guy."

What I don't like about this book: I wished that McCoy had explored more about the authenticity of barrel samples. The subject was alluded to in the book a few times, and she may have been constrained by the libel chill of the Faiveley lawsuit. Nossiter, in his audio commentary for the Mondovino DVD, says that no one in Burgundy would talk to McCoy about the case. McCoy also mentions (once) that Parker is a "lefty", without exploring the phenomenon that there are more left-handed people who are wine writers than the proportion of 10% within the general population. Indeed, anecdotal evidence suggests that up to 30% of wine writers are lefties. Creativity? The bibliography of articles is difficult to use since it is arranged by title and not by author. Some entries are vague, e.g., "'Letters to the Editor', Decanter, many issues" is totally useless. At one point she describes a twice-a-month newspaper column as "bimonthly" (it should be "semi-monthly").

What I do like about this book: The Emperor has no clothes? Read the book, especially in conjunction with the Mondovino DVD. Particularly note the differences between McCoy's account of Parker visiting Staglin Winery in Napa, and Nossiter's visit to the same place. It is all about power (or did I mention that already?).

Quality/Price Ratio: 95 (hey, that's a Parker number!)

 

 

 

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