Late in 1985, a customer walked into Wally's Liquor in Westwood and bought a case of Chardonnay made by Chalone Vineyard, a prestigious, Central California winery. A few days later, the customer returned 11 of the 12 bottles in the case.
"He said he didn't like it," says Steve Wallace, owner of Wally's.
Wallace gave him his money back.
Two weeks later, the customer returned and bought a case of the same wine.
Surprised--and baffled--Wallace asked him why he'd changed his mind. The customer hemmed and hawed and finally admitted, sheepishly, that he'd just read a rave review of the wine in the Wine Advocate, a wine newsletter published every two months in Monkton, Md.
"Imagine," Wallace said over lunch recently, obviously still unsettled by the incident, "this guy tasted the wine himself and didn't like it, but because someone else said it was good, he decided he liked it after all."
Robert M. Parker Jr., who writes and publishes the Wine Advocate, isn't just "someone else," though. Parker is the most influential wine writer in the world today.
Unlike most wine writers--who seldom say anything negative about any bottle of wine and who base much of their writing on all-expense-paid junkets to the world's best wine regions--Parker pays his own way everywhere, is as quick with criticism as he is with praise and is universally regarded as both incorruptible and indefatigable.
100 Wines a Day
Parker tastes as many as 100 different wines a day at times--7,500 to 10,000 a year--and although he, like most wine writers, receives some free wine samples, he says he prefers to pay for his wine; he estimates that he buys about 70% of the wines he tastes--at a cost of $60,000 a year. Parker evaluates wines in the tasting room of his Maryland home, and he also visits France at least two or three times a year to taste young wines, some still in the barrel, not yet bottled.
The Wine Advocate, which generally runs 28 to 40 pages an issue, has only 20,000 subscribers, but importers, distributors and retailers often order and advertise their wines based largely on Parker's ratings (50 to 100 points per wine); major newspaper wine advertisements, as well as wine store sales displays, now routinely feature Parker's ratings--"Parker--91," "Parker--93," "Parker--96" as their sole attempt to influence customers.
Thus, Parker's visibility and impact have been magnified far beyond that of his newsletter readership. Several other wine newsletters and newspaper and magazine wine writers also trigger consumer demand when they write favorable reviews, but none approaches Parker's extraordinary influence.
Eunice Fried, a New York wine writer, says she was researching a book in Burgundy three years ago when an importer from another country joined her in tasting several wines; he refused to even try one particular wine, though, simply because "Parker only gave it an 84."
Abdallah Simon, chairman of Seagram Chateau and Estates Wine Co. in New York, says that when Parker gave a 97 to the 1982 Chateau Certan de May--one of many Bordeaux wines that Simon imports--Simon sold his entire allocation of about 12,000 bottles in 48 hours.
Virtually every wine merchant, importer and distributor interviewed for this story told of similar experiences, and Parker's reviews almost inevitably trigger the basic mechanisms of the marketplace. His early paean to the 1982 Bordeaux wines ("a vintage of stunning quality . . . a monumental vintage") is widely credited with creating a consumer stampede--and skyrocketing prices--for those wines (and for the vintages that followed).
Parker, now 40, began drinking wine 20 years ago, when he went to Europe as a college junior to visit his girlfriend; he found beer too bloating and Coke too expensive--$1 for a six-ounce bottle--so he drank cheap, local table wines instead. He was intrigued by the experience and began studying wine and spending his summers in Bordeaux. In 1978, with the help of borrowed money, he started the Wine Advocate.
In 1984, Parker quit his job as a corporate lawyer to work full time as a wine writer; the Wine Advocate showed its first profit the next year, and his first book, on the wines of Bordeaux, was published by Simon and Schuster last year.
Initially, Parker's impact was primarily in the East and primarily with the wines of Bordeaux. But his influence has now spread across the country, and he has written knowledgeably (and influentially) about the wines of other regions of France and about the wines of Italy, Germany, Spain, Australia, California and Oregon as well.
Brought About Change
"Parker . . . stated in print . . . that we make outstanding white wines, why can't (we) . . . make a decent red wine?" says William MacIver, co-owner of Matanzas Creek Winery in Sonoma County. "He was 100% right. We weren't making good red wine and didn't know it."
The MacIvers changed their red wines in 1984.