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He Sips and Spits--and the World Listens

Wine writer Robert Parker may be the planet's most powerful critic. His controversial views influence the industry and its sales globally, and have helped increase consumers' knowledge.

February 23, 1999|DAVID SHAW | TIMES STAFF WRITER

On a chilly early fall morning in the Napa Valley, the Most Powerful Man in the World of Wine--unseasonably attired in a short-sleeved shirt and shorts--stands next to his white rental car in the parking lot at the Meadowood Resort. There's a boyish half-smile on his lips and a small, inch-thick notebook in his left hand. At 51, his Rabelaisian love of food--and 25 years of drinking two bottles of wine a day--have added 80 pounds to his 6-foot, 1-inch frame. He now weighs 265 pounds, and his walk is beginning to resemble a waddle--a reasonably fast waddle, to be sure, but a waddle nonetheless. Indeed, he looks more like a successful Midwestern plumbing contractor on the final week of his summer vacation than a man who inspires worldwide respect, affection, gratitude, fear, resentment, jealousy, lawsuits--and at least one death threat.

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Robert M. Parker Jr. has written 10 books on wine, produced 120 issues of his bimonthly newsletter, the Wine Advocate, and launched a one-man crusade that has at times made him seem like the love child of Mae West and Ralph Nader. A sensualist, a passionate lover of wine and a fierce champion of the wine consumer, Parker is largely responsible both for the vastly improved quality of wines made throughout the Western world and for the exponential growth in the interest, knowledge and sophistication of those who drink wine, especially in the United States.

Parker is controversial, though. Detractors say he's played a significant role in skyrocketing wine prices and in what they see as the homogenization of many of the world's wines into a single dense, overly concentrated "international style." These wines, they say, lack elegance and finesse, don't age well and sacrifice the individual and indigenous character of many vineyards and winemakers.

Today, nearing the end of a marathon, two-week tasting tour, Parker will visit four wineries and evaluate about 50 wines. That sounds like a lot of sipping and spitting, but it's actually a bit lighter than his normal regimen. Perhaps 40 or 50 times a year, he will taste more than 120 different wines a day; in a typical year, he will taste 10,000 to 15,000, ranging from the cheapest plonk to bottles whose prices exceed the annual per capita income in many Third World countries. In a field long notorious for freeloading, he is as incorruptible as he is indefatigable, and the expertise and influence born of his prodigious performances have led scores of wineries, from the valleys of Napa and Sonoma to the hills of Piemonte in northwestern Italy to the Rioja and Ribero del Duero regions of Spain and the fabled vineyards of Burgundy and Bordeaux in France, to change their winemaking styles.

Parker rates wines on a 100-point scale, and winemakers know that if he gives them a ranking in the 90s--or, the Holy Grail of winedom, a perfect Parker 100--that number will appear in wine shop ads, mailers and shelf displays in stores large and small; vineyard owners will be able to raise their prices and sell their wines to all those consumers whose insecurity about their own judgment leads them to slavishly follow Parker's recommendations. These "Parker sheep," as they are called on one online bulletin board, embrace his ratings so uncritically that--well, Steve Wallace, proprietor of Wally's Liquor in Westwood, remembers a customer buying a case of a California Chardonnay, returning 11 of the 12 bottles because he didn't like it, getting a refund . . . and then returning two weeks later to buy another case of the same wine. When Wallace asked why, the man shrugged and said, "Parker just gave it a 95."

Although Parker is scathingly dismissive of wines he doesn't like--he likened one to toothpaste and another to Janitor in a Drum--he is better-known for lavishing rapturous praise on wines he loves. He called one $100 California Cabernet "prodigious . . . diaphanous . . . spectacular . . . celestial . . . close to immortality in the glass." But he can also cause a marketplace stampede for modestly priced wines (often less than $10 a bottle), 647 of which he rated in his last annual issue on the "World's Greatest Wine Values."

"When Parker spits, the world listens." That's the message embroidered on a pillow his literary agent gave him several years ago. It's testament to his being not just the most important wine writer anywhere but also the most influential critic in any field, anywhere. The drama critic for the New York Times may be able to close a Broadway play with a bad review, but he has no effect on theater in Paris or Rome; Parker influences how wine is made, bought and sold in virtually every wine-growing and wine-drinking country on Earth.

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