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For Wine Critic, the Truth Is in the Glass

In a field notorious for freeloading and pretension, Robert Parker is known as incorruptible and down-to-earth. But he does have detractors.


"It's not even 6 o'clock," he says. "Let's have some mussels, too. And I think I'll have the veal cheeks after that."

He asks for the wine list. "They've got Harlan Estate," he says, beaming. He's given recent vintages of Harlan scores of 98, 99 and 100. He says it's "maybe the single most profound wine in California." After his first sip, Parker's cherubic face takes on a blissful glow. He has said that he "gets chills" when he tastes certain wines, and this is one of them.

Harlan is dense and powerful, and it provides the ideal opportunity to ask about the most frequent criticism of Parker's writings and ratings--that he only likes dense, powerful wines, especially the most concentrated wines from the Rhone, Bordeaux and California. These wines may be dazzling when sipped briefly at a formal tasting, but many say that they can be so intense that they are fatiguing after a couple of glasses, and they sometimes overpower the food they are intended to accompany. Bo Barrett calls these wines "heavily front-loaded, Dolly Parton wines, with 'gobs of fruit' [a favorite Parker phrase] but maybe not enough balance to last a long time."

Critics say that Parker gives such wines high scores because they stand out when he tastes a large number of young wines in a short period of time. Wines of elegance and finesse that may be better in the long run tend not to fare as well. It's not just the Burgundians and assorted Parker detractors who say this; many of his biggest boosters and beneficiaries agree.

Luciano Sandrone, one of the new generation of Barolo makers who acknowledges that rave reviews from Parker have "created a new and very special market for my wine," says that when he visited California vineyards two years ago, he sampled wines that Parker had given high scores to because he respects his palate. "But I was very disappointed," he says. "They were all very big, dense, rich, with a lot of alcohol."

Parker has heard all this before. With the weary air of a man who has been through this argument many times, he slowly puts down his fork and says, "Yes, I like wines with personality--just like I like people with personality. I don't like people who win arguments by shouting, though, and I don't like those kinds of wines either.

"I guess I'll go to my grave hearing that I only like 'big fruit bombs,' " he says, "but it's just not true. In the first place, big wines stand out in a tasting only for someone who doesn't have a good palate, and in the second place, just look at all the wines I've given good scores to."

He ticks off more than a dozen wines, from all over the world, that he has praised highly--all of them made in a lighter, more elegant style. He could easily point to a number of such wines in every issue of the Wine Advocate. But his protestations notwithstanding, it is clear that he does have preferences--not prejudices, mind you, but preferences. Although he routinely gives scores in the low- to mid-90s to elegant wines, he is far more likely to give his highest scores--98, 99, 100--and his most fervid prose to, well, "big fruit bombs." In just three pages of the Wine Advocate, top-rated wines were described as "spectacularly intense . . . blockbuster-styled . . . massive . . . huge . . . [and] full-bodied," not to mention "super-rich . . . explosively rich . . . fabulously rich . . . stunningly rich."

But all critics have preferences. Their readers learn to evaluate their recommendations accordingly. People might buy two or three wines because Parker raves about them, but if they are consistently disappointed, even the most insecure will finally stop paying attention to what he says, just as they would if they began to disagree often with their favorite film critic or restaurant critic.

"I'd be delighted to be a little less influential," Parker says. "It would take some of the pressure off. But it's not happening."

An International Palate

Parker's continued success raises the intriguing question of how much he influences people's taste and how much he simply reflects their taste. Americans, in particular, have always had a preference for strong, "sweet" flavors--it's part of our Coca-Cola culture--but despite the hegemony of the English language and the size and growth of the wine market here, U.S. taste alone is not sufficient to alter winemaking practices abroad.

About 11% of the people in this country drink 88% of the wine; on a per capita basis, Americans drink 54 gallons of soft drinks a year--and less than two gallons of wine. More than 30 countries have higher per capita wine consumption rates than the United States, with France, Italy and Portugal all averaging more than 15 gallons per capita.

"But tastes have been changing throughout the world over the past 15 years or so," says Tino Cola, an Italian winemaker. "To some extent, the American palate is becoming the international palate. Most people everywhere now want richer, fresher, fruitier wines, and Parker has captured that shift."

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