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Download, then uncork

For those who put their faith in wine critic Robert Parker, a new Palm program lets them bring him to the table.

September 22, 2004|David Shaw | Times Staff Writer

There's a new toy on the market for folks I think of fondly as "double geeks" -- people who like both fine wine and electronic gadgets. It's called "Parker in Your Palm," and it allows users to download ratings and tasting notes from, the online version of Parker's Wine Advocate newsletter, and transfer the data into a Palm personal digital assistant.

That means you can sit in a restaurant, wine list in hand, or walk through your favorite wine store, eyeballing various selections, and use your Palm to check Parker's ratings and reviews before making any decisions.

This is not, of course, an unmitigated blessing. To begin with, it encourages many wine drinkers to rely even more heavily on Parker than they already do, rather than being willing to experiment or to trust their own taste or the recommendations of their local wine merchant, sommelier or waiter.

Besides, the potential for tableside disaster seems unavoidable. I can just see one of my gadget-loving friends sitting in a restaurant, trying to juggle a wine list, a menu and a Palm, when his cellphone rings and he knocks over two wineglasses while trying to answer it.

These concerns notwithstanding, "Parker in Your Palm" is surprisingly easy to use (although the initial setup can be time-consuming).

Once the Parker data are in your Palm, you use the stylus to tap your "home" screen symbol, then tap the "RP Wines" icon. You can then search for Parker's rating and review of an individual bottle (1989 Haut Brion, 2001 Flora Springs Cabernet) or you can search more broadly by any of 11 other criteria -- among them rating, price, country, region, vintage, variety and producer -- either separately or in combination.

To get Parker's ratings and current retail prices on all 1997 Chiantis with more than 90 points, for example, the user taps "Vintage" on the main search screen, then "1997" on the list of vintages that come up, then "Region" and "Chianti," "Rating" and "Outstanding." The Palm screen immediately displays a list of wines that meet your criteria, starting with the highest rated, 93-point, '97 Collelungo Chianti Classico Riserva, down through the 17 wines rated at 90 points each. (If you prefer, you can choose to have the wines listed alphabetically or by cost -- either high-to-low or low-to-high.)

Tapping on any one of these individual wines yields a basic listing that includes its name, producer, vintage, rating, retail price and whether it's an early- or late-maturing wine.

Beyond that, the amount of material you can download depends on two factors -- the model and capacity of your Palm and whether you're a subscriber to the Parker website.

If you're a subscriber -- the cost is $99 a year -- you pay an additional, one-time-only fee of $29.95 to get "Parker in Your Palm" forever. This entitles you to download ratings and tasting notes on as many wines from the site as can be stored in the available memory of your Palm or, if it has one, an expansion card.

Although the Wine Advocate began publication in 1978, the website only has ratings and tasting notes going back to 1992. It also, however, has all the notes and scores from three Parker books -- one each on Bordeaux, Burgundy and the Rhone -- and from about 300 reviews written specifically for the site.

That adds up to more than 55,000 wines and would take about 40 megabytes of Palm memory.

The information is updated every two months, when each new issue of the hard-copy Wine Advocate is published and 1,000 more wines are added to the online database. "Parker in Your Palm" customers can download all these updates without extra charge.

Wine lovers who want Parker in their Palm but don't want to subscribe to can pay $49.95 for a "Standalone" version of the software, available both from the website and on a CD. "Standalone" users can also download new postings every two months without charge -- but only for one year. Unlike website subscribers, they have to pay $49.95 each year to renew their registration.

The "Standalone" version is much more limited than the subscribers' version. It includes ratings and tasting notes on "only" 5,000 "recently released, affordable" wines -- i.e., wines under $30, all from recent vintages (right now that means 1999 to 2003).

The folks behind the Parker-Palm alliance say many of their customers are upgrading to newer versions of the Palm, with more memory and faster processors, to take full advantage of the available database, getting not just Parker's raw scores but his tasting notes as well.

I borrowed one of those newer devices myself, a PalmOne Zire 72, fully loaded with all the written commentaries on a 120-megabyte expansion card. It was easy to use -- and lightning fast.

The day I got it, I had lunch at La Terza, Gino Angelini's new place on West 3rd Street, and when the waiter touted an Italian Sauvignon Blanc from Scubla, I whipped out my Palm.

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