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12.06.2005

More Sniping at The Top of The Wine World

Like the Royal Family trading insults or the latest antics of Scientology obsessed celebrities, I continue to be fascintated with the sniping that takes place at the top of the wine world, as critics, and the critics of critics let loose. Invariably it involves Robert Parker, the powerful critic that can't help but be at the center of most shit-storms when it comes to flagrant opinions about what is good, what is bad, and how little the critics know anyway. Earlier in the year he ran afoul of Hugh Johnson, who ended up calling him a "dictator of taste" among other things, and he's crossed swords with Jancis Robinson a while ago over whether a particular vintage of Chateau Pavie was any good.

This time, Parker is trading blows with Australian wine critic James Halliday after Parker published the most recent issue of his monthly newsletter, which focused on Australia's wines. The issue, Parker's latest ratings, of course. Specifically, Halliday is charging that Parker's ratings for Australia's top wines are significantly different than the scoring results from Australian national competitions (presumably implying that because the competitions are scored by groups of judges that they are more "correct"). Additionally, Halliday claims that Parker made his judgements after tasting only 10% of a particular regions wines.

Whooeee. Can you see the smoke from where you are?

Parker fired back that Halliday and his panels of judges were "Euro-imitators" and industry cronies, claiming that over half the judges in Halliday's cited competitions were industry aligned. Parker went on to call the wines that Halliday and others had selected for medals "vapid, innocuous and no better than very minor wines."

Who needs soap operas when you've got stuff like this? I find it hard that these folks take what is clearly the product of a subjective occupation so seriously, but then again I'm not a professional wine critic. Maybe I'd understand it all a bit more if I made my living doing this. I hope, though, that I'd have a bit more of a sense of humor.

Comments (17)

Dee Dee wrote:
12.07.05 at 7:24 AM

This both completely hysterical and absolutely pathetic. One would think that professional wine critics could stand by their opinions without being pulled into the fray.

Ben wrote:
12.07.05 at 7:50 AM

I'd love to see a bunch of drunk wine critics in a fist fight. Now there's an action movie worthy of drinking.

Jathan wrote:
12.07.05 at 9:16 AM

Parker has a right to defend himself and it seems that he did so in a professional manner...

"Parker has responded by accusing Halliday and his peers of being 'Euro-imitators' and making wine to a bland formula – 'add acid, and then add more acid to denude any texture or trace of a wine's place of origin.' "

and

"Robert Parker said on his website erobertparker.com he could 'easily refute' the accusations. "

I'd say he handled it well.

Mike B wrote:
12.07.05 at 10:13 AM

It's probably not a good idea to pick a fight with a trained lawyer. Good luck, Halliday.

Eric LECOURS wrote:
12.07.05 at 10:15 AM

What instigated this controversy were Parker’s ratings of Mt. Mary’s wines. For those who are not familiar, these are extremely high priced, $ 100+, Yarra Valley Bordeaux blends. The owner, Dr. Middleton, had continually refused to submit wines for Parker’s evaluation knowing the wines were not to Parker’s taste as they are made in a less than high-octane style. Parker nonetheless “with some stealth work” procured five vintages and scored all but one under 80, the ’01 rating 83.

The Australian press took particular offense to an outsider decimating a cult wine such as Mt. Mary’s which they hold in such high regard, particularly as Parker went out of his way to evaluate a wine the owner had not offered for his review. That Parker went out of his way to procure the wine is irrelevant really. What if restaurant critics only evaluated the cuisine of restaurants they were invited to visit? Absurd.

The following are excerpts of my comments Jancis Robinson published on her site in the Halliday, Schildknecht, Rich exchange on the issue:

"Competitions are limited in their use to gauge relative quality in a wine. They are a particular committee's opinion of the relative quality of a select group of wines as they are presented to them. I wonder how many trophies or Something of the Year awards Lafite or Leroy has won recently? There are too many variables involved in such competitions for them to be of universal use. A particular critic's opinion is his/her own. There is much accountability and no anonymity. Further if you expect continued livelihood, your reviews had better be perceived consistent and valuable. Whether one agrees or not, few have accused Parker of being inconsistent in his views."

“As an outsider, there seems to be an odd irony to Australia crying foul. US imports of Australian wines have increased tremendously in recent years, overtaking some of the European powerhouses. On the premium end, there has been no bigger influence on the stellar growth of sales in the US than Parker. Personally, I rarely appreciate his high-scoring, over-the-top wines, ie high extract & alcohol, low acid. However, Burgundy is more in a position to cry foul (as they have) than Australia is. Just as every region does, you must take the good with the bad. Are you willing to throw out the baby with bath water? Parker's lack of appreciation of the subtleties of internationally lesser significant varieties must be by far outweighed by his zeal for the promotion and high-scoring of Shiraz. Could Australia survive banishing him as Burgundy did?”

Dave wrote:
12.08.05 at 12:23 AM

Eric,

Parker has done a lot for....well a couple of Australian regions that align with the style of wine that he likes.
I find it silly that the critics bash each other up on various forums....well it's funny actually....in the end it's only one persons opinion against anothers...it is interesting how bulletin boards and blogs can be used to make them account for their thoughts and reviews.

As for who came out on top.....I don't think any of them handled it well...Hallidays orginal speech....which I attended was cringe-worthy and Parker and Rovani defended themselves by squirting gasoline on the flames.....entertaining viewing though

Dave

Alder wrote:
12.08.05 at 8:39 AM

Dave,

While I agree that Parker's palate and preference are more Barossa than Hunter Valley I think it's fair to say that his ratings and favorable commentary about the quality of Australia's wines over the years has probably had a net positive effect on the wine industry there overall. While some wineries haven’t benefitted from high parker scores, they certainly have benefitted from a greater interest in Australian wines across the board. I'm not going to go so far as to say that Parker made Yellow Tail possible, but there may be a tiny bit of truth to that, especially if you include other critics in the mix.

And as for Eric's point of responding well or not, I tend to agree with you. Certainly everyone has the right to defend their professional integrity, but in my opinion, the classiest way to do that would have been to dismiss screeching like Halliday's as not even worth responding to. Gasoline on the flames, indeed.

Eric LECOURS wrote:
12.08.05 at 10:48 AM

Alder, you are right. These issues could be discussed in a more dignified manner.

The core issue though is an important one: is it good that one man's palate drives site, varietal and clonal selection, viticultural and vinification techniques, and the style of resultant wines universally the world over? If the listener can get by the insults, emotions and, in my opinion, weak arguments, James Halliday's answer is no. I am in agreement but believe this flawed approach will hopelessly fail in its intent.

Dave wrote:
12.08.05 at 2:05 PM

Hi Alder

Agreed....Parker has certainly had a positive effect on the Australian wine industry over the years....even if he is Barossa/McLaren Vale-centric it has had a positive flow on effect for all Australian regions.
There are always some juicy Parker rumors flowing around in the trade over here, some probably true, others not gives us all something to talk about at the pub on Friday nights......lol

Cheers

Dave

Alder wrote:
12.08.05 at 2:18 PM

Eric,

Actually I don't think that's what Halliday's argument was, it seemed like it was more just character assasination to me (but I wasn't there and didn't hear the whole thing). If in fact, though, he was making the argument that Parker is too powerful in the wine world, especially in Australia, then my response would be: .

It's a fact. Everyone, even Parker himself, acknowledges that the world would be a better place if he had less of an influence on the market. What I can't stand is people grousing about it all the time. That's the equivalent, for me, of people complaining that Alan Greenspan has too big an influence on the financial markets. It's his job and he didn't ask for the power -- it's just the cumulative effect of saying smart things that lots of people listen to over a few decades.

As you say, railing against Parker is not going to solve anything. The only way to change this market is to 1) have more people that the market looks to for critical opinion, and 2) make consumers better informed so they can be less like sheep following a shepard, and better stewards of their own taste.

I hope to contribute in the tiniest way to both. We'll see how it goes.

Steve wrote:
12.08.05 at 5:22 PM

Boy Alder, you nailed the issue in your last comment. The problem is not one man's influence, it is the wine drinking public's reluctance to do anything other than follow his lead. The fact that Joe Consumer will buy a wine that is Parker-rated at 90 or above without knowing anything else about the wine is not Mr. Parker's fault. He likes what he likes; I like what I like. Sometimes we appear to agree, though not often enough to make it worth my while to subscribe to the Wine Advocate (although I once did; I gave up on the International Wine Cellar, too). Wineries cater to the Parker style--I'd be willing to bet--out of economic necessity. I have nothing against that, nor against anyone who likes big, ripe, alcoholic wines--as long as that's what they genuinely prefer. (Heck, my own mother loves California chardonnays that seem to me to taste solely of wood and lack any semblance of fruit but that doesn't make me think any less of her.) People don't look for ratings on beer before picking up a 6-pack of mass-produced swill because they don't have the same hangups with beer that they do with wine. Most people treat wine as a special occasion beverage with rules that make a particular selection "right" or "wrong." Until and unless the people who choose to drink wine start to feel confident in their own taste preferences, there will continue to be tastemakers who wield inordinate influence. Me, I'm enjoying a glass of an unrated Beaujolais made by Jean-Paul Brun as I type this, but I have to admit that I, too, went through a phase during which I relied on people like Mr. Parker to tell me what it was OK to like, until I felt confident in my own opinions. Let the "experts" snipe at one another; in the final analysis it makes no difference to whether or not one enjoys a particular bottle of wine.

Eric LECOURS wrote:
12.09.05 at 10:37 AM

Pardon me for continuing with this thread.

I would suggest the "reasons" for which Parker is attacked are are just semantics. All these "reasons" derive from the same core issue. Parker's omnipotence is something with which one segment of the wine world must wrestle and with which another is perfectly content.

I agree with both you and Dave regarding Parker's influence ultimately be granted by the consumer. Wine is unique though and not comparable to most other beverages. Beer, like most spirits for example, is a relatively inexpensive product produced in a deliberately consistent style/taste. There is no penalty in making a wrong choice; a bottle of premium beer costs $1. The stakes of purchasing premium vintage wine on the other hand, 01 Barolo for example, are on a different scale.

Let me finish with this. Is the consumer responsible? Ultimately yes. Just as we are all responsible for global warming or the atrocities in Ruwanda. It takes leaders however to effect change. I would argue that Parker's extreme influence has homogenized many wines; more balance is needed. I don't blame him. This is just a phenomenon that people of our generation will be affected by, good or bad, like the lack of alternative fuel automobiles. Yes, the consumer is responsible but...

Alder wrote:
12.09.05 at 10:46 AM

Eric,

No apology needed. This is a great discussion.

12.15.05 at 3:06 AM

Hi Alder,

The comparison of Parker to Alan Greenspan would be more apt if Greenspan had actually founded the Federal Reserve. To put things in context, you have to consider how young the field of wine writing and especially wine rating is. Hugh Johnson came out with the first World Atlas of Wine in 1971, a great achievement considering that earlier wine books by Creighton Churchill, Julian Street, Winkler/Amerine etc. read more like quaint summaries today. The first Wine Advocate appeared in 1978 - just 27 years ago – and is pretty much start of wine rankings.

When Parker says on the WA masthead that “wine is no different from any consumer product. There are specific standards of quality that full-time wine professionals recognize,” people tend to believe that the point system is not subject to subjectivity and that other professionals would concur with his scoring. 10 basis points for the Fed are 10 basis points. 90 points for a wine is?

I do believe that believe that wine is different from any other consumer product, a view you and Eric no doubt share. I also very much like your rating system especially the part about telling a wine’s story. Perhaps there could be a rating on how good the back story of the wine is. Or is that the Spectator’s x-factor? Uh-oh. . .

Alder wrote:
12.15.05 at 9:29 AM

Steve,

Thanks for the comments. Perhaps you're right that Parker is even more of a marketmaker than Greenspan...

I don't know how I feel about wine being like any other consumer product. Part of me agrees with Parker -- it's fermented juice, and we could probably establish some pretty acceptable standards for what quality is if we got a lot of people together (though his 100 point system is probably not it). On the other hand, you have terroir, which has very few equivalents in other products. Even though the stories behind the wine are very important to me, they certainly are not unique to wine. If you take any other product that people sometimes work their whole lives at producing by hand (sheep, fruit, handmade linen, etc.) you'll find stories galore.

I don’t know what my point is exactly. But rating those stories seems like a bizarre and awful idea to me. Let's hope the x-factor, whatever it is, isn't that.

04.10.14 at 12:39 AM

You are so interesting! I do not think I've truly read through a single thing like this before.
So wonderful to discover somebody with a few original thoughts on this subject.

Seriously.. thanks for starting this up. This site is
one thing that's needed on the internet, someone with a
little originality!

Tim wrote:
04.14.14 at 11:12 AM

Hi! Do you know if they make any plugins to help with Search Engine Optimization?
I'm trying to get my blog to rank for some targeted keywords but I'm not seeing very good gains.
If you know of any please share. Appreciate it!

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