Review: Emperor of Wine – The Rise of Robert M. Parker, Jr. and the Reign of American Taste

The Emperor of Wine is a good read that helps put Parker's rise in the context of the whole industry

Emperor of Wine is Elin McCoy’s book about Robert Parker and how he became the most influential wine critic in the world.  Even though it’s a few years old, I picked the book up recently because I was curious about where those ubiquitous wine scores pasted all over the shelves at wine shops come from and because I was interested to learn about how someone went from being an everyday lawyer to a world famous wine critic.

The book itself is a good read that goes beyond Parker’s life story to talk about how the traditional role of wine critics and merchants have changed, in large part because of Parker and the rise of California wines.  Since Parker’s rise coincided with tectonic shifts in the industry McCoy is able to describe Parker in the context of the industry as a whole, which adds another dimension to the book and makes for a more interesting read.

The book follows Parker’s life and career chronologically starting from his first trip to Europe in college where he falls in love with wine, to his life as an attorney with an obsession for wine, to becoming the most famous wine critic in the world where whole vineyards are built to appeal to his taste.

What’s interesting about McCoy’s portrayal of Parker is that she’s also a food and wine writer who once hired Parker to write for Food & Wine magazine.  The existing relationship and her role as an insider provide her access to Parker and people in the industry and overall she does a nice job painting a picture of Parker, but at times it seems like the green goddess is whispering in her ear – especially with her repeated references to Parker putting on weight as he ages.

What was really interesting was how Parker built his reputation on trying to be a consumer advocate using Ralph Nader as a model and by developing the most American of things, a scoring system that provides buyers with a clear, definitive view of each bottles’ worth.

According to Parker, the scoring system was an afterthought to his tasting notes and that he didn’t expect the scores to catch on in the way they did.  And while that may or may not be true, in some ways it’s surprising someone else hadn’t done it first. It is such an easy system, from a marketing point of view, of making a complex subject full of nuance into a fifteen-second decision.

The problem of course is once you start scoring wines you’ve reduced one of society’s oldest traditions, one that is built on the relationship between the type of grape, the place it’s grown, and the winemaker’s knowledge to a high score = good, low score = bad mentality.

I understand what it’s like to stand in a wine shop and look at rows and rows of wine and have no idea how to tell what’s good from what’s bad.  I have some idea of what types of wine I like, at least when it comes to a particular region or certain types of varietals, but when it get’s down to vineyard and vintage and trying to figure out if the 2005 Bordeaux from the Medoc at $30 a bottle is a better deal than 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley for $25 is a better buy I’m at a loss.  The tasting notes can be helpful, but it seems like they are all written by marketing assistants channeling word clouds and not by people who can describe what a wine tastes like.

It also seems like there’s so much more you don’t know about what you’re getting than you know about what you are getting.  I think this is why so many people secretly buy wine based on the label.  At least when somebody buys by the label, they have an easy way to defend their choice to the oenophiles in the room.

I also think this is one of the reasons why craft cocktails have become such a big deal.  There’s so little variation in good liquor compared to wine when you spend $40 on a bottle of Templeton Rye; you know that every bottle is going to essentially taste the same as every other bottle.  You can’t say the same thing for wine from the same vineyard, there’s a lot more variation from year to year and as a wine ages everything changes.  This is, of course, the beauty of wine and my biggest problem with someone drinking a wine once, assigning it a score of 1 to 100, and moving on to the next bottle.

What’s happened with the scores and how Parker’s palate has shaped wines around the world is much more our problem than his.  By treating one person’s palate as the Gospel according to Bob, we’ve done the very American thing which is trade the time and effort it would take for us to really learn about something, it’s ins and outs, to appreciate the nuance of different regions and different styles to a single tastemaker who tells us what to think with a single number.

Among the most disturbing parts of the book is when McCoy describes how vineyards started to hire experts who had a track record of getting high scores from Parker.  It wasn’t that anyone was accusing Parker, the winemakers, or the vineyards of anything nefarious, it’s just that the economic realities of high-end wines have become such that a high score from Parker can make or break a vineyard financially.

McCoy does a good job in the book of explaining Parker’s rise to become the most important wine critic in the world and how his influence has shaped the industry.  What isn’t clear is as Parker’s career starts to wind down who or what will replace him.  The question is will it be a single critic, multiple critics, or will it be something different like crowd-sourced wine scores driving sales or something no one has thought of yet.

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The Emperor of Wine by Elin McCoy

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