Robert Parker: The Godfather of Modern Wine

With prolific writing and the creation of his 100-point scale, world-famous wine critic Robert Parker, who announced his retirement last May, is behind the public’s newfound wine fascination.
American critic Robert Parker.

As a wine retailer in New York City, I found myself swept up in “Parkermania” in the 1980s. Robert Parker and his newsletter, The Wine Advocate, were the talk of the wine world. We spent hours debating the merits of the ratings. His publications were our bible. For years, we waited for the release of Parker’s newsletters with great anticipation. One leading New York City retailer said he would rather have advance copies of The Wine Advocate than insider tips from Wall Street.

Parker’s rise to prominence started with his review of the 1982 vintage Bordeaux wines. While other critics dismissed the quality of the vintage, Parker openly declared its greatness. This turned out to be correct and jumpstarted his career as a wine critic extraordinaire.

One of our big debates was whether Parker’s influence was positive or negative. Everyone acknowledged that he educated consumers, developed available information, raised overall wine quality, and expanded the markets. He made buying wine exciting and showed consumers what they should drink. People wanted to know, and he told them.

Producers would ensure their wines appealed to Robert Parker to boost ratings. He preferred more robust, extracted, concentrated wines with higher levels of ripeness, alcohol, and oak treatment with complex, opulent fruit and vanilla characters. Producers increasingly catered to his tastes and changed their growing practices and winemaking techniques. A homogeneous effect began worldwide, known as “Parkerization.” This influence was notable in many regions including Bordeaux, California, and Spain.

Producers had every reason to create wines Parker loved; the higher the ratings, the higher the prices, the greater the prestige, and the bigger the payoff.

Parker felt that by defining a certain style he was helping wineries reach their potential. But some people felt that, despite his intentions, it removed the identity and diversity of wine regions and wineries. The international Parkerized style took over. However, the technique backfired in Australia, where Shiraz wines became so high in extract and alcohol that they were too overwhelming to drink. Sales plummeted and have never bounced back. Parker also experienced difficulties in Burgundy which never fully embraced his style, yet rose to fame and now produces some of the world’s most sought-after wines.

Article published in the October 2019 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.