Pinot Envy...

Reviews by Joe Rosenberg

The Emperor of Wine: The Rise of Robert M. Parker, Jr. and the reign of American Taste
by Elin McCoy
Ecco, 2005

by Jonathan Nossiter
Think Film 2005
Both The Emperor of Wine.... and "Monovino" are centered on wine writer Robert M. Parker, a lifetime resident of Monkton in Baltimore County, and detail his journey from the law to international fame as a wine connoisseur.

The book is a chronicle of Parker’s life to date by a fellow wine writer. The movie is a lengthy discourse on the ills of modern winemaking and marketing by a director who lacks objectivity and balance.

Time out for my disclaimer: From 1978 to 1985, I spent many Friday nights at Mr. Parker’s house as part of a sounding board he set up to calibrate the accuracy of his judgments. I also spent other nights at the Parkers' home, and Parker spent time at wine tastings I sponsored at my Woodlawn apartment, Dalesio’s and Chez Fernand’s restaurants, and other venues. Parker introduced me to people I eventually worked for in the wine business. I watched him grow as a person and saw how scrupulous he was in conducting his business. Although I rarely see him these days, he is still a friend even though he never reviewed one of my Winemayven Selections.

That said, Ms. McCoy’s 300 pages of biography has captured Parker--generous, affable but wary of criticism--starting even before he scooped the wine world on the high quality of the 1982 Bordeaux. To those not in this rarefied world, red wines from Bordeaux are the Rosetta stone of collectors of old wines and of baby-boomer yuppies anxious to own everything worthwhile in the universe. So when Parker announced that the 1982 vintage was most collectable, a combination of demand fueled by major wine stores and nay-saying from other wine writers led Parker to leave his day job and begin work on his book on Bordeaux wines.

Parker was able to branch out from his bi-monthly Wine Advocate to other venues. He often prefaced his wine reviews in other publications with words like “As I told you in Vol. 6, Number 4, the Chateau Vonce estate is beginning to make...” His "As I told you” reminded his readers that he found the wine first, or at least early on. As a businessman, he wanted his Wine Advocate to be a wine geek’s publication of choice.

Until Parker, wine criticism was a world of bull and avarice. Parker was among the early newsletter writers who were champions of the consumer and not lifestyle mavens. If you've ever tasted a wine in Europe and then back in the USA, you'd realize that the wine was mishandled in transit. By encouraging Kermit Lynch, Marc DeGrazia and other importers who knew that reefer was not just another word for a joint, Parker raised the level of how a wine was handled. When the Wine Advocate started publication, you could not find a rosé in Maryland that was less than three years old; great vintages were not delivered to Maryland because wholesalers still had mediocre vintages in inventory. Parker created demand.

All in all, for those unfamiliar to Parker’s rise from drinking Coca Cola at the feed store to downing Dom with Charlie Rose, this book is a good read. I would have liked to have seen some more of our Friday night crew mentioned, like Geoff Connor, Steve Sheriff and Mitch Pressman.

On the other hand, Nossiter’s screed on the screen is a mean-spirited attack on Parker and celebrity winemaker Michel Rolland. Nossiter had some valid points but his editing is slanted. Parker and Rolland have influence in the wine world because consumers like the wines Parker praises and Rolland consults for. To me, some consumers are overly finicky and fanatical, not buying any wine scored below 95 points or wanting to buy the entire allocation a store is allotted; and people in the trade don’t try to acquire and then sell wines not praised by either the Wine Advocate or the life-style oriented commercial Wine Spectator. Most of the wine sales in the US are not the artisan wines coveted by subscribers to those publications, but everyday quaffs that make the day a bit brighter.

Robert M. Parker, Jr. has made it possible for the public to move from merely drinking wine to experiencing wine as an aesthetic, culinary and cultural pleasure. He has become an American icon.

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This story was published on July 26, 2005.