"SHEEEEEE-IT” AND “TRUE DAT” ARE MEMORABLE LINES FROM THE SEMINAL TV SERIES THE WIRE. THEY MIGHT ALSO HAVE BEEN THE TASTING NOTES OF A PRIVATE WINE TASTING BETWEEN ROBERT PARKER AND THE SHOW’S CAST.
“Twelve of them came and got drunk and never left character,” says Parker, recalling the evening with amusement and explaining how it came to pass.
Parker was born in Baltimore – the grungy gangland in which The Wire was set – and to this day lives in the state of Maryland. He was contacted by The Wire’s Dominic West and, as a fan of the show, Parker was only happy to host what must have been the antithesis of the Bordeaux En Primeur tastings through which he made his name.
Though life may have started in Baltimore, the world’s best-known wine critic did not exactly crawl out of the badlands into the wine-lands. Actually, he grew up an only child on a tranquil family dairy farm, 30 miles outside the city. You might say farming was in his blood but Parker was the first of his family to eschew farming in favour of college. “My dream job was to be a vet but it turned out every biology course I took, I came close to failing. I was a very bad student until my third year. I was in a fraternity that was extremely wild and crazy. There were a lot of jocks.”
Parker was one of them – he went to school on a soccer scholarship at the University of Maryland. They say of all the players on a football field, the goalkeeper is the crazy one. “I was tall, athletic and ferocious in goal,” says Parker. “Corner kicks are the ultimate madness.” Indeed when you consider the bravery required to dominate the airspace of a dozen leaping, rutting men, it is easier to understand how this American outsider came to grasp the wine world with both hands.
But in 1967 Parker had yet to discover his palate – back then it was just his nose and mouth. He “partied like crazy” but “never really liked alcohol” and besides, he had other things to worry about. “I completely shredded my left knee three weeks before the soccer season started. It ended my career and that team went on to win the college national championship.”
If there is a positive spin on the phrase ‘ruptured ligaments’, it was about to present itself. The Vietnam War was in full swing in the late 60s and Parker, a staunch opponent, was facing conscription. “I missed being drafted by my cunning,” he says, explaining that he intentionally didn’t apply for student deferment, knowing that if he was called up while his knee was crocked, he might be excused duty permanently. “Sure enough, after I got out of hospital, still on crutches, I was drafted for my physical. As soon as I went in there I knew this had worked to perfection. I failed it and got a permanent LY status which meant I would never go to Vietnam.”