Parker points back

14 April, 2015

In 1978, while practising law aged 30, Parker put pen to the Wine Advocate newsletter. “We were a young married couple with a mortgage and I wasn’t sure I could make any money out of it.” 

When his partner dropped out there was even more doubt but Parker forged ahead, trusting in his innovative approach to tasting and the precision of his as yet unknown palate. 

He approached two high-end wine shops in Washington DC for their mailout lists, telling them about his plan to distribute the first issue free to consumers. 

The first Wine Advocate panned the Bordeaux vintage of 1973 and, though this was unlikely to promote sales, the retailers offered their nationwide contacts free. “I sent out 6,000 issues and got a 12% return for the second edition, about 500 subscribers – which I was devastated about. Now I have learned from direct marketing people that that’s an incredible response. 

“The second issue was on Napa Valley, because I didn’t like what they were doing either, and by then I was up to 1,000 subscribers. I knew I had something.” Parker says an article about his breakthrough appeared in The Washington Post. It said the success or failure of Parker depended on whether people agreed with him. “That’s been true for 37 years,” he says.

New style

The much documented 1982 Bordeaux vintage made Parker. When the wine writing elite dismissed the vintage as a flabby Californian Cabernet, lacking in acid, Parker recognised its richness, concentration and integrated tannins. He saw a new style that would later proliferate. 

“I knew that was the turning point. I was getting beaten up by more established writers and I had to survive financially until the wines were in bottle and consumers could taste them.” When they did, the vintage was lauded and has been ever since. “Subscriptions jumped and I was able to leave practising law. The writers who panned it? They’re careers were essentially ended.” Until the mid-eighties Parker had not been a full-time wine writer. What followed was “success after success” or what others called ‘Parkerisation’. 

Now well settled into his sixties and in recovery from a serious back operation, Parker is in slow retreat. He has given up the “young man’s job” of En Primeur to concentrate on Napa. That should mean a little more time to listen to his Neil Young albums, certainly a little less travelling, and a lot less tasting than the days of putting that million dollar nose through 100 wines in a day. 

Those who fell fowl of those tastings will not miss him. His 100-point scores were meritocratic, systematic, and his pay-your-own-way approach refreshingly ethical. 

As Parker fades from the limelight, there will be recognition of the indelible impression this outsider from Maryland made on the world of wine. 

Keywords: robert parker

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