Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Kingmaker

We gathered to hear the kingmaker speak. Robert Parker has been called the most powerful critic (of any sort) in the world, and it’s hard to argue the point. I can think of no other industry with such a sharp tip on the pyramid of critical review. Think about it. In food, film, travel, etc., writers all play a role in a sort of democracy at work. But Robert Parker? He’s the only one who can take an obscure producer to stardom with the stroke of a pen. Let’s say you’re making 200 cases of a Grenache blend in Paso Robles that no one has ever heard of before. Now let’s say that Parker tastes said blend and stamps it with a “98-point” review. You will sell out within hours. It’s literally the equivalent of one movie reviewer plucking an indie film from obscurity and having every theater that picks it up sold out for months. Or a single food reviewer causing a reservation overload at a new restaurant with calls from around the country. Which is amazing… and kind of insane, truth be told.
After his annual tasting tour of Napa Valley, the Napa Valley Vintners invited their members for a Q&A session at the venerable Rutherford Grange with The Critic. I personally wanted to hear what he had to say about the ’08 vintage in Napa (as did most folks in the room based on the applause that followed his proclamation of a “fabulous” year). But I was also curious to hear what sort of questions the people whose livelihood he was impacting with every review would have for him.

What followed was a wide-ranging flow of conversation from why no one can sell Syrah to the Asian market as a legitimate force to the ongoing competition with the Old World for consumer acceptance. (The answers were essentially: No one really knows, you have to have a footprint in Asia to compete with the French and European wine lovers will never take American wine seriously because they have an ingrained bias and are hopelessly provincial). But the session was also an interesting look at what makes Parker tick.

His big break moment came back in the early days of his publication when the vast majority of the old guard writers proclaimed 1982 Bordeaux to be a flop vintage, and Parker went the exact opposite direction. He turned out to be right, of course, and the wine business would be forever changed for it. He still reminds his readers (of which there are a shockingly low 55,000) that his reviews are just his opinions. He is also steadfastly not for sale. His insistence on paying his own way is legendary, as is his absolute refusal to accept advertising in any form. So criticize the critic all you like, but even the most ardent Parker detractors can’t question his integrity.

The irony for me is what he didn’t say, in this case about what may be his most controversial - and widespread - contribution to the critical field… the infamous “100-point” system. What was then a novel concept is now employed by most American critics (with varying degrees of laughably implied precision). But although he didn’t specifically say it, I got the sense that the point system may be his Frankenstein’s monster. Parker writes some of the most detailed tasting notes in the business, and yet most people never read them.

Which brings us to the role of the world’s most powerful critic going forward. He has over the last decade or so assigned certain regions to his team of understudies. He no longer reviews Italy, Australia, several prominent regions of France, etc. (the volume of producers wanting a Wine Advocate review is far too much for one person). So what happens as Parker perhaps considers retirement and the majority of reviews in a given year are not penned by the man who started the publication? It will be interesting indeed to see who steps in the fill the void. Frankly, it’s unlikely we’ll ever see one individual critic with such influence ever again.

--Rhett Gadke, Wine Director

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