Hubert Burda Media

The Reluctant Emperor

The world's most famous wine critic, ROBERT PARKER, JR, reassesses his uniquely controversial legacy

The Reluctant Emperor

Few people I've met are as forthright about their own cultural contribution as Robert M Parker, Jr, the supremely influential yet most maligned of wine critics, even when I pose a difficult question. “There's a legend about you, widely circulated, that you're arrogant,” I give it to him straight, as we sit in The Fullerton Hotel Singapore on the last stop of the Asian leg of his Grand World Tour, during which he'd hosted wine tastings in Hong Kong and Kuala Lumpur. “What do you think of that?”

“That's a myth,” he says. “And I still hear it. You can go on any number of blogs by people I've never met in my life, saying this guy is thin-skinned and arrogant and a bully. I don't know anyone who knows me personally who would say that at all. I'm self-effacing; I do my work with serious professionalism and I think it's just part of success — that when you become successful, people just assume you're an asshole.”

Choice words and who can blame him, but surely he realises it's now March 2014 — exactly 30 years since he quit his law practice in Baltimore to devote himself full-time to his then-fledgling newsletter, The Wine Advocate. Somewhat to my amazement, he responds with a quizzical look, for he can't recall the exact date of that milestone of March 1984.

“It's right around it — the Ides of March!” he chortles. “I'll have to ask my wife. I remember we had a dinner party that night with our dearest friends.” Yes, I know, they celebrated with a bottle of 1961 Jaboulet Hermitage La Chapelle. “Yeah. I even had it [displayed] on my wall,” he notes, “Of course, I never look at it that often but I loved it, one of the great wines. I remember that day; it was a great day. My wife was worried though.”

Then, he divulges to me another prized possession, a painting that still hangs in their dining room — Dad's Restaurant by Bob Dylan. It turns out he's a huge fan of His Bobness, so I quote him the Dylan line that memorably references wine from the song “Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues” on the album Highway 61 Revisited: “I started out on Burgundy but soon hit the harder stuff.”

“Yes,” he quickly riffs back. “But in my case, I'd rewrite it like this: ‘I started out on Burgundy but soon hit the better stuff!'” He throws his head back and laughs, since his own reputation was largely built on his accurate assessments of classic Bordeaux, but he's probably grateful, too, for the comic relief. Having recently undergone back surgery after a long struggle with scoliosis, he uses a leg brace and walking accoutrements to get around. “I did Sonoma on these little trekking sticks here. Before that, I did a trip to Napa on crutches, but I covered more wines than I've ever covered because it was a challenge. I've since been rehabbing and now I'm going to France in May.”

His own wine reviewing is confined to Bordeaux and northern California, with the rest of the world now delegated to his new chief editor Lisa Perrotti-Brown MW, who runs the magazine on behalf of its new Singapore-based owners, who acquired it for US$15 million in 2012. What informed his thinking, I query, in agreeing to the sale?

“I think it's age,” he muses. “I've had offers over the past 10 years, but I had this thought about how can a business based on one person have any real value — I mean, I could drop dead and then what's the value of the business? I decided to define the parameters of what it could be worth. And then, when I hit 65, I said this is the time to sell, as long as you can sell it on the terms you want to sell. It's not so much about cashing in; it's about having control over what's done in the future.”

And there is, arguably, still a future since so much rides on his ongoing mythology based on the highly sellable rock star image of a wine guy with a fiercely independent streak. “I really don't hang around other wine journalists and I've always been something of a lone wolf — I want to be alone tasting; I want to travel myself and make up my own mind,” he affirms.

”I don't want to sit around a table, chatting about what they like and what they don't like. I don't need to do that and I don't want to do that.” Even his sternest detractors concede he never accepts favours or gifts and always pays for wine himself, a work ethic honed from pounding pavements — or rather, chateau cobblestones — during his early writing years after discovering wine in 1967 while visiting his then-girlfriend (and now wife of 44 years) Patricia when she was a student in Alsace.

Remember that time back in 1979, I remind him, when he arrived unknown and unannounced at Château Haut-Brion and its great winemaker Jean-Bernard Delmas promptly turned him away? “Yes, we were not friends at first — when I first met him, he slammed the door in my face. And I thought: ‘What a prick!' ” Parker recalls with a guffaw.

“But he paid me a great compliment when he retired. He's the only person who's ever said this to me in 35 years: ‘You know, we have thousands of people come through here. You're the only person, when you write the wine up, it actually sounds like what we talked about, that it's actually a picture of how you discussed the wine.' I thought that was a real compliment because it should be that way. It should be like how I tasted the wine and how we talked about it.“

Has his influence been fairly assessed, in his view, given how the “Parker points” wine-score scale he created has been often mocked for fostering lazy thinking among sommeliers? “Well, I never said it was a scientific system,” he declares. “It's a personal system. I was committed to it because it was a scale I had in college. I never imagined that it could be bastardised and used that way. It doesn't work in my favour, because I'm trying to write interesting tasting notes and the only thing anyone seems to care about, at least from the trade, is the number. So it becomes a black-and-white, dumbed-down number system. Some people were thinking: ‘Parker's a robot, with his magical palate that can just pinpoint the wine.' And it got me thinking: Man, this is getting out of control!”

“But I'll continue to defend it because it makes you accountable. I wanted to make the tasting notes not only describe the wine, so people can actually compare it with their own palates and learn something, but the scores mean I'm drawing a line in the sand. People might come to me and say that wine is not a 100-pointer or a 96-pointer, but they know where I stand. Ever since the inception of The Wine Advocate in 1978, on the front page it explains that the best palate is yours, not mine. I've said this for 35 years, but people want to believe what they want to believe.”

My rejoinder is then to plonk down onto the table a gauntlet, my own copy of veteran wine writer Elin McCoy's The Emperor of Wine: The Rise of Robert M Parker, Jr and the Reign of American Taste, published in 2005, which instantly prompts a reaction — he claims McCoy withheld the fact that it would be a biography and interviewed him in the guise of writing a book about the wine industry. “If she'd told me it would be about me, I would've given her more time. When the editor of this book called me to tell me that the book was coming out, I asked him what the title would be and he said: ‘The Emperor of Wine.' And I said: ‘I don't like that at all. You should retitle it The Reluctant Emperor of Wine.' ”

Why not then correct all the misconceptions by writing his own memoirs? “I'm going to,” he replies. “But I sort of feel like I don't want to write it chronologically, like most of those books, and also my main concern is with my majority interest, which has been sold to this group in Singapore. We have a new team in place and there's huge potential, so we'll see how that works.” He's still CEO and chairman of the firm publishing The Wine Advocate and the website eRobertParker.com, so a new chapter awaits in every metaphorical sense. “I've been taking notes for my book and I've outlined it,” he assures me. “But the career's not over yet.”