The decline of the Robert Parker empire

By Felix Salmon
December 17, 2012

Since I’m on the subject of fallen emperors, it’s worth catching up with the latest Robert Parker news.

Decanter’s Adam Lechmere has seen an email to French wine blogger Vincent Pousson, which seems to confirm the rumors: Parker isn’t just giving up editorial control of The Wine Advocate, but also ‘command and control’ of the business as a whole. The new jefe is Soo Hoo Khoon Peng, a Singaporean wine importer who seems to have bought the franchise, Parker included, for $15 million. Of that, Parker got $10 million, with the rest going to the deal’s two brokers, who are reportedly “connected with Deutsche Bank and Goldman Sachs.”

The price here seems astonishingly low. If Parker has 50,000 subscribers paying $75 per year, that’s $3.75 million in annual print revenue alone; the company’s new revenues, from online advertising, “virtual tastings”, and a series of international wine education courses, will probably be bigger still. And the value of Parker’s brand is huge. I hope that at the very least he negotiated a seven-figure salary for himself to stay on judging the wines of Bordeaux and the Rhone — after all, without Parker, The Wine Advocate’s brand value evaporates very quickly.

That said, Parker’s influence has already been evaporating for some time, as Eric Asimov points out; Talia Baiocchi, for one, reckons that he’s had very little influence on her at all. One reason: Parker helped make first-growth Bordeaux so expensive that it’s nowadays basically impossible to afford what Brits of my father’s or grandfather’s generation would consider a basic wine education. When Parker can at a stroke raise the value of a vineyard’s annual production by millions of euros, it’s easy to see how the new owners see a huge amount of profit potential in his name.

Among Parker’s acolytes, however, his influence is still incredibly strong. Jeff Leve was shocked that I might say that an 85-point wine is sometimes better than a 95-point wine, and in the comments even goes so far as to suggest that it’s possible to do the same thing for pop music. (“Perhaps “Sgt Pepper” is the pinnacle and deserves 100 Pts, while “What goes on” bores me and is at best an average cut and might earn 80 Pts.”)

I was also recently pointed to a column by Jason Wilson, who teaches a wine class for students. The students, displaying an admirable quantity of common sense, pushed back when Wilson tried to describe wines by talking about “the sensation of licking stones”, or cow manure, or petrol. “It wasn’t the wines that my students found gross,” he writes: “it was the descriptions — the standard wine-world terms — that were turning them off.”

And yet Wilson was seemingly incapable of stopping himself from using such ridiculous terms to describe wine. He’d become so deeply Parkerized that the only way he could talk about wine was by using elaborate and silly olfactory metaphors — the kind of language that, pre-Parker, no one would ever dare attempt. (The Brits had their own silly wine language, too — as wonderfully recounted by Malcom McLaren — but it wasn’t as silly, even if it was just as intimidating.)

Parker’s influence will live on, then, whatever happens to TWA, and even if we’re seeing a diminishing marginal effect of his new ratings on wine values. Every time you pick up a label which starts talking about raspberries and vanilla, every time you see a wine graded on a linear point scale, and nearly every time you encounter any kind of blind tasting: behind it all is the influence of Parker. I sincerely hope that the whole edifice will crumble, but that’s going to take decades. But at least now we’re headed in the right direction.

8 comments

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I’m mostly on board with you – huge Talia Baiocchi fan, never really cared about Parker in part because I can’t afford to drink along with him – but I will say I find “cow manure” and “petrol” and similar unromantic olfactory terms accurate and helpful. And I find the old-British sexualized style of wine writing extremely tiresome and unhelpful when, for instance, Jay McInerney does it every two weeks in the Journal.

Posted by MattL | Report as abusive

There are only TWO objective categories of wine: the undrinkable that anybody with taste buds can identify and the drinkable. Within the drinkable it is all just personal taste. Everything else is silly pretense. Useful for snobs and others to waste time discussing.

Posted by Chris08 | Report as abusive

Two categories?

No, let’s make that four:
- The undrinkable, ‘nough said
- The acceptable, many wines, actually. It’s hard to really foul up a wine nowadays, anyway. Most affordable decent Parker favorites rank there.
- The truly pleasant, all those little unexpected wonders you can stumble upon now and then, those wines that have that little quelque chose that makes for memories, just not those overtly wooded bludgeons Parker spent his career promoting.
- The inspiring, like a really good quarts-de-chaume you marry on a whimsy with a well matured livarot at the close of a late summer lunch, and then, shhhhpahhhh, a moment words cannot describe.

Then, there is a fifth category, the unaffordable, which, even if you can actually afford it, blows such a hole in your pocket and your self-respect that you cannot really appreciate it, no matter how good it is (and it isn’t always so great anyway).

Posted by Frwip | Report as abusive

“Acceptable, truly pleasant, inspiring”,…what are those but expressions of personal taste? I stick with two categories.

Posted by Chris08 | Report as abusive

This is the last time I’ll quote this, even if this time I’ve modified it a bit.
“The market for wine is unlike any other, because it’s built on some notion of true, underlying value”

As Lindmann would say: De gustibus et coloribus non est disputandum.
But to take that seriously that would have to apply to values as well, so the point is not the right and wrong but the argument. Would you rather have an ongoing debate about wines, or follow someone else’s prescriptions? The criticism of Parker’s enological monoculture is longstanding.

And of course Taleb would call it “fragile”.

Your focus as a finance writer colors and limits your coverage of anything else, and therefore limits your coverage of finance itself.

Posted by Juan1 | Report as abusive

I find in this column intriguing hints of irony, insight and, of course, damp ferret fur. Oh, and a dash of schadenfreude.

Posted by bvan | Report as abusive

Yesterday’s email to each of our Judges.

Dear

As promised, here are your marks, as compared with the marks of other judges for a couple of the Finalist Categories – part of the never ending learning process. Fascinating comparisons. As if there could ever be a single opinion about a given wine! This array of marks emphasises former Chairman of Judges’ Huon Hook’s profound statement “Every palate is as unique as that person’s finger print.”

And that is exactly why we have six or seven Judges assess each of the finalists, separately and individually – with food – and publish their comments. And it is why we DO NOT seek to bludgeon our Judges’ diverse opinions into a single statement from on high on the merits of any given wine. That said, whilst offering a dissenting voice’s opinion, it is always the individual judges’ collective opinions (as expressed in the marks they allocate) that determine the Award winners. If a dissenting voice is consistently the dissenting voice… you begin to ask “could it be that the whole Battalion is out of step?”. So it is useful for Kym and I, too, to review these arrays.

It is also interesting to observe the marks of a judge who hardly ever expresses a strongly affirmative or a strongly dissenting opinion, always marks in the 4-7 range. Safe? May as well not be there! Ahh-so.

These results are listed from highest to lowest aggregate points.

Guess we never stop learning. Hope you will have some time to relax from your constant travel and teaching commitments during this 2012/2013 interchange.

Merry Christmas!

Warren

W. B. Mason, Competition Director
Sydney International Wine Competition
P O Box 210, Wentworth Falls, 2782 NSW
Australia.
Tel +61 2 4757 4400 Fax +61 2 4757 4499

Posted by wbmason | Report as abusive

New owner of Wine Advocate owns fine wine company in Singapore…potentail conflict of interest…

Posted by DrGourmet | Report as abusive