The decline of the Robert Parker empire

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.


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