Robert Parker retires and it's the end of an era

Wine critic Robert Parker has announced his retirement from The Wine Advocate, the wine guide that helped to transform the wine world. Felicity Carter asks other tastemakers what this means.

Robert Parker's The Wine Advocate
Robert Parker's The Wine Advocate

Robert Parker, the 71-year-old American critic who helped define modern wine criticism, has retired from The Wine Advocate.

“It is with mixed feelings that I announce that Robert M. Parker Jr will, as of today, be formally hanging up his wine criticism boots and retiring from Robert Parker Wine Advocate,” wrote Lisa Perrotti-Brown MW, the publication’s editor-in-chief, on their website. She added that, “his contribution to significantly raising the bar of critical, unbiased wine writing and wine quality cannot be overestimated.”

Over the course of his more than 40-year career, Parker became one of the most influential and controversial figures in wine.

He first fell in love with wine after a trip to France in the late 1960s. Although he went on to practice law, his interest in wine kept growing. Parker finally launched his own wine guide, The Baltimore-Washington Wine Advocate, in 1978. It became The Wine Advocate a year later.

Influenced by consumer champion Ralph Nader, Parker decided this his guide would have no financial ties of any kind to the wine trade, nor any advertising. Instead, it would rely solely on subscriptions. This was a break with tradition, as many wine writers of the day came out of the wine trade and so had various conflicts of interest. Parker also created the 100-point wine scale, which remains powerful today.

Parker rose to prominence in 1983, after he praised the 1982 Bordeaux vintage, which many other wine commentators had written off as over-ripe. History proved Parker right and his reputation grew. In 1984, Parker was able to quit the law and devote himself to The Wine Advocate full time.

In a 2018 article, Tim Atkin MW recalled sub-editing Parker’s copy in the late 1980s for the UK’s Wine Magazine. “The copy was dull and rambling – fine prose has never been Parker’s strength – but we were grateful for the reflected glory.” Atkin MW added that Parker’s subscribers followed Parker's advice closely. “Wine Magazine briefly boosted its US sales on the back of his recommendation. It’s one of the footnotes of the Lockerbie disaster that Pan Am Flight 103 went down with several thousand copies of those first US-bound copies on board.”

As Parker’s influence grew, his ratings could boost the fortunes of formerly unknown wineries. In the hope of gaining a coveted score, wineries began to make wines to please his palate – rich and ripe. Thus the phenomenon of ‘Parkerisation’ was born, with wineries from Napa to Spain to Bordeaux to Australia vying for his attention with blockbuster offerings.

Inevitably, there was a backlash, from people as diverse as James Halliday in Australia, who launched a blistering attack on Robert Parker in 2005, and Alice Feiring, whose book The Battle for Wine and Love or How I Saved the World from Parkerization was released in 2008.

As the wine world expanded, reviewing it became too big a task for one man, and The Wine Advocate began to take on other tasters. In 2012, investors in Singapore took a majority stake in the publication, and Lisa Perrotti-Brown MW came on board as editor-in-chief.

“Many of the reviewers have very different tastes than Parker and when that happened the "brand" was diluted. In truth, ever since the sale of The Advocate he has been doing very little critiquing and had relinquished most (if not all) editorial control,” said Alice Feiring, reacting to the news. “It is a symbolic end of an era, but that era stopped quite a while ago.”

It’s also unlikely that any critic will ever again have such enormous power.

“There will never be an individual as influential as Robert Parker on the world of wine. He came along with utter conviction and admirable consistency (whether you agreed with his taste or not) at a time when it was still possible for experts to rule without comment or dissent,” Jancis Robinson MW told Meininger’s.

Today’s wine world has many more voices. And consumers are far more confident about their choices today than they were 30 years ago, with more wines and styles to choose from. For which they can, in part, thank Parker.
Felicity Carter



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