Robert Parker, the most significant phenomenon in the fine wine trade for the past 50 years

By Christopher Cannan

My relationship with Robert Parker dates back to 1981 when I received a phone call requesting we organize a visit to Domaine du Vieux Télégraphe in Châteauneuf-du-Pape for Mr. Parker, a lawyer and author of a little known local wine newsletter near Baltimore in the U.S.A.

Little more was heard about Bob Parker until early 1983 when he claimed the 1982 vintage in Bordeaux was the vintage of the century and must not be missed by any serious collector and lover of Bordeaux wines.

Robert  Finigan, the most influential wine writer at the time, advised to the contrary saying that 1982 was an unusual vintage with low acidity and little capacity for ageing.

Unfortunately for the hapless Mr. Finigan the American trade and consumers were in a mood to buy and were carried away by Robert Parker’s eloquent  enthusiasm for the vintage. Furthermore the exchange rate was very favorable at the time and  the wines looked to be of excellent value. In truth the wines of the 1982 vintage were special, rich and powerful with massif ripe fruit flavors, although many are beginning to fade at this point in time. Certainly they were the kind of wines that were immensely appealing to the American palate and to Robert Parker in particular.

Regardless of who was right about the vintage, the trade and consumers went ahead and purchased massif quantities of the 1982 Bordeaux’s and Parker’s reputation as a knowledgeable guide to the most desirable wines was established almost overnight.

Shortly after Bob came to our office in Bordeaux for a tasting of a wide range of wines from France and Spain. The notes were subsequently published in his newsletter now appropriately called The Wine Advocate.

This was the first of many similar tastings that took place at Europvin’s office over the following 25 years. It was an opportunity for Bob to evaluate a wide range of wines from various European countries all in one place, thus avoiding the necessity to visit each individual estate. These tastings were remarkable in many ways, especially Bob’s punctuality and tremendous enthusiasm in anticipation of an exciting and rewarding tasting. Sometimes as many as 200 wines from France, Spain, Portugal and Italy would be tasted during the day with a short break for lunch ! Not many people have the capacity to taste and judge so many wines at such speed. Nevertheless the notes when published are complete eloquent and motivating. Not to mention Bob’s famous 100 point scoring system which has become a standard and remains the most precise and realistic evaluation method today.

Sometimes at these tastings a well-known producer would be present. On one occasion I remember the Marques de Griñon from Spain joined us and tried to convince Bob to accompany him on a tour of the Spanish vineyards in his Jaguar! To Bob’s credit he did not accept the invitation since he would not like to be perceived as being under the influence of any one specific producer. In this respect Bob’s integrity is total. He will never accept advertising funds or any of the benefits proposed by producers, no doubt on numerous occasions.

The situation with importers and shippers is somewhat different since they are able to show Bob a wide range of wines in one place and arrange for the importation into the U.S.A. Bob is always supportive of those shippers who take the trouble to seek out exciting wines for the U.S. market and in this respect we were fortunate enough to have one of his issues of The Wine Advocate in 1990 partly dedicated to our selections and activities. Over the years many of our selections have received positive reviews in the pages of The Wine Advocate and there is no doubt that the sales and the notoriety of the wines concerned has benefited enormously.

robert_parker_new_logo

Furthermore Bob will not only give high scores to iconic wines, he also looks at the pricing and recommends good value when it is perceived. This said Bob’s influence is such that he can make or break the reputation of a wine. This has led him to awkward situations at times including an attack by a fierce dog at Château Cheval Blanc on one occasion!

Over the years we have organized many tastings for Bob in various places including near his home in Maryland where he would use an excellent local restaurant called “The Oregon Grill” for the event. Each tasting at the Grill was followed by a copious  lunch with the favorite wines from the tasting. Tastings were also arranged in Burgundy in the 1980’s and continued on a yearly basis in the Rhône Valley where we used Alain Graillot’s cellar in Crozes Hermitage for the occasion.

During the tastings Bob is not very communicative about the wines but he will make comments on a wine that he finds especially impressive. About wines he does not like he makes no comment and rarely includes them in his newsletter since he concentrates on using the limited space for wines he recommends. Occasionally he will tell us about a producer that he recommends but does not have an importer in the U.S.A. Needless to say, knowing we would have Parker’s support,  we would hurry off to meet the producer in question and negotiate for the exclusivity for the U.S. and other markets.

Of course we all know about Bob Parker’s influence on the world of wine whether we agree with the phenomenon or not. However no blame can be laid at Bob’s door for this remarkable situation. Like many in other fields, he was in the right place at the right time and brilliantly managed to cultivate his early success with the advice and counsel that consumers felt they needed. To many it is somewhat unfortunate that one person should have so much power and influence over which wines are successful or not, even to the extent of eclipsing the influence of the local wine merchant who should know best what his customers like and require.

The phenomenon has gone so far as to provoke the virtual disappearance of the classic wine merchant who would have intimate knowledge about his producers, visiting and tasting at the estate every year. Today many merchants rely entirely on Parker points and seldom travel to the vineyards.

This situation is further aggravated by the fact everyone is relying on one man who has his own specific tasting criteria. Over the years Bob’s taste has evolved from liking massif, structured, oaky, even extracted wines, to wines that have balance, elegance and less oak influence. This has led many producers to make wines according to Bob’s taste, sacrificing the notion of “terroir” and origin. There is much discussion over this issue but fortunately today we see a movement towards more natural wines that truly express their origin.

However, it has to be said that Bob’s enthusiasm for certain regions, especially California, Bordeaux and the Rhône Valley, also to a lesser extent  Spain, Alsace and a number of regions in the Southern hemisphere, has no doubt had a significant impact on the dramatic advances in quality emanating from these regions and has drawn to the attention of the consuming public the potential for the respective appellations to produce outstanding world class wines.

One criticism: Although Bob has enormous enthusiasm for good food and fine restaurants, his publications largely ignore the importance of food and wine pairing. He is inclined to judge a wine for what it is in the glass without a mention of the ideal dish to accompany the wine in question.

The scoring system has its critics too. Wine being a living product is judged at one stage of its evolution. Only rarely are the wines re-tasted and re-evaluated. Also the scoring gives no indication of the style of the wine, whether it be broad and rich or tight and focused for example. The sad story today is that few people actually read Bob’s well written and articulate notes. They just look for scores of 95 points and more. Many of the wines that score from 88 to 94 are neglected in spite of being of good value and being favored with a very positive tasting note.

It has to be said that in the past there were fewer wines to judge and the quality levels were not  the same as today. It can be argued that Bob Parker is partly responsible for this exciting development in the name of quality. There is no room in a saturated market for wines that are not striving for perfection. Today the choice of outstanding wines from all over the world is overwhelming.

There are now so many wines to be judged that Bob has had to delegate a large share of the tasting to a carefully picked team with similar taste and approach to the wines. This evolution is turning out to be positive with some excellent writers / tasters on board making an unbeatable team and maintaining the influence of the publication.

A word should be said about Bob’s remarkable books. Over the years several issues of his Wine Buyer’s Guide have been published. To some this is a bible and enthusiasts can frequently be seen in wine stores with a copy of the guide for advice on which wine to purchase. His books on Bordeaux, the Rhône and one on Burgundy are informative and thorough with great attention to detail, fascinating statistics and a very readable text.

Wine Buyers Guide

With other authors taking gradually taking over the tastings in numerous regions, in the coming years it is likely that Parker’s global influence will wane, especially in the more mature wine markets. The impact on Bordeaux could be significant, especially during this critical period when the whole system of “En Primeur” sales is being questioned by the trade and consumers alike. It is therefore  likely that more emphasis will be made on the tasting of more mature Bordeaux vintages that are immediately available to the consumer.

Parker’s influence is now global; from the rolling meadows of Maryland The Wine Advocate  is now sort after all over the world. The influence may even be stronger today in Asia than in the U.S.A. Also in Europe, where everyone claims to know all about wine, Parker’s publication is widely read and very influential.

In spite of all the success and power related to Bob’s publication and books he remains a humble “down to earth” person, an easy going American who loves jokes, sport and above all wine. He is likeable, enthusiastic and knowledgeable. His influence on the trade and consumption of fine wine is likely to stay with us for many years to come. 

Christopher Cannan
Born in Gloucestershire, England in 1949 Christopher Cannan was educated in the UK followed by further studies in Switzerland, Germany and Spain, giving him sound knowledge of the French, German and Spanish languages. After working as an assistant to the managing director of Frederick Wildman & Sons in New York, in April 1978 Christopher decided to set up his own company and continue the work he was doing for Wildman, but for his own account. Thus on May 1st 1978 Europvin was born. At first the company continued to work with Wildman, at the same time creating a customer base in the UK and Northern Europe. Right from the start the company diversified out of Bordeaux. Wines from the Loire, Burgundy, the Rhone and the Rioja were listed with the Bordeaux’s. The strategy has always been to work with top quality single estates in each appellation represented in the portfolio. In the early 1980’s Christopher met Becky Wasserman, an American broker based in Burgundy, launching Cannan & Wasserman in the USA. During this period, Becky, working from Burgundy and Christopher from Bordeaux, the pair set up a network of distributors in the USA on a state by state basis. While Cannan & Wasserman ceased to exist in 1986, the network remains in place even today, with some modifications.  Over the years Europvin gradually extended its markets to cover the world…
Christopher’s commitment to Spain was further consolidated by the purchase of his own vineyard in the Priorat called Clos Figueras in 1997. With the 2000 vintage a total of 7000 bottles of Clos Figueres and Font de la Figuera (2nd wine), was made by Réné Barbier at his cellar, Clos Mogador, in Gratallops. By 2010 the production level had reached 25000 bottles and was vinified in Clos Figueras’ own bodega in the village of Gratallops. The production is gradually being increased to 30000 bottles, facilitated by the acquisition of the neighbouring building that has a spectacular underground cellar. In August 2011 Clos Figueras purchased a further extension of the same building which includes a restaurant and wine shop.

Hits: 84

This article has 1 comments

  1. nhypyltante.science Reply

    What is the evidence for this change that has apparently overcome the American wine drinker in a short decade that all of a sudden makes Robert Parker unimportant and placed his brand in decline?

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *