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The Emperor of Wine: The Story of the Remarkable Rise and Reign of Robert Parker Paperback – 30 Sep 2008

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  • Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Grub Street (30 Sept. 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1906502242
  • ISBN-13: 978-1906502249
  • Product Dimensions: 15.6 x 2.4 x 23.4 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 961,771 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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... don't miss this book if you want to know what has influenced the wine world in the last 30 years - and why. --Culture supplement, Sunday Times

... For pure reading pleasure, this year's most entertaining drinks book had to be American wine and food journalist Elin McCoy's exhaustive and balanced biography of Robert Parker Wine and Spirit Magazine --Wine and Spirit Magazine

Elin McCoy's wonderfully readable biography shows how odd it was that Parker's tastebuds, out of all the tastebuds in the world, should have become so critical in how wines are judged and made. As McCoy comments at the end of her wise and witty book, the problem with Parker is simply the 'tyranny of one palate' --Seven Supplement, Sunday Telegraph

...for Christmas I was given quite a few wine books, and I devoured them with a passion. My favourite was the Emperor of Wine about the life of Robert Parker. It is an absorbing story about his obsession with wine and how he became one of today's iconic figures in the world of wine. --The Tamworth Journal

Elin McCoy's wonderfully readable biography shows how odd it was that Parker's tastebuds, out of all the tastebuds in the world, should have become so critical in how wines are judged and made. As McCoy comments at the end of her wise and witty book, the problem with Parker is simply the 'tyranny of one palate' --Seven Supplement, Sunday Telegraph

Seven (Supp. to the Sunday Telegraph)

"wonderfully readable biography"

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MONKTON, MARYLAND, POPULATION 4,615, seems an unlikely hometown for the world's most important wine critic. Read the first page
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Michael Thaidigsmann on 5 Dec. 2006
Format: Hardcover
Elin McCoy's biography of the world's most influential wine critic is a thoroughly research and brilliantly written book. This is not just the story of the remarkable rise of Robert Parker in the wine industry; it's also a very concise overview of developments in the wine idustry over the last five decades.

Whether you like Parker or not, whether you care about his marks on the famous 100-scale or not, you will be fascinated by this book if you're a wine aficionado. McCoy is a critical but very fair biographer, and having read this book it is hard to believe that anybody will come up with a better account of Parker's rise in the future.
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4 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Swapan Seth on 27 Mar. 2007
Format: Hardcover
It is said that Robert Parker can make a millionaire out of you with his mouth. When he spits out the wine from his mouth it can either spiral you into a different stratosphere or can bury your winery for life. That he is more influential that perhaps most people in the world is clear when you see his influence spanning Tennessee and Tokyo. The Emperor of Wine by Elin McCoy is a tribute to the undisputed czar of the cabernet. It traces his modest beginnings from meatloaf to Michelin starred restaurants. Even today, a score of over 90 from Parker can set cash registers ringing over a humble Riesling. Interesting, Parker owes his heady rise to the top to his love for Pat, his girlfriend who lured him from the boondocks of America to the cafes of France. It is another matter that Parker to this day is married to the woman. The book is an interesting take on a charismatic and often arrogant oenophile. But for those who have even a passing love for the Lafite, The Emperor of Wine is mandatory reading. The bouquet of the book is heady, the body wholesome and the flavour just right. Knowing Parker, the book would have got a 90 plus. Uncork it and pour it into your library.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 26 reviews
112 of 124 people found the following review helpful
Nothing to spit at 28 Aug. 2005
By Bevetroppo - Published on
Format: Hardcover
Imagine that out of nowhere an art critic arose who began systematically assessing all the art in the world for quality and then gave each work a numerical score between 50 and 100. Imagine too that his preferences ran towards big beefy compositions over more delicate or nuanced ones, such that he might give a Ruebens a higher score than a Monet for no other reason than that's how he likes paintings to look. Then consider that these scores, determined by a single powerful voice, became the standard by which all art was judged and even set the market price for auctions and purchase of the best pieces. His numerical ratings then started appearing in museums and galleries so people would be able to separate masterpieces from merely good art. So great became his influence that artists all around the world began attempting to create work that would appeal specifically to him...

Sounds ridiculous doesn't it? But that's exactly what's happened to the world of wine over the past 25 years during the ascendancy of Robert Parker. The Emperor of Wine is an attempt to chronicle Parker's rise to become just such an uber-authority on wine quality, a topic arguably no less subjective than what makes great art. And art criticism might be even easier-after all, you don't have to contemplate how it goes with food as part of your analysis!

While there are already a bunch of worthwhile reviews of this book posted here, I feel compelled to add my two "scents", if for no other reason than there was a perfect storm of Parker activity swirling around me on the day I received my copy of The Emperor of Wine. The NY Times accounted for two of the mentions. First, Tony Hendra, formerly of The National Lampoon and an ardent Parker-basher from way back, panned both the book and Parker in the Sunday Times book review section. Then on the same day, The NY Times magazine section ran an appalling article about Enologix, the California company that offers chemical wine analysis and other advice to wineries in an attempt to help them manufacture high Parker scores. That same weekend I received an issue of Decanter and saw that Steven Spurrier was proclaiming the death of the Bordeaux garage wine movement championed by Parker, labeling it a fad that had thankfully run its course. Meanwhile the revered British wine critic Hugh Johnson was hinting that his forthcoming memoirs will finally put Parker in his place. It seemed that Parker was everywhere I turned for 24 hours, so I was looking forward to actually reading the book myself and forming my own opinions.

As anyone who knows anything about wine will tell you, Parker is an incredibly polarizing force in the industry. Sometimes I think the only thing his supporters and detractors have in common is the passionate intensity with which they view him, whether they consider him a God or the Devil Incarnate. I think it's appropriate that I disclose right now that going into my reading of The Emperor of Wine, I fell more into the latter camp. After all, my opinion is already on the record: in my Amazon review of The Accidental Connoisseur (September 2004), I referred to Parker as Lord Voldemort, which is actually a pretty good summary of how the anti-Parkerites feel about him.

What's my particular beef? I really only have one. Our palates simply don't agree. No big deal. That's hardly unusual when you're talking about a subjective question of taste. I first learned about wine in a French restaurant, and my first wine course was taught by none other than Christian Vanneque, the venerable former sommelier of La Tour D'Argent restaurant and a participant in the famous 1976 tasting between California and France that put America on the map as a force to be reckoned with. As a result, my tastes run to more classic, terroir-driven wines that have more balance than the fruit-driven style championed by Parker. Nonetheless, I became a subscriber to The Wine Advocate for several years in the late `80's precisely because he made it all seem simple. But the more I tried his recommendations, the more I realized that we frequently disagreed, and the more I spent on a bottle that I didn't really like the more it soured me. And it really made me unhappy when on occasion he retasted wines I had bought on his recommendations and then he subsequently downgraded them. So I parted ways with Parker in about 1994 and haven't looked back.

About seven years ago I heard Tony Hendra speak at a James Beard Foundation wine tasting that was designed to demonstrate that what Robert Parker claims he does to review and rate wines is physically impossible. This argument is revisited in Hendra's NY Times review and alluded to in The Emperor of Wine. Most responsible scientists believe that no human being possesses the physiological capability of tasting as many wines in a sitting as Parker allegedly does and maintaining the ability to make sharp and accurate assessments. After about 10 wines the average person goes into the equivalent of sensory overload and can no longer make critical distinctions when it comes to taste. How then does Parker make detailed assessments and award pinpoint scores in his famous 100 point system when he tackles 250 wines at a sitting or somewhere between 8-10,000 wines a year? He would literally have to be a freak of nature is the basic assertion, and not many either believe that it is true or want to believe that it could be.

But I digress. The Emperor of Wine is a remarkable book on several fronts. First, and most importantly from your perspective as a potential reader, it contains 300 pages of mind-numbing biographical data that could only be of interest to someone who has already taken a firm position on the debate described above. No one else in his or her right mind could possibly care enough to read the trivial details of Parker's upbringing that made him the world's most important wine critic. There were times in my reading of the book in which I had to hold it at arm's length and stare at it in disbelief-was I reading the life of Winston Churchill or Thomas Jefferson, or Robert Parker? Crikey-who cares what he ate for breakfast when he was a kid or that The Hollywood Reporter once called one of his dogs ugly? On the other hand, the book does a great job of painting a picture of Parker the man: loyal to his family, generous to a fault with his many good friends, proud, charitable, and ever-willing to defend himself when aggrieved by his detractors, all characteristics that played a role in helping him achieve his ultimate status on the world stage.

Here's a Cliff Notes version of The Emperor of Wine. Let's revisit another of my own Amazon reviews, this time Michael Broadbent's Vintage Wines. In that review, I tried to illustrate the difference in Robert Parker's palate and that of Broadbent, the Dean of English Wine Criticism, throwing in the Wine Spectator just to complete the Holy Trinity. If your goal in approaching the Emperor of Wine is to understand what Parker does differently than the wine establishment he so thoroughly eclipsed over the past 25 years, nothing else will crystallize it better. Here is Parker on Chateau Pavie 2000, followed by the Wine Spectator and then Michael Broadbent:

"2000 Chateau Pavie (St.-Emilion): With no shortage of confidence, Gerard Perse feels the 2000 is the greatest Pavie ever produced. Premature you say? Don't discount the proprietor's rhetoric. A blend of 60% Merlot, 30% Cabernet Franc, and 10% Cabernet Sauvignon, it is a backward, super-concentrated effort displaying an inky purple color, and a thrilling bouquet of minerals, black fruits, vitamins, and toast. It possesses a wealth of fruit, glycerin, and extract as well as high levels of tannin, and a finish that lasts nearly a minute. It will undoubtedly close down after bottling, and not be close to prime time drinking until 2010 or later. Anticipated maturity: 2010-2050." 96-98 Points - Robert M. Parker, Jr.'s, The Wine Advocate, Issue 139

"2000 Chateau Pavie (St.-Emilion): This is a super model of a wine. Super grapey, with red licorice and perfumed aromas. Full-bodied and very tight, with racy tannins and a sleek finish. Best wine of the hillsides of St.-Emilion. Lasts for minutes." 95-100 Points - Wine Spectator, March 30, 2001

"Chateau Pavie, 2000. Very deep, velvety; tobacco-like, sweaty tannins;sweet ,full-bodied, charred and tarry taste. Impressive, but I much prefer the late Jean-Paul Valette's Pavie, which was so much more drinkable. For me. **. For wine competitions and our American cousins, (*****). (Michael Broadbent)"

Everything you need to know about Parker to love or hate him is encapsulated in the Pavie review above: lavish praise for a high alcohol, extracted, fruit-besotted monster, his adjective-driven propulsive writing style, and his absolute confidence in his own opinion. It's not a surprise that he loves it: the wine was "constructed" to appeal to him. The debate over who is right about this wine and its cousins continues rancorously to the present day between the Parkerites and the British wine press, most noticeably Jancis Robinson.

Despite the assertions of the freaks at Enologix, wine appreciation will always be a subjective experience. The issue for us amateurs is to find someone we can trust, because most of us will never get to taste enough wine to be able to make our own judgments on what to buy given the fact that there are more good wines made around the world than ever before and there's a new vintage every year. That's why until Parker burst on the scene, the overwhelming majority of serious wine drinkers established relationships with one or more retailers. The difference is that the retailer could get to know you personally and what you like and don't like and then keep an eye out for you based on your taste, much as a personal shopper would for clothes. But Parker stood the whole system on its head by reducing the complex interchange between you and a trusted intermediary into a take-it-or-leave-it score based on his taste alone. So if your tastes align with his, you're golden. You don't have to think about what to buy ever again. He'll tell you what to drink and why and all you have to do is follow the numbers.. And if you buy wine as an investment, you have no choice but to care what he says because he determines the market.

As far as I'm concerned, once you brush aside the almost embarrassing details about his formative years and personal life, this is a fairly interesting and balanced retelling of how Parker's ascendancy occurred and the influence he has wielded over the worldwide wine industry for the past few decades. One thing it doesn't do is "prove" Parker has a great palate. How do I define such an intangible thing? In my opinion, it can only be an ability to taste and identify wines on a blinded basis. Why? Because-if you don't know what a wine is supposed to taste like, how do you know it's any good? This was Christian Vanneque's mantra and it has always stayed with me. Parker's photographic memory for wines he's tasted is the stuff of legends, but the only example in the entire book of a blind tasting Parker does is during an encounter with the imperious importer Robert Chadderdon, who suckers Parker with two Swiss wines, which Parker promptly butchers and identifies as high class burgundies. While you might think this would be proof that Parker's entire reputation is subject to doubt, I found it aroused great sympathy. Anyone who's ever tried to do a blind tasting knows how hard it is, and I think Chadderdon was an ass to trot out two obscure Swiss wines as some kind of torture test. But like I said, there aren't any counter-balancing vignettes that demonstrate Parker's mastery either.

The bottom line for me as far as this book is concerned is that it didn't change anything in terms of how I view Parker's reviews. By and large I still don't agree with him on what makes an appealing wine. But the book does a fine job of establishing how through a mixture of passion, integrity, showmanship, ambition and commitment, Parker created a new and democratic model for approaching what had hitherto been a brutally intimidating subject, while continuously driving the industry toward higher quality standards from his bully pulpit. And since he seems like he'd be a great friend and a good guy to party with, I'm never going to say anything bad about him again.
21 of 21 people found the following review helpful
The Emperor, Naked 6 Sept. 2005
By Ronald Holden - Published on
Format: Hardcover
One of a pair of recent books about megalomaniacs: genial, larger-than-life luminaries of the food and wine world, Robert Parker, the American wine critic, and Bernard Loiseau, the French chef. They both tell of youthful talent that became increasingly ambitious as it ripened. Parker, the most powerful individual in the wine industry, ultimately claimed virtual infallibility; Loiseau, anointed with three Michelin stars but beset with doubts, ultimately committed suicide.

Both exceptional books written by sympathetic journalists with inside knowledge. A unique perspective on the private lives of two men with very public working lives.

The Emperor of Wine, by Elin McCoy (herself a respected wine writer), describes Parker's steady ascendancy to the pulpit of supreme enological arbiter thanks to his gifted palate and demonic resolve. But those two qualities alone wouldn't have made him Emperor; it took Parker's easy-to-understand 100-point ratings and America's "discovery" that wine wasn't just for effete snobs.

McCoy's conclusion comes down hard on Parker: the tyranny of a single palate, a scoring system that's "a joke in scientific terms" and a misleading indicator of quality or pleasure. Parker, says McCoy, turns wine into a contest rather than an experience. Worse, he brooks no challenge to his authority, to his moral and gustatory infallability.

I'm no particular fan of Parker's, either. Time and again, growers in France have admitted or complained to me that Parker's popularity is forcing them to make a certain style of wine. Which is why I that wish McCoy--who had full access to Parker over a period of several months--had given us a sense of how a Parker tasting note comes about: Parker in the vineyard or the cellar with the winemaker, Parker in his tasting lab with a sample bottle, at his computer writing out his notes, so we'd what went into the actual publication and could compare Parker's words with McCoy's observations.

One final thing I miss: a clear explanation of how (relatively) small the American market is, even for the very top French estates. I wish McCoy's book explained that the USA accounts for only one-sixth of all French wine exports (Belgium and Denmark buy more French wine than we do). So why did so many French winemakers quickly become such pushovers for an American critic?
35 of 40 people found the following review helpful
Critical but evenhanded, incomplete but engaging 31 July 2005
By Max W. Hauser - Published on
Format: Hardcover
In the late 1970s the US had half a dozen independent, consumer-oriented wine-criticism newsletters, as well as columnists such as Asher, Blue, and Spinazzola, read and discussed among us consumers and displayed in wine shops. Into this milieu came Robert M. Parker as a new voice. Though absent from the 1984 overview of US wine critics in the UC-Sotheby book (ISBN 0520050851), Parker by the middle 1980s was gleaning attention beyond the regional, "Beltway" origins of his "Baltimore-Washington Wine Advocate."

As a wine enthusiast then for several years, I read and took the earlier newsletters, and I checked this new voice with interest. I saw another helpful perspective, characterizing wines in words (as the others did). Like others, the new critic also had a shorthand rating gimmick. His was a "100-point" scale (actually 50, the top half is used) while the others had long employed coarser categories, about like the US meat grades Prime-Choice-Good-Utility-Pet. Parker also favored sweeping statements: best vintage ever, best example of this type. Extreme numericality and categorical judgments had sometimes, in the past, betokened inexperience in critics. Of more concern to me, having known some long-time wine collectors, were Parker's decisive predictions of decades-long aging profiles, a question mark when coming from someone who hadn't yet touched wine over the interval he was now extrapolating. Anyone can talk the talk, but only older wine tasters had lived through 20-plus-year agings. Simultaneously (middle 1980s) I saw at least anecdotal questions about Parker, especially about consistency of his palate when tested outside his control. That could be important, because demonstrably discerning what you claim to discern is the reality test of the professional taster. Experienced wine enthusiasts that I knew (and, McCoy relates, other critics) scarcely noticed Parker's two-digit rating number, just as the earlier UC-Davis 20-point scale (McCoy fails to emphasize) had not caught on. It was widely understood that something as complex as wine doesn't really reduce to a single precise metric. Such factors cooled my interest in reading the new critic, and I never subscribed. I also know people who did, and who learned a lot about wine from Parker.

Newbies loved him, a factor in his success, implicit in McCoy's book also. I knew of many budding wine enthusiasts who gravitated to the Wine Advocate at once and would read nothing else. They became advocates of the Advocate. Nor would they hear criticism of their critic, however well grounded or limited. McCoy quotes a participant in the Prodigy online service where Parker appeared from 1988. Stuart Yaniger complains of a "human shield" of Parker faithful, deluging him with hostile and impugning email when he asked trenchant questions. Such behaviors, which continue, are part of Parker's impact. Zealous defenses of him arise emotionally, rather than from objective grounds such as fear for his success (given his obvious support), or elements unique to his writing (again, fundamentally, decisiveness and the two-digit number).

It turned out that, at least for inexperienced wine consumers, limitations inherent in a two-digit "rating" were not forefront, while a hunger for guidance was. By the late 1990s (when I began posting food and wine book recommendations on Amazon), young US wine enthusiasts were bringing bottles and proclaiming proudly "It's a 96!" (And confusing the more experienced, since previously a two-digit number always meant the harvest year.) As people began buying by numbers, effects unseen with previous US critics occurred. When Parker liked a wine, consumers went for it and the price rose, sometimes a lot. (With the perverse effect of making these consumers pay _more_ than if they'd heard of the same good wine another way.) Winemakers began tailoring their products for the numbers, with long-term, style-limiting effects lamented by those who recall the days before. McCoy details these shifts. Today, as one wise old enthusiast remarked to me, a generation has grown up in the US seeing this radical new model of wine guidance, unconscious of any other. Meanwhile, sundry journalists who, McCoy again notes, were not wine-knowledgeable, gushed about Parker as a personality. While spreading his name as a respected critic, they neglected to place him in the context of predecessors, which encourages mythmaking. McCoy too does a bit of this, calling Parker a man for the times but not probing as much as she might into his success. Her account of his original competitors is spotty, except for Finigan. She cites status value of French wines to the newly moneyed class of the late 19th century more than status value of Parker scores among newly moneyed of the late 20th century. With such limitations it remains an unusually informed and wide-ranging look at its subject, a genuine phenomenon.
13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
Diffusing the Parker Phenomenon 19 Jan. 2006
By Eric J. Lyman - Published on
Format: Hardcover
I experienced the Robert Parker Phenomenon for the first time only recently. I've been a wine lover all my adult life, and as a result I've spent my fair share of time in wine shops. But I've also lived outside of the U.S. for most of the last decade and a half -- a period that more or less corresponds with the most dramatic part of Mr. Parker's rise as a wine critic.

But in December, I found myself at a neighborhood wine store in Northern Virginia on a Saturday afternoon, picking out something to bring to dinner at a friend's house. I asked the merchant if he had a second bottle of a nice Barbera d'Asti that was down to one on the shelf. He said he'd check in the back and he left me at the counter for a few minutes.

A woman with gravely voice and multi-colored curlers in her hair walked up and asked another shop worker: "Do you have anything Parker rates above 90 that I can get for under 20 bucks?" They went off to look for one, and someone else approached another clerk. "Do you have this one?" the man asked, holding up a computer printout from Mr. Parker's web site like a Holy relic. Within a couple of minutes, another customer approached the counter with four wines a different clerk suggested, and he wanted to trim his purchase by one. "Which one does Parker say is the worst?" he asked. And this was all in a span of only six or eight minutes!

The fellow helping me returned with the second bottle of Barbera I was looking for and I asked him about what I'd heard. He said it was par for the course, a typical Saturday afternoon. After that, I started to pay attention in wine shops all over the country and I swear I must have heard Mr. Parker's name mentioned more than I heard the word "chardonnay."

This Phenomenon probably isn't a surprise to U.S.-based wine lovers, but it really gave me pause.

Complaints about Mr. Parker fall into two categories: some people claim he is not completely consistent, and others charge that his influence is too great. Both categories are explored in Elin McCoy's highly readable The Emperor of Wine, the ostensibly unauthorized biography of Mr. Parker. I read the book a few weeks before my most recent trip to the U.S. and I admit that I wrote off both kinds of criticism as hyperbole from jealous rivals.

After coming face to face with the Parker Phenomenon, though, I give the second complaint -- that Mr. Parker's influence is too great -- more credence. With mindless droves swarming into their wine shops asking for Mr. Parker's latest picks, how can a wine maker resist crafting his product to appeal to Mr. Parker's famous palate? And when that happens, where does the variety of flavors in the wine world disappear to?

It's tempting to blame Mr. Parker for this problem, but it isn't his fault. He has his personal taste in wine and he writes about it. Can he help it if his legion readers can't or won't think for themselves?

This is where a book like The Emperor of Wine comes into play. Ms. McCoy, I assume, chose the word "emperor" with tongue only partially in cheek. Hell, even "Lord" or "Prophet" wouldn't have been a stretch. But the book goes on to illustrate (in sometimes overbearing detail) that in the grand scheme of things, Mr. Parker is no different than most of the rest of us: flawed, passionate, clever, talented, vulnerable, sad, and admirable. He doesn't set himself up as The Emperor of Wine, the woman in curlers at the Virginia wine shop and tens of thousands of like-minded wine shoppers do.

Read this book and you won't look at him in that way again.

The book isn't without its own flaws, of course. Ms. McCoy repeats some points -- about Mr. Parker's creation of the 100-point scale, for example, or his preference for bold, fruity, unfiltered wines -- far too many times. And the level of detail she provides about Mr. Parker's personal life can seem like too much, almost like standing too close to him for too long -- I'm a fan of detail, but this sometimes goes over the top. The writing shows Ms. McCoy's journalistic background: it is tight and crisp. But at the same time, it also shifts in tone. Sometimes she seems disappointed by Mr. Parker and at other points she seems to be his fondest admirer.

But despite all that, The Emperor of Wine is the best and most complete biography of Mr. Parker I've come across -- and a valuable tool in keeping the critic's valuable wine buying advice in the right perspective.

Post Scriptum: As for the other main criticism of Parker -- that he is sometimes inconsistent -- I answer, "Of course he's inconsistent! He's a human being, for heaven's sake!" But he's a heck of a lot more consistent than any other critic (in any field -- not just wine) that I've ever come across. And I don't think the very infrequent minor mistake Mr. Parker might make would even be worth mentioning if people treated him as an informed fellow wine lover providing friendly advice about what they might like. Instead, he is seen by many as some misguided Emperor of Wine putting a figurative corkscrew to consumers' heads and forcing them to buy only what he approves of. Now, whose fault is that?
24 of 29 people found the following review helpful
McCoy's New Clothes 7 Aug. 2005
By John B. Woodward III - Published on
Format: Hardcover
One of the common consequences of being the best at what one does is becoming famous. One of the consequences of being famous is ending up in the cross-hairs of `colleagues' and others who find the opportunity to ride on one's coat-tails by writing (a usually negative) expose about them. Unfortunately it too often leads to a tiring diatribe designed to knock the famous one down a notch or two. Does Elin McCoy's book, "The Emperor of wine-The Rise of Robert M. Parker Jr. and the Reign of American Taste" fall into this mantra? Or does McCoy offer a "fair and balanced" view of the World's most powerful Critic?

I first discovered Robert Parker and his Wine Advocate in the early 80's, when first putting together my wine cellar. I am a wine drinker, not a wine collector (meaning my interest was in finding and storing wines to accompany food). At that time, young (meaning those available in the stores) California Cabs and most Bordeaux were austere, tannic, and difficult to decide if they would eventually become (pleasurably) drinkable. As a wine neophyte, it was a laborious (if not fun) task to buy dozens of new wines to `taste through' and decide which ones warranted purchase in quantity to lay down for future (hopefully enjoyable) drinking. RP and his WA allowed me to effectively narrow the choices considerably, and, in fact, his (prescient) advice about purchasing futures of 1982 Bordeaux resulted in my laying down enough wine to enjoy over the ensuing 20 years that I have only recently needed to aggressively re-stock my cellar.

With that "disclosure" about Parker's successful influence on my personal wine buying, let me talk about McCoy's book about the "Emperor".

McCoy states the theme of her monograph in the prologue. Is Parker to be blamed "for reshaping the taste of wine to his own personal preference for dark, high-alcohol wines with lots of power and intensity, and in the process killing tradition and reducing great wines to mere numbers", or is he to be "revered" for being "largely responsible for the vastly improved quality of wines made across the globe and [being] the wine consumer's best friend?"

The first part of the book is an interesting discussion of the wine world of Parker's formative years of the 60's and 70's, as well as Parker's early life before and at the start of his wine career. His decision to offer the first truly independent and consumer-favored (rather than industry-favored) wine reviews is presented in detail. His `breakthrough' (and lonely) assessment of the 82 Bordeaux, its significance to his career and to the wine buying public is well documented here.

The title of the book reveals the tone for the latter portion of McCoy's essay, where overuse of `emperor' and related pejorative terms ("his imperial sway", "his reign", "visiting royalty"," the great man's sense of smell") clearly suggests a sophomoric attempt to set a specific bias of Parker in the reader's mind.

Let's look at three important criticisms of Parker that McCoy posits.

The first is that RP's "concept of wine greatness" is "firmly on the side of fruit, concentration, overall sensory impact, and sensuous texture." Is this bad? (Am I missing something here?). She asks the same question, but clearly argues that it is, and that he is "killing tradition" by scoring "high alcohol wines with power and intensity" so highly. McCoy considers this a very important negative of Parker's "reign", so much so that she decided to `prove' the point when given the opportunity to mentor a tasting entitled "Parker's Favorites" at this June's Aspen Food and Wine event, which I attended (and for which was the premier early-release event for this book). She offered six wines at the well-attended tasting designed to show (she told us) that Parker's preferences were for big, alcoholic wines, that are powerful, concentrated, and that show well by themselves (without food). Included was a Bordeaux (2000 Ch. d'Issan) which she noted was not her first choice, but was included because the proprietor of her first choice declined to have his wine included because (she stated), he didn't want to be known for producing a "Parkerized" wine. (I suspect the wine may have been Ch. Pavie, but when I asked McCoy at the tasting, she declined "to go there"). Parker indeed rates this wine highly ( a "93", therefore a valid wine to be included in his `favorites'), but a read of Parker's tasting notes on Ch. d'Issan appears to invalidate McCoy's own point: "A suave, aristocratic, classic built on delicacy and finesse as opposed to power and blockbuster fruit...graceful...refined effort...". By the way, the other wines chosen were spectacular (and powerful, concentrated, and sensuous), and were a revelation. It was the best tasting at the whole event!

A second area of negative criticism that McCoy proffers is that Parker's tasting feats are too incredible to be possible (reporting some physiological `research' about palate fatigue, poor `taste memory' in the population, `limits' of even `super tasters', etc). The problem with this conclusion of McCoy's lies first in Parker's own work product. He DOES taste 10,000 wines a year, he IS consistent (she even provides reports of his uncanny taste memory and consistency), and tens of thousands (those who pay good money for his subscriptions) of wine drinkers find his evaluations useful. His tasting abilities ARE incredible. As a neurologist, I have come to the conclusion (at least theory) that Parker has a unique tasting "genius", perhaps related to a (well described in the medical literature) tasting synesthesia. Synesthesia (in its various forms) has been found to be associated with special savants and genius (not the place to develop this further, but I refer to the well documented genius and synesthesia of physicist Richard Feynman, writer Vladimir Nabokov, composer Scriabin, and I'm just scratching the surface). McCoy's account of Parker's description of his tasting impressions is a classic account of synesthesia: "As a wine went into his mouth, the first impression that popped into Parker's head was textural, then a picture, a photograph of the wine, almost in three dimensions...He knew it sounded like b.s. but he SAW the wine in layers and textures..."[emphasis mine]. However, one doesn't necessarily have to invoke such special abilities in Parker to account for all of this; his work process, grueling schedule, extraordinary dedication (all well documented in McCoy) and just a touch of some `regular' genius, is enough to account for his extraordinary work product.

Finally, is McCoy's statement, "I find scoring wine with numbers a joke in scientific terms..." My, and I am sure countless other's, cellar of 20 years would argue against her charge. The numbers are useful for their stated purpose-sorting through the thousands of wines to try. Parker has never claimed that the score number is the `wine experience'. Quite the contrary, his scores facilitate the consumer's search for a pleasurable wine experience.

So, is McCoy's depiction of Robert Parker fair? I think not, and would suggest that a more objective monograph about this most remarkable man has now been called for. Is her book worth the read, anyway? I think it is, and I think both the wine drinking public with no knowledge of Parker beyond the wine store tags sporting his scores, as well as those who have followed the Wine Advocate for years will find it an interesting, if perhaps flawed, read.
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