Once again, this renowned estate appears to have badly missed the mark. Undoubtedly, part of the difficulty in 1999 was the fact that the vineyard was hit by the hail storm that punished a small zone of vineyards on September 5th. This medium dark ruby-colored effort reveals soft, berry flavors with steely/mineral-like notes in the background. Some of the vineyard's pedigree comes through, but this uninspiring, medium-bodied wine possesses little depth or length. Anticipated maturity: now-2008.
The Dark Side of Wine
The person who made that point most clearly to me was Pierre-Antoine Rovani, a thirty-six-year-old man with a reputation as a brilliant taster, who hired on with Parker four years ago, partly to cover hostile Burgundy, where Parker himself now rarely ventures, and who has been grappling ever since with the perhaps impossible job of establishing an independent yet integrated voice within The Wine Advocate. Rovani is a sardonic fellow with a goatee and sparkling eyes -- the son of French officials, raised and educated in Washington, D.C., where he lives today. Money is intrinsically interesting to him. He earned a degree in economics, and worked as a business consultant for several years (also, improbably, as the White House correspondent for the Saudi press agency) before moving into the retail wine business and then making the leap to Parker's side. When I met him, last spring in Georgetown, he told me that he had burned his bridges and would never be able to go back to retailing. I didn't doubt it, because he seemed to have a skeptical view of the business and a habit of speaking his mind. For several hours he told me about the dark side of wine -- kickbacks, payoffs, and frauds of many kinds. He saw the humor in it. He said, "You dump the bad stuff on Park Avenue. If the bottle says 'Grand Cru,' or 'Premier Grand Cru,' or 'Pomerol,' or, you know, if there's a word on there that some rich guy recognizes ..."
"You can sell it," I suggested.
He nodded. "In small quantities. In a place like New York. Where there are lots of idiots. You can get away with it."
You can also, if you have a stock of bad wine, take out your scissors, find a relevant issue of The Wine Advocate, and, with a bit of tape and a copy machine, improve the score. Rovani mentioned a New York store that had recently done just that, sending out altered scores and tasting notes with its promotional literature. The work was so shoddy in this case that the doctored print lay crooked on the page.
Rovani seemed amused by this. I got the impression that he sympathized with the store's owner. In any case, he seemed to have a better feel than Parker for commercial realities on the front lines, where one of the big problems is how to handle an annual overproduction of wine worldwide that amounts to roughly 25 percent. The surplus has not been allowed to drive down prices, as it should have to provide for a healthy industry in the long term. This is in part because of wine's residual status as an elite drink. For those in the business, maintaining that image is important not only for commercial reasons but also for reasons of personal prestige. Every stage of the trade is involved in establishing the high prices, but ultimately those prices can be sustained only through the retailers and their sales efforts. The problem for the retailers is that wine -- unlike luxurious hotel rooms and other hyperinflated products generally covered as business expenses -- is usually paid for directly out of the consumer's pocket. This makes for a scary business, especially toward the high end, where The Wine Advocate roams. The truth is that even the best wines cost only about $10 a bottle to produce, and they are not inherently rare. If the initial cost is tripled to allow for profits along the path of distribution, one can reasonably conclude that retail prices above $30 are based on speculation, image, and hype.
Rovani mentioned a Bordeaux called Le Pin, which sells in recent vintages for $600 to $1,000 a bottle. I asked him what kind of person would buy it. He shrugged. "Look, it's a game. Why is it that at a certain age men start buying little sports cars, or the cigar boat that makes so much noise -- or they get the trophy wife. How many of these guys don't even drink the wine? They call you up and they say, 'I've got twenty cases of Lafite, I've twenty cases of Le Pin ...' These are trophies that they're collecting." He described conference calls with three or four competing stockbrokers, made when he was a retailer, in which he sold half a million dollars' worth of wines.
Those men are extreme cases, as is Le Pin, but they set the tone for the business of fine wines. Parker publicly denounces the high prices as "the legalized mugging of the consumer," but in private he admits that the victims are usually all too willing to be mugged. He said, "I know collectors with forty thousand bottles who if you poured them a glass of Gallo Hearty Burgundy wouldn't know the difference. I know collectors who, believe me, if you mixed Kool-Aid into cheap Chilean merlot, they'd taste it and say, 'Well, yeah ...'"
In a world like this a little doctoring of the tasting notes hardly seems important. Rovani described the industry as a game of musical chairs, in which the players throughout the chain of distribution all scramble to avoid getting stuck with the stock. I asked him about being an importer. He said, "What's it like? You sweat. Very early in the morning, because of the time differences, the faxes start coming in, and you have to gamble your entire business because the figures are so high. If it's a good vintage, you can't sit it out, because you'll lose your customer base. So you gamble."
He offered to show me what the gamble looks like: in Washington alone there are a couple of big warehouses stacked floor to ceiling with overpriced wines that cannot be returned and will soon begin to decline. For anyone interested in money, it's an impressive sight. The only way out is bravely forward again, and into the stores, where finally the customer is left standing and blinking at the price he just paid for the bottle in his hand. Retailers are thankful for the strong economy. Fine wines are selling well, but the structure that sustains them is flimsy. All along the chain of supply people fear a collapse, because they have had to invest heavily in what everyone knows is vastly overpriced stock. A collapse wouldn't look like much in the store. But a reduction of just a few dollars in the price the market is willing to pay would crush businesses around the world.
Rovani would welcome such a "correction," because he is an economist who believes in market necessities. Parker would welcome it, because he is an ethicist who opposes the speculation in wine. This highlights a basic difference between the two men. Rovani, who is a salaried employee, sometimes chafes at what he sees as Parker's lack of interest in building the value of his own business. He mentioned to me, for instance, that The Wine Advocate has never had a marketing budget, that it has not been significantly promoted even in Parker's guidebooks, and that in his opinion the royalties that Parker has agreed to for his foreign book sales are ridiculously small. He said, "Bob is extremely hardworking, extremely loyal, honorable, a great parent, a brilliant wine taster. But he just doesn't get excited by business. When I try to talk to him about the French Wine Buyer's Guide, or the contract issues, he'll talk about it for two or three minutes, and then you can see he's bored by it. He'll change the subject to when we can get together and go eat dim sum." Rovani seemed regretful rather than upset. He knew that the weakness he was describing was also Parker's strength. He was resigned to this frustration. He shrugged and said, "Money is not what he's passionate about. And the key to Bob Parker is passion."
An Innocent Abroad
Parker was born in 1947 into a family of dairy farmers, just a few minutes' drive from where he lives today. His parents did not drink wine. They did not drink milk. They drank soda pop. Parker was their only child. When he was four, they built a house down the road and left the farm. Parker's father went to work selling heavy construction equipment, a job he excelled at because he was good with people and didn't mind driving. He was a regular guy with one unusual quality: he had an acute sense of smell. He could pick up garlic on a person's breath from across a room. Young Parker had the same gift, but he didn't realize it was anything special.
He had a typical American childhood. He attended public schools, had a few bicycles, and played a lot of soccer. At the right age he discovered girls and learned to drive. He went to Washington a few times. He went to Baltimore. But Monkton was his world. And it was not a fine-wine kind of place. The high school was called Hereford. It was a plain brick building in a field, a school attended by front-yard mechanics and Future Farmers of America. Parker was not quite like them, but he played soccer well, and he had a normal number of friends. He was one of the "smart kids" enrolled in a small program for college-bound students whose main qualifications seemed to be that their fathers did not work with their hands. In the tenth grade Parker fell in love with a fellow student, a lively girl named Pat Etzel, who is now his wife. They graduated together in the class of 1965 -- a typical Monkton vintage of no great distinction, soon diminished by the loss of two boys in Vietnam. On Pat Etzel's eighteenth birthday Parker had his first taste of wine. It was sweet, bubbly, fortified cold duck, and it made him throw up.
Pat went off to a women's college in Frederick, Maryland, to study French. In order to stay close to her, Parker accepted a soccer scholarship for one year at a college in northern Virginia, and then transferred to the University of Maryland at College Park, where he dabbled in history and art appreciation. He was a strapping young man with sideburns and longish hair -- a solitary but affable guy who, like many men at his age, was having to wait around to grow up. He vaguely opposed the war in Vietnam. On the basis of a temporary injury to his knee he got himself permanently excused from the draft. He finally found the courage to tell his father that he didn't enjoy hunting. For lack of genuine academic interests, he decided on a career in law. He sometimes had a surprising seriousness about him that hinted at his powers of concentration. But it would have been difficult to judge his intelligence. He got good grades, but he was an empty page.
Then came the autumn of 1967, when Pat left for a junior year abroad in Strasbourg, France. Parker told me that Pat's parents did not then approve of her relationship with him, and they hoped that this separation would persuade her to break it off. Parker worried that she might. His pretty girlfriend had matured into a strikingly beautiful woman, slender and graceful, with a lively angular face set off by mischievous green eyes, and now she had ventured out into an unseen world full of foreign men. Parker had little contact with her through the fall -- a few delayed letters and hurried telephone calls -- and he was increasingly unsure of her feelings. Still, they had a plan to meet in Paris for the December holidays.
The trip was a huge idea for Parker. He still gets excited when he talks about it. Until then he had traveled only as far away as New York, by train, and he had never before flown in an airplane. His father, who had often preached to him about the importance of having shined shoes, made Parker buy a white shirt and a dark three-piece suit for the flight. During the short hop from Baltimore to New York, Parker spilled coffee on himself. During the long flight across the North Atlantic he sat next to a casually dressed Harvard student, who had the good manners not to comment on Parker's stains. This fellow spoke impeccable French and had a mother who was waiting for him in some well-known neighborhood of Paris. He was able to offer Parker fascinating opinions about the best European destinations. He was very depressing. It was beyond his imagination that Parker had never flown before.
As the day turned into night, Parker began to brood. What if he missed Pat in the crowd at the airport? Worse, what if she didn't even bother to show up? Or what if she did show up but didn't love him anymore? Parker didn't know much about the world, but he had heard about French lovers. He figured these were the same guys who had developed the French kiss -- and that was probably just the start. He ordered a couple of whiskeys and drank himself to sleep.
The flight was due to arrive in Paris at 10:30. Parker woke up at 10:45. When he saw the time, he jumped into the aisle and yelled, "Shit, I've missed my stop!" The Harvard fellow looked at him in disbelief. A stewardess came up and informed him that an airplane is not a train. He sat again. The Harvard fellow said, "You really haven't flown before." Then the captain announced that Paris was fogged in and the flight was being diverted to Rome. Parker panicked again. He said, "How am I supposed to get from Rome to Paris? I don't even speak Italian!" The Harvard fellow laughed and assured him that there would be a flight to Paris in the morning. In the meantime he would have a night to explore Rome. Parker decided then and there to put aside his fears and to embrace this unexpected experience. It was an important moment for him. He was becoming a traveler.
The airline gave him a hotel room in Rome, but he was too wide awake to stay in it. He visited a bar. He wandered the streets. It's characteristic of Parker that his first strong impression of Europe was a smell, and that he identified it precisely. It was the stench of horse urine emanating from a Gypsy encampment by the Coliseum. At dawn he watched Rome come alive for another chaotic day. He was enthralled by the density of the street culture, and by its casual connection to history. He was enthralled by the people, the sounds, and the architectural mixture. He did not shy away from the strangeness of the scene, as provincials often do, comparing Rome with home, or wrinkling their noses. He opened himself completely. He inhaled Europe. He drank it in.
The mood endured, and became in some ways a permanent thing. It helped that a few hours later the airline was able to deliver him to a still-foggy Paris and that his beautiful Pat was waiting there for him and that she loved him very much, spoke good French, and wanted to serve as his guide. She took him by subway to the Trocadéro, led him backward up the steps to the street, and spun him around for his first clear sight of the city: it was a view of the Eiffel Tower, rising gracefully on the opposite bank of the Seine. "Wow!" Parker said, as he often still does.
The young couple stayed in a cheap hotel in the Latin Quarter, a dingy little place called the Danube. For several days they walked through Paris. Parker told me that he couldn't get enough of it. He was in heaven. In the evenings at neighborhood restaurants Pat playfully ordered snails, frogs' legs, mussels, fatty pâtés, and smelly cheeses -- foods that should have disgusted a kid from Monkton but in this case did not. Neither of them would have guessed that Parker had one of the world's great palates, or that with these intimate little meals he might be starting down a path toward fame and power. That would have been ridiculous. About the food Parker said, "This stuff is good!" and left it at that, as a regular guy would.
He was alone with Pat Etzel in Paris and ferociously in love. Is it surprising that he learned to like the wine? The wine they ordered with their meals was the cheapest they could find, served in carafes, pale red, pleasantly alcoholic, and unremarkable by Parker's present standards, but it was unlike anything he had tasted before. Parker told me he was immediately fascinated by it. Here was a beverage that seemed to complement food and promote conversation, that gave him a buzz but did not make him drunk, and that never blurred his vision like liquor or bloated him like beer. It's hard to imagine his sensations the first few times he put it in his mouth. It was not sweet like bourbon or soda pop. Did it taste of fruit, as people said? It was maybe a little astringent. Parker lacked the vocabulary necessary to sort out the confusion of tastes. He idealized the wine at first. He liked the thought that it was a product of French culture, an artifact that was authentic yet accessible and meant to be shared. As it passed over his tongue, he sensed that it was loaded with meanings he didn't understand. But his immediate reactions were typically straightforward. Every night the wine was different, and every night it seemed to work. "This stuff is good!" Beyond that, he knew little.
Pat took him to Strasbourg, where his education continued. Parker described to me how in the cold, gray countryside of northeastern France he was shocked by the lingering evidence, after so many years, of the two world wars -- the buildings still pockmarked or lying in ruin, the cripples in the cafés and on the trains, the village monuments engraved with long lists of the dead, grouped by family name. The destruction was worse than anything Parker had imagined, and it made him realize how sheltered he had been. He knew that the United States had fought hard and well to liberate this ground, but he did not swell with national pride or indulge, as others do, in the sly denigration of the French for their claims about résistance. He realized that battles alone could not explain such scars. The significance of résistance was not martial -- it was the underlying stubbornness that had allowed the ordinary French to emerge from an apocalypse with their attitudes toward life still largely intact. Parker admired them for it, and had all the more reason every night to appreciate their wine.
Pat had met a doctor in Strasbourg, who invited the young couple to share a few meals with him in the best local restaurants. The doctor was a gourmet and a generous man, and he enjoyed introducing them to the tradition of the three-hour dinner, and to tastes that lay beyond their means. For Parker, with his acute sensitivities, the meals were not just pleasures but profound revelations. He began to concentrate on food in a way that he had not previously known was possible. He also had his first few bottles of really fine wine. Already he was beginning to sort out the tastes. In France today the story goes that he looked up after sipping a certain wine and said, "Oh, that's good! There's a little taste of grapefruit there, and a little taste of lemon, and a little taste of ..." The doctor is said to have gazed at him and remarked, "Do you know that you have just defined the main components of a Riesling?" And Parker is said to have understood at that moment that he had the talents of a prodigy.
The story is too tidy to be quite true, but in essence it is correct: after those meals in Strasbourg there was no turning Parker back. His visit to France lasted six weeks, with an unpleasant interlude of bad food in Germany. When it was time for him to go home, he and Pat returned to Paris, intent on spending the last of his holiday money on a final gourmet meal. They chose Maxim's, a three-star restaurant on the rue Royale, which was known as a bastion of classic French cuisine. They checked into their cheap hotel. In preparation for the dinner, Pat pressed the collar of Parker's washed white shirt between two books, and brushed the wrinkles from their best clothes. Parker dutifully shined his shoes.
They arrived at Maxim's, and after a typically disdainful attendant hung Pat's cloth coat on a rack loaded with furs, the couple was banished to a secondary dining room full of foreigners, and assigned to a table with a flickering electric lamp. When Parker complained about the lamp, a disapproving waiter tried to fix it and received a shock that knocked him to the floor. It didn't help matters that the two Americans could hardly keep from laughing. But they settled down, and after a while they ordered their meal. The restaurant photographer came along and took a picture, which they kept, of a smiling Pat and a more somber Parker in his suit, gazing down and away with a shy, thoughtful expression on his face. Maxim's was turning into another lesson for him. The wine they drank was overpriced. The food looked better than it tasted. The dessert was a pretty little tart so tough that it shot out from under Parker's knife, flew off the table, and stuck to the pants of a passing waiter. When Parker took Pat to dance on the restaurant's small dance floor, the maitre d'hôtel came up and explained with regret that the color of Parker's polished shoes was an inappropriate brown. Pat led Parker back to their table. Then came the bill.
Terroir and Tradition
Thirty-two years later there are wine families in France who feel that Parker is still making them pay. Near the city of Bordeaux last spring I talked to one of the most powerful producers in the trade, a businessman with formal manners, who did not want me to use his name. He pretended for a while to be Parker's friend, but finally could not keep his anger from showing. He shut his office door against the secretaries outside, turned to me, and said, "Monsieur, do you know Robert Parker? Have you met him?" His voice was deep and resonant. "Monsieur, you surely do not believe that such a man is simply tasting wines!You do not believe that he ignores the political context of his work! Non, monsieur, Robert Parker knows precisely what he is doing. And he has his reasons."
I was intrigued. Was he going to tell me that Parker was in it for the money after all? That he had hidden allies? Secret meetings? Understandings with governments? I asked him to explain.
From a stack of papers on his desk he slid me a fax that someone had just sent him. It was a page from a recent Wine Advocate, a survey of Australian wines. He made a steeple of his hands and watched me darkly while I glanced over what Parker had written. It didn't take long. He had liked some Australian wines so much that he had scored them in the nineties. I looked up and said, "But your own wines score well too."
That was not the point. His own wines were traditional, and these most certainly were not. He saw the very comparison as a betrayal of Bordeaux. He said, "Bob is a big, dramatic man, with big, dramatic tastes. But our wines are supposed to be red, not black." He held up his pen, a shiny black Mont Blanc, to show me the color of the wines that he thought Parker favors. He said, "I have known him for twenty years, but I will no longer read what he writes. He wants to lead us down a path to destruction."
That's Bordeaux -- a place so steeped in tradition that it's not unusual to find people who go around actively regretting the French Revolution. When I told the story of the Australian wines to Rovani, he said, "What did you expect? Those people own the town. The bottom line is, when that's your business, how much do you like the big, goofy northern-Maryland guy who rates you? Because your game is control."
Rovani does not cover Bordeaux, but he knows it well and seems to enjoy the scene. He told me about a conversation he had one day with a powerful chateau owner there. "I asked him how he got interested in wine and he said, 'After I finished school, my father had really nothing of importance to give me as a gift, and so he gave me ..." Rovani named a famous chateau. He laughed. "I mean, the thing's worth millions!"
I said, "And when he says that to you, does he realize that he's ..."
Rovani interrupted. "That he's talking to a guy who plays with his credit-card debt? It's beyond that. It doesn't matter. I'm not in his life -- you know what I mean?"
"Yes, but does he realize he's playing a role?"
"I always wonder. I always wonder how far over the line these people get."
In Bordeaux the answer to that question is all about a person's connection to the right class of wine. This is a place where strangers ask you your birth year to establish not your age but the associated vintage. Among the great wine families, I met one man who smiled about his position in life -- but he had just gotten remarried. The others did not smile. They belonged to a rigid and self-referential society, similar to a hereditary aristocracy but mercantile in its essence, and shaped in a peculiar way by the formal rankings of the nearly two hundred top chateaux, the so-called "classified growths." The language is confusing, because "growth" refers not to the vines or even to the individual wines but to the participating chateaux, each of which has been assigned a more or less permanent ranking according to traditional perceptions of its relative prestige and quality. The first classifications were created in the nineteenth century as marketing tools to justify the prices that the top Bordeaux wines were already commanding. They were a huge success, allowing consumers to sort through the confusion of labels, and providing the producers with price-setting structures and a stability that had been lacking in the business. But they went too far. The great weakness of the Bordeaux classification system is that it allows for little or no change. And so it has had the effect of ossifying the entire industry of Bordeaux wines and with it the structure of society.
Parker is a revolutionary because he disregards the traditional rankings and simply tastes the wines. He has in practice created an entirely new and simplified classification system, based upon his own judgment. This is of grave concern to Bordeaux, and especially to the Médoc, which has the most important and prestigious of the classified growths, and where traditionally the most expensive wines have been made. The Médoc is a rolling expanse of vineyards punctuated by overblown manors and occasional impoverished villages (some of them largely inhabited by Moroccan field workers) from which the life seems to have been sucked. It is not an attractive place, but because of its famous wines, it thinks highly of itself. I had been warned that the families there would close their doors on me, as they would close them on Parker if they could. They did not. They guided me through the intricacies of the business, introduced me to their friends, and patiently explained the error of Parker's ways. But nowhere among them was I able to find the person I sought -- someone with the humor and perspective necessary to make a persuasive argument for the preservation of their world. These people were not playing roles. They had crossed a line at birth.
Among them I found a man who seemed to embody their fears -- Bernard Ginestet, the aging scion of a once-great family, an aristocrat fallen from the heights, who in his loss is said to have become a philosopher of wine. I met him for lunch in Bordeaux, in the medieval center of the city. He was a gaunt, gray, unshaven man with heavy-lidded eyes and the voice of a chain smoker; I thought he looked a bit roughed up by life, and probably for the better. He had the demeanor of a disillusioned aristocrat, at once detached and self-abandoned. When he smiled, his face remained serious. When he said, "In every family there are people who are failures," I could not tell if he was referring to himself. Years before, he had inherited and then been forced to sell the historic Chateau Margaux, a large estate in the Médoc that has been making wines for centuries and that stands at the very peak of the classification system, as one of only five classified "first growths" in the Médoc. When he lost the property, in 1977, the Bordelais were horrified by the depth of his fall.
After honoring the family debts Ginestet had little left. He was elected mayor of the local village, also named Margaux. To make a living he became a writer and an editor, and produced a series of narrowly focused books, each on the subject of a single official wine-production area, known as an appellation, often of only a few square miles. Because of the geographic concentration of such work, he became an authority on the central concept of the Bordelais culture: a belief in the fundamental significance of what is called terroir. The word terroir has no concise translation but relates strongly to history, class, and pedigree; it means the soil both real and metaphorical from which a vine, a wine, or a person emerges. Ginestet told me I could spend days trying to understand it. Because weather matters too, as do changes brought about by economics and technology, there is a need to consider the vintage. But for the aristocracy of Bordeaux terroir matters most of all.
My conversation with Ginestet did not go well. He had lived for a while near San Francisco, and he thought he knew the American mind. Few of his books had been translated. I asked him why. He waved his fork vaguely, and in English he said, "Too Frenchy," as if that explanation were enough. He thought my questions about Bordeaux were simplistic. He denied every premise. But rather than clearly expressing himself, he grimaced and shrugged in the Gallic manner, lapsed into silences, worked the food on his plate, glanced at the elegant women at the next table, sipped his water, sipped his wine. He erected barriers. He was very relaxed, but he seemed to feel he was under attack.
I was able to draw him out only on the subject of Parker. He acted fond of him, as an uncle might act toward an obstreperous nephew. Parker had dedicated a book to him, but had also given his wines some very poor scores. Ginestet said, "Bob has succeeded in providing the image that fits today."
"What image is that?"
"The guru. The one who knows."
"Wasn't there a need for a guru before?"
"Yes, but it was fragmented by country, or zone of influence. Today there is the 'globalization.'" He thought it through, and coined a nice phrase. He said, "Bob is an artisan in the globalization of wine."
He meant globalization by the French definition -- the imposition of an American style. Like a lot of Frenchmen, he seemed to see the United States as a single, unified culture. He had lived there, but possibly had not understood its true dimensions -- the coexistence within it of so many different nations. He knew something about San Francisco and New York, and had a superficial view of the rest.
He said, "The American taste is very standardized. Price-conscious. Unsubtle. And that is where Bob excels. He has understood it -- partly by intuition, partly by deduction. Americans like simple things. 'Square.'" He drew a square in the air. "And Bob has a 'square' taste."
I mentioned that Parker's books sell well in France. But Ginestet wanted to keep talking about the United States. He said, "What bothers Americans is, they like certainty. If wine contains a truth, it is the absence of certainty. But one of the reasons Bob has succeeded is that he knows no doubts."
"And the French -- what do they like?"
This was a more complicated thing. He didn't exactly say that the French like uncertainty. He said, "My personal philosophy is, you can be sure of nothing." Then he chose to give a little. He lit a cigarette and inhaled. His voice softened. He said, "Lighter wines. Wines of pleasure. Wines of ... emotion." I wanted to try him again on the idea of terroir, but he closed up when I fumbled for definitions, and so I called for the bill.
Waiting for Parker
It was a rough spring in Bordeaux. Parker had left town after a ten-day stay, during which he had tasted the wines made just a few months before, in the fall of 1999. The early sale of such very young wines, two years before they can be bottled (let alone consumed), is considered to be a prerogative of Bordeaux's top chateaux, most of which now try to sell their entire production this way. These wines are known as "futures." They provide the chateaux with obvious financial advantages, and with the valuable appearance of enjoying a frantic demand for their wines. They provide consumers with the pleasure of playing an insider's role, and with early access to wines that in theory will become more expensive when they mature. The process is extraordinarily complicated. It kicks off each spring with a wild scramble that lasts for several weeks, during which the chateaux sell the fall's vintage in allocations to the traditional traders in Bordeaux -- the négociants, who enjoy exclusive purchasing rights and have maintained a lock on the business for a few hundred years. Each chateau negotiates its own prices -- but as much in jealous relation to the prices that its neighbors are getting as in anticipation of the market. This is more rational than it might seem, because prices help to determine prestige, and prestige is always relative. Each spring, when it's time to start over again, no one wants to go first. One of the smart new winemakers told me that Bordeaux is likebarbichette, a schoolyard game in which children hold one another by the chin to see who laughs first. The child who loses gets a slap in the face.
Parker makes it worse. When he is in Bordeaux, he keeps mostly to himself, and though the city studies his every gesture during the tastings, hoping for some indication of his thoughts, he keeps his face neutral and his notes private, and he goes home to Monkton without expressing his opinions. The business then plays barbichette for several weeks while waiting for The Wine Advocate's regular Bordeaux edition to appear, in late April. Last spring, after Parker left, the wait was said to be more intense than ever before. All of Bordeaux knew that 1999 had been at best an average year, and that the market was already flooded with overpriced and mediocre 1997s and the uneven and still more expensive 1998s. Retailers worldwide were rebelling against an allocation system that, rather than being a privilege, felt like a feeding tube shoved down their throats.
Back in Bordeaux the production levels were very high. Chateau Margaux alone was making 440,000 bottles a year -- of what was supposed to be expensive stuff. At a similar chateau in the Médoc, a place called Léoville-Barton, the owner told me he sometimes wistfully considers that if he could just get each person in Bordeaux to drink one bottle of his wine every year, he could sell out his entire stock right there. But of course that would include children, practicing Muslims, and a sizable population on welfare. Short of such reveries, some chateau owners hoped that an economic bridge could be maintained to what was likely to be the sought-after vintage of 2000.
It was obvious to everyone that deep and wide price reductions would soon be needed. It was also obvious that Parker would agree, and that in the coming issue of The Wine Advocate he would advise his readers to stay away from 1999 futures in general. Still ... again ...barbichette. Who would reduce his prices first? Who would give that tactical advantage to his neighbors, allowing them to set their prices higher than his -- if only just slightly? Moreover, who among Bordeaux's natural leaders would ignore the certainty that Parker would celebrate some of the wines and score them, perhaps, merely one point beyond 89 and into the magic 90s? For those wines the prestige would be all the greater in a year of general decline. So Bordeaux waited.
One afternoon I went to a professional tasting at Chateau Pavie, a revitalized winery near the hilltop village of St.-Emilion, where several hundred buyers from around the world were milling about in an elegant vaulted hall, sampling a selection of about forty 1999s, which were being presented by a Bordeaux trade association, the Union des Grands Crus. The buyers kept to themselves in groups of two or three, and wandered among the offerings, spinning and sloshing the wines, tasting them, and leaning forward to spit them into centrally placed porcelain funnels. The funnels drained into buckets encased in wooden barrels. The buckets were carried off by young men slipping quietly through the crowd.
A lot of thought had gone into that setting. The lighting was cool but not cold. The art was bright and modern. The floors were a lovely tile, a shade of desert tan. A few steps away, wide doors opened into a still-larger vaulted hall -- Pavie's lavish temperature-controlled production room, which was three stories high and had double walls and a viewing platform overlooking lines of dramatically lit oak barrels: a fortune in new wine. But the buyers seemed hardened to any such efforts, whether in architecture or in wine. They were not aesthetes. They were not dilettantes. They were professional skeptics, people who made their living by being unimpressed. Now, like everyone else, they were stuck having to wait for Parker in order to come to terms on prices. They jotted disgruntled little notes about the tastings. But mostly they were just biding time.
Our host was the president of the Union des Grands Crus, a vocal Parker supporter named Alain Raynaud, who at his property in nearby Libourne was making some of the best wines in Bordeaux. Raynaud was aware of his guests' frustration, and he blamed the négociants, the traders in Bordeaux. He said, "If Parker has too much influence, it's the fault of the traders. They have the chance right now, while their clients are here, to decide for themselves what they think of these wines. If they want to, they can make the deals. But whether because they are cowards or lack the will, instead they will wait. I find it completely surprising, and I know that Parker does too."
I said, "But Parker is not just some critic. The traders have to take into account that he makes the market."
Raynaud said, "Last year I brought my 1998 right here, to show it to Bordeaux. I was very proud of it. And I said, "Voilà! I propose this wine at one hundred francs a bottle, before tax. Everybody said -- everybody! -- 'This is very great wine that you've made! But you've raised your price too much, and we won't buy it.'
"And I said, 'Okay, very good, we'll just wait until Bob Parker gives it a score.'
"Parker scored it ninety-three to ninety-five. That very day I could easily have asked two hundred francs for it, and it would have been snapped up. I didn't do that. I sold it at a hundred and twenty-five francs. But the last I heard is that in the dealing between the traders just here in Bordeaux it's now going for three hundred francs a bottle."
Raynaud was not simply gloating. His point was that the traders had profited more by waiting for Parker than they would have by fulfilling their traditional role, negotiating prices and investing in wines on the basis of their own independent judgments. In other words, Raynaud believed that the traders were shirking their duties. He was probably right, but he was also being unfair. What he left unsaid is that because of Parker -- this one man with so much power -- the terrain has become much less certain for the Bordeaux traders. The critical decisions are made not about the ordinary wines but about the very best, especially those that when tasted young might qualify for a Parker score in the 90s. Yes, there is money to be made by exploiting the advantage that traders have of being first in line and simply following Parker's lead. But there is also money to be lost by moving out in front of Parker. If a trader decides that a wine is very good and agrees with the chateau on a moderately high price for it, he runs the significant risk that Parker might score the wine at 89 as opposed to 90 or 91 -- and that in a generally skittish market the price for it will tumble. That is one of the ironies of Parker's role. He regrets the skittishness of the market. He opposes speculation of any kind. But inevitably he fuels it.
The Rocky Balboa of Wine
Parker says that he never intended any of this. When he went home from his first trip to France, he got together with a few college friends and began drinking wines for fun. He read some British wine books, which he found interesting on historical topics but strangely impractical on the subject of taste. What did it mean when a wine had a hint of Russian leather? Worse, what did it mean when a wine elicited metaphors? "This wine is a beautiful lady in the last years of her life, wearing a bit too much makeup, perhaps, who can no longer hide all the wrinkles she has...." What Parker wanted to know about a wine was whether to buy it or not.
He took a class from Gordon Prange, the author of At Dawn We Slept, who taught him the discipline of writing short, clear sentences. He kept tasting wines. When he was twenty-two he married Pat and went back to Europe with her for the summer. After finishing college, he started law school, still at the University of Maryland. The young couple moved into a cheap basement apartment that they kept at a constant 55°, just perfect for wine. Parker was becoming more serious about his hobby. Pat was willing to go along with it because she was young, but she sometimes quarreled with Parker about the money he was spending on wine. She had a job teaching French in a public school. Parker told me he was known as the phantom of law school, because he liked to stay up late watching Dick Cavett and then needed to sleep through the morning. But one class started with a roll call, so he usually managed to show up for it. The class was about conflict of interest -- a hot topic in the early 1970s -- and was taught by the Watergate counsel Sam Dash. Parker thought it was fascinating, and he began to think of wine in these new terms, to wonder why so many famous wines were watery and bland but were written about as if they were not. As a budding consumerist, he began to feel indignant. He felt he had been ambushed too often.
Parker passed the bar in 1973 and dutifully took a job in Baltimore, which soon confirmed his suspicion that legal work would bore him. As often as possible he escaped with Pat to Europe. They concentrated on France, where she could serve as his translator and charm the chateaux into letting them inside to talk and taste wine. Parker was very serious, and he took notes; Pat enjoyed looking after him. With a hobby as expensive as wine, they did not have much money to spare. They traveled light, and in the evenings ate cheaply. They managed Europe on ten dollars a day. It was a simple time for them. They look back on it now with nostalgia.
By 1978 Parker was ready to put his experience to use. He typed up the first issue of The Wine Advocate, including on the front page a consumerist manifesto. He bought a few mailing lists from wine retailers and sent out 6,500 free copies. Six hundred people subscribed -- a disappointment for Parker at the time, but by direct-mail standards a success. In the second issue (the first for which people had paid) he wrote a scathing critique of the industrialization of California vineyards -- a trend that he blamed for producing bland, sterile, and overly manipulated wines that tasted alike and seemed designed to survive the rigors of mass distribution and generally to minimize business risk. It was a battle cry heard initially by very few people, but they must have welcomed it. The circulation of The Wine Advocate began to climb. Parker still needed his earnings as a lawyer to pay the bills, but he consoled himself that the journal allowed him his independence of mind.
Such independence was not a hallmark of most other critics -- a collection mostly of ineffectual men whom Parker in his moral rigidity and his ambition began to despise. The feeling was soon reciprocated, dividing the wine press into camps so hostile that the slick New York-based Wine Spectator has never run a profile of Parker and will barely mention his name. But in the early days, before Parker was known, a British critic came up to him in London and said, "Living in America, how hard is it for you to get your cases of first-growth claret?"
Parker said, "What do you mean?"
The critic looked confused. "Don't you get a case of Latour, Lafite, and Margaux sent every year?"
"No," Parker said. "Maybe I should be insulted."
He meant insulted on behalf of his readers. But he cannot have been surprised. The setup is an open secret. In Bordeaux people say that the critics' car trunks automatically pop open at the famous estates, and just can't be closed until they are full of bottles. Some critics are consultants. Some are importers. Some simply write for magazines that depend on wine advertising. The problem they all have is how to make a living. In English this generally leads to a critical technique known as "varying the degrees of 'wonderful.'" In French the relevant technique is called "drowning the fish" -- a slightly different thing, which contributes to the tendency toward bewildering complexity in French prose.
At one of the middle-ranked chateaux in the Médoc, during the wait last spring for Parker's declarations, an iconoclastic winemaker named Olivier Sèze called most French critics "odious." He said, "They use our wines as a pretext for their writings. 'Look -- what I write is good! Look -- what I write is intelligent!' But you read a full page of it and you say, 'What was that about? About wine? About a car? Perfume?'"
With Parker there was never any question. By 1982, after four years in existence, The Wine Advocate had a circulation of 7,000. Then came the Bordeaux vintage of 1982, whose young wines were unusually dark, powerful, and fruity. When Parker flew home from tasting those "futures" in the spring of 1983, he was so eager to get back and write about what he had found that he worried uncharacteristically that the airplane might crash. This was the scoop of a lifetime, a vintage that he was convinced would become one of the greatest in history, and that the other critics, within their variations of "wonderful," seemed to have underestimated. Parker advised his readers to buy the wines, and many did so -- in large quantities. A lot of money was at stake. The established critics attacked, arguing that the young 1982s lacked acidity and therefore would not age well. They were saying, in essence, that these wines tasted too good too soon -- an argument related to the traditional one that bad wines require age to become better. Parker suspected the opposite -- that the greatest vintages (he thought of '61 and '49 and '47) are so seamless and free of imperfections that they are balanced from birth -- and that 1982 was just such a vintage.
With his career on the line, he returned to Bordeaux and started asking about the past. In the archives of Chateau Haut-Brion he found an old diary that expressed concern about the famous vintage of 1929 -- that the then-young wines were too intense, and would not endure. Parker knew those wines after fifty years, and considered them to be excellent still. He retasted the 1982s and was again astonished by their splendor. He went home to Monkton, and reiterated his earlier judgments. By 1984, when the wines were being bottled, it was obvious to everyone that he was right. Most of the opposing critics began to back down. One who didn't was forced into an increasingly untenable position, and finally lost his job. The Wine Spectator eventually came out with an issue celebrating the 1982 vintage, but by then those wines were hard to find and very expensive. Parker's reputation was made. Some of his readers had gotten rich on his advice. Others simply had picked up good wine at a good price. The Wine Advocate's circulation jumped past 10,000. Parker quit his job as a lawyer. Several weeks later he signed his first book contract in New York. He told me that going home on the train, he felt like Sylvester Stallone in Rocky.
Saving Bordeaux From Itself
Last spring, when the annual Bordeaux issue of The Wine Advocate finally came out, the Bordeaux establishment lashed back angrily. In a campaign led by some of the large chateaux, people attacked Parker in the local press, accusing him not only of undue influence and technical incompetence but also of cronyism and, by innuendo, of malice. The Bordeaux newspaper, Sud-Ouest, published several articles laying out the accusations, and a wider press spread the story -- through Europe and to the United States. These accusations were for the most part unfounded, but they were serious enough to leave Parker feeling wounded and perhaps genuinely threatened. He took the unusual step of writing letters in his own defense -- but he was hampered by a lack of detail in the accusations, and by the fact that during his last stay in Bordeaux he had indeed not handled himself well. It was a matter of appearances: he had gone for a private dinner with Alain Raynaud at a remote country hotel, and the next day had tasted the wines of the Union des Grands Crus and rated Raynaud's very high.
A well-known chateau called Bouscaut ran a sarcastic advertisement for its 1999 wines, including a defiant proclamation of its score of only 79-82. In the ad a cartoon depicted a retailer saying to a customer, "A good wine with a real terroir? An individualistic wine? No hesitation -- find one with a bad Parker score!!!!" Parker's response was typically blunt. To a query from a London wine magazine he responded, "The cartoon was a splendid idea. Given the wine Bouscaut has made, I would resort to humor, too, if it helped to sell the wine. But purchasers of it will find out who the joke is really on." As a consumerist, Parker naturally is self-righteous and maybe too easily aggrieved. His mother could have told him just to smile and sit tight.
At first glance Bordeaux seemed to be upset about very little. In his April issue Parker praised some producers for their 1999s but reported, accurately, that the year had been excessively wet and hot, resulting in few compelling wines and little reason to buy futures. This was hardly a surprise. But then Parker went further. He wrote a few paragraphs that were unusual for him, in which he expressed his thoughts about Bordeaux's business side and discussed the global glut in its wines. He said the retail trade worldwide would have to cut its losses by dumping the 1997s en masse and skeptically judging each wine from 1998. Then, while scolding the Bordeaux producers for their "egregious blunder" and foolish greed, he called for a reduction in the prices for the 1999s by 30 percent or more. He wrote, "If arrogance prevents them from understanding this, they will see the irresponsibility of their ways ... sooner rather than later."
This was getting closer to a reason for a fight. A 30 percent reduction in prices? The producers choked at the very thought, and they knew that Parker's opinions, once expressed, are not just abstractions: this issue of The Wine Advocate would be wielded by the disgruntled buyers, who were already murmuring about a boycott. Parker had the audacity to claim that he was trying to save Bordeaux from itself. Those few paragraphs of his were going to cost Bordeaux a lot.
But the truth is that the chateaux have the financial reserves to ride out a downturn in the market -- along with the cushion that the 2000 vintage is likely to provide. They are not, in other words, so obviously beleaguered that they need to fear Parker's frank assessment. Their reaction to it, therefore, can only be understood as an expression of a deeper problem: what they are really worried about is the accelerating movement toward the garage wines, those dark, dramatic, small-production wines that are being made with fanatical devotion to detail.
The garage phenomenon began in Bordeaux less than a decade ago as a novelty, but it seems now to be evolving beyond mere fashion, and taking shape as one of the more important changes of the past 200 years. The competitive advantages are clear: the garage wines do not require large vineyards, big crews, a manor house, or a classic patch of terroir -- and they are now fetching the highest prices in Bordeaux. This is extremely threatening to the established families, whose very society requires them to hold stiffly to the idea that price is a reflection of quality. Privately, the families claim that the "garagistes" are cheating -- that because of the ultra-small quantities involved (for any label, typically less than 15,000 bottles a year), the new producers are able to manipulate their prices in the most cynical ways, buying back significant percentages of their own stock in order to stimulate the market, or working through unnamed agents to ratchet up demand artificially at the famous London and New York auction houses. In some ways the big families are right. It is certainly true that many of the garage wines are terrible buys and that if a wine-drinker wanted one rule for Bordeaux it would be to stay away from them entirely. Another rule, however, might be to stay away from the famous chateaux as well. For the established families it's a predicament: after so much market manipulation of their own, they are hardly in a position to complain on behalf of the consumers. Meanwhile, the garage wines are spreading through the cracks and odd parcels of the best wine-growing region in the world, the finite realm of Bordeaux, where rapidly and insidiously they are subverting the structures on which the great families rely.
It's no wonder those families fear Robert Parker. He is indeed the man to blame. He claims to disapprove of the prices for the garage wines, but insists on judging such wines as a purist would, concentrating entirely on their taste. It is true that the garage wines are dense, impressive, and often extremely good. Parker likes the idea of them, and in the new BordeauxWine Advocate he said so more clearly than ever before.
There's an argument now that the garagistes are making wines to suit Parker's taste, and that therefore the world is getting smaller here, too. I heard it many times. Parker is a monopolist, the Bill Gates of wine; Bordeaux must follow the example of José Bové, the French anti-globalist, and fight back against Parker's domination. The image of one American with so much power seems valid from a distance. But up close it tends to fall apart. No two fine wines are ever the same. I moved for weeks among the garagistes, and even I, with my lack of knowledge and my dull palate, would never have mistaken any one of their wines for any other. Parker is making the world not smaller but larger. Bordeaux distrusts him for that reason. After 300 years he is breaking up the terroir.
The leading garagiste is a brash, self-confident man named Jean-Luc Thunevin, who with his wife, Murielle, makes a ripe red wine called Valandraud, one of the stars of the region. The Thunevins are seen in Bordeaux as the ultimate outsiders. He is a "pied-noir," the son of refugees from the Algerian war for independence, an outsider who worked in a bank for thirteen years and nearly went broke in the restaurant business before acquiring a scrap of ground and getting into wine in 1991. Until a few years ago she was a nurse's assistant.
The Thunevins do not have a chateau, though they could almost afford one by now. They live in the center of St.-Emilion, in bright and minimally furnished quarters directly above their wine-production rooms. One evening over dinner there he said to me, "People think our wine is a product of Parker -- but it's not true. Parker is prudent. He didn't know if we were going to keep producing good wines -- if we were serious, if we were honest. He started grading only after four years, when he had tasted our wines in the bottle. For the first few years he gave us scores only in the eighties. But the effect of Parker was to accelerate things. Before, we would have required fifty years to be recognized -- and, of course, we would never have been able to survive. But thanks to Parker, we needed only four years. It was his willingness to taste our wines, and the speed of the information, that mattered."
Thunevin is openly despised by the old families of Bordeaux, who call him "Tue-le-vin," a shortened form of "He who kills the wine." I asked him what he thought about them in return. He said, "I'm not trying to be accepted. People have problems because they absolutely want to enter a milieu that is not theirs. I have the advantage that I don't care. When I started into the business, I had a friend who warned me. He said, 'In Bordeaux they don't like newcomers. They're going to break you.'" Thunevin smiled, as if to say, "And now look who is afraid."
The subversion has spread even into Bordeaux's heart, the Médoc, where Murielle Thunevin in 1999 starting making a new garage wine, called Marojallia, in a neglected patch of vineyard, with a little stone shed, a little tractor, and not much else. Every day through the summer she drove there in her jeans and rough shirts, and worked side by side with two Moroccan women to tend the vines. In the fall, with a slightly larger crew, she harvested the grapes and made the first wine. Her powerful neighbors at the surrounding chateaux were shocked and outraged, and came by to peer into the shed, but they could do nothing about her presence.
During Parker's tastings last spring the current owner of Chateau Margaux, a woman named Corinne Mentzelopoulos, wanted to talk to Parker only about the Thunevins' new wine. Parker later told me that she was resentful, and viewed the innovation as dangerous. She said, "We believe in terroir."
Parker refused to accept the traditional meaning of that word. He said, "Well, it is a terroir. It doesn't have a history of three hundred years, like Chateau Margaux, but it's a terroir. Why shouldn't someone try to improve the quality of wine that comes from this parcel of land?" She retreated to the old answer -- that no one knew how the wine would evolve.
Parker, for his part, refused to budge. In The Wine Advocate he discussed Murielle Thunevin's new wine, which he had tasted as a future. He wrote,
This is the first of what will likely be an increasing move toward limited production "garage" wines in the Médoc (something the powers in the appellation are totally against). An impressive first effort, it has the potential to merit an outstanding rating after bottling. There are nearly 600 cases of this saturated purple-colored offering, which exhibits low acid, sweet blackberry aromas backed by chocolate and toast. In the mouth, the wine is voluptuous, opulent, pure, and harmonious. My rating is conservative since this is the debut release, but this 1999 has enormous potential, and since it is likely to be bottled without fining or filtration, it should merit an outstanding score.
He gave it 89-91, neatly signaling his view of the years to come. The message to the old families was clear.
In the essay accompanying the tasting notes, Parker professed astonishment that anyone might fear the garagistes. He wrote,
There is no stopping this new phenomenon in spite of the hostility it has received from négociants, the Médoc's aristocracy, and those reactionaries in favor of preserving Bordeaux's status quo. These wines are not the destabilizing influence many old timers would have consumers believe. What's wrong with an energetic person taking a small piece of property and trying to turn out something sensational?
But Parker knew perfectly well that a fundamental change was under way -- that a vast industrial structure seemed about to break apart. When I saw him again at home in Monkton, with his dogs snoring in a corner of the office, he admitted that these might be the final years for the old families of Bordeaux. Olivier Sèze, the iconoclastic winemaker in the Médoc, had been gleeful at that possibility. He had said, "If people start to make better wines than the first growths, the whole system falls apart. It becomes a revolution. It is a revolution!" Parker, too, sometimes used that word. The coming vintage of 2000, he told me, would strengthen the great chateaux, but only temporarily. He had a long-term view. He said, "A hundred years from now the garage wines won't be a separate category. They will be up and down the Médoc. Everyone will be making wines that way. And if someone wants to go back over the history, Thunevin will be seen as the pioneer who totally changed the system."
"My name might come up too -- maybe as a footnote."
He pretended to have a workman's view of himself in history. He said, "I'm an anti-industrial kind of guy." As if he were just another critic expressing an opinion, he said, "I don't like manipulation, compromise, or interventionistic winemaking -- unless something goes wrong. I believe that the responsibility of the winemaker is to take that fruit and get it into the bottle as the most natural and purest expression of that vineyard, of the grape varietal or blend, and of the vintage." He also said, "When I started tasting wines, in the 1970s, we were on a slippery slope. There was a standardization of wines, where you couldn't tell a Chianti from a cabernet. That's pretty much stopped now." He refused to say it had stopped because of him. I figured he was being willfully modest. His own mother seems to believe he has developed a big ego. But the furthest he would go now was to express surprise that the logo he had chosen for The Wine Advocate had long been overlooked. It is a corkscrew in the form of a crusader's cross, and he admitted almost shyly that at last it has been noticed.