Go to this issue's Table of Contents.
D E C E M B E R 2 0 0 0
ARKER'S house in Monkton stands in the woods on a hummock, off a narrow road next to a state park. It is an anonymous structure, somewhat like others scattered nearby, and according to Parker, it's just about right. When I went to see him, he told me that he does not like to stand out, that he's glad for his fame but relieved that it is contained within the tight circles of wine. He said he is reluctant to appear on television or the radio, because he has learned how bad it can be. Once, after an hour of waiting, he had an interview that consisted entirely of this: "Welcome to the show, Bruce, we don't have a lot of time, but, real quick here, what's your favorite white zinfandel?" Monkton is a shelter from all that. After Parker was written up in the Baltimore Sun, one of his neighbors said, "Hey, Bob, I didn't know you were some sort of wine expert." Parker answered "Yeah" with a shrug, because he wants to be a regular guy.
But of course he's not a regular guy -- not anymore. Parker's success has taken him around the world and widened his view. It has taught him to believe in the idea of live and let live -- except for anyone making bad wine. Simultaneously it has narrowed him, encouraging a peculiar single-mindedness that sustains his work but seems to have closed him off to topics beyond his immediate concerns. He can mingle with his neighbors at the post office and talk about politics and the weather, but even then what he's really thinking about, according to his wife, is food or wine. Given the chance, he becomes hard to follow, talking excitedly about obscure vintages and elaborate dishes with piled-up names -- but he also runs on about plain old Maryland crab. He is a professional critic with strong opinions, and also simply a glutton. His enthusiasm permeates his work. He loves to eat. He loves to drink. And he can't stand moralists who say this is wrong.
He means the temperance crusaders and righteous nutritionists who are given so much attention in the United States -- people he calls the Pleasure Police. When he was with me, he lacked the nerve to take on Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Instead he went after their natural allies at the Washington-based Center for Science in the Public Interest, which he described as being in the business of "the taboo of the week."
He said, "Fettuccine Alfredo is dangerous for your health. Kung pao chicken will destroy your life. Holy shit, the first week it's one of the classics of Italian cooking, the next week it's one of the staples of Chinese cooking! These are the people who do studies that your carry-out Chinese meals are saturated in fat.... I'd just like to meet them! I mean, what do they do for pleasure?"
I asked him whether in a world so full of hunger it didn't seem self-indulgent to worry over the choices on a menu. This was a backhanded way of getting at a question that still concerns me: how anyone could dedicate his life to something as superfluous as the taste of wine. Ultimately it was not an answerable question -- and Parker didn't pursue my line of thought. Later he told me about losing his temper at a reporter who had asked him how he could possibly spend so much time tasting wine: "I said, 'Look, I don't have an argument for you. I'm a common-sense kind of guy. I wouldn't sit here unless I could do it. I know you can't do it, and don't want to do it. But I can do it, and I want to do it.'"
He was in a more reflective, less defensive mood with me. He said, "Part of life is to live it, and enjoy it, and seize the moments that you find particularly pleasing." He meant, of course, pleasure as defined by dining. I realized I couldn't blame him for this orientation after all: he was born with such strong taste buds that it seemed to be a biological thing.
He kept calling himself a hedonist. That's a philosophical thing. He gave me a book called Between Meals, a profound little memoir by the late A. J. Liebling, the celebrated New Yorker writer, who died in 1963, at the age of fifty-nine. Liebling, too, was a glutton, and a famously defiant one. Between Meals was his argument for the uncomplicated pleasures of neighborhood bistros in France. He began it with what must have seemed to Parker like words meant for him:
The primary requisite for writing well about food is a good appetite. Without this, it is impossible to accumulate, within the allotted span, enough experience of eating to have anything worth setting down. Each day brings only two opportunities for field work, and they are not to be wasted minimizing the intake of cholesterol.
Liebling believed that it was equally important to research the subject of wine. He grew fat without flinching, and although he suffered a difficult last few years, disfigured by gout, he continued working until the end without expressing regret. He wrote, "No sane man can afford to dispense with debilitating pleasures; no ascetic can be considered reliably sane. Hitler was the archetype of the abstemious man. When the other krauts saw him drink water in the Beer Hall they should have known he was not to be trusted."
Parker gave me Liebling's book because he would like someday to write such a memoir. But the two men are very different. Liebling was a literary acrobat, a sophisticate, and ultimately a nihilist of the boozy kind. Parker is none of that. He is a technical writer faced with tight deadlines. Nonetheless he shares with Liebling an unabashed enthusiasm for dining. He said to me, "I've always followed the rule that anything worth doing is worth doing excessively."
He sees the consequences in the mirror. He was a good runner once, but is too heavy for it now. He rides a mountain bike for exercise, and tries furiously to overtake younger bikers on the trails, and only sometimes succeeds. People in the wine business like to talk about his health. In California recently I heard that he has cancer of the mouth, which he does not. In Bordeaux people told me that he has a bad heart. This stems from an episode three years ago, at a French restaurant in New York, when during a ten-course meal Parker grew gray, sweaty, and weak, heard a high-pitched whine in his ears, and even lost his appetite. A cardiologist who was there thought he was having a heart attack. Parker somehow knew that he was not. His friends waited anxiously while an ambulance rushed to the scene. The rescue team laid Parker on a stretcher and carried him outside. At that point a man identified to him as the governor of New York, George Pataki, arrived for a meal, and Parker, looking up from the edge of death, gave his last good advice. He said, "Don't eat the scallops!" It would have made a nice epitaph, but at the hospital the doctors discovered that he had a bleeding ulcer, and they easily patched him up.
Otherwise Parker shows no signs of slowing down. Not only does he taste 10,000 wines a year, but he stores the sensation of each one into a permanent gustatory memory. When I asked him about the mechanical aspects of his work, he told me in a matter-of-fact way that he remembers every wine he has tasted over the past thirty-two years and, within a few points, every score he has given as well. That amounts to several hundred thousand relevant memories, which apparently he can summon up at will. He said he has no idea how he does this, except perhaps through intense concentration while tasting wine. He said, "A wine goes in my mouth, and I just see it. I see it in three dimensions. The textures. The flavors. The smells. They just jump out at me. I can taste with a hundred screaming kids in a room. When I put my nose in a glass, it's like tunnel vision. I move into another world, where everything around me is just gone, and every bit of mental energy is focused on that wine." Afterward he can't help it -- he just remembers.
As a result, he has a breadth of knowledge beyond that of any other critic alive: he remembers not only every French wine he has tasted but also every wine from Germany, Spain, Italy, Chile, Australia, the United States, and New Zealand, among other countries. As a single judge awarding scores across the board, he implicitly compares all these wines with one another -- just as a consumer might in a store. That is where his experience gives him an intellectual advantage: many of the other critics also issue scores, but they are hemmed in by the narrowness of their experience or neutered by the consensus of committees. They make bitter puns about Parker's "critical mass," because, it's true, he is a force running wild in their midst, one man dominating their field. It's easy to see why they would distrust him. But when they accuse him of despotism, that's a harder fit.
He seems to vacillate between regret and arrogance about the position he is in. In principle he does not believe in imposing his will on others, but in practice he often does so. He told me that he is aware of the contradiction, and agrees with the people who question whether any one man should hold such power. His commentaries have become complicated by the certainty that they will be read as more than frank opinions. When he writes that a wine is "an insider's secret," it instantly becomes just the opposite. A positive review and a score over 90, especially for a wine that is produced in small quantities, can ignite speculation that sends the price rocketing and clears the wine out of the stores -- just the sort of thing that Parker, as a consumer advocate, would like to fight. Worse, a critical comment or a poor score can also be blown out of proportion, and may be financially devastating to the producer. That's the unhappy side of Parker's achievement. Either way, Parker seems to wish that the world wouldn't take him quite so seriously. But, of course, he won't just back down and go away.
Technically, he would not be the world's greatest taster, if such a person could exist. There are other tasters with palates just as good, who are better trained in viticulture or enology, or who have read more history. But wine is a subject so large that expertise within it has to be defined by boundaries: there are specialists in regions who can identify wines more precisely than Parker, and specialists in subregions who can do even better. Parker is the practical one. Ten thousand is a small number of wines in an industry that produces 12,000 wines in Bordeaux alone: the ones he concentrates on are the sort of fine wines -- usually costing more than $20 a bottle -- that Americans can buy and might want to drink. It is only within that category that Parker is one of the best tasters alive.
That's still a big claim. In recognition of his special talent, Parker has managed to add a clause to his disability insurance -- a paragraph that insures his olfactory sense, his "nose," for a million dollars. He told me he had taken out the policy after meeting a European critic who had lost his ability to smell and therefore to taste. I mentioned that given the scale of Parker's career, a million dollars seemed like a small sum. He agreed and said he had been unable to get the underwriter to agree to a higher amount. He laughed and said, "I'm sure if I put in a claim saying I couldn't taste anymore, they'd give me some pretty smelly tests." The kind of tests, he said, that would curl a man's nose.
For now, his senses are healthy. Given a choice, he prefers to taste tannic or complex red wines in the morning, when he is at his best, and to finish the day with relatively simple white wines. He stands, in order to be alert. He checks the cleanliness of the glass. If he has doubts, he breathes moisture into it and sniffs for any residual odors -- soap, chlorine, wood, or cardboard. He calls this "the Parker exhale test," as if he had copyrighted the term. If the glass is not clean, he rinses it with bottled water and dries it. He pours the wine. Then, with his hand on his hip, he lifts the glass, looks at the wine, smells the wine, swirls the wine, puts the wine in his mouth, curls his tongue around it, sucks in air noisily to agitate it, distributes the wine throughout his mouth, and forces the vapors into the back of his nose. He hesitates for just an instant and then spits the wine out and concentrates on its residual tastes. He jots a few notes, or mumbles his comments into a tape recorder, and then repeats the process to verify his impressions.
Even his detractors admit that he is phenomenally consistent -- that after describing a wine once he will describe it in nearly the same way if he retastes it "blind" (without reference to the label), and that these descriptions fit among others he makes in the constellation of wines. In theory such steadiness allows experienced readers to calibrate their palates against his, and to make informed choices even when they disagree with him. In reality most readers probably just look at the scores. Parker has become so confident in his judgments that he likes to point out his mistakes -- in part because he doesn't make many. Stories about his natural abilities abound. I was told, for instance, that at an informal get-together in Bordeaux recently, someone handed Parker a glass of Sauternes, and he casually remarked after taking a sip that it reminded him of a certain wine he had tasted ten years before -- or at least of how that wine might have evolved. The point of the story, of course, was that he got it right, and that this was an ordinary occurrence for him. The Bordelais would like to believe that his talent is disconnected from his knowledge or intelligence. They would like to believe that Parker is an idiot savant.
The characterization annoys Parker, who points out that he was once an attorney for the Farm Credit Banks of Baltimore -- a notably weak defense, undermined by his admission that the job was a bore. It seems likely that the Bordelais are at least partly right -- that Parker does have a freakish genius for smell and taste, which by luck he discovered about himself. He calls it a "privileged ability," but as a true American, he wants to be very clear that he has exploited it too. That's fair enough, because he's a hard worker. For about a fourth of the year he travels to the world's important wine areas, where he shrugs off the impulse to socialize or sight-see and gets down to intensive wine tasting all day, every day. He visits the vineyards and also has the wines brought to a central point -- a hotel, for instance -- where he can go through more than a hundred in a day without wasting time on the road traveling to vineyards.
There is a machine-like quality to what he does. When at home in Maryland, he continues to work at least six days a week, tasting, grading, and writing notes at a furious pace. This is out of necessity. Having set himself up as a watchdog, and having committed himself to the rigors of a regular publishing schedule, Parker has been trapped by the math of expanding expectations: not only must he taste the ever-greater number of wines in each new vintage, but, because wines in the bottle endure and evolve, he must also retaste a growing number of old wines. Of course, he does drop some wines along the way, but still the obligations build. Moreover, for the sake of valid comparisons -- the across-the-board scoring that is so useful to his readers -- he is condemned to work largely on his own. His publisher in Paris told me that he sometimes thinks of Parker as a tragic figure, like a character in a classic play. When I asked Parker about this later, he said that his publisher was wrong. Indeed, one of the keys to his success is his sustained and almost childlike enthusiasm for his job. But it's true that he faces quandaries.
The math that traps him helps him too. Parker's output is huge as a result of it. Beyond the nearly 350 pages of new material required annually for The Wine Advocate, he compiles and expands on his notes to create bulky wine-buying guidebooks, of which eleven have so far been published in various editions, on various regions. These books have been translated into five languages and have hit the best-seller lists in several countries, including France. For Parker they have been a windfall -- generating more income than The Wine Advocate does, at little extra expense, and making him a rich man by his own measure. He is frank about his good fortune: he was poor before, and he is glad that he no longer is. Nonetheless, what's unusual about Parker -- this American at work in the world -- is that for him money remains intrinsically uninteresting.
Photographs by Christopher Barker.
Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.