m_topn picture
Atlantic Monthly Sidebar

Go to this issue's Table of Contents.

D E C E M B E R  2 0 0 0 

(The online version of this article appears in four parts. Click here to go to part one, part two, or part three.)

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 like barbichette, 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.

Photograph by Christopher Barker

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 Bordeaux Wine Advocate he said so more clearly than ever before.

Elsewhere on the Web
Links to related material on other Web sites.

"A Beef With More Than Big Mac," by Charles TruEheart, The Washington Post (July 1, 2000)
"In crusading against all that McDonald's stands for, [José Bové] appears to have tapped into a deep well of discontent over a range of ills from genetically modified food to plain bad food."

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."

"And Parker?"

"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.

(The online version of this article appears in four parts. Click here to go to part one, part two, or part three.)


William Langewiesche is a correspondent for The Atlantic.

Photographs by Christopher Barker.

Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; December 2000; The Million-Dollar Nose - 00.12 (Part Four); Volume 286, No. 6; page 42-70.