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24 of 29 people found the following review helpful
on August 7, 2005
Format: Hardcover
One of the common consequences of being the best at what one does is becoming famous. One of the consequences of being famous is ending up in the cross-hairs of `colleagues' and others who find the opportunity to ride on one's coat-tails by writing (a usually negative) expose about them. Unfortunately it too often leads to a tiring diatribe designed to knock the famous one down a notch or two. Does Elin McCoy's book, "The Emperor of wine-The Rise of Robert M. Parker Jr. and the Reign of American Taste" fall into this mantra? Or does McCoy offer a "fair and balanced" view of the World's most powerful Critic?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, is McCoy's depiction of Robert Parker fair? I think not, and would suggest that a more objective monograph about this most remarkable man has now been called for. Is her book worth the read, anyway? I think it is, and I think both the wine drinking public with no knowledge of Parker beyond the wine store tags sporting his scores, as well as those who have followed the Wine Advocate for years will find it an interesting, if perhaps flawed, read.
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8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon January 30, 2006
Format: Hardcover
Before having read this book, I had no idea that Robert Parker created the 100 point system for rating wines that we see displayed on shelftalkers at the wine store. Those of us who were online in the early 90's might recall Parker as Prodigy's the wine expert.

Not only a Parker bio, the book also provides a mild history of wine, tastings and writing/reviewing. Historical events are provided as allowances for the possibility of a Robert Parker.

With Parker's Nader-like consumer values and his dislike of influence-peddling, he wrote and published a wine newsletter, The Wine Advocate, with the idea that consumers deserved to know the truth before they bought. Controversy arose when his ratings came to make or break wine sales, causing irate wine producers, especially the French. Parker's preference for fruity and full wines over typically acidic European (French) wines is what created America's taste for wines, is the argument. Producers began to make wines to please Parker's palate, thereby guaranteeing high scores and good sales. Price setting is another sore spot for his rivals; wine producers waited for his reviews to set prices for their wine.

I would have liked a more balanced portrayal. The only truly negative comments are toward the very end of the book, as an afterthought of sorts; his inability to accept criticism, and that he is quick to anger. Much more could be said, but we're left feeling that the author agrees with Parker's stance that anyone who opposes him is simply jealous.
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10 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on August 3, 2005
Format: Hardcover
"The Emperor of Wine"

In the history of wine appreciation, there has certainly never been a wine writer as widely known as Robert M. Parker Jr., and it's unlikely that there's ever been one more controversial.

Based in tiny Monkton, Md., an outer suburb of Baltimore, Parker's no-advertising newsletter, The Wine Advocate, reportedly circulates to no more than 50,000 subscribers - one-sixth of the print circulation claimed by the much less influential Wine Spectator.

But Parker's influence among wine enthusiasts, particularly those who pursue high-end, collectible wines, is a phenomenon without parallel in wine, or quite possibly in any field of criticism.

Widely publicized as "The man with the million-dollar nose" because he literally had his sense of smell insured for that amount (the underwriters allegedly declined to risk any more), Parker, it is said, can literally make a winery's reputation with a single good review ... or destroy it with a bad one.

As sketched in Jonathan Nossiter's current movie documentary Mondovino, Parker is given much of the credit (or blame) for nudging the international wine industry toward fashioning wines to suit his tastes: Big, powerful and driven more by fruit than earth. In fairness, Parker himself denies this charge, and with some credibility, as he frequently speaks well of subtle, graceful Old World wines.

But as author Elin McCoy points out in her new book, The Emperor of Wine (subtitled, "The Rise of Robert M. Parker, Jr. and the Reign of American Taste"), a simple review of Parker's voluminous record makes clear that the blockbusters are indeed the wines he loves the most and rates most highly on the 100-point scale (which he, in fact, innovated and made popular for wine ratings).

A love-him-or-hate-him figure among serious wine enthusiasts, Parker has become a bit two-dimensional: Those who love him follow every word he writes, and rush to wine shops to strip the shelves bare of the bottles he rates highly. Even the less-enthralled typically pay him the backhanded compliment of claiming to read his tasting reports in order to choose the wines he doesn't like, assuming that these wines will suit their tastes for subtlety, elegance and terroir, with the added benefit that they'll remain affordable since the great one did not recommend them.

McCoy is perhaps the first writer to put meat on the bones of the public Parker. A longtime writer and editor who has written about wine for Food & Wine and Bloomberg Markets, she's a Baby Boomer who seems to have learned to write back when schools still taught nouns and verbs and such. She writes in a clear journalistic style, and she sketches characters and scenes with deft strokes that bring them alive. It's fun to read, and you really get a sense that you're meeting a full, well-rounded Parker, not just the the usual cartoon-character stereotype ... Noble Judge or Evil Influence.

Nor is this book entirely a puffy public-relations tale. To McCoy's credit, she dishes some tales that it's likely Parker would much prefer forgotten: The lawsuit by Burgundian producer François Faiveley, eventually settled for a single franc, that left Parker so persona non grata in Burgundy that a surrogate represents him in the region to this day ... and a more recent development in which a Parker associate in Bordeaux was charged with having used Parker's letterhead and stationery to lend credibility to a consulting project. (Although Parker was not personally implicated, the publicity and police involvement added no luster to his image.)

Nor is McCoy reluctant to record some of the less appealing sides of Parker's personality, including a thin-skinned and occasionally litigious response to criticism, verbal battles with fellow wine writers (including a particularly nasty exchange with Jancis Robinson) and an ego expansive enough to dismiss any criticism as based on mere competitive jealousy.

But all that said, "The Emperor of Wine" is ultimately a strongly positive portrayal, to the degree that at some points I felt eerie echoes of reading "Lives of the Saints" stories as a child in parochial school. Although McCoy lists dozens of sources at the end, it appears that much of the content of this admiring bio is single-sourced - based largely on interviews and time spent with Parker himself, with relatively limited backup information from his friends and fans.

She does a good job of sketching out how his influence grew out of all proportion to Wine Advocate's circulation through a combination of good fortune (He was first, loudest and strongest in his praise for the remarkable Bordeaux vintage of 1982, which just happened to coincide with a significant awakening of fine-wine interest in the U.S.) and good marketing (he promoted his publication through wine shops, which were delighted to have simple, plain-English notes about the wines, complete with numerical scores in a then-novel but easy to follow 100-point system). She is weaker on other voices, giving short shrift to (and possibly reflecting Parker's own opinions of) Robinson and other leading British writers; sketching some delightfully snide but certainly incomplete chapters on the concurrent rise of Marvin Shanken's Wine Spectator, and discussing Internet wine-information publishing and Parker's (until recently) low profile in that realm only from the viewpoint of the producers of a Website that licenses Parker's name and products.

Still, this remains the most entertaining (and well-written) wine book to cross my desk for a while, and if you have any interest at all in Parker and in the growth and development of wine culture - particularly in the U.S. - during the past generation, you won't regret reading it.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on August 22, 2006
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
I subscribe to several wine publications and enjoy drinking, and recently, collecting wine.

The more I researched wine, the more Mr. Parker's name came up. I became curious as to how he became one of the world's most revered wine authorities.

I have read "Noble Rot" and watched 'Mondovino". This book had far more information particular to Mr. Parker. Unfortunately, it is very dry.

It has none of the snap, or flow, of other great food and wine writers.

The author seems to veer between reverence and disdain in a somewhat schizophrenic manner.

All in all, I appreciated the information, but can't recommend this book to anyone just looking for a good read
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on February 18, 2011
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
An easy and mildly entertaining read. This is a book worth reading, but with the occasional typo (I know it happens), some strange choice of words at times, and constant references and name dropping on the part of the author it bothered me a bit at times. I have never read a biography that contained so many stories, opinions and personal information about the author. Ok, I get it. You are an important and successful individual, had I cared I would of bought the Elin McCoy Autobiography. I don't, so I didn't. The author and her subject also appear to be quite familiar with each other, and have known each other for over thirty years, I believe this has lead to a rather glossy image at times. If it weren't for these small items I would have given 4 stars instead of three. Cheers
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3 of 5 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon August 20, 2006
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
Parker seems like a good guy who yanks wine into the modern age of pop culture and instant millionaires while retaining his own ideals. The author obviously likes Parker and is knowlegeable about the wine culture, its cat fights, penchant for snobbery and elitism and jealousies. The impact of Parker and America on the modern wine business in France (especially Bordeaux) and worldwide is detailed and fairly assessed. I enjoyed the last chapter where she provides a fair sum up of Robert Parker and his role in the modern business of wine marketing.
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0 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on November 1, 2006
Format: Hardcover
Parker has almost made me a beleiver. But why does it take 100 points to tell him if it tastes good or not. I can do it in 20.
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0 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on August 17, 2005
Format: Hardcover
Nice but a bit long and not specific enough like what did the team PArker& Rolland bring etc
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