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3.0 out of 5 stars McCoy's New Clothes, August 7, 2005
This review is from: The Emperor of Wine: The Rise of Robert M. Parker, Jr. and the Reign of American Taste (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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