A New Look For the Wine Advocate
All photos by Amy Miller.
On April 1, the Wine Advocate's website, RobertParker.com, will unveil a whole new look. At a recent press conference in New York, Robert Parker and editor-in-chief Lisa Perrotti-Brown, MW, announced the site's redesign, which is the first since the publication went online in 2001. It is the latest development at the Wine Advocate since Parker sold a majority interest to Singapore investors three years ago. "The Wine Advocate had to move into the 21st century," said Parker, who will turn 69 this year. "We had to come up with better technology. I've gotten long in the tooth, but our new investors are better adapted to do that."
Along with more modern graphics, new features include improved search capability to sort through a database of 300,000 tasting notes going back to 1992, revamped vintage charts, more articles on food, restaurants and wine destinations, as well as links to retailers and wine-searcher.com. A beta version is currently open to subscribers, while a new mobile app is also in the works and will be available in a couple months. The Wine Advocate currently has more than 50,000 subscribers and reviews 6,000 wines per issue, all covered by a team of nine reviewers, including Parker. In keeping pace with the ever-increasing number of wine producing regions, they recently brought on Liwen Hao to cover the China, India and Japan, with more coverage of sake.
The birth of wine advocacy
That it has become one of the most influential wine publications is something Parker never imagined when he began the Wine Advocate back in 1978. He'd fallen in love with wine a decade earlier while on a college trip to Europe, but after law school he began what he thought would be a long legal career at a Baltimore bank. As he grew more interested in wine, however, he also became frustrated at the lack of independent information. Inspired by Ralph Nader's consumer advocacy activism, Parker decided to create a publication that was in the interest of the consumer: totally independent, no advertising and strict rules against conflicts of interest. His first issue was a simple newsletter reviewing 300 wines, mailed out for free to 600 unsuspecting Baltimore-area retail customers.
Parker provided not only a detailed tasting notes for those wines, but also, what would become a source of controversy in the following decades: a rating based on a 100-point scale. "The score is your stake in the ground and says I am accountable," he explained. "The wine writers that existed at the time, he felt, were too vague in their assessments. "I was exposed to the British school of wine writing. I read all of Hugh Johnson, [Michael] Broadbent. Incredible accounts, but they all hedged their bets when it came to evaluating wine. I could never tell if they really liked a wine or if it was just famous. The Wine Advocate was a reaction to that. You need to take a stand and hopefully people will listen to you."
A backlash against the point system slowly developed out of concern that in fact too many people were listening to him. It wasn't just that consumers were buying wines based only on Parker's scores, it was that winemakers were tailoring their wines to suit Parker's palate and thus creating more homogenized wines, ones without a sense of place or individuality. The alarm became so acute it inspired wine writer Alice Feiring to pen an entire book: "The Battle for Wine and Love: or How I Saved the World from Parkerization. It has become one of the major fault lines in the wine world, but it's an accusation that Parker has always denied. "I take exception to stories that wines are all tasting the same or that they've been Parkerized." he said. "I would disagree that winemakers would compromise their integrity and try and make a wine that someone told them is what Parker will like." He did concede, however, that, "certainly high scores and favorable reviews create success and create interest in a wine or brand."
The flying winemakers
Instead he points to an increase in the use of wine consultants, whose influence, he said, is mixed. On the one hand he sees an increase in quality over these past few decades as a result of improved winemaking methods. "When I first started tasting you could count on 10 percent of the wines being spoiled. They had volatile acidity, excessive sulfur, excessive Brettanomyces. Today that almost rarely ever happens because winemaking has gotten so much better." He credits the start of these changes to Émile Peynaud, who began his career as a professor at the University of Bordeaux and is now considered the father of modern enology. "A lot of things that he was recommending: later harvests, more selection, better sanitation, cleaner grapes, wines that were reflective of their vintage, he was preaching those things in the 50s and 60s."
Peynaud died in 2004 at the age of 92 but left behind a new generation of students, the most famous of whom is Michel Rolland. Although he was pilloried in the documentary Mondovino for contributing to the homogenization of wine, Rolland remains one of the most influential wine consultants working today. He has more than 200 clients worldwide, and Parker claims to have been one of the few people to have tasted all his wines. "From Chile to Spain, France and California, I don't see any similarity in style. He wants the wine to represent its place of origin."
Achieving that goal, however, remains a challenge, which even Parker himself concedes. "This is one area where I think there has been compromise. Because of all these international consultants, because of this philosophy of picking riper and better sanitation and better cleanliness there has been a sort of a blurring of some of these geographic differences." However, he sees this as part of the educational process. "I think part of this is a learning curve for areas that were behind in technology or behind in expertise, and in catching up they may have tried to make wines like somebody else." But, he said, "I don’t know any respected winemaker, wine producer, that we’ve given high reviews, that wanted to make a wine to please any of us. That is selling your soul out big time. It just goes against everything that you would compromise your own principles, your own love of wine to make something for some wine critic. I hear this criticism, but I don't think it holds true."
We're all wine lovers
His bigger concern is the corporatization of both wine production and distribution. "There's no question we have this centralization of not only wine distribution in this country where the small boutique importers and distributors are all being bought out by the big giants." Wineries too are being gobbled up by large corporations. Parker said he was recently in the Russian River Valley and spoke to Tom Rochioli of Rochioli Vineyards and Winery who said he was 'practically the only remaining family owned winery' there. When I first started going there they were all family owned vineyards. It's all now corporate. It's all about brand creation. We do have to be concerned about this. If a wine starts to taste like an homogenized soulless blend, were going to call them out. We're looking for individuality; we're looking for quality."
Ultimately, however, he believes that the very nature of winemaking will resist the temptation to do that, "because every vintage is going to be different. You'll have rainy cold vintages, you'll have hot vintages, and the kind of wine you can produce from those disparate vintages is completely different. The reason we're drawn to wine is that there's so many wonderful, small artisan craftsmen and women and we don't want to lose that."
And this is where he sees the Wine Advocate playing an important role. "From the beginning we have been one of the best friends of the small producer," he said. An assertion expanded on by Lisa Perrotti-Brown: "We're the champions of the small winery. Part of what we aim to do by expanding our coverage and expanding our team is to go out there and not just hit all the big, well-known names, but getting all of those little guys, the exciting little guys that maybe don't have the marketing resources to get the attention of the big distributors. We get in our rental cars and we drive to the middle of the sticks and we find them. It's just a hallelujah moment for us. That's what we're in it for. That's what we love. First and foremost we are all wine lovers, and we want to champion all these great smaller wineries that are doing a wonderful job."
The world of wine at your fingertips
Parker remains as enthusiastic and optimistic as ever. "We've seen a revolution in quality throughout the wine world," he said. "The diversity of wine quality and styles has never been greater. I tell young people you don't realize how good you have it. You have the entire world of wine at your fingertips now. You go into the top wine shops in New York and anything from anywhere is available. That's an extraordinary thing." And indeed it is extraordinary when you realize that when he started nearly four decades ago Mateus Rosé and Blue Nun were best sellers.
As the Wine Advocate transitions to this latest incarnation, with its coverage mostly in the hands of a team of reviewers, Parker's love of wine remains steadfast. "My philosophy of what makes a wine great, what makes a wine interesting, why we're all here today, and why we keep drinking this beverage, is that wine has to please you both intellectually and hedonistically. It has to offer pleasure, but at the same time it has to challenge your intellect. It's got to have something in it that keeps calling you back, that you want to understand more about. My love of wine has never failed me, and I hope I can pass that on."
Wines from the Wine Advocate's Matter of Taste:
Domaine Jacques Selosse single vineyard 2002, RP 97 points
Château Pontet-Canet 2009, RP100 points
Château Suduiraut 2009, RP 98 points
Château Leoville Barton 2002 RP 92 points
Vinhos Barbeito Sercial Madeira 1978, RP 94 points