Friday, May 29, 2009

The Hydra Critics

Over the last few weeks, the vinous chattering classes, or at least some of them, have been obsessing about the fact that Jay Miller and Mark Squires, contributors to Robert Parker's Wine Advocate have both accepted hospitality from organisations representing wine regions and/or wines. The story which was first aired by Dr Vino, aka Tyler Colman has now received much wider airplay with the publication of a piece in the Wall Street Journal, a lengthy and useful contribution by Jancis Robinson and a response to the WSJ by Robert Parker himself. I'll write more about the general business of wine writing ethics in a separate post, but I thought it worth taking this opportunity to ponder an aspect of the story - and of the Parker/Advocate phenomenon that, apart from a good post by winezag is rarely discussed. When Parker started out, he was an individual wine enthusiast (no reference intended) with an unusually fine and above all consistent palate who wanted to share his opinions with others. The same could be said of Jancis Robinson, and of countless wine-focused bloggers who daily offer their opinions to anyone who cares to hear them.

The problem for wine opinions like Parker and Robinson is one of scale. As their success grows, so too will the range of wines they are expected to cover. Every day, a deluge of bottles arrives, as well as a flood of invitations to taste or visit. (I know, because in my previous life as a consumer wine critic I swam in this torrent, though never to the extent of Parker and Robinson).

At some point, the critic has to decide whether he or she is to continue to do everything themselves - and necessarily to place limits on that "everything" - or if they are to admit collaborators or, as Parker calls them "contractors" who can carry some of the additional load.
Parker's growing team is now quite well known, and Jancis Robinson frankly talks about her helpers - full-timer - Julia Harding MW - and occasionals, Richard Hemming, Walter Speller, Michael Schmidt, Mel Jones and Victoria Daskal. I am sure that both Parker and Robinson choose their running mates with care, both with regard to their personality and skills but, and this is my point, none of these people will ever share the famous critics' DNA, tastebuds and still-evolving experience. This is all too clear when Parker and Neal Martin his UK-based contractor disagree over Bordeaux.

These disagreements are fascinating to some but, I suspect, frustrating to a far greater number who are simply looking for a single consistent beacon by which to navigate the vinous ocean. I say this after years at Wine International of including occasional diverse Bordeaux en-primeur opinions from Charles Metcalfe, Derek Smedley and myself. Stated bluntly, no one really wanted to know that we couldn't agree over the long term potential of Chateau This or That. All they desired was a verdict they could use when deciding what to buy.

As Parker and Robinson - and others - evolve from individual human beings into multi-headed brands - as John Platter did a long time ago in South Africa, the consistency of what they offer will inevitably change. Do many of the consumers and retailers who glibly talk about "Parker" recommendations of Burgundies, Australian and German wines actually mind that the great man may never have tasted them? Does it matter?


  1. No, it makes no difference to me whatsoever. Today's consumer (of wine or otherwise) is savvy enough to know that the main critic doesn't taste every single wine reviewed in his journal, and that's okay. The point is that *someone* with a fine-tuned palate - a person who presumably tastes dozens of wines weekly - is offering his or her expert opinion of a wine I'm about to spend money on (sometimes, a LOT of money). That's better than buying a bottle blind. Parker himself admits his palate is not well calibrated to certain appellations (Burgundy being the most notable example). So, more power to him for relying on other critics who can give a more informed opinion.

  2. That's a very fair response. And I agree that, given the high cost of premium wines, advice is very helpful. My only point is that finely tuned palates vary. The benefit of following an individual restaurant, theatre or movie critic is that you gradually become attuned to their tastes, preferences and prejudices (and we all have some of those). Six different critics - of anything - rarely agree with each other...

  3. The question is if you as consumer trust the wine critic's independence that write about the wine you are going to buy? If I gonna pay, say 50 $ for a wine that say got 93 points from Parker's team, I will know that they not give some extra points due to a nice dinner or flight ticket.The critics have lots of power - to bad some of them abuse that power ...