Emblazoned on Robert Parker’s shirt-sleeves are the words “No Guts, No Glory.’’ “It’s a t-shirt we made to commemorate the 30th anniversary of The Wine Advocate,’’ says Parker, who is arguably the world’s most famous and influential wine critic. The Wine Advocate, of course, is the bi-monthly publication established in 1978 on which Robert Parker Jr., the first non-Frenchman ever to write the wine column for L’Express, built his name and reputation.
And guts and glory certainly sum up, succinctly, his climb to success. Wine, as Parker found out, can sometimes be a dangerous business. Parker was once badly bitten by a dog belonging to a vineyard owner enraged by a bad rating Parker had given his 1981 vintage. “I started bleeding really badly and the owner didn’t pay any attention at all. So I sat down at the table with blood rolling down my leg onto the floor,” Parker recalls.
In 1990, he and his family received 10 death threats just prior to a book tour. When his publisher at the time refused to pay for bodyguards, Parker cancelled the tour and hasn’t done one since. Parker’s legacy, the 100-point wine rating system, revolutionised the industry by empowering the wine consumer. Before Parker, wine appreciation had been shrouded in mystery and vested interests, as many wine critics were also wine merchants. Parker stood alone as an unaffiliated, and therefore unbiased, critic.
His detractors include those who accuse him of inadvertently standardising global wine tastes because of his personal preference for big, ripe and oaky wines – pejoratively called “Parkerisation”. “It’s obviously a very distorted view of what I do, and contrary to what I’ve written. But it’s part of being well-known and influential and having been around a long time. At my age, I don’t get upset about these things anymore,’’ he says.
Instead, he is happy travelling the world and savouring the best wines, some of which he buys for his cellars; not for investment but simply because he likes them a lot. Although he is disappointed that wine futures have made certain wines unaffordable, he says that the current en primeur hype over the 2009 vintage from Bordeaux is justified. “I’m speaking broadly of course, because there are so many wines, but I think Saint-Estèphe and Saint-Julien have had some historic wines, certainly the best I’ve tasted in a long while.’’
In his personal cellars, 70 per cent of the wine he owns is French and the rest is a diverse group from mostly Italy, California and Australia. About 98 per cent of what he drinks is red wine, and wine is the only thing he drinks apart from the occasional cognac. Still, Parker rates open-mindedness as a quality that a good wine critic must possess.
“You have to have a certain talent, of course. But what’s also important is to keep an open mind and to have no hidden agenda and no prejudice. There’s also a lot of hard work and discipline involved.’’ No guts, no glory.