Interview With Wine Critic Robert Parker

Enjoying great wine isn't just for snobs. Start by finding a good store, know that price doesn't always reflect quality, and don't forget--the wine should taste good.

By: Ken Adelman

National editor Ken Adelman (adelmank@aol.com) has been conducting What I've Learned interviews since 1988.

In college, Robert Parker found beer to be bloating and liquor numbing. But wine was wondrous. "Wine enhances the quality of any meal by its interaction with the food," he says. "It prolongs the meal and deepens the conversation, giving a lighthearted euphoria and pleasant mellowness. Wine never overwhelms your senses."

Parker, the world's foremost wine critic, writes the bimonthly newsletter the Wine Advocate, containing 64 pages of tasting notes. It's consumer-oriented and accepts no advertising.

"Wines are always changing," he says. "Every year presents new possibilities. I tell my readers to keep an open mind."

Parker, 57, was born on his parents' dairy farm in Baltimore County. While his father ran the farm, his mother kept the home and later helped her son with his newsletter.

"She'd bring me comments readers wrote us," Parker recalls. "They were always negative: 'You're an idiot. You can't taste wine--that's why I'm not renewing.' I'd get several a week.

One day she brought in a record number. I said, 'My God, doesn't anyone ever write anything nice?' My mother replied, 'Oh, I never show those to you.' "

Parker graduated with honors from the University of Maryland, majoring in history, and went on for a law degree there. Beginning in 1974, he practiced law for the Farm Credit Banks of Baltimore but left in 1984 to write about wine.

His passion had begun in 1967, when he visited a girlfriend--now his wife--studying in France's Alsace region. He soon had the idea of a consumer report on wine, and he published a free issue in the summer of 1978.

Today the Wine Advocate has more than 50,000 subscribers. Parker is also a contributing editor for Food & Wine magazine and the author of 12 books. His first, Bordeaux, is in its sixth printing. His others--including Parker's Wine Buyer's Guide, The Wines of the Rhône Valley and Provence, and Burgundy--have been translated into many languages.

In 1999, French president Jacques Chirac decorated him with the Legion of Honor. Chirac called him "the most followed and influential critic of French wines in the world, something I witnessed recently when choosing a wine for President Clinton, who automatically referred to Robert Parker as his reference for making a proper wine-buying decision."

In 2004, the Culinary Institute of America created an endowment for wine-education scholarships in Parker's name.

He lives in northern Maryland with his wife, Patricia, a former French professor who does volunteer work and edits the Wine Advocate. Their daughter, Maia, is a senior at Friends School of Baltimore.

Parker had just returned from a tasting trip to France when we talked about what he's learned.

How many wines do you taste a day?

If I'm traveling, as few as 30 or 35. When I'm tasting here in the office, it averages 75 or so. I seldom exceed 100 a day.

How can you keep them straight?

I have tremendous tunnel vision. I concentrate all of my energy on the smell, taste, and texture. All of my mental powers go into answering: Is this wine balanced? What are its basic flavors? Is it ready to drink or does it need time?

What are you looking for?

Above all, the pleasure factor. If wine doesn't provide that, it's of little interest.

Then, sophistication. Take a simple Muscadet served with oysters or a fruity Beaujolais served with coq au vin. These are very hedonistic and satisfying wines--but on a superficial level. The difference between such decent wines and truly compelling ones is the intellectual tease, the feeling that there's a lot more going on there--not just the smells of ripe fruit or minerals but also challenges.

The world's great wines have an impossible-to-define attraction. You want to smell, taste, and think about them again. They deliver both hedonistic and intellectual satisfaction.

What's intellectual about wine?

There's a consensus as to the greatest artists or musicians--Picasso, Rembrandt, Chopin, Mozart, Beethoven. Likewise, what constitutes a fine wine--it, too, must be interesting. Granted, that's hard to define, but so is it in music and art.

You can easily tell its opposite--the simplicity in Muscadets, Beaujolais, or a fruity Chardonnay. Great wines have elements that draw you back in. You want to figure them out--and may not be able to.

I used to try out wines with my mother, who was no wine drinker. After a simple wine, I'd give her something great, like a mature Bordeaux. Even she could sense a significant difference.

Look at the fine-wine auction market of Christie's or Sotheby's. There's a reason why a 1945 vintage Bordeaux--or 1959, '61, '82, '90--sells for the highest prices. It's deemed one of the best wines, and that evaluation is right.

What should novices look for?

First, find a good wine merchant. In Washington that's pretty easy. Along with Boston, New York City, and maybe San Francisco, Washington is considered the finest place to buy wine. We have liberal laws that allow merchants to import directly from wine sources, avoiding the middle men, so pricing has always been competitive. Plus there's an international chemistry beyond that of any other American city.

I buy wine from the Calvert Woodley Wine Shop on Connecticut Avenue, MacArthur Beverages on MacArthur Boulevard, and Schneiders on Capitol Hill. But there are many excellent shops.

Our best shops have knowledgeable consultants and a diversity of selection. Good shops have tasting programs, which is a fine way to get educated. Like the lottery adage, "You've got to play to win," you've got to taste to learn about wine.

Second, remember that price is not always proportional to quality. A $30 bottle of Burgundy or Bordeaux is not necessarily three times better than a $10 bottle. Stay open to amazing wines for $10, $15--every bit as good as $50-to-$100 bottles, in many cases better. A high price may be due to hype, marketing, promotion, or some historical classification ranking it as first-rate.

Third, if you really want to love wine and get something out of it, put effort into it. Go out and learn. There's lots of free information on the Internet, in newspapers, and magazines.

Above all, taste. I started a winetasting group in 1968. We would use our small budget to buy a Burgundy one week and a Bordeaux the next. It was nearly all French wine back then. It's amazing how much we learned from that simple routine.

I remember the first time we splurged and bought a bottle of Lafite Rothschild. All of us were so excited. The bottle cost about $20, which was our normal budget for the entire tasting. The best wine books said how unbelievably great this vineyard was.

Then someone in our group said, "What's up? This doesn't do anything."

Then I chimed in: "This is a major disappointment."

It was an epiphany that price and pedigree don't mean much compared with what's in the bottle.

How should someone choose wine in a restaurant?

There's still a belief that most people go to restaurants for special occasions. So they supposedly don't mind being mugged by wine prices with 200- to 400-percent markups.

In Washington and New York, the pricing is almost criminal. A younger generation of restaurateurs--more on the West Coast than on the East--have more realistic pricing.

In restaurants I eliminate major wine regions--the Champagnes, Bordeaux, Burgundy, glamour California Cabernets, Chardonnays. These will be marked up to the max, since they're the most popular.

I look at white wines from the Loire Valley or Alsace, because they're under the radar for most restaurants and are marked up much less. For red wines, I always look to the Rhône Valley.

How do American wines compare to foreign?

Almost all New World wines--from California, South America, Australia--emphasize fruit and accessibility. They're generally 1 to 3 percent higher in alcohol. They're bigger, bolder, more extroverted, flamboyant.

European wines, plus those of European descent--for example, from South Africa--are grown in cooler areas. They tend to be lower in alcohol, more restrained and subtle, a bit crisper, with more noticeable acidity in whites and tannin in reds. These are more elegant wines.

What's your preference?

Some 90 percent of what I drink for fun is French wine. For red wines, my favorites for everyday drinking are Rhône Valley wines more than Bordeaux or Burgundy; for whites, the Loire Valley and Alsace. But I love wines from all over the world.

Isn't winetasting subjective?

Of course. There's no right or wrong, but there is that general consensus on what constitutes a great wine.

When launching the Wine Advocate, I explicitly stated that I would provide an uncensored appraisal based on my personal taste, that I would approach every wine democratically--pedigree, history, price, or origin wouldn't factor in.

After all these years, I've learned that people do recognize excellence.

Is wine good for your health?

More than a third of my subscribers are in the medical profession. That must say something.

Studies have shown that tannic acid in wine can break down fatty deposits in arteries. One study focused on why many Irish die of cardiovascular disease at 50 or 60, while many French do not--even though both populations consume a lot of alcohol and animal fat. That may be because the Irish lack the relaxed lifestyle of the French. But perhaps it's because the Irish drink beer and whiskey while the French drink wine--primarily red.

One study of alcoholism in France found the fewest instances in wine-producing regions, the highest in those with no vineyards.

Wine in moderation strikes me as healthy. It's not a cocktail as such. It's low in alcohol and not conducive to gulping down. Bartenders see few people slugging wine. Wine's effect is incremental. It's a measured sense of euphoria, which lets you relax. Most people drink wine over the course of a meal.

Why are you called "the emperor of wine"?

I really don't know. But I do know I was at the right place at the right time.

When I started in 1978, there was little competition. The British dominated wine writing. But most of these writers were in the wine business. They were never truly objective.

I was influenced by Ralph Nader and by attending law school during the Watergate era. I would be there for the consumer--against corruption or conflict of interest. It caught on with my generation--a consumer approach to wine, in contrast to the British approach.

While my timing was good, my predictions turned out to be very good. The watershed event happened with the 1982 Bordeaux vintage. Though I had 8,000 to 9,000 subscribers by then, few in the trade paid attention to me.

The famous US critics were critical of that '82 vintage. I wrote that it was among the best I'd ever tasted and encouraged readers to buy it. Well, it turned out to be a great vintage. Those who bought it really lucked out, or subsequently made a fortune if they resold their 1982s.

Soon thereafter, the consensus formed that Parker was right. Other critics had much more experience, but I had nailed it. So I was anointed the new guru.

I've tried to remain on top by staying true to my code. I never shrink from criticizing sacred cows that aren't performing.

I live in the same house I've lived in since 1974. I don't exploit my so-called influence. All of my travel is business-related, going into vineyards for tastings. When not traveling, I'm back here working. I come out for charitable events, which I do fairly often. I've been so lucky that I try to give back to the community.

What's the downside of your work?

That I've taken some romanticism out of wine. That I've caused prices to go up on more limited-production glamour wines. Both are fair criticisms.

Have you thought of growing wine yourself?

I have a vineyard with my brother-in-law in Oregon. When we bought the land, I put a statement in the newsletter that we intended to grow grapes and make wine but I would never talk about the wine publicly or in writing.

Over the years, I've met every great winemaker--craftspeople in it for the pursuit of excellence. I've learned a lot from them. But until you actually do it--until you apply lessons to real grapes at real vineyards--you can't fully grasp how to do it.

This family vineyard has allowed me to apply the theory and lessons I've heard to see if they really work. It's made me a better critic.

How good are your wines?

I can't comment on that. Let me put it this way--I'm never satisfied.

What have you learned overall about wine?

That it's the symbol of civilization. Particularly in Italian and French cultures, but also in Spanish culture, wine brings people together. Put a couple of good bottles out, and political and philosophical differences can be worked through. Even the most sensitive topic can be discussed civilly over a good meal with great wine.

Being able to sit with friends and family and enjoy a wonderful wine with good food is among the most refined and gratifying activities of life. It becomes even greater when you realize you're doing something done by the ancient Greeks and Romans. I believe all great civilizations realize this.

Everyone's goal should be to enjoy the best aspects of life. We're so lucky to be able to do that. In many parts of the world, it's not possible.

Your lessons of life?

The lesson I learned from Robert Frost--to take the road less traveled. The harder the road, the greater the challenges, the more satisfying life becomes. Nothing of any significance happens without a huge challenge.

Second, pursue your passions. I was trained as a lawyer but hated it. I knew I wouldn't be a good one. But I loved wine. So I pursued that, giving up a lucrative job at the time for the promise and adventure of the unknown.

If you're good at something and love it, go ahead. If you follow your passion, chances are you'll be happy and probably make enough money to pay your bills.