Parker gets what he deserves

16 November, 2007

It's only a guess, but I have a hunch that Amazon's French website has been buzzing with traffic over the past few weeks. Two books that have just been published on the other side of the Channel - Jonathan Nossiter's Le Goût et le Pouvoir (E18.53 from and Hanna Agostini's Robert Parker: Portrait d'un Mythe (E21.85) - are fermenting considerable controversy in the world of wine. As I write there must be hundreds of people brushing up on their GCSE French.

I should say from the start that I haven't read either book, although I've flashed my credit card and ordered both online. But there's been more than enough in the press about both tomes to get a sense of their subject matter. Nossiter's book ranges more widely than Agostini's, but it's fair to conclude that Robert Parker isn't particularly happy about either. It's not been a good month for the world's most influential wine critic.

His Bobness has already accused "Nossiter and his ilk" of being like a "scary wine Gestapo ... chanting the same stupid hymn that demands that wine be produced in one narrow style". (Pot. Kettle. Black.) I'm not sure what he will say about Agostini's unauthorised biography, but given that he initially defended his then employee when she was accused of forgery, fraudulent accounting and using his name to secure work as a consultant in 2002, vituperation cannot be too far away.

Of the two books, Agostini's may prove the more damaging. After all, she worked for Parker between 1995 and 2003 and knows him well. The fact that Parker eventually fired her certainly makes you question her objectivity, but some of her allegations - that Parker gave high scores to people whose hospitality he had enjoyed and that he recommended wines he had never tasted - may well undermine Parker's reputation.

Nossiter's (veiled) accusations are easier for Parker to shrug off. Following the launch of his book, he said : " To make an absolute judgement on anything is horrific in my eyes. To taste 300 wines in one day and make mathematical judgements on those wines is crazy and a betrayal of the person who has made the wine."

I'm not sure I agree with Nossiter here. In fact, I find myself siding with Parker, who has described Nossiter's dreary, tendentious film Mondovino as "migraine-inducing". Surely it is the job of a wine critic to make judgements, whether verbal or numerical? Otherwise, what are we here for?

If it is open season on Parker at the moment, he has only himself to blame in one respect. By setting such high ethical standards - the Wine Advocate's logo looks like a crucifix - and criticising certain English writers cum wine merchants for being compromised by their trading activities, he has left himself open to flak.

I don't really care if he dines with winery owners, or even if he is godfather to one of their offspring, but the Parker of 25 years ago would surely have criticised such behaviour as unbecoming for a fearless consumer journalist. If you live by the critical sword, you should expect to die, or at least be wounded, by it too.

Bordeaux bosses should step in on en primeur

For those of us who missed the 2005 en primeur tastings in Bordeaux a year and a half ago, the recent Union des Grands Crus event at the Royal Opera House in London was our first chance to assess a large range of these soon-to-be-released wines.

2005, as you will almost certainly recall, was trumpeted at the time as one of the best ever vintages. Let's overlook the fact that similar claims were made for 1982, 1989, 1990 and 2000 and give the Bordelais a break. I've already tasted enough commercial clarets from 2005 to agree that the vintage was something special.

But what about the wines further up the great chain of being? Part of the problem was that several of the top names didn't make it to London. So there was no chance to taste Châteaux Pavie, Cheval Blanc, Angélus, Troplong Mondot or Vieux Château Certan, among others, which was a shame. But what I did taste was generally good and occasionally spectacular.

All the same, I couldn't help noticing the occasional sense of disappointment in the room. "This was far better in barrel than in bottle," one colleague told me. "I don't think this is the wine I tasted in April 2006," said another. Given the sums involved, it's hard to blame the Bordelais for showing their best barrels during en primeur week, but if the finished wine bears no resemblance to the sample on which buyers and writers base their judgements, what is the point of cask samples?

As it stands, the current system relies too heavily on the honesty and integrity of producers and the willingness of professional tasters to suspend their disbelief. Maybe it's time for the Conseil Interprofessionnel du Vin de Bordeaux to start analysing en primeur and finished samples and calling miscreants to account.

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