One morning at the Concours Mondial, I found myself sitting at a breakfast table full of European wine critics, defending Robert Parker.
I wouldn't call myself a Parker acolyte. But I respect his independence and his consistency, and it's not his fault that US consumers slavishly follow him; that's their choice. What wine critic -- or critic of anything -- doesn't want people to take his advice?
Anyway, it started with a German critic, who was head of Wilfred Wong's panel (Wilfred was sleeping in and had not yet started his daily assault on the smoked salmon.) This guy insisted that Parker was corrupt; that his ratings were for sale.
I disagreed. Like anyone who knows their subjects personally, Parker probably has winemakers he likes. But Parker famously buys his own wines and has written relatively poor reviews of many wines made by people he likes. Moreover, the Wine Advocate supports itself by subscriptions, not advertising, unlike SOME OTHER prominent ratings organizations I won't mention today.
Then the German critic, joined by now by a Ukranian and a Belgian, said Parker knows nothing about wine. Again I disagreed -- it might have been true when he started more than 30 years ago, but how could that be true today? I've tasted with Parker; the guy understands viticulture and winemaking and the difference in barrel manufacture. How could he not, after 30 years of working in the field?
By now we had a crowd, and I felt under siege. "Parker has no ability to taste differences in wine" -- that was the next charge. Crazy. The man has one of the most consistent palates in the world. (The crowd of European critics audibly huffed.) I don't necessarily agree with it, but like any critic, he's entitled to his preferences.
"But he's ruining wine," somebody said. At this point I completely waved the flag, saying, "Parker is a great man. He has done tremendous good for the world of wine. I agree that consumers shouldn't just blindly buy everything he recommends. But Parker made wine accessible to millions of people."
The German said, "But it's unhealthy that all Americans feel like they have to follow Parker." I said you can't lump all Americans together on anything; there's a huge anti-Parker backlash, and even one critic who's trying to make a name for herself writing books about how she saved the world from Parker. I mentioned her name, but none of them knew it. Which, since that seems to be her whole shtick, is just as well.
That's when I realized Parker is the new Bush. For the last 8 years, I hated discussing US politics with Europeans. Now, I'm happy to do so -- but I have to end up defending Robert Parker. This wasn't why I came to Europe, but what the hell, I'm a proud American.
Which is why eventually I threw out the line -- yes, I really said this -- "Our President's blacker than yours."
The Ukranian wasn't listening. He was staring intently at me. He asked, "Is Parker your friend?"
He is not; while I have attended events with him, I've tried many times to get a one-on-one interview with him and he won't do it. But that's no reason to hate the man.
The Ukranian said, "Parker has no friends in the wine world." As if that matters.
I said I doubt that that's true; that Parker famously loves a little steakhouse in Maryland and that many winemakers have told me of pleasant meals they've had with him there.
"These are not friends," the Ukranian said. I paused. Maybe he's right; winemakers want something from him. But I insisted that some people I know like Parker.
"Who are his friends? Give me their names now!" the Ukranian said, like a KGB agent in a Bond flick. At that, I was creeped out, and soon excused myself.
But not before I turned over one name: Dr. Jay Miller. I've never met Miller, but if anyone reading this knows him, you might want to warn him to watch out for Eastern Europeans carrying umbrellas.