Monday, June 30, 2014

Robert Parker launches another cowardly attack on sommeliers whose tastes differ

I feel sorry for Robert Parker. He's plagued by chronic spinal pain, had an 8-1/2 hour surgery to rebuild five discs, and can only exercise by walking 2 miles an hour on a treadmill in a pool.

I know this because he consented to an interview with the fanzine author R.H. Drexel, run by Hawk Wakawaka on her blog. Like most of Drexel's work, it's intensely personal and interesting.

It's also the only interview that Parker has granted the "media" this year that I'm aware of. Drexel is not a journalist, but still, Parker wouldn't even grant the interview to Wakawaka, whose expressions of gratitude on her blog to people who talk with her sometimes border on obsequious.

In the wine world we have become accustomed to accepting that Parker doesn't want to face questions about why he gives so many more 100 point scores than he used to, even though other critics would give an answer.

Parker, who is arguably a member of the media himself, might protest that he is like a Hollywood celebrity. Their agents frequently dictate terms for how interviews with them can be conducted -- although once the interview starts, journalists often ask the questions they want to anyway.

Parker has taken the kind of heat from the wine media that Hollywood stars do from the tabloids. I understand why he wants to answer only softball questions.

But in the paragraph immediately after detailing his physical ailments, Parker blows yet another broadside at people who don't share his tastes, saying,

"It’s funny that in the beer world, it seems like bigger and richer is what everyone wants, whereas in the wine world you have a group of hipster sommeliers who are basically advocating weird, undrinkable and deeply flawed wines."


Forget about the fact that he's wrong about beer (session beer, anyone?), and let's make the Hollywood star parallel again. The star dictates the time, place and interviewer. He accepts only softball questions. So what happens if the star calls a whole group of professionals wrong? What happens if the star says theater owners rip off their customers by selling moldy popcorn? Would the rest of the media ignore it? Not likely.

Parker says sommeliers who like wines that he doesn't are selling undrinkable, deeply flawed wines to their customers. What if he said chefs are serving inedible, rancid food?

We can't let this statement go unnoticed, unremarked on.

Honestly, I didn't want to be the one to write this post, which is why I waited until today. I wanted somebody else in the blogosphere to do it. I'm from Maryland. Robert Parker was one of my early wine heroes. I respect the great contributions he has made to the world of wine.

But somebody has to say it.

Robert Parker, you are a bully and a coward. You use your position as the world's most influential wine critic to insult other people's taste, and then hide behind a double wall of unquestioning listeners.

If you want to make statements like that, you should be prepared to defend them.

Follow me on Twitter: @wblakegray and like The Gray Report on Facebook.

30 comments:

Jonas Landau said...

I would trust a sommelier over Parker most of the time but really, with so many reviewing wine now, do we really need him anymore?

Randy Caparoso: said...

Blake, I can't agree on your aside about Elaine Brown, a.k.a. Hawk Wakawaka. Graciousness is rare enough in this world, and we should all show more gratitude for our opportunities. Let's support this positive movement.

I do, however agree with you 100% on your assessment of Mr. Parker, although now I'm starting to feel sorry for his dearth of graciousness despite his perceived slings and arrows. Now many of his wounds are becoming self inflicted.

But I admire your fortitude in reading through the blog, Blake. I admit telling Elaine that I really couldn't get past the first page. Couldn't tell who was interviewing who; and very quickly, became very bored of the "insights" shared by interviewer and interviewee (whoever they were). I thought I was reading a wine blog, but somehow it turned into a study of navels... oh, well...

chad melville said...

Blake, your argument is flawed. Everyone knows what "rancid food" would smell and taste like, but not everyone knows what flawed wines taste like. I read his statement differently; there are many influential people who love big rich beers, but at the same time only promote the delicate, austere style of wine. Hypocrisy.

W. Blake Gray said...

Hey Chad, don't tell me you're accusing me of peddling flawed blog posts!

Randy: I struggled with how exactly to phrase that point, and I'm open to suggestion for an edit. The point is that Parker would have already had a sympathetic enough ear in Wakawaka, but insisted on another layer of protection.

W. Blake Gray said...

But seriously Chad, if Parker had said "delicate, austere" instead of "undrinkable, deeply flawed," then I wouldn't have felt compelled to write this post.

Kyle Schlachter said...

So, how is Parker's comment different than, say, this: "...the Oakland Coliseum, which has almost no edible food for fans..."

I'm not saying I disagree with your assessment, but pot meet kettle...

W. Blake Gray said...

Here's one important way, Kyle. You just asked me and I'm answering. You have my email address if you want to interview me about it.

I also thank you for making me the world's most powerful stadium food critic. Deserved praise, for sure, but I'll take it.

Joe Roberts said...

The thing I don't understand is why statements like that do not get followed up with a clarifying question to explain them. I mean, all of those adjectives in Parker's statement are at least somewhat subjective, enough so that I'd want to know specifics (particularly on who is advocating for flawed wines; I don't know *any* wine pros who suggest wines that I'd consider to be technically flawed).

Spencer Lane said...

I actually agree with Parker in theory, however I don't like the verbiage chosen to express the opinion. To often when I done at "fine" establishments it feels like I am bombarded by lists and pairing where a "hipster" sommelier is trying to be more obscure then his colleague down the road by purposefully using wine that has no place being used in the context.

kcp said...

I couldn't read all of her blog as well. Too solicitous, too full of navel gazing, as one commentator put it. Yuck. Unfortunately, Mr. Parker's recent bitterness undercuts everything he has accomplished.

Mason6252@gmail.com said...

Blake,

I couldn't agree with you more. To let somebody with a very a defined preference in wine tell the drinking public that a certain style no good is, for me, to miss the point of drinking wine. Paying $25 or $100 dollars for something to drink is a bit of a ridiculous notion except that the history, the enology, and story of the bottle make it engaging. When RP disparages a different style than his own, he os defining himself as passe to a generation of drinkers. I love a bio/organic/low intervention/obscure varietal/etc. wine!

Unknown said...

There's something to be said of "hipster sommeliers."

I see an archetype of sommelier forming in major cities:

-WSET Level 1/2 Certified
-Often came up from waitstaff or, in a few cases I know of at pretty major restaurants, no industry experience at all
-Very young (usually under 30, often under 25)
-What you would call "hipster" tendencies

Basically, an archetype similar to most "mixologists," and I've often seen a sommelier doubling as a bartender in a few places of note.

This usually adds up to a sommelier who is eager, know-it-all-ish, and wants to be different. None of this is bad in a vacuum, in fact I think breathing new life into a very stagnant industry is great (Mr. Parker could be said to have done the same for New World wines, by the way...).

Where this goes awry, at least in my experience, are these same sommeliers putting just crazy wines on their lists in an effort to be different. I had a somm push some Slovenian white on me recently that literally tasted like watered down Welch's white grape juice. It was miserable but the somm couldn't stop talking about SLOVENIA, and how they were able to find wines there, instead of the wine itself! This is indicative of experiences I am seeing on a regular basis, at least here on the East Coast.

Look, Parker says things I often disagree with, but I think what Parker was getting at was not that "tastes differ" but that there's a new group of sommeliers that are pushing different wines, not because they are also good, but because they are different. That's not so out of bounds from my own experience and it's a bad trend, in my mind.

Dwayne Bershaw said...

A better Hollywood analogy might be a director known for producing big-budget summer blockbusters who disparages others known for producing films with a smaller following: family dramas, romantic comedies, documentaries. People seem to accept that there are different genre in cinema, why not wine?

Unknown said...

I don't know what's more pathetic ( and more amusing), Parker's descent into madness, bitterness and irrelevance or the knee-jerk defense of him by winemakers scared sh!tless at a world where he is no longer relevant and commercial success can not be cooked up by simply following the Michel Rolland cookbook?

In any event, good riddance to all of them.

Doug Wilder said...

I am still trying to understand why Drexel didn't publish it on their own platform. Confusing at the least. Sorry that collectively bloggers (and others) can't get beyond the cult of Parker. The man is not likely to change. The piece was more than I wanted to read at lunch as well.

Kyle Schlachter said...

Doug, I think that reason was answered in the piece itself. Elaine was the one that wanted to interview Parker. She asked Drexel to do so and published the conversation. I don't get all the blow back to this. I actually found the content interesting and refreshing in that it wasn't what one expected.

Vin de Terre said...

"Weird, undrinkable and deeply flawed": sounds like he was thinking about orange wine, not IPOB juice.

W. Blake Gray said...

VdT: If he would make himself available to followup questions, we would know what he meant.

Kyle Schlachter said...

Blake, have you tried calling his office to ask him?

Mike said...

Every time this comes up it makes me think of this Jean Cocteau quote, “Listen carefully to first criticisms made of your work. Note just what it is about your work that critics don't like - then cultivate it. That's the only part of your work that's individual and worth keeping.”
Individual tastes are just that. I might like Époisses but for someone who only eats American Cheese it might seem flawed. I along with most sommeliers will continue to eat Époisses. Leave the Kraft Singles, as good as they melt, for Mr. Parker and his minions.

W. Blake Gray said...

Kyle: I have contacted Parker's office many times, while working for several publications, sometimes looking for a quote, sometimes asking for an interview. He has never once responded.

I'm not special in this regard. But you knew that already, right?

bob jones said...

Dear Mr. Gray.

It is July 4th, and I am at work. I work at a small wine storage facility in Los Angeles. I am the only employee. It is very quiet today and I am bored. So I am going to write this to you regarding your June 30 post calling out Robert Parker for his latest comment against hipster sommeliers.

Thoughts, incidentally, I’ve no business writing. I know nothing about wine, nor much of any of this, but again, I am bored.
I casually follow Mr. Parker’s pokes and bloats, and other people’s reactions to them, like a soap opera soon to be extinct. Based on this:

From what I gather, Mr. Parker has built a career on large and obvious wines, indeed affecting the very way people make wine so as to play to his particular taste, garnish a large and obvious score, and get rich.
Mr. Parker is a self-proclaimed hedonist. He tweets blurry photos of his food, he tweets about his expensive car and carbon bike. He tweets his stream of consciousness; no one better tweets unapologetic gluttony.

Then the millennials came about and what we are seeing with them is the first real generation-wide rejection of our evasive gluttony. We built McMansions, the Millenials are into Tiny House Blog. Our SUV’s to their Prius, our Montecito to their farmer’s markets. Up to their eyeballs in debt, these kids have already accomplished more than we have our whole overindulged, unctuous lives.

The pendulum has swung and Mr. Parker is extinct, all of him, everything he stands for, the idea debauchery itself. The kids don’t want fat and big ANYTHING, because it’s played out and they are living the end result. In wine this is to taste the hand, the earth, the grape and the climate of its own accord; they want to acknowledge wine has become an archaically narrow definition and broaden the very idea legitimate, clearly much to Mr. Parker’s dismay. Mr. Parker, who means nothing to them but the restraint to evolve beyond.

That said, it’s nice to hope but unfair to think Mr. Parker will ever evolve – or from his point of view, DEvolve – to the hipster sommeliers offerings. Rather, he has dug in, and by doing so is now the fat, unctuous anti-hero…to himself, mostly, but nonetheless. He does this without grace, tact, or finesse, just like the wine he champions.

Taking public exception to this, like you do with this blog post, is his only remaining relevance, meaning his current relevance is really only as the symbol of an extinct idea. Rather than merely dump on him over and over for it, it could rather be utilized to usher in What’s Next, to help educate and redefine and retrain many, many fatigued palates.

...all this in VERY GENERAL terms.

That killed more than an hour! Thank you, sir, for your indulgence. Cheers.

Collin Cranor said...

While I disagree with the rhetoric, he is absolutely right about some somm's peddling crap and passing it off as unique and different. Some somms are buying and selling things because they can get them on the cheap and come from small, frankly horrible producers who hide behind words like "boutique" and "natural". Most the time these wines are deeply flawed, and in a lot of cases undrinkable. If you cant control Brett or VA, all you have to do is say you are a natural producer. Then you don't have to buy new barrels, you can buy crappy fruit from bad vineyards that can't get fruit ripe, pay no attention to sanitation or good wine making practices... Somewhere there is a Somm just waiting for you to walk in the door and embrace your swill. It happens all over the Bay Area.

Where Parker went wrong is by bringing in his own preferences, he could have left out the part about rich, big, ripe, etc and his point would have been more valid.

RP obviously has preferred wines that are bigger and riper, however he does recognize producers can make good wines at lower alcohol levels. Its groups like IPOB and this low alc movement that insist a wine should be low alc, even setting a cap for wines to be considered quality.

Balance is not about low or high alc, its about how the wine is perceived when we consume it. The difference is the IPOB wont recognize a moderate to high alc wine as quality. While RP obviously prefers the latter, he doesn't write a wine off because it is low alc.

W. Blake Gray said...

Collin: Another commenter earlier said this happens on the east coast, and I can't say because I'm not there. But I haven't experienced it in the Bay Area. Somm suggestions for me have generally been quite good. Can you name a couple restaurants where this happens?

Unknown said...

Blake, I think most of these stories are apocryphal, and the tales get more absurd with each retelling.

Heimhoff recently wrote about a (conveniently unnamed) SF restaurant where the desperate customers are forced to BYO Napa Cab and Chard under the withering scorn of the somms because the list is dominated by obscure grapes and undrinkable "natural" wines. These brave, plucky consumers braving ridicule and scorn to brown bag their beloved Napa wines into the pretentious somms-gone-wild restaurant. That sounds more like an SNL sketch than real life, and a story that probably gives comfort to more than a few Napa producers who want to believe that it's all the fault of the evil "gatekeepers" rather than a more profound growth and maturation of the American wine consumer.

The reality that I've found is that the wines crowding Napa and Sonoma out of the Michelin starred restaurants are things much more mainstream like Muscadet, Chablis, German riesling, traditionalist producers from Piemonte and Tuscany and so forth, not the straw man obscure grapes and bizarre styles of legend.

Ultimately, these young somms have to answer to their ownership and their customers. The reality that many in the business are strenuously trying to avoid is that, though they may be pushing the envelope to some degree, they are mostly reflecting changes in American wine consumers who would rather have that glass of Muscadet or Chablis than another cookie-cutter 14.5% alcohol Chardonnay from the Rolland cookbook.

Unknown said...

Blake, I think most of these stories are apocryphal, and the tales get more absurd with each retelling.

Heimhoff recently wrote about a (conveniently unnamed) SF restaurant where the desperate customers are forced to BYO Napa Cab and Chard under the withering scorn of the somms because the list is dominated by obscure grapes and undrinkable "natural" wines. These brave, plucky consumers braving ridicule and scorn to brown bag their beloved Napa wines into the pretentious somms-gone-wild restaurant. That sounds more like an SNL sketch than real life, and a story that probably gives comfort to more than a few Napa producers who want to believe that it's all the fault of the evil "gatekeepers" rather than a more profound growth and maturation of the American wine consumer.

The reality that I've found is that the wines crowding Napa and Sonoma out of the Michelin starred restaurants are things much more mainstream like Muscadet, Chablis, German riesling, traditionalist producers from Piemonte and Tuscany and so forth, not the straw man obscure grapes and bizarre styles of legend.

Ultimately, these young somms have to answer to their ownership and their customers. The reality that many in the business are strenuously trying to avoid is that, though they may be pushing the envelope to some degree, they are mostly reflecting changes in American wine consumers who would rather have that glass of Muscadet or Chablis than another cookie-cutter 14.5% alcohol Chardonnay from the Rolland cookbook.

Mark Andrew Sinnott said...

Blake - to the point of WA and WS having waning influence, a question for you. I am sure this has been asked and perhaps you have already researched the answer, but do you have any insight as to subscription numbers for those publications? Or the other main wine reviewers?

I am interested in whether the numbers map to the theories around declining influence of the major critics. Personally, I do not subscribe to either WA or WS. Or Wine & Spirits for that matter. WE is a bit of a joke to me.

However I used to get WS for the online access and used to subscribe to W&S.

I was in a local store near Seattle today and I saw a WS cover with Brad Pitt on it, confirming my decision to cancel my sub a long time ago. I am wondering of others like me feel the way I do - i.e. I have just grown way out of it. It offers nothing truly interesting anymore, and I do not shop for wine based on points.

thanks,
Mark

W. Blake Gray said...

Mark: I can tell you from my work at Wine Searcher that when Wine Advocate gives a big rating to a wine, people search for it and buy it. I can't comment statistically on the decline (or not) of the publication's influence, but it still has influence on sales.

It's worth noting that while one previous commenter said millenials don't care about Parker, it doesn't yet matter much if that's true, as baby boomers still buy more wine and more expensive wine than anybody else.

Spencer Lane said...

I think when we boil it down, the young, up an coming faces of the world of wine are interested in paving their own way by being different. Good or bad it is a fact. Even when trying to stick to the classic pairing etc, they are trying to be obscure in the delivery. We might as well get used to it.

Rolando said...

Maybe I'm an hipster sommelier. Some wine I've served tasted fine for my customers, other less. But undrinkable wines I've never offered; Yes, I like, and serve, wines not so muscular or eatable like ones Mr Parker likes. Sometimes, a little movie wins more prizes than a Major one. You're great, Mr Gray.