Friday, February 27, 2015

Will the market notice if Robert Parker's palate declines?

The Lion in Winter: Robert Parker, by Sam Chin/Wall Street Journal
Robert Parker says he's never going to retire. Emperor of Wine for Life. Bully for him.

I thought Parker would one day walk away from the "critic" part of his job, maybe to write a memoir. Parker works hard and always has; it's how he got to be the most powerful critic in the world.

He's not going to taste and rate Bordeaux barrel samples* anymore. But Parker said, "I have no intention of retiring. I will die on the road, or keel over in some winery. Retirement is a formula for death."

* Will the Bordelais stop making a special "RP" sample bottle, and give his replacement the actual wine?

He might be right. However, I'm never popular for bringing this up, but biologically, he is already past his peak as a critic.

We lose olfactory and taste sensitivity over time, accelerating when we pass 65. Parker, who will turn 68 in July, was gifted with an extraordinarily sensitive palate, so he can perhaps lose more taste buds than most and still taste with more acuity than the average 68-year-old. But he cannot fight time forever.

There is no way to accurately measure, without his consent, the degradation of Parker's ability to taste. Statistically minded readers might try to parse something through his tasting notes; perhaps he will reach for the same descriptors more often, or use fewer descriptors overall as he senses fewer nuances. But the notes are merely words, not the sensations he experiences. Parker has always been underrated as a writer; his tasting notes throb with action, with verbs, with explosive flavors and silky finishes. If he doesn't still taste this stuff, he could fake it.

One could argue that perhaps he already is. Earlier in his career he was more open to a wider range of wines. More recently, he has rewarded power above all, perhaps because those are the easiest sensations to experience. Parker's transition hasn't been commented on as much as it perhaps deserves, both because it's the opposite of the way most wine lovers' tastes evolve as they get older -- most people start off liking bolder wines and gravitate toward elegance -- and because it's the opposite of what seems to be the zeitgeist of the wine world in 2015. Parker likes everything bigger while restraint is elsewhere the order of the day.

We don't know if he's still tasting as acutely as ever, or just writing like it. Will anyone ever know? And does it matter? People have been calling Parker "wrong" about wines throughout his career, and his fan base has stayed loyal.

Let's just say, hypothetically, that a critic wanted to disguise a palate he realized was fading. What part of his portfolio would he first give up? Wouldn't it be one where market forces would be most likely to prove his talent for picking winners had diminished? One where there are actually sophisticated investment statistics that can measure when a critic has fallen out of sync with the market?

I don't mean to imply that Parker thinks his palate is fading. In fact, I'll bet he doesn't notice. How would you? I had a headcold this week; my palate diminished overnight, and I could tell. What if that happened over 5 years, a little every week? Every day would be the new normal. You'd still like what you like and take joy in it. I savored a glass of good Bourbon while ill. I didn't even think until now that, hmm, maybe I didn't get as many citrus notes from it. Or did I? If I had tasting notes due on that Bourbon, I could project what I expected them to be, because I didn't taste it blind. I could even subconsciously alter my own memory based on past experience.

The Wine Advocate is best served right now by Parker sticking around. He's still the big name, and the new owners need to keep the brand powerful while building brand recognition for its other talented critics. Neal Martin, who will take over the Bordeaux en primeur tastings*, is respected, and will be under less pressure this year than if Parker announced he was retiring. Parker is still planning to review the wines in bottle; it's a good transition plan.

* The Wall Street Journal's Will Lyons has a good analysis of what this means for Bordeaux.

I'm glad to hear that Parker will spend his twilight years being happy, doing what he loves. For as much vitriol as the man seems to provoke, he has been a tremendous positive for the wine industry: an enthusiastic promoter of the idea that great wines can be made everywhere.

But his announcement does make one wonder how long a wine critic can keep going, physically. Jiro Ono starred in "Jiro Dreams of Sushi" at age 85. But look at his austere lifestyle: he's not pouring 100 tannic red wines on his tongue every day. Another chef, Jeremiah Tower, just came out of retirement at age 72 to run Tavern on the Green in New York (early reports haven't been good). Parker's best hope is to have a finish like André Tchelistcheff, who consulted as a winemaker into his late 80s.

Will the market notice if Robert Parker's palate declines? My guess is no: that's what editors are for. 

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Larry Brooks said...

As an older palate myself, I'll cop to a conflict on this subject, but I'll bring in a noted olfactory expert to back me up. Alexandre Schmidt former perfumer and current wine olfaction guru was asked about ageing and acuity of wine tasting at one of the seminars I attended. His response was that we taste with our brains and not with our tongues so as long as we are still in command of our intellectual facilities our brain will more than compensate for the slight loss in olfactory acuity. It is also interesting to note that when sensory scientists test people for their potential as tasters it is not acuity that makes for the best tasters. What correlates best are attention, motivation, intelligence and verbal creativity. All things that Mr. Parker still possesses as far as I can tell.

Jack Everitt said...

I beg to differ. Sometime after 65 or so (odds increase every year), humans have suffer a major sensory loss of smell. This is why you see senior citizens using huge amounts of salt or other spices and condiments; trying to get flavor. It's why there are no great 80+ year old wine tasting critics.

There's a study online explaining this in detail.

Charlie Olken said...

One does not usually hit a wall in the gradual loss of some sensitivity. If sixty-something critics have lost a bit of aromatic acuity, they have generally lost very little of their palatal judgments. See the new Decanter for a long essay on how older critics adjust.

I doubt that Mr. Parker is a very different person than he was ten years ago. He always had a tolerance for potency in wine and he still does.

And wine evaluation goes light years beyond adjectival acuity. Indeed, one might well argue that a step back from the "list of adjective" tasting notes and a step into more complete discussions of balance, structure, direction, style is real progress and a sign that the taster has finally come to his or her complete range of senses.