Thursday, May 9, 2013

The Obligatory Robert Parker Post

When Dave Driscoll posted that Robert Parker decided to tackle bourbon, my reaction was a Tourette's attack that I don't feel comfortable repeating here. Most of the writing in the bourbon world has been negative, as exemplified in the thoughtful article by Tim Read at Scotch and Ice Cream. Everyone else has jumped on the bandwagon in decrying this move by Parker, mainly citing his reductive rating system and apparent ignorance of bourbon before reviewing them (to be fair, the article was really hilarious in its ignorance.)

My reaction was somewhat different. I don't actually think Bob is evil. There, I said it. This article from 2000 in the Atlantic paints a very human picture of a guy that discovered he really enjoyed wine and food and made his own business writing his opinions of wines that he tried. He seems to both be a pretty regular guy at base and is also possessed of an almost savant-like power to remember and describe wines. 

Over the years, he has become an unlikely arbiter of wine taste in the world. He has also been demonized for "Parkerizing" the appreciation of wine, and for the increasing trend of winemakers to put out (over)exctracted, aggressively-oaked, high-alcohol wines, in preference to the traditional styles that get fewer "parker points." The silly thing here is that no one is making anyone do anything. The guy likes wines of a certain style and pretty much put the Southern Rhone on the map for this reason. But who said that Bordeaux had to break down and produce black-colored wine that tastes like vanilla ice cream? No one made them, they did it because Parker likes that sort of wine, and wines he likes sell.

Here is the problem. It is us. We, the consumers, are too impressionable by opinion, expectation and peer pressure. Not you and me in particular, obviously, but certainly our friends and acquaintances. When some douchey friend shows up with a $200 bottle of wine that got "98 points" in Parker, we are all impressed. Even if we are not, we can never discount that information enough. Sure, we might not think it was nearly perfect or worth that kind of money, but we are likely to have a positive experience, and our douchey friend will probably buy a case, his friends will do the same, and soon Chateau Petrus is $8000 a bottle.

This is exactly the same thing as happened to Pappy. It was, for many of us, a really nice treat of a bourbon at $50 dollars or so that we loved to share with our friends as an example of how good a bourbon could be. Then the hype machine then took over. We then made it worse by buying all we could as we saw availability declining and prices rising, creating a feedback loop that ends with assholes selling Pappy for $800 in Craigslist.

My fear is that we are going to let this happen to other bourbons (Blanton's seems to have been rated scarily high at 97) that we like. There is only one solution to this: we need to educate each other and our friends better about our favored hobby in an accessible way. We need to create an alternative for the confused guy in the liquor store that is being drawn to the "95 points!" shelf talker. We also need to spread the word that, if his last article is indication, Parker knows very little about bourbon and we don't have to listen to him. This is the reason that he doesn't even try to review Burgundy anymore: he made a number of bad calls and embarrassing mistakes early on, no one listened to him about Burgundy, and now he doesn't even review it anymore. We have to encourage the same thing.


  1. Now that's what I call a thoughtful article, thank you!

  2. Its too late. A well reputable liquor store in my area has posted all of Parker's ratings and descriptions on the shelves below the bottles. The whiskey people at this particular store are very knowledgeable and should know better. I left with nothing in hand and in a state of shock.

  3. hank you! Finally someone saying exactly what I've been thinking! Robert Parker is a private, independent wine and spirits reviewer who receives no ad revenue or sponsorship from any company. He is forcing no one to read his reviews, or to buy anything that he recommends. I don't agree with his scores, or his rather abrupt and unprepared entry into bourbon, but blaming him for anything that has happened with Pappy or Stagg is wrong.
    People are idiots, I certainly am, and a shiny little 95+ is all it takes for us to buy a bottle, because we never take the time to educate ourselves or stop being so trusting of advertising.