Hippo Manchester
August 18, 2005


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Opening the Parker book

Wine writer decants history of The Emperor of Wine

By Tim Protzman 


It’s a name that strikes terror in the hearts of vineyard owners. Parker, whose 100-point rating system revolutionized the wine industry. Parker, the subject of a new book called The Emperor of Wine by Elin McCoy.

Robert M. Parker Jr. is a Maryland lawyer who has what some have called the greatest palate in the world. He travels the world tasting and sampling wines. He publishes a newsletter that’s become the bible for wine connoisseurs and collectors. And most of all, he elicits strong opinions from supporters and foes alike.

He grew up in a middle-class home where milk and soda were the standard beverages. On a trip to France when he was a college student he fell in love with wine. He went to work for the World Bank and founded a newsletter called The Wine Advocate. What catapulted him to fame were his astute judgments on the spectacular 1982 Bordeaux vintage. He pronounced it stellar in the Wine Advocate and overnight he helped sell thousands of wine futures. Up until 1982, futures were a little known way of buying wine. Well, not actually buying wine, because instead of purchasing a bottle of wine, you’re purchasing wine that’s being aged in the casks. The benefit is that it’s cheaper. Wine futures for the 1997 Far Niente Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa went for $324 a case, compared to the $65 price of the individual bottles when it was released in 1999. The drawback is that you never know how the wine will develop, at least until Parker came along.

Ms. McCoy, a seasoned wine writer herself, chronicles the life of Robert M. Parker Jr., including his cutting edge ability to figure out how a wine will develop by tasting samples directly from the casks. Until the 1982 vintage very few wine critics were granted access to the cellars. Ms. McCoy suggests that because Mr. Parker paid his own way and never asked for freebies, the cellar masters were more than happy to let him sample. She also writes that the same cellar masters who put him on the map in 1982, and made a tremendous amount of money in the process, are the ones who accuse him of forcing his “American tastes” down the world’s throats when they have a bad year.

The Emperor of Wine is a good read, although a little long. I loved Ms. McCoy’s descriptions of the gala wine dinners and tastings of 100-year old bottles and the wonderful food that accompanied them. Her writing moved me to the verge of tears as she described the tasting of the last bottle of 1876 Chateau Latour known to exist. And Ms. McCoy spares no one’s feelings when she chronicles the controversy, the scandals and the outright scorn some people feel about Robert M. Parker Jr.

I have my own opinions on Parker. First, his 100-point wine scoring system is pure genius. It’s helped me find many bottles of fine wine. But, I use the vintage chart as a guide to help me choose between the good years and the bad. I rarely choose an individual bottle just because Parker gave it 92 points. I prefer to explore and that means drinking a lot of “lesser” wine. Second, Parker’s tastes are for big wines. Every wine he’s ever rated 95 and above is to die for, but I like to taste the terror of little wines. The soil of South Africa, the climate and romance of Germany’s Rheingau region all appeal to me, in a way they may not to Mr. Parker. But whatever one thinks Robert M. Parker, Jr., it’s heartening to have a wine consumer advocate that insists winemakers give us their best. Never again will we be duped into thinking the emperor’s finely arrayed, when he’s really naked.

In tribute to Mr. Parker this week’s wines will be rated according to this system, on a 0- through 100-point basis. Remember, just like on American Bandstand no wine is scored under 50 points and very few get a perfect 100. And don’t pass up an 88-point wine for a 90-point one, because sometimes personality does count.

2002 William Hill Winery Merlo,t $24.99. — Austerely dry with a hint of grape and cherry. Lean and well-structured like a thoroughbred race horse. From  Napa. 91 points.

2001 Muga Reserva Rioja, $19.99. — Big Parker flavors with fruit notes of dried plum, currant and a flare of raspberry. Chocolate and tobacco aromas with a hint of dried sage. From the sunny plains of north Spain. 70 percent Tempranillo, 20 percent Garnacha,  10 percent Mazuelo y Graciano grapes. 89 points.

1997 Santa Marvista Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon, $4.99. — From the Valparaiso region of Chile. This Cab aged into a dried cranberry port-like wine with intense sun drenched flavors. 87 points.

2000 Chateau Phelan Segur Saint-Estephe, $23.49. — Somewhat under-stated and not well developed with the smell of band-aids and hay. The fruit was weak with hints of cherry.  60 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 30 percent Merlot, 10 percent Cabernet Franc. 84 points.

2003 Soldo Montepulciano D’Abruzzo, $6.99. — Monte’s are the easy drinking summer wines from the Italian region west of Rome on the Adriatic. Cherry, watermelon and grape with little structure and great pair-ability with food. 83 points.