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Parkerize or Perish?
By Tina Caputo
Nov 25, 2008
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From the wine industry's point of view, Robert Parker, Jr. is a love-him-or-hate-him kind of critic.  On one hand, his scores have the power to propel an unknown wine to superstardom; on the other, they can cause a winery's sales to plummet overnight.  When your wines are getting 90+ scores, Parker is your savior, but when they're scoring in the 80s, he's your nemesis.

Many people in the wine industry like to engage in a bit of recreational Parker-bashing.  It's just not right for one man to wield so much power over wineries, they say.  Who the hell does he think he is?  Though Parker and I don't usually share the same taste in wine--he's known to prefer wines that are big, ripe and bold, often with high alcohol levels--I don't think it's fair to blame him for his influence.  I mean, it's not like the guy went and hypnotized everyone into caring about his opinions.  He's just doing his job.

That's not to say that the effects of his influence aren't sometimes a little scary.  During my career as a wine journalist and editor of the trade magazine Vineyard & Winery Management, I've heard many disturbing stories and rumors about the pursuit of points.  Winemakers have been fired for not scoring high enough with certain critics; others have quit their jobs rather than play the pandering-for-points game.  Some wineries have become so focused on gaining approval from Parker and Wine Spectator's James Laube that they deliberately tailor the style of their wines to suit the palates of just two guys. 

Are these stories true, or are they the stuff of urban (or should I say rural) legend?  Instead of making wines that reflect the regions and vineyards where the grapes are grown, are winemakers wondering what Robert Parker would want the wine to taste like?

If winemakers are, in fact, selling their souls for points-driven immortality or job security, are they wrong to do so if people are perfectly happy to buy and drink the resulting wines?

To find the answers, I did what any journalist would do:  I went to the source.  Armed with a list of tough questions and a cameraman, I sought the opinions and anecdotes of California winemakers, wine educators and marketers.  The result is a 25-minute documentary with the tongue-in-cheek title of 'Robert Parker's Bitch: The Wine Media's Influence on Winemaking Styles.'  (If you're interested in getting a copy of the DVD, shoot me an e-mail at tcaputo@vwm-online.com.)

As you might guess, winemakers weren't exactly lining up to declare on camera that they're making their wines for Parker.  But some fascinating stories came out of the project nonetheless. 

As veterans of the early days of Napa Valley winemaking, winemakers Randy Dunn and Tom Eddy spoke about the pressures and challenges that independent-minded winemakers face in today's market.  These days, they opined, it's Parkerize or perish.  They've watched as friends and colleagues have sold out their winemaking ideals for the sake of keeping their jobs.  The wines these people make, they said, are often not the wines they choose to drink at home with dinner. 

New winemaker Josh Hermsmeyer (a.k.a. author of pinotblogger.com), of Russian River's Cappozi winery, expressed a more optimistic viewpoint; though he acknowledged the temptation for winemakers to produce Parker-style wines, he said he believes that few are producing wines in a style they don't believe in, or wouldn't care to drink. 

Although each interview subject expressed a slightly different viewpoint based on his or her own experience, I believe that they all reflect what's really happening in the marketplace.  Yes, it's true that some winemakers are Parkerizing for points.  It's also true, however, that there will always be hundreds of stubbornly independent winemakers and winery owners who care more about making wines according to their own philosophies, regions and vineyards than they do about scoring big with certain wine critics.  Those winemakers will be the ones keeping regional differences alive for those who care about and believe in terroir.

Though it may seem complicated for those of us in the wine industry, it's actually a pretty simple matter for wine lovers.  If you're a fan of Parker-style wines, follow his recommendations--there's nothing wrong with that.  If you're not a fan, seek out a different critic who shares your tastes.  In the end, it's all about drinking the wines that make you happy--regardless of their point scores.