Parker the Wine Dictator? I Think Not

Boy, THIS is what makes it so easy to blog on a daily basis.

Hugh Johnson, one of the greatest wine writers to ever walk this planet, has stumbled into a quagmire by proposing that "Imperial hegemony lives in Washington and the dictator of taste in Baltimore…Taste in the past was largely a matter of harmless fashion. In American hands it feels more like a moral crusade."

Johnson, the author of the groundbreaking "Vintage: A History of Wine" and "World Atlas of Wine, perhaps one of the best wine books ever written, makes this comment in an interview with Decanter Magazine and apparently in a forthcoming book, "Wine: A Life Uncorked".

Among the other tidbits Johnson drops are these:

Parker feels he has the right to tick off people who don’t do “Better”, whereas I don’t feel any such right.’

"Robert Parker deals in absolutes, and castigates those he sees as backsliders."

Johnson makes the fatal mistake of confusing the role of critic with the role of cheerleader, or commentator at best. And make no mistake, this is not just offhanded comments by Johnson. This is criticism of a critic based on what they like. In other words, its the most common of criticisms you see aimed at that long-established and well-honored writing genre.

You also get the impression that Johnson is motivated by an impatience with American foreign policy. This part doesn’t bother me as much, since I like the using various lenses to examine a subject. But more than anything, this diatribe by Johnson bothers me because I have such huge respect for the man and his work and I think this kind of invective is below him.


Posted In: Wine Media


3 Responses

  1. Terry Hughes - July 28, 2005

    Johnson was my early “guru”, too. His felicitous writing style and encyclopedic knowledge impressed me no end (and still do). I take his criticisms of Parker to be the rather measured responses of a man who represents a completely different tradition of wine-drinking/critiquing from Parker’s, and one that has differing standards of beauty, so to speak. A pre-silicon ideal, one might say.
    I think it’s paradoxical that Johnson’s old-school approach would be called elitist by some, yet Parker’s infamous 100 point system has, in the alleged name of consumer liberation, spawned a new hierarchy of elitist wines, in the US and elsewhere. Angelo Gaja and all those Michel Rolland clients (“micro-oxygenation!”) are chasing the American market because they perceive, rightly or wrongly, that Parker exerts an enormous sway over the wine-buying public. (OK, we know he does.)
    That Johnson chooses to couple his criticisms of Parker with his resentment of the American hegemony, well, it’s not unheard of these days. Tune in to some European wine blogs and what Johnson has written will not seem at all extreme. Anyway, good old Hugh is making similes, and that’s his right as a critic too. He’s earned the right to be irritated by someone like Parker. I’m a nobody, and Parker irritates the crap out of me. He’s too predictable. Chubby Bobby One Note.
    To paraphrase Faye Dunaway, “No more fruit bombs. EVER!”

  2. Fredric Koeppel - August 15, 2005

    hey, tom, sorry im so late responding to this post, but i went back and read about 10 years of the Wine Advocate, and actually Hugh Johnson is right about Parker; the Wine Sage of Baltimore lends his writing a distinct moral taint that has grown more strident over the years. Look at his language. Producers that make wine using methods of which Parker approves are “intelligent,” “disciplined” and “courageous;” producers of whom Parker does not approve are “misguided,” “uneducated” and even “cowardly.” (Other wine critics tend to be “uneducated” and “ignorant” too.) Wines that have been fined and filtered aren’t simply thin or lacking in character; they’re “eviscerated.” Wines that lack distinctive qualities aren’t just generic; they’re “appallingly banal.” There’s no doubt that Parker cares deeply about wine and its creation, no doubting his tremendous sincerity and hard work and relentless commitment to making wine the greatest it can be. But his attitude and language peg him as an extremist unable to see issues not only of vineyard practices and winemaking techniques but (as Johnson implies) of intention, perception and taste on anything but moral terms. Dividing producers into “courageous” and “cowardly” isn’t an assessment of winemaking or a critique of quality; it’s a moral judgment. If making wine and writing about wine were religions, Robert Parker would be their Cotton Mather.

  3. tom - August 15, 2005

    Interesting comments. I don’t begrudge Parker his point of view, moral or not. There is in fact a long history of literary criticism that takes on not just the work in question but the motivations of the artist or writer as well as the cultural and societal influences that provoke an artists work. Parker’s strident opinion places him in this tradition.
    I think one of the things we can say about Parkder is that he is fairly consistent. He reminds me of Newt Gingrich. Newt has always been extreme in his words and, even in the face of criticism, has continued to espouse them. He’s a true believer. As is Robert Parker.
    Some would say that Parker has a responsiblity to fairness given his extreme influence. I don’t necessarily want a critic to be fair. I just want him or her to be consistent and strong minded.
    If there is blame to assess, it is with those who rely on the palate of Robert Parker to sell wine to the exclusion of most other tools. Parker’s part in his rise to influence is his talent and opinions. However, this pales in comparison to the part played by distributors, marketers and wineries AND consumers who rely on him nearly exclusively to help sell wine.
    Thanks for the comments.

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