Robert Parker is Wrong—He’s Not Part of the Problem

robert parker oldgrapeRobert Parker, Jr. is wrong. He’s not “part of the problem”

In an interview with Drinks Business, Mr. Parker lamented the fact that the world’s most coveted wines are so expensive:

“The influential wine critic said that the rising prices of top labels from leading fine wine regions was a ‘problem and a concern’, particularly for the ‘younger generation’, which is being put off the category by the high cost of trying its best products.”

Yes, many of the world’s most important and best wines are priced well above what aspiring wine lovers can afford. But the critics like Robert Parker who have lauded these wines are the not the problem. What was he supposed to do? Keet it to himself that he thought these wines were great? The problem is really with the suppliers…and the demanders.

In fact, I question whether there is a problem at all.

If the First Growth Bordeaux, the Grand Cru Burgundy, the Cult Cabs and other extraordinarily pricy wines are selling out at their high prices before their next vintage is released, then it seems to me that all is right in the world. The supply of these wines has been met with more demand than they can accommodate and their prices are set either perfectly or too low in a market based economy.

Mr. Parker continued:

“It means a lot (of people) are shut out because basically we have a caste system of wine – at the really desirable high end, whether the wines are Burgundy or Bordeaux, or from California, they have become so expensive that people just can’t afford them, so they look elsewhere.”

I don’t know if I’d call it a “caste” system, but basically he is right. The vast majority of wine lovers look elsewhere for great wine experiences, leaving the great and expensive wines of the world to those who can afford them or for that rare opportunity they have to try them without paying for them. This is certainly how I’ve encountered these wines over the years.

The situation is not unlike the housing market in Northern California. I would really like to have that 2 acre property in Wine County with 4,000 square feet of living space in a semi secluded area surrounded by beautiful grounds, near enough to a great city that I can easily take advantage of its benefits, still have all the amenities near by to make life comfortable, and enjoy a comfortable climate.

However, I don’t have the ability to fork over the down payment for or pay the mortgage on a $4 million home. Yet, I do have the means to afford a $500,000 home in an alternative regions of the country that would meet these criteria. So, that’s where I might end up going.

Mr. Parker’s lament is really just his way of saying, “I wish everyone could taste these great wines. In fact, that’s what he’s been saying his entire career. He billed himself as a consumer advocate and that’s exactly what he has been. Only now, as he moves toward the end of an illustrious career, he laments that maybe this isn’t possible.

My message for him is don’t worry about it. There are in fact scads of great wines (really GREAT wines) made across the globe that are affordable, that can be had for far less than the current collectibles, and that are accessible to those who are willing to look for them. The upshot of this is that these other great wines, as they too are discovered by the wine lovers of the world, will also increase in price. It’s the way of the world. There is no getting around it.

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5 Responses

  1. Bill Mciver - March 24, 2015

    Tom, you are so right. Parker’s lament make no sense, in fact is silly.

  2. Chad - March 25, 2015

    As a member of the “younger generation” of which Parker speaks, I do lament the fact that in all likelihood I will never be able to buy a bottle of First Growth Bordeaux or Grand Cru Burgundy. I have had the opportunity to sample these wines, but only because I work in the wine trade and have the opportunity to attend tastings and events for trade only. But in my opinion, these tastings are a mere shadow of what these wines should be like, when enjoyed in the company of friends, or with a meal. The experience Mr. Parker describes of scrounging up $25 amongst friends to afford one bottle of an exceptional wine is a common story among friends I have in his generation. Sadly, and I think Mr. Parker would agree, this is not the experience of my generation. Prices have indeed become much less affordable.

    I don’t have a problem with some things being more expensive than others, as your analogy of the housing market illustrates, however, I don’t believe it is fair to compare wine to a house since the economies involved are very different. And, I firmly believe in Mr. Parker’s point that “wine is a fungible, consumable product; it is meant to be consumed and not to be admired and squirreled away in some museum-like wine cellar.”

    That’s not to say, as you mentioned, that there aren’t other great, even exceptional wines out there. And there will always continue to be exceptional wines outside of the Grand and Premier Crus. However, it’s important to remember that Mr. Parker didn’t make these wines famous. They were famous long before he was around. The question I think Mr. Parker is answering is how much did he contribute to the rise in prices in the past 50 years. His remarks on the caste system of wine are valid where this is concerned. And this is where I have always had trouble with his touted 100 point scale. These points can sadly influence the price of a wine drastically, not because they are inherently powerful, but because it oversimplifies wine to the average consumer. As a “consumer advocate” I believe Mr. Parker has failed because he has steered consumers to care less about the wine and more about the score. Given some of his recent decisions (and some of his recent scores) I hope he is realizing this as well.

  3. Tom Wark - March 25, 2015

    Chad,

    Thanks for commenting.

    You wrote this:
    “I firmly believe in Mr. Parker’s point that “wine is a fungible, consumable product; it is meant to be consumed and not to be admired and squirreled away in some museum-like wine cellar.”

    What I’m wondering is this: how do we actually determine what a wine means? How do we know that wine isn’t “meant” to be collected and kept. And why is this any worse or better than drinking the wine immediately…or at any time?

    • Chad - March 26, 2015

      Tom, great point. I think it’s fair to say that for me, and apparently for Mr. Parker, wine is meant to be opened and enjoyed, not stored or collected. But clearly that is not true of all wine enthusiasts. I would argue the same is true of many if not all collectibles: books are seemingly meant to be read, except if it’s a first edition Dickens? Cars are meant to be driven, except if they’re in Jay Leno’s garage? I don’t think there’s anything wrong with aging wine to wait to drink them, but that’s far different than collecting and buying wine as an investment, never to be opened and enjoyed. Talk to any winemaker and I bet most of them (all that I’ve ever spoken with at least) would rather their bottles be opened than securely tucked away never to be touched. But each wine lover is undoubtedly going to have their own interpretation of what wine means and all I can do is have a discussion with those people about what wine means to me.

  4. Nick Katin - April 7, 2015

    Love the real estate analogy!
    The saying “Life is too short to drink bad wine” can be adapted to “Life is too short to hanker after wine you can’t afford”.
    As you have said, Tom, the world is awash with wine, some of it exceptional at prices most can afford! Some of it lends itself to being tucked away for a few years. Who needs what you can’t have!


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