Parker Wins On Points

It has been quite a month for me and critics. First up: James Suckling, all unbridled enthusiasm and good humour, and seemingly unfazed at having been identified as a ‘Pig’. A committed fellow, a breath of fresh air, and a good sport!

Then this week at Wine Futures Hong Kong 2011 there has been a dazzling dim sum (translation, ‘little cherished morsel’) of critics from which to choose. Jancis Robinson MW, Debra Meiberg MW, Jeannie Cho-Lee MW, Steven Spurrier, Ned Goodwin MW, Lisa Perrotti-Brown MW and Tim Atkin MW, all excelling as both presenters and moderators, and giving some of their fellow participants an abject lesson in the skills of preparation, insight, fluency and relevance.

But with respect to all, many delegates were here just to glimpse the ‘big game’: Robert Parker Jnr. Parker was in town to present the “Magical 20″, the wines of Bordeaux that rival – and, at times, exceed – the First Growths in all but price and classification. I shall list the runners and riders in due course for this was truly an exceptional tasting, but it was Parker himself – and not the carefully chosen wines of the generous 2009 vintage – that made it ‘remarkable’.

This was my first live encounter with Parker, and the excitement in the room was obvious – the world’s most polarising critic here to defend a selection of his favourites. The keynote speaker opened with: ‘I wasn’t raised in a family that drank wine. I came from farming stock, and in fact, I only discovered wine on my first trip to France, when I realised that I could drink the local vin de pays more cheaply than I could Coke. But that was the start of the affair, and while it has been going on ever since, I still consider myself only a student. With wine, we are all only ever students…’

Parker spoke throughout with a disarming clarity and simplicity, avoiding technical tasting notes in favour of anecdotal stories, and maintaining that he was only expressing his opinion, and that what really mattered was the individual preferences of the tasters in the audience. He framed what he expected from any great wine as ‘the ability to engage at both a hedonic and an intellectual level’, and that like all efforts of composition – music, art, cuisine – the ultimate desired feature was ‘balance’.

Please reflect for a moment on the audience, which was largely Chinese, and the current state of wine understanding in this part of the world. In a Confucian culture that respects status, age and generational dynasty, here was a world authority empowering them to have their own opinions, presenting some easily-understood parameters with which to view wine, and basically suggesting that his expertise was founded on patience, endeavour and a long-held passion for learning, rather than any innate or refined gift for wine appreciation. A perfectly pitched addressed.

Now, I am not typically a fan of what we have come to know as ‘Parker wines’, but I certainly couldn’t fault any of the wines chosen for the Magical 20 exercise. I have, however, long since found it odd that Australia so vindictively blames Parker for having apparently led it astray – as if he was a pied-piper who cruelly turned out to be a charlatan.

Parker’s masterclass was an honest and informed performance based on a free exchange of opinion – something that I have always felt was a quintessentially Australian trait. To blame one man for us collectively falling into line behind a style which turned out to be both limited and exaggerated – caricature over signature, if you like – is as convenient as it is lame.

In fact, Australia could do worse than to take a leaf out of Parker’s book – to tell it straight and like it is, and to offer no justification beyond our own subjective opinion of what is good, true and authentic.

So, 5 winehero oberservations for marketing in China:

  1. The market’s eagerness to learn suggests that education rather than traditional brand marketing/promotion is the way forward
  2. Help the market to develop its own skills-base rather than just positioning your own influencers as a reference – China wants to have its own critics and taste-makers, not just to inherit ours.
  3. Learn as much about tea – a beverage based on variety, vintage, picking time, site, fermentation, maturation and storage – as you expect your importer and wholesaler to know about wine. This makes the educational engagement an open exchange.
  4. If you deliver comparisons with other styles and countries, do so without qualitative pronouncement. Wine needs to be seen as a comparative not a competitive exercise, and you are trying to develop your own reference and context. Do not rely on stylistic similarity with any other region or country for credibility.
  5. Always lead from the front – show your best example and work down from the top. Your flagship will always be your most enduring reference in a market that celebrates excellence over accessibility.



2 thoughts on “Parker Wins On Points

  1. Hi Paul —
    An excellent commentary with regards to Mr. Parker…I started buying the Wine Advocate in the late 70′s when it was a hand stapled, home printed version and I found Parker’s reviews & comments indispensable when I started to collect Bordeaux wines en primeur with the release of the 1982 vintage. If you waited to actually taste those wines yourself, you’d have paid 3 or 4 if not more times the futures price waiting for them to land in New York. And to give Mr. Parker credit, I think he does know Bordeaux & I think he has been smart enough in the last 10 or so years to accept his weaknesses and hire better palates than is for Burgundy et al.

    When I was living in New York, a friend of mine who happened to be my ‘barber’ (she was a hairdresser @ a fancy Soho salon around the corner from my loft) was Mr. Parker’s niece & I have had the pleasure of spending a number of afternoons with him when he was on a visit to New York. I always found him to be very nice, pretty humble & not full of himself & a wealth of knowledge that he was generous with if you asked – pretty much how you describe him in your post. I think more times than not he has been a wee bit vilified by the wine industry & press for many things he is not.

  2. I was at Vinexpo in Hong Kong in 1998 when Parker first visited the country. He was like a rock star…mobbed by adoring fans….you could tell where he was by the flashbulbs and drone of the swarms of people following him around the venue.

    Parker (I did like how he refered to himself in the third person during his session…very Shane Warne-esque) has done more good than harm for the Australian wine industry.

    Do you think there is a shift in the space/wine contiunum in Asia in regards to wine critics? It seems that although Parker is still very influential, that influence could be on the wane as the various “homegrown” wine scribes emerge in the various Asian markets.

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