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On Tasting
The World Versus Robert M. Parker, Part Three
Saturday, 18th March, 2006  - David Farmer

Robert M Parker’s thoughts about the Mount Mary Quintets has sparked off an interesting debate are here we explore how wine critics react to different tasting styles. The first two parts of this story are Sharp Differences of Opinion Over Mount Mary and The Differences of Opinion Continue: Mount Mary Quintets vs. Robert M. Parker Jr. Part 2.

Considering the high profile of James Halliday, Robert Parker and others, it is worth probing a bit deeper and to see if we can understand why they disagree. It is also puzzling that such recognized judges of wine can have such a diverse view over the Mount Mary Quintets, not of a single wine where differences are quite common, but about a sequence of wines that stretches back decades. It is rare for major wine figures to disagree so widely about a wine style.

It would be putting it mildly to say that Parker has irritated the cream of the U.K. wine press for some time. Some of this is because he has challenged their title of being the world’s most influential world wine critics and in the American market has a great deal more influence.

Some comments taken from 'Wine – A Life Uncorked', the latest work by Hugh Johnson show his dislike of Parkers wine views, "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. Robert Parker deals in absolutes, and castigates those he sees as backsliders."

Recently Andrew Jefford an English wine writer interviewed Johnson about his new work and asked about his views of Parker: "and I put it to Johnson that Parker's life's work had been predicated on the fact that there is 'better' and 'worse' in wine, whereas Johnson's own life's work was chiefly concerned with the word 'different'.

"'That is so fundamental,' he agrees. 'And also fundamental is the fact that Parker feels he has the right to tick off people who don't do "better". Whereas I don't feel any such right.' In his book, Johnson describes himself as a 'relativist. I look for the virtues proper to each wine and enjoy them for what they are. I look on fundamentalist judgements as dangerous and misleading.'"

Similar views have been expressed by author Jancis Robinson and probably reflect at least partly the views of Michael Broadbent and other senior members of the English wine press. It would seem that our senior judges like James Halliday, Brian Croser and Len Evans incline to these views about Parker as well.

This is what James Halliday said in the recent speech to the Wine Press Club of N.S.W.; "If, as is likely the case and irrespective of the country of origin, for Parker, big is good, bigger is better, and biggest is best..." For the full speech go to "Thank You Mr. Evans and Sorry Mr. Parker"

It has of course been recognized for some time that Parker favours rich, big, bold styles of wine and these frequently come with high alcohol. Thus he has been a huge fan of reds such as those made in the Barossa and McLaren Vale. His enthusiasm for these styles has been of great benefit to these regions and his general support for many Australian wines has had a profound impact on giving winemakers confidence and has of course led to a following for these styles in America which has led to large price increases.

Still while he has shown a preference for deep, rich, full bodied styles, and this applies not only to Australia but also and famously to Bordeaux and Burgundy. Parker has tasted for a long time and across a great spectrum of wines, probably more than any other commentator, such that we find it difficult to join those who say that he does not also connect with delicate, more refined wine styles.

It is some of the other things that Halliday said in this speech that made us raise our eyebrows. Glug has after all set up its headquarters in the Barossa because we love the wines and believe our customers do as well.

As background to his speech Halliday analysed the trophy winners of the last six Royal Sydney Wine Shows, some 118 in all and found the three regions that can be associated with big, bold, reds had hardly won any trophies and went on to say; "These three regions are overwhelmingly the birthplace of the monstrous red wine so beloved of Robert Parker, yet they are outranked by Riverina, King Valley, Orange, Grampians. Sorry Mr. Parker whichever way you want to look at it the Australian Show judges profoundly disagree with you".

Indeed they do, at least in Sydney, then we pondered the meaning of this comment; "At the same time the composition of the judging panels goes a long way to explaining why Parkeresque wines seldom achieve any significant recognition. Under the Chairmanship of Brian Croser, there has been an emphatic instruction to all judges to reward wines with finesse and elegance and to penalize over-ripe, over extracted wines. I can assure you there will be no change of policy under my forthcoming Chairmanship".

Halliday continued; "The near absence of Barossa Valley trophies is explained by two factors: most do not enter the show system, and those that do, have negligible success. It is, if you like, a simultaneous poke in the eye for Messrs Parker and Kramer alike." (The American wine writer Matt Kramer has recently made comments about our judging system including that it suffers from 'taste fixing'.)

We think a good hearty debate is fine though we do wonder whether it is a good idea to poke a stick in the eye of the one American personality who has done the most to champion one of our wine styles. After all every one in the industry is aware we must increase our export sales of premium wines which have stagnated. Marketing practice has always taught us that you run with what is working not with what you would like to work.

Halliday does show that he understands that some consumers like these styles of wine; "What, then, about Robert Parker? Well, while many of us baulk at the Parker red wine style, we must remember that these wines have an avid reception from influential and wealthy connoisseurs". Indeed the Barossa big red style is marching up the ranks of the Langtons 101 wine classification and forcing out, cool climate wines. See our thoughts on the Langtons classification at A Look at Langtons Classification from 1991 to 2005.

He continues; "The real challenge is to persuade Parker et al that mature Hunter, and top flight dry riesling-young and old-are as great as they are unique." This is true and never has there been seen such a concerted effort to reward these styles in the Australian judging ring. Isn’t it a trifle odd that the Adelaide Wine Show gives so many trophies to aged Hunter whites?

So where does this leave us about Mount Mary Quintets? Our view is that Parker may have been a bit harsh though we will report back after we have tracked down a bottle or two to judge for ourselves.

On the bigger matter about what Parker likes and his world wide influence we remain positive and cannot see what the problem is except he has a bigger following than the critics do. And yes we do confess to quite a liking for the bold Barossa, Clare and McLaren Vale styles. His influence may wane in time and we urge winemakers across the country to grab as much of his time as he will allow and enjoy his influence.

We understand that a lot of Parkers wines are not tasted masked and this does worry us and no doubt this upsets our judging fraternity though whatever the result of this at least a style of Aussie wine has come out on top.

Lastly we get the distinct impression Parker finds these attacks immensely amusing particularly now that he’s got the whole of the established old school against him which means he can look over his shoulder with a great deal of pleasure. Come in spinner can be heard.

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