Stepping down

Stepping down (Sun file photo / December 10, 2012)

Nearly 35 years after founding Wine Advocate, Robert M. Parker Jr. shocked wine enthusiasts this week with his announcement that he was stepping down as editor in chief of the the seminal newsletter he ran from his Maryland home.

Parker posted on the Wine Advocate website Sunday that he had brought in a new investment group and was handing over the reins to Lisa Perrotti-Brown, a master of wine and reviewer for Parker, who will run the publication from Singapore, where the Wine Advocate would establish a second office.

Parker said the publication's headquarters would remain in Monkton and he would stay on as CEO, chairman of the board and a frequent reviewer.

"While rumors about me retiring have circulated for years, nothing could be further from the truth," Parker wrote. "I am still in this profession for the long-term."

Wine Advocate officials also surprised longtime followers by saying they were ready to abandon their longtime advertising ban — a policy that helped establish the newsletter as a trusted, independent entity in the often intimidating world of wine.

The newsletter will now consider non-wine online ads from entities such as bed and breakfasts and investment companies, Parker said Monday on his Twitter account.

"I would like to think it wouldn't affect anything but I think it would change the perception of the publication, definitely," said Ian Stalfort, a buyer for Baltimore’s The Wine Source. "I’m a little surprised to hear it."

Parker was not available for further comment but in his statement he reflected on his tenure with the Wine Advocate, pointing to its start in 1978 as an eight or 10-page "rough-hewn document" to a publication with worldwide reach and recognition, boasting 50,000 subscribers.

"[M]y vision and goal was to create a body of wine knowledge that exceeded anything the world had ever seen," he wrote. "The dream, the vision, the commitment to wine consumers for fair and independent content continues."

Much of Parker's esteem came from the rigid ethical foundation he built his business on. Because he didn't accept advertising or gifts, people trusted his opinion and considered him above influence.

"He was the first consumer-minded reviewer," Stalfort said. "He was an independent voice and wasn’t swayed by those who were selling the product."

But times have changed. As wine has grown in popularity, its drinkers have become more sophisticated and less reliant on Parker, even as the market has become clogged with imitators, borrowing Parker’s once-unique 100-point rating system and broadcasting their opinions on blogs, discussion boards and social media sites.

"He's a victim of his success," says Tyler Colman, a James Beard-nominated wine writer based in New York who blogs under the name Dr. Vino; he thinks it’s no mistake that the Wine Advocate is setting up shop in Asia. "They're a little newer on their voyage of discovery. Maybe they need [Parker's] kind of guidance where maybe the American market has kind of grown out of it."

Parker is 65 years old. Raised in the Hereford area, he graduated from the University of Maryland, where he started a wine-appreciation club and then earned a law degree from the University of Maryland School of Law in 1973. He practiced law for several years until he resigned to pursue wine writing and start what would become the Wine Advocate.

Parker biographer Elin McCoy, who didn't respond to inquiries Monday, told The Sun years ago that timing greatly helped cement Parker's reputation as a connoisseur. He stepped into the field in the 1970s, getting in just before his boomer peers, so they turned to him for advice.

"He started a little bit ahead of the people who would become his readers," McCoy said. Novices felt, McCoy said, "that if you read Parker, you wouldn't do anything stupid."

In addition to running the newsletter and its online counterpart, Parker has written nearly a dozen best-selling wine books.

Former French President Jacques Chirac gave Parker the Legion of Honor award in 1999, saying he was the most influential wine critic in the world.

Parker also said in his statement that he had taken on new investors and that the magazine would start offering wine education conferences worldwide. Last year one of the publication's Baltimore reviewers was accused of taking money in exchange for visits to wineries — allegations the critic steadfastly denied.
Despite initial news reports that the print edition of newsletter would be discontinued, Parker said Monday that there are no such plans — only to bolster the electronic options for readers.

Parker said he plans to continue to personally cover some of his most beloved wine regions — Bordeaux and the Rhone — as well as California vintages and bargain wines.

Laurie Forster, a Maryland wine educator and radio show host, said she was sorry to see Parker leave the magazine’s helm but had confidence in the stable of reviewers Parker trained.

"He is truly an inspiration for everyone in the wine business, starting with a really great idea of how to do things differently in an industry that can be very stuck in its ways," she says. "But now he has trained all these amazing other wine writers to take over the business. He’s built such a great team."

Colman doubts anyone will step up to claim Parker’s power and authority.

"I think the question comes, 'Who will be next Robert Parker?' And I don't think there will be another Robert Parker," he said. "He came along at a point in the story of wine in America when we were needing that kind of leadership. He was one of a kind."

jill.rosen@baltsun.com

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