HIS PALATE IS INSURED The snooty wine world pops its cork when critic Parker sips, then spits

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Through blinding snow, they have come to sip and spit in front of Robert M. Parker Jr. They are titans of industry, grand dames of Detroit, wine wonks. Some bought tickets a decade ago; others paid $275 for this chance, all with the same goal: to be in the presence of the crown prince of wine.

"Noble," he says, standing before them at a Detroit restaurant, "is a word that doesn't give these wines enough justice."

Almost 10 years ago, when he first tasted the same '82 Bordeaux in Detroit, Mr. Parker was an interloper in the land of Cabernets and Burgundies, a middle-class guy from the Maryland countryside who praised wines the old guard dismissed.

This time around, Mr. Parker is the controversial prince. He's revolutionized wine writing with a 100-point rating system, set new ethical standards for the industry and become the wine consumer's closest friend.

The French noticed, recently acknowledging his contributions with not simply an award, but the country's second-highest honor.

His palate is insured (although Lloyd's of London refused to do it), and his taste buds are worth big money to the $8-billion-a-year wine business.

Dozens of winemakers won't let him on their premises. Merchants offer rewards to whoever first delivers the latest issue of his bimonthly newsletter, the Wine Advocate. And prices skyrocket whenever he gives a wine a perfect score.

Between his newsletter, his six books, speaking engagements and other writing, Mr. Parker, 45, is rumored to earn $1 million a year, a figure he calls "off-base."

"He says something, and it's like the shot heard round the wine world," says Robert Schindler, partner in Pinehurst Gourmet & Spirit Shoppe, one of the area's most respected wine stores.

If Mr. Parker ever needed proof that oenophiles take him seriously, he got it in 1990. Two weeks after his fifth book came out, he received death threats at his Parkton home -- 10 menacing phone calls. Police figured it was a disgruntled winemaker, but the caller was never caught.

"That kind of sick behavior was a revelation," he says, shaking his head. "I thought, 'Geez, all I'm writing about is a beverage of pleasure, a fun thing to drink.' "

But in his heart of hearts, Robert Parker knows that's not true.

When he sips, French aristocracy shudders.

*

He bounds into the Milton Inn in Sparks on a sunny afternoon looking more like the Hereford High School soccer player he was in the mid-'60s than the wine superstar he's become. He's a lot like his favorite wines: big, bold and rich. Since making wine his full-time pursuit in 1984, he's gained 70 pounds, a trend only recently reversed.

He comes bearing wine, but he doesn't act the part of authority. The man, after all, is wearing a Mickey Mouse tie. A souvenir from a family trip to Disney World, he explains.

From the way he describes it, he's living in Disney World. When he's not listening to Neil Young tapes or vacationing in Ocean City, his idea of a great time is taking his 5 1/2 -year-old daughter, Maia, (pronounced MY-ah) to see "Aladdin."

'Silly, elitist beverage'

"When I started writing in '78, wine was a silly, elitist beverage that only rich people bought. Now you find mailmen and truck drivers quoting Robert Parker. It's amazing," says Dan Berger, wine writer for the Los Angeles Times.

In many ways, it is an awesome feat. Mr. Parker spends as much as $60,000 a year tasting some 10,000 wines, most of which he dumps down the drain. He then isolates aromas and flavors: smelling a forest after a spring rain, fields of strawberries or even smoky bacon fat in a glass of wine.

He didn't get to the top of the wine heap by being everyone's drinking buddy. Instead, he became a rebel among gentlemen -- upsetting the establishment, changing the rules and promoting himself.

Critics charge that his 100-point rating system, which became the standard for wine writing after he introduced it in 1978, is unreliable. ("What's the difference between an 87 and an 88?" one asks.) They say that retailers and restaurateurs trust Mr. Parker over their own expertise. And they claim that some winemakers now produce vintages to suit his palate.

"There are entire wineries beginning to make wine to fit the Parker style: big, dark, rich and alcoholic," says a winemaker who asked not to be named for fear of offending Mr. Parker. "These people can't afford to get a bad rating from Parker. It's essentially homogenizing the world's wines."

Mr. Parker calls such statements absurd and defends his ratings.

"If you're in a position of influence and you're at the top of your game, you're going to draw fire. It comes with the territory," he says.

Partner in vineyard

But perhaps his greatest challenge lies ahead. After writing about wine, he is putting his word to the test. In 1990, he became a partner (with his brother-in-law and a Canadian businessman) in Beaux Freres, a 20-acre vineyard in Oregon. He says he won't write about his wines, and the first pinot noirs aren't even due out until next year, but already the wine world is buzzing.

"The question is this: If you own a winery and agree not to write about your own wines, can you be 100 percent objective when you're writing about your competition?" asks Mr. Berger.

His competitors put it less rhetorically.

"It's silly and pompous to be critical of other people when he himself is violating a principal ethic, which is conflict of interest. . . . He ought to decide what he wants to be: a wine writer or winemaker," says Marvin Shanken, editor and publisher of the Wine Spectator magazine.

It's an ironic position for Mr. Parker to be in, particularly since he built his reputation applying Ralph Nader-like principles to a business with sometimes questionable ethics. He refuses free trips, free cases of wine and free lunches. He also refuses advertising in the newsletter he began 15 years ago.

The Wine Advocate looks more like a statistical abstract than a page-turner. It's hard to imagine that 28,000 subscribers in the United States and Europe clamor for this yellow booklet, paying $35 a year ($55 overseas). But they do.

"I have a bounty for whoever brings me the issue first," says Mr. Schindler who, like everyone else, must wait for his in the mail. "I'll give them any 90-point wine they want for free. If someone gets it at 8 or 9 in the morning, I'll send a driver over for it. . . . I look strictly for points -- the highest scores. Then I get on the phone to wine directors and buy up all I can."

But Mr. Parker's palate isn't foolproof. After giving a low rating to the 1981 Cheval Blanc Bordeaux, he almost wasn't allowed back to the famous estate the next year.

He definitely wasn't prepared for what happened when he got there. "I go up and knock at the door, and this dog takes a big bite by my heel, right through my pants. I literally had to kick him off. I had blood running from underneath my sock. [The winemaker] saw this happening and never said a thing," he says.

Amended his opinion

To make matters worse, he tasted the '81 again. It was much better than he had said. Despite the amended opinion in his next issue, the owner was never satisfied.

Tasting as many as 125 wines a day, even though he sniffs, swishes and spits most of them out, takes its toll. He worries about the effects of spending some 20 hours a week with abrasive wines in his mouth. Although he has never had a problem, he sees an ear, nose and throat specialist every six months.

In his field, a cold can put him out of work for weeks. Damaging his sense of smell would put him out of business.

*

Who knew Robert Parker would grow up to be a wine guru?

Nothing in his past hinted at it. The only son of an oil executive and homemaker, he rarely even saw wine growing up in Monkton. To this day, his parents rarely drink it.

If it hadn't been for the high price of Coca-Cola overseas, Mr. Parker might never have become smitten with wine at all.

It was 1967. He was in France visiting his girlfriend, Pat, who was studying there. Since soft drinks cost more than some wines, he tried the latter and became fascinated.

After returning home, he married his girlfriend, graduated from the University of Maryland Law School and worked as a lawyer for the Farm Credit Banks of Baltimore. But law was a distraction from his real love: wine.

By the late-'70s, he was convinced he was tasting more than the pros and launched the Wine Advocate. Readers learned in the first issue whom they were dealing with. Although merchants had praised the '73 Bordeaux, Mr. Parker weighed in with another opinion. "I thought they were watery, thin, sharp, nasty, little wines," he says.

In 1984, he left law to plunge into wine, setting up a full-time office in his home. Success -- and having his wife as his editor -- have made him kinder in his criticism.

"No more 'This wine reminds me of Janitor in a Drum,' " he says with a laugh.

He and his wife returned to France in January, some 25 years after first visiting there together. This time, Robert Parker was not a novice. And the French knew it. He was there to be named a knight of the National Order of Merit, the country's second-highest honor after the Legion of Honor.

In importance, he ranks the event right behind his wedding and the adoption of Maia from South Korea.

"I really do feel that I've been the beneficiary of extraordinary good fortune," he says. "Sometimes you do reflect. You say, 'Gee, is fate preparing you for something traumatic?' My reaction is: Don't take it for granted. Enjoy life, revel in it, and go on."

The Wine World According to Robert M. Parker Jr.

His Top Five Personal Favorites

1. Duckhorn Merlot, Napa Valley, California

2. Ravenswood Zinfandels, Sonoma, California

3. La Conseillante Bordeaux, 1989, 1990, France

4. Salice Salentino, 1986, 1988, Italy

5. Domaine Pegau, Chateauneuf du Pape, 1989, 1990, France

His Top Five Underachievers

1. Croizet Bages Bordeaux, France

2. Kirwan Bordeaux, France

3. Buena Vista, Cabernet Sauvignon, Carneros, California

4. Chappellet Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, California

5. Jean-Claude Boisset Burgundy, France

(Where no vintage is given, Mr. Parker says any year is appropriate.)

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