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The Emperor Mellows

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It is a little after 10 on a Monday morning, and the waiters are arriving at the Oregon Grille for a day of work. Inside, Robert M. Parker Jr. is already at work, tasting wine.

Ensconced in a small, well-appointed room in the Hunt Valley restaurant, Parker sniffs, sips, then spits samples of some two dozen wines from David Powell's Torbreck, a South Australian winery. He records his impressions in a small notebook, soon to be translated into "Parker points."

Those points have earned Parker, a reigning wine expert whose opinions can make chateaux quake, plenty of criticism from those who say he likes only big, concentrated wines, or that winemakers engineer their products to please his tastes.

A recent barb comes in A Life Uncorked, the new memoir from British wine writer Hugh Johnson, who calls Parker a "dictator of taste" and links his ratings system to the tone of "imperial hegemony" coming out of the Bush administration in Washington.

In the past, Parker has bristled at such talk, defending his rating system as an honest way for consumers to navigate the seas of wine. But in recent interviews, this alumnus of Hereford High School and the University of Maryland - whom a biographer dubbed "The Emperor of Wine" - seemed less interested in fighting about wine than enjoying it.

As he tasted wine at the Oregon Grille and rode his bicycle on the Northern Central Railroad Trail near his north Baltimore County home, Parker talked about what makes him a good wine taster, what makes a good wine and what he wants to do next. He came across as a man brimming with passion - he has taken three serious falls while cycling - yet satisfied with life.

He has added the less-intimitating voices of wine educator Kevin Zraly and food writer Alan Richman to his Web site (erobertparker.com). He wants to write a book about low-cost wines. He built his reputation navigating the top-dollar red wines of Bordeaux, but as Parker approaches his 59th birthday in July, he seems quite comfortable with the notion of stopping and smelling the rose.

That was precisely what he did at the Oregon Grille. He sniffed the carefully poured glasses of Torbreck Mataro 2005 Saignee Rose and was ecstatic.

He had an ice pack on his knee, chilling the throb from yet another bike injury. Fixing this one, his doctor tells him, will require surgery. Yet this rose, with its "fresh fruit, terrific nose and terrific length," had the emperor of wine temporarily forgetting his cares.

"Maybe," he mused, "I could drink a bottle of this before the knee operation."

The author of 11 best-selling wine books, Parker presides over The Wine Advocate, an influential wine newsletter with more than 40,000 subscribers worldwide that Parker started writing in 1978, when he was working as a lawyer in Baltimore.

Timing was right

While his points have huge market clout, he has not been happy with the "emperor" label from Elin McCoy's book, published last year. McCoy, in a telephone interview last week, defended it. "He has global reach, influence in every country," she said of Parker. "That is an emperor."

One factor that has propelled Parker's success, McCoy said, is propitious timing. He started writing about wine in the late 1970s as his baby boom generation was discovering the beverage. "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."

That landscape has become more democratic, McCoy said. Many people, not just wine critics, visit vineyards. While buyers for big-box stores may rely on Parker's scores to make their selections, other wine drinkers, especially young ones, rely on recommendations of wine-store proprietors, or bloggers, she said.

"Understanding Parker's writing requires a certain level of knowledge," said Alder Yarrow, 32, who writes "Vinography," an award-winning wine blog from San Francisco.

"There are large numbers of mostly young people who may not even have heard of Robert Parker ... but do know how to type 'wine blog' into Google. Even if these folks did manage to find their way to Parker ... what they find there isn't much use to them."

Still, Parker's influential voice and remarkable palate are hard to ignore. He is disarmingly approachable in person. "He is a very decent human being," said biographer McCoy. "He is not a social climber. He is funny, entertaining and quite smart." But he is, McCoy went on to say, "the one who is right. If you don't agree with him, he will tell you you are wrong."

There is rigor at a Parker wine tasting. The glasses at the Oregon Grille have, at Parker's instruction, been "rinsed" with a small portion of the wine that's being tasted. This, he feels, lessens the chance that dish-soap film will interfere with the wine's flavor.

Samples are poured from two bottles of each wine. One bottle has been opened 24 hours earlier, the other minutes before. Parker believes that tasting a wine that has been opened for 24 hours gives him an indication of how well it will age.

After sipping a 2004 Torbreck Les Amis Grenache, he identifies the area, the northwest part of Barossa Valley near the hamlet of Marananga, where the grapes were grown. He has a similar territorial fondness, he said, for cabernets made from grapes grown in the Oakville area of California's Napa Valley.

When sniffing a glass of Torbreck's 2004 Factor he agrees with a fellow taster, Torbreck's Jon Elkins, that the bottle it came from suffered from "cork taint." "Cork failure comes in degrees," he says, explaining that the "most insidious stage is early, when the failure causes the aromas and flavors of the wine to be muted, but before it starts smelling like wet dog."

Parker theorized that if he had sent this bottle back to a restaurant sommelier as unacceptable, the sommelier might object. There were no "off" flavors, he said, only missing ones.

It is hard to imagine a sommelier, no matter how snooty, disagreeing with Parker.

"I don't take what I do lightly," he said.

He recalled that years ago, when he was a bored lawyer, he used to read Bill Rice's wine column in the Washington Post and think, "What a great job. He tastes wine and writes about it." That is what he does now, happily. Paraphrasing lyrics from a Neil Young song, Parker said, "It seems like such a simple thing to be able to follow your dream."

One of the things that makes Parker a good taster is his nose. He has an acute sense of smell, a trait he said he inherited from his father, Robert Parker Sr. His father, a Baltimore County dairy farmer and construction equipment salesman, was a hunter who kept bluetick hounds.

A story recounted in McCoy's book told of how the elder Parker told his son he could tell the breed of a dog simply by its distinctive aroma. Parker thought his dad was joking, but later realized that his father had an extraordinary ability. "When I had eaten garlic, he could tell even when I was some distance away," Parker said.

Parker's taste memory is equally strong. His critics have questioned how he can compare the flavors of the many wines he samples with ones he tasted years earlier. Parker said that he is not entirely sure why he remembers the tasting details, but he does.

For example, Parker told how last March, while talking with an acquaintance in Paris, he recalled the five wines and multiple courses served at the 1999 meal the two had enjoyed at Ledoyen restaurant when Parker was inducted into the Legion of Honor by French President Jacques Chirac. "I can't do that with anything else," Parker said. "I will read something, then forget it."

He said he tastes "in 3-D," a concept he elaborated on in a 1999 interview with David Shaw of the Los Angeles Times.

"Tasting is a matter of focus, of mental discipline," Parker said then. "When a wine is in my mouth, I can taste it and smell it all its dimensions - the full range of flower, plant, vegetable and earth, of black and red fruits. I don't let anything interfere."

McCoy is guarded in her assessment of Parker's sensory skills. "I have tasted with him and talked to wine people that have tasted with him and they say he has extremely good recall," she said. "Can he recall every boring wine he ever tasted? I don't think so," said McCoy. "Do I think he can have a memory that recalls every first-class, first-growth he tasted? Yes."

On the trail

A large man who says he weighs about 260 pounds, Parker exercises by riding a mountain bike, equipped with carbon fiber rims, on the Northern Central Railroad Trail. The 20-mile trail is not far from the combination home and office in Parkton that he shares with his wife and editor, Patricia, and their daughter Maia, a sophomore at the Maryland Institute College of Art.

As he rode on the trail one gleaming morning, Parker pointed out spots where the frogs gather to break into their springtime chorus. He also recounted the times he had taken a tumble or tasted the trail.

One spill he blamed on a beaver. He was traveling at a good clip, he said, when suddenly there was a tree in his path, dropped there by the beaver. Another time Parker, who wears a helmet, went tumbling over the handlebars after stopping suddenly to avoid a ground squirrel. "I know you are not supposed to hit the front brake when that happens, but I just reacted," Parker said.

At a bend in the trail, he took up the topic of what makes a great wine.

"It is subtlety. What the great chefs of the world have in common with great wine is the ability to deliver intensity of flavor without heaviness.

"That is the magic. It is easy to make big, powerful wines. The hard part is how you build in nuance. The Europeans have led the way," he said, but wine makers in other parts of the world are catching up in a hurry.

Parker is familiar with expensive wines. His ascendancy began when he correctly predicted in his newsletter that the 1982 vintage from Bordeaux was going to be exceptional. Bottles of '82 Bordeaux are listed on the Web for between $600 and $900 - if you can find one.

At the Oregon Grille tasting, he raved about a 2003 Torbreck RunRig.

"This," he said as he held up a glass of shiraz from old-growth vineyards in Australia's Barossa Valley blended with viognier, is "one of the single greatest wines in the world." It sells for about $225 a bottle.

But he also tasted and praised the 2005 Woodcutters Shiraz and Semillon screw-top wines that sell for about $20. Spain, Argentina, the south of France and southern Italy are four other places also producing great wines at about that price, Parker said.

rob.kasper@baltsun.com

Robert M. Parker Jr.

Born:

July 23, 1947

Education:

Honors graduate of the University of Maryland, with a major in history and a minor in art history. Graduated from the University of Maryland School of Law in 1973.

Occupation:

For a decade, he was an attorney for the Farm Credit Banks of Baltimore. In 1984, he resigned to devote full attention to wine writing. Now he presides over a wine Web site, erobertparker.com, a world-respected newsletter, The Wine Advocate, and is the author of 11 books on wine. Works from his home office in northern Baltimore County.

How he got interested in wine:

Spent a month abroad in 1967 during his Christmas vacation, visiting a girlfriend (now Patricia Parker, his wife of 30 years) at the University of Strasbourg in Alsace, France.

Big break:

Telling readers of his newsletter that the wines coming out of Bordeaux in 1982 were some of the greatest produced in this century.

On what makes a great wine:

"It is subtlety. What the great chefs of the world have in common with great wine is the ability to deliver intensity of flavor without heaviness."

[ Rob Kasper]

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