You might expect the man who is arguably the planet’s most influential wine critic to have a huge cellar stocked with a variety of the world’s finest.
But in the case of Robert Parker, not so much.
“The idea is not to leave your best wines in the cellar,” he says, “but to try to drink the best wine before I’m on my death bed.”
So, yes, Parker does keep a few bottles in the basement of his home in Parkton, but not many. As he says, he prefers imbibing to hoarding.
But he’s never been much of a beer drinker and finds hard liquor numbing. He developed a taste for wine while visiting his high-school sweetheart, now his wife of 42 years, during her junior year abroad in France.
“The first day, she said, ‘Try wine. That’s what they drink here.’”
It gave him, he says, “an incremental sense of euphoria,” and he liked how “it served to complement food” and also “stimulates conversation.” Back at the University of Maryland, Parker kissed off keg parties in favor of a wine-tasting group that met once a week.
This is a man serious but jolly, who has his palate and nose insured for $1 million. Which seems extraordinary, but makes sense. After all, his senses of taste and smell are his meal ticket, without which he’d be just another country squire in the rustic hills of northern Baltimore County.
But he’s not. Robert Parker, a consumer advocate who asserts he has no ties to the industry, publishes the ad-free newsletter The Wine Advocate. It has 20,000 print subscribers from 39 countries. That’s down from 50,000 at its peak, but many more read it online. His 100-point scale for judging wines has become the gold standard.
Parker is in the University of Maryland Alumni Hall of Fame and has received the two highest presidential honors bestowed by France. He has written books—and has been the subject of books. A 2005 work magisterially crowned him “the Emperor of Wine.”
The emperor, 65, is a somewhat portly man with longish, straight white hair who passed the bar (pun intended) but loathed the law.
“I was always the reluctant lawyer,” he says. At law school in Baltimore, “They called me the phantom; I wasn’t in class until they took the roll.”
He did not come from a family of wine drinkers; his father was a farmer who then founded a small oil company. An only child, Parker was the first in his family to go to college. So far as wine, he says, “I came in with literally a blank slate. I worked my way up the ladder of quality and prestige through tasting.”
Among the lessons he learned: “Rarity and prestige costs you money; it’s sometimes worth it, sometimes not.”
And about that million-dollar insurance policy: “I did it because, in London, at a tasting, I sat next to a British wine writer who was in a traffic accident and lost his sense of smell. It never came back. When I decided to leave the law and was pretty financially vulnerable, I talked to a broker. Lloyd’s of London wouldn’t insure, but another company did against loss of smell and taste.”
Such a loss would be tragic, not just for Parker’s business, but for his full enjoyment of life. This is a man who enjoys dining along with wining, and whose ethical code emerged from his growing awareness that “everyone writing about wine was in the wine trade. There was no pro-consumer information.”
So, in 1978, Parker published the first edition of what was then called The Baltimore-Washington Wine Advocate. Using a mailing list from a Washington, DC, liquor store, he initially sent it out for free. After five years, it was doing well enough for Parker to leave the law behind.