Full disclosure: I wrote a book about being Catholic that has not been nearly as successful as Tony Hendra's book about being Catholic. I mention this because in this column I intend to criticize Hendra's recent review in The New York Times of Elin McCoy's book The Emperor of Wine: The Rise of Robert M. Parker, Jr. and the Reign of American Taste . Now, given our mutual interest in writing about Catholicism and wine, if Mr. Hendra were very much like Mr. Parker, he would more than likely dismiss my criticism as the sourest of grapes -- green grapes, green with envy. How do I know this? Because of passages about Parker like this one from McCoy's book:
"Frequently, as he did with [Bill] Baker, he questioned the motives of his critics, voicing his conviction that they must be envious of his success or have 'an agenda.'" Baker had written a negative review of Parker's book on Bordeaux for an "obscure regional newsletter" in England; Parker had replied with a "five-page point-by-point rebuttal.... The letter verged, as Parker's responses to criticism sometimes did, on the paranoid and even the vindictive."
It's bits like that -- and there are loads of them -- that left me scratching my head over lines like this from Hendra's review: "In general, McCoy, the wine and spirits columnist for Bloomberg Markets, hews to the triumphalism of her title."
But again, full disclosure: I had been scratching my head over Hendra's review for several days before I bought The Emperor of Wine. The book, as Hendra presented it, was basically self-refuting. Exhibit A: "McCoy is largely following the custom-tailored history of the late-20th-century wine scene cut for himself by Parker." But then, a few lines later, "This construct has great appeal, but McCoy, almost inadvertently, undermines it." (Yeah, it would pretty much have to be inadvertently, wouldn't it? What author would undermine her own structure?) Exhibit B: "McCoy clearly likes Parker. But she can't avoid painting a picture of an irascible, arrogant, ill-mannered man." (If he's so rotten, why does she like him? And if she likes him, why does she paint such a rotten picture?) Exhibit C: "At the end of her penultimate chapter McCoy cracks open a Pandora's Box: scientific sensory research," including the way a sense of smell may adapt to a strong odor so that it's no longer perceived. This would, of course, be a serious stumbling block for a critic making his way through thirty or forty Cabernets with similar aromatic profiles. "Understandably McCoy slams the box shut and a few pages later takes refuge in a safer conclusion, that Parker's reputation 'is rooted in...his unique, semi-divine tasting ability." (So then why open the box at all?)
"Thus," concludes Hendra, "triumphalist biography becomes faith-based biography -- which seems only appropriate for faith-based wine criticism." Ouch. This is what's known at Denny's as the English Slam.
But beware ellipses like the one in that "safer conclusion" in which McCoy supposedly takes refuge. The line in full, from the last page of the book: "It will be hard, if not impossible, for Parker to pass on his mantle of power, for his reputation is rooted in the idea of his specialness, his unique, semi-divine tasting ability." McCoy is not drawing any sort of conclusion about the actual state of Parker's tasting ability -- she is merely observing that his reputation rests on the idea of that ability. Hendra has completely distorted her meaning. What is up?
The hits kept coming, and by the time I finished reading the book, the head-scratching over Hendra's review had begun again. "It's something of a mystery why someone so abrasive enjoys such awesome power," he writes in a sharp jab at a book that proposes to answer that very question. "The reasons seem to be, first, that Parker's predilection for 'big,' fruity and alcoholic wine mirrors a similar taste in his public, and, second, that he has the energetic support of the American wine industry. His scores give it a powerful tool for inflating prices at the top end of the market, drawing all other prices up with them."
When I first read that first reason, I nodded -- it seemed a reasonable charge, if only because it is the classic gripe against Parker as critic. But then I read the chapters about Parker in his early days, while he was on his way up, before he became The Emperor. I read where Parker wrote lines like this: "The better French Bordeaux are elegant, delicate wines that possess incredible subtlety and complexity, whereas the best California Cabernets are massive, powerful, assertive wines often bordering on coarseness." And this about a Cal Cab: "...has the finesse of a horny hippopotamus."
McCoy does note that, years later, "Parker...routinely praised over-the-top Cabernets" that he once would have called "overly alcoholic, corpulent, Bordeaux wannabes." Still, Parker's heart lies with Bordeaux and the Rhone. "I'm a Francophile," he protests, "and French wines by their very nature are elegant wines." Even Hendra notes that the overwhelming majority of Parker's "perfect" 100-point wines were French.
Which brings us to Hendra's reason number two. The energetic support of the American wine industry? As opposed to whom? The French? Not so. "With the 1995 vintage, the whole Parker commercial system started working," says one Bordeaux negotiant. For a top estate, "The difference between a score of 85 and 95 was 6 to 7 million Euros." "If a chateau received a score of 100," notes McCoy, "it could multiply its price by four." Or as opposed to the English? Writes McCoy of the upstart British brokerage Farr Vintners, "They subscribed to the Wine Advocate , bought what Parker recommended, started including his scores in their catalog, and their business grew rapidly.... Far Vintners is now the largest seller of Bordeaux futures in Britain."
Finally, there was this from Hendra's review: "Going patriotic pushes McCoy into some unfortunate journalism. Setting the stage for the emperor's advent in the early '80s, she writes, 'A huge number of Americans...were energetically and enthusiastically educating themselves about wine in ways other countries, including France, never had.' No sources are cited for this preposterous assertion." The next line from the book: "Within a decade, tasting, comparing, and discussing French wines would, as Nicholas Faith wrote, 'spread more widely through the American social system than it had over the previous two hundred years in England, let alone in France. '" That's from Faith's book The Winemasters of Bordeaux: The Inside Story of the World's Greatest Wines .
But Hendra explains himself in the review's first line -- I just hadn't noticed it right off: "Robert M. Parker Jr., wine cop to the world, is a polarizing figure whose fierce judgments are echoed by the ferocity of his advocates and opponents." Ah.
About the review, McCoy says, "My book tends to be a kind of Rorschach test. People who really hate Parker and his influence think I'm not critical enough of Parker. People who absolutely love Parker think that I'm too critical of Parker. Personally, I don't see how anybody could read my book and think that I am a disciple of Parker. But I was surprised by certain things when I was writing the book, and one of them was the vehemence which people had when they spoke about Parker, the polarization I found. So many people would say to me either 'He's been awful for the wine world' or 'He's practically a saint.' I tried to reflect that polarization, because it's interesting that somebody would evoke that kind of emotion. One person said that some of the reactions to Parker are almost more like religious reactions."