(Editor’s note: Last week, Robert Parker spoke to attendees at the annual Wine Writers Symposium. Alder Yarrow has put up a video and Richard Jennings has published a rough transcript together with his thoughts. I’ve published a transcript of Parker’s response to smart questions posed by Tony Lawrence and Jon Bonné. More snippets will be published in the coming days. But here’s my commentary.)
“I want all of you to succeed.”
When Robert Parker spoke at the annual Wine Writers Symposium last Wednesday, he opened with these words.
While he meant well, such words would have been better suited to, say, the Wine Bloggers Conference. Or a high school English class.
Eric Asimov, Ray Isle, Jon Bonné, and Karen MacNeil sat in the audience. As did Jay McInerney, one of the nation’s greatest living novelists. So did about a dozen magazine editors. As did Lisa Perrotti-Brown, Parker’s boss.
This was the audience. Just 62 writers participated in the symposium. Those who follow wine would have recognized more than half the room. So while his intentions were good, the comment was stunningly patronizing.
As Parker continued, he was personable, humorous, and disarming at times. But over and over again, he came off as divisive and dismissive. He said nothing to convince the crowd he’s more thoughtful than the stereotype he’s created for himself.
Although the appearance was certainly memorable, it was disappointing.
Throughout his remarks, Parker lamented the “myth” that’s evolved about him and his palate and called for more “civility” in the discourse about it. But only once did he admit that he “sometimes overdoes it and gets carried away.”
Remember: This is the critic who praised a Philadelphia BYO in 2010 by celebrating the fact that there wasn’t “a precious sommelier trying to sell some teeth enamel removing wine with acid levels close to toxic, made by some sheep farmer… and made from a grape better fed to wild boar than the human species.”
This is the critic who, just last month, lambasted “a vociferous minority,” who are “perpetrating nothing short of absolute sham on wine consumers.” The sham, which celebrates lower alcohol wines, is a “phony anti-California, anti-New World movement by Eurocentric, self- proclaimed purists.”
In discussing this particular screed, Parker told symposium attendees he wrote it “to encourage conversation on the subject… because we need to discuss it civilly.” He also cited this particular piece to tell the crowd that he doesn’t “like absolutists” – moments after telling us “truth” and “history” are on his side.
The lack of self-awareness would be laughable if it weren’t so sad.
With retirement so obviously on the horizon, wine writers — and consumers — expect more from Parker.
We expect more because of the examples set by similar luminaries.
Look at Jancis Robinson. Late last year, Robinson celebrated the “democratization of wine” with the following: No longer are wine critics and reasonably well-known wine writers like me sitting on a pedestal, haughtily handing down our judgments. Nowadays, our readers can answer back, they can throw stones at us, they can make up their own minds. That’s altogether a lot healthier.”
We also expect more because Parker tells us to.
In his opening, he praised the “good talent” that exists in the wine writing community and noted that today’s writers have “infinite possibilities.” Just before taking questions, he said, “it’s sort of a shame that when I look around this room, it’s just a tiny, tiny number of people I’ve ever met, which is sort of sad.”
Parker paints himself as an elder statesman – and acts like he wants to fill that role. But over and over again, he undermines that portrait.
At the symposium, Eric Asimov, Ray Isle, Jon Bonné, Karen MacNeil, Jay McInerney, and others took part in all the events. They were eager to hang out with younger, less accomplished writers. Yet Parker vacated the symposium the moment his time slot ended.
Early in his remarks, Parker described his personal philosophy as “live and let live.” He concluded with an admission that “we’re much closer together in what we believe than what separates us.”
If only he could live up to his words.