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November 17, 2011

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A nose for controversy

THE world's most influential wine critic believes China has a lot of potential to produce high-quality vintages.

Robert Parker, the American wine critic who is recognized as bringing a pro-consumer approach to wine reviews, tells Shanghai Daily, "The Chinese wine I served five years ago was good, but not inspirational. But what I tasted yesterday in Hong Kong convinced me that China is a vast country with diverse soils and climates."

Parker, who was in Shanghai last Saturday for a dinner costing 28,888 yuan (US$4,545.81) per person at Pudong Shangri-La Shanghai, is an independent voice and his opinions often differ from established views.

Parker is plain spoken and not afraid to say what he thinks, even if it will offend people in the industry.

Although the Wall Street Journal earlier this month reported that Parker's influence is declining, his status remains strong in China.

Many wealthy Chinese loyally follow his reviews, buying the Bordeaux wines he rates highly.

The buyers are sometimes criticized as a group of wealthy people without knowledge of wine that push up prices of Bordeaux vintages.

Parker disagrees.

"I think it's a dangerous insult to Chinese," says the 64-year-old. "It's true that wine producers, led primarily by people from Bordeaux, see China as a great dragon that can consume their wine. But many people with wealth are willing to pay for wines because they love it just like what happened 25 years ago, a time when Americans were the biggest buyers of Bordeaux wine."

Parker predicts that Chinese investment in Bordeaux wines will continue for some time but it will become more difficult in the near future. At a recent wine auction in Hong Kong, he saw signs of Bordeaux wines coming down in price, which he thinks is good.

Further, Parker says there is absolutely no reason Chinese can not appreciate wine. He says the country's tea-drinking tradition means Chinese already have an appreciation of tannins.

"The tannins in wine have the same texture impressing in the mouth as those in green and black tea," he says. "For Chinese, it's not a foreign substance but something they already know. For Americans growing up with milk and Coca-Cola, we should cultivate the taste for tannins."

He says the rich tannins in young Bordeaux wines and California Cabernets are similar to those in green tea.

He also says Chinese food goes very well with wine, contrary to mainstream opinion.

"There's a myth in the Western world that wine does not work with Chinese food," he says. "I found that Cantonese food and Shanghainese cuisine goes fabulously well with all kinds of wine. Even for spicy Sichuan cuisine, I admit that the pairing should be more careful, white wines such as Riesling and Sauvignan Blanc match well."

The wine dinner at Pudong Shangri-La Shanghai featured first growth wines such as Chateau Latour, including the great vintages of 1982 and 2003. Over the years, Parker has been vilified by some in the industry and praised by others.

Elin McCoy, wine columnist for Bloomberg News and author of "The Emperor of Wine," the first biography about Parker, has described him as "the oenological equivalent of Einstein's brain."

A former lawyer, Parker knows and doesn't care that he is considered "an uncultured American by some Europeans."

His 100-point rating system has been the biggest breakthrough in ending the European monopoly on wine reviews. His system is simple and effective - evaluating a wine from its appearance, nose, flavor and aging potential.

"When I look at the significances of what I've done in the last 32 years, it's probably been in having brought a democratic aspect to wine evaluation," he says. "I brought a very pro-consumer independent view."

His wine reviews, published in The Wine Advocate, have a loyal following. Often after the newsletter is published, the wines scoring over 90 sell out in a week. Few retailers want to carry wines scoring less than 81 points.

His preference for Bordeaux wines has been blamed for causing their prices to skyrocket in recent years. He has also been criticized as "singularizing the world's taste in wine" since more wine producers tend to make wines catering to his personal taste for dark, ripe and high-alcohol wines. People have called this the "Parkerization" of the wine world.

Parker himself doesn't like the word.

"It's a criticism and it's untrue," he says. "I don't think my taste can be defined so well that you could actually come up with the formula of what I like. If you examine all my writings, it's pretty clear that there's not one style.

"Good wine makers know their responsibility, producing natural wine to translate the personality and character of the vineyard and vintage without compromise," he adds.

"Changing their style to please one critic is a complete betrayal of their responsibility."

When Parker first started reviewing wines, most other wine writers were attached to the industry in some way or another.

They insisted on using an old approach to wine, focusing on hierarchies of chateaus and the story behind the bottle, not necessarily the liquid inside it.

He buys his own wine and does not accept gifts from wine traders.

In his world, famous wines such as Chateau Lafite Rothschild and Chateau Margaux are treated the same as any other wine. Before gaining notoriety, Parker started questioning the value of some wines from such chateaus, declaring some to be overrated.

And while he reviews many fine wines, he makes an effort to review many bottles that everyone can afford.

"I have a certain responsibility to the producer, but the ultimate is the wine consumer. It's them putting confidence in reading what I said," Parker says.

Over the years he has received at least one death threat (from a New York City retailer after he wrote a bad review) and he's been banned from some famous chateaus.

"I've lost sort of professional colleagues and friends because of that," he says. "However, an independent voice has value in giving people credibility. It also plays the role of pushing producers, letting them know they need to work harder to increase the quality of wine."

Parker's professional reviews are based on tasting around 10,000 wines a year. He says he can remember every great wine he has tasted, especially those "great wines" that are actually bad.

"I wasn't a very good lawyer," says Parker. "But when it comes to wine, I have an extraordinary laser-like focus. That's just a matter of loving what I do.

"When tasting starts, it's like going into an alternative world. Everything in the glass, it's just me and that," he says.

Parker takes care of his nose and palate. He has given up espresso, garlic and chocolate so that his judgment is not impaired. He drinks mineral water often and takes vitamin C and ginseng to avoid catching a cold and getting congested.

With criticism and praise following him wherever he goes, Parker tries to keep level headed about it all.

"I know how good I am, how hard I work," he says. "I appreciate constructive criticism and prefer people saying: 'Parker, you need to reevaluate this wine.' Wine consumers now realize that no one is perfect. But if you're not influenced by wineries and say what you believe to be the truth from your heart, they will give you a lot of chances to make mistakes."

Other critics

John Isacs

Wine columnist for Shanghai Daily

In the wine world Robert Parker is certainly a controversial figure. Despite this I admire him because since his first wine guide in 1975 he's played a key role in demystifying wine. Unlike many of the wine writers of the time who also sold wine, Parker's loyalty was to the consumer. He helped break down barriers for consumers and with Wine Spectator magazine he popularized the 100-point wine rating system. Despite my respect for Parker, I believe consumers in China must build up their own expertise and trust their own palates and not blindly follow Parker's or anyone else's ratings. Wine guides by definition should guide you, but real wine appreciation necessitates making your own decisions!

Grace Zheng

Wine educator

As a wine critic Parker does believe that every wine should show the real character of its grape variety, it's terroir. These beliefs become the base of his special scoring system. Then his good speech craft also helps him express his beliefs and influence so many consumers and so many persons in the wine world.

David Shoemaker

Beverage manager/wine sommelier at Pudong Shangri-La Shanghai

I am honored to be part of the team to host such a great event at Pudong Shangri-La Shanghai.

Mr Parker has been an inspiration to me since I was a young sommelier.

His non-biased approach to wine and his ability to eloquently describe wines to all consumers from the novice to the professional are gifts.

Alvin Gho

Head sommelier of Jean Georges, Three on the Bund

Robert Parker is a trendsetter who made waves with his style of wine judging. He is also the man who made wine simple and straightforward for people who did not know about wines.

Parker's use of wine vocabulary and his detailed understanding of many chateaus and wine makers, make his writing interesting for sommeliers who have not been to those places.

I personally find him a source of inspiration for writing tasting notes.


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