Why the Robert Parker brand is irrelevant in India

This post is in response to an article which appeared in the delWine website a few days ago. While it eruditely laid down the hype and commercial implications of wine ratings, the selective role of Robert Parker as a wine critic emerged as one of the highlights of the piece. This gives us an opportunity to find out what India thinks about the emperor of wine and what does his ratings mean to the Indian wine business?

Robert Parker Jr. is probably the most celebrated wine critic of all times. Photo courtesy Wikipedia
Robert Parker Jr. is probably the most celebrated wine critic of all times. Photo courtesy Wikipedia

It is inevitable that whenever wine ratings are discussed, Robert Parker, by default, becomes the focal point, and it is no different in the mentioned article also. No one in the knowledge of the world wine industry can deny the influence of his ratings on the trade. I have personally written and spoken about this at different forums, particularly his expertise and fascination with a few chosen wine regions and their wines (Bordeaux and California happen to be on the top).

To understand Robert Parker’s eminence as a wine critic, one has to study the man’s rise following the pronouncements of 1982 Bordeaux vintage. He was probably the only expert who stuck his neck out in conviction about the quality of  this vintage when most others wrote-off the year as average. The fact that it turned out to be one of the best vintages of  the century in subsequent tastings, was a vindication of his unquestionable tasting abilities. Incidentally, most who disagreed with him in the beginning had to fall in line with his ratings. This was not only the start of the making of ‘Robert Parker brand’ but also a sign of things to come for the future – the emergence of the ultimate wine critic in true sense, a cult-like figure who possesses a unique ability to affect wine price indices with a single whiff, sip and stroke of his pen.

Like most critics, in addition to a large army of dedicated followers, he has his fair share of detractors too, who feel that ‘Parkerization’ of the wine world has done more harm than good to wine’s cause. While many call him biased and manipulative, there are also those who feel that he is the best thing that could have happened to the modern wine world.

But in spite of Parker’s standing as one of the tallest authorities of wine ratings in rest of the wine world, his influence in affecting drinking habits and the trade in India is almost non-existent. The Parker effect, if any, happens indirectly and outside the country’s boundaries where prices are decided as per his ratings. Inside India, so far there has been no indication of any significant impact of his ratings and reviews.

Why Parker and his ratings are not important in the current Indian wine scene:

1.)  We are not a fine wine consuming nation, which happens to be Parker’s strongest domain. The consumption of wines rated 90+ and more by him is limited to a miniscule part of the wine drinking community in this country (price and availability being the two main reasons). Although there is no data to suggest how small this segment might be, it can be safely assumed that it is in the sub-zero percentage, when compared to the overall price brackets.

The same is true when it comes to collectible and investment grade wines.

2.)  Overwhelming majority of Indian wine consumers do not know the break-up and significance of the 100-point rating scale. Therefore  all the talk about a wine’s placement in the market just based on Robert Parker’s scores does not make any difference. At the most, it is nothing more than a numbers game which only the wine importers like to highlight as strong selling  propositions to the top hotels

3.)  One of the major areas of Parker’s influence is a category which belongs to the futures trade (En Primeur). Since this segment hardly features in the Indian trade, his ratings of these wines are of little or no consequence to the market in the country

4.)  In contrary to suggestions made in the article, even the hospitality industry does not consider it necessary to factor-in Parker or Wine Spectator ratings when selecting wines for their portfolio. Appellation, vintage and brand recognition play much more significant roles in wine selections. Therefore, the reason a 2000 Chateau Petrus ends up in a luxury hotel’s wine list is because the name has a tremendous brand value, belongs to a famous Bordeaux Right Bank appellation (Pomerol) and is from a great vintage. The fact that Parker scored this a perfect 100 is most likely to be a mere coincidence. Now, please don’t suggest that 2000 turned out to be a great vintage because of Parker’s ratings!

Why is this so? Simply because the role of critics in our drinking habits is negligible, to say the least. Ask any sommelier in the country and they will confirm that wines are never sold or selected based on critics’ ratings.

Now coming back to the article in question, and why I was tempted to express my views on the subject. Here are two examples from the article:

Example 1.

delWine1

I feel, this is just over the top! There was a time when this statement would have been true to a large extent but to suggest that he ‘single-handedly controls the wine rating system’ is unreasonable in today’s context. Thanks to many other equally capable (if not more) critics and credible wine review sites, it is no longer a one man show. Nowadays, many serious wine consumers and fine wine investors refer to multiple reviews and ratings before choosing their wines.

Leading wine websites like Wine-Searcher.com have realized this fact and it is becoming more and more common to find multiple ratings for a particular wine:

Based on consumer demands, it is common to find multiple ratings for wines on top wine websites like Wine-Searcher.com
Based on consumer demands, it is common to find multiple ratings for wines on top wine websites like Wine-Searcher.com

Example 2.

delWine2

The statement above is only partially true. No doubt that such scores are likely to add to the wine’s commercial value, but there are many wines scored 90 and below by Parker which are considered great value for money (better quality to price ratio). Additionally, there are also those which receive better scores later, following a period of bottle-aging. Generally, Parker mentions about the likely evolution of certain lower scoring wines into better products, in his tasting notes.

The rise and influence of the wine critic in conventional wine cultures is best exemplified by Robert Parker. An institution in himself, he has re-written the rules of the game which, many believe, will be the cornerstone of wine critiquing business for a long time to come. But as new wine cultures are born and new market dynamics emerge, Parker’s legacy may not have the same relevance. India is one such market where the man with ‘The Million Dollar Nose’ is yet to make a mark. Only time will tell if the Parker brand is able to mesmerise the Indian wine lover in times to come as it has for decades in other parts of the world.

Cheers,

Niladri

Demystifying the palate war

Ever wondered what separates the Americans from the Europeans (especially the British), apart from their accents, the ways of spelling English words and of course, the Atlantic Ocean? It’s their palate; for wine. If you are not already familiar with this (somewhat hush-hush) reality, it may come across as bizarre and even amusing. The fact that a wine’s taste, and hence quality, can be perceived so differently among two demographics, makes this a gripping topic to analyse. This post is an attempt to do exactly that without sounding blatantly dramatic and based on a well-reasoned and informed assumption that such a division does exist in the wine world.

So, what is the basis of this whole debate about American palate vs. European/British palate? Is it just a media created hype or is there real substance to this differentiation? Does an element of  ‘wineupmanship’, so often witnessed in the wine world, accentuate this rift? If the division is for real, how glaring are the difference of opinions?

Questions like these have provided plenty of food for thought to wine commentators since this phenomenon appeared on the world stage, most noticeably in the form of a very public spat between two of the world’s most prolific tasters and highly regarded wine critics, Robert Parker Jr. and Jancis Robinson. The wine in question was the 2003 Chateau Pavie from Saint-Emilion, a super-ripe, rich, concentrated and fruit-forward example which defied the very essence of a classic, quintessential Bordeaux – elegant, food-friendly wines known for their balance (between acidity, sugar, tannin and alcohol) and ability to age for a long period of time. Parker, the American, showered high praises on the wine during his routine En Primeur tastings whereas Robinson, a British, dismissed it as an “unappetising and ridiculous” wine. What followed was a clear emergence of style preference of the two camps and an all too visible polarisation, not only within the expert/critic community but also in the way wines were produced in many traditional wine-growing regions around the world.

Although many in the wine industry have dismissed it as nothing more than a mere ‘storm in a wine glass’, it will be unrealistic not to accept the fact that there are indeed two schools of thought when it comes to tagging a wine based on its taste profile. Simply stated, most Americans tend to prefer wines with vibrant fruit falvours, softer tannins, lower acidity, comparatively higher alcohol and an overall richer concentration. This preference could be related to the general California styles where growing conditions more or less favour more exuberant wines.

The British, on the other hand, have often inclined towards more traditional and classic Old World style of wines where the catch word is ‘balance’. Anything over the top and the Brits are the first to press the alarm button, which is not surprising as wine drinking in the country has always been very Europe-centric, where wine styles tend to be rather restrained albeit complex and classy with an expression of the place they belong to (terroir, in other words). This, by no means suggests that terroir has no role in American wines…in addition to the overall growing conditions, winery operations in the USA (like many other New World producers) have a big role to play in deciding the final outcome.

Now, that brings us to the crux of the matter – why so much fuss about how people choose to enjoy their wine? In my view, there are two possible explanations for this. The first and foremost relates to economics. What sounds like a trivial issue relating to perceptions of taste would not have mattered much if it did not have a profound effect on the global wine business, especially at the top, ultra-premium level. One has to simply look at the transformation of the Bordeaux Right Bank (St. Emilion & Pomerol, mainly) to understand this theory. Robert Parker’s tremendous influence on wine prices has resulted in the adoption of an almost signature style by the majority of this part of Bordeaux. No wonder that some of the wines from this region (the likes of Le Pin, Lafleur, Valandraud et al) consistently demand higher prices than most of their more illustrious Left Bank counterparts. This certainly defies logic if one still considers the 1855 Classification as the benchmark for quality and price (not many people do…aren’t we in the 21st century now?).

The second, and probably more of a subjective issue seems to be that both the sides feel that by letting the rivals have the last word, their own wine identities could be at stake. Looks like the custodians of each of these identities have decided not to let the other dictate how their followers want to enjoy drinking wine. After all, it is a known fact that influencing evolving wine taste buds does not take a huge effort.

Although a comparatively recent discord within the larger wine world, the entire palate debate has definitely added punch to the already heady mix of opinions and the more the industry evolves the more this matter is likely to gain attention. We may have just seen the beginning!

Cheers,

Niladri

‘Indian Wine Guru’? No Thanks

Recently, I came across a comment on an Indian wine website that “India is desperately in need of a wine guru…who can generate a mass demographic of wine followers”. Being a subject close to my heart, it instantly agitated my wine senses, forcing my grey cells to go in a hyper mode trying to empathise with this, rather lofty, imagination. The last time someone managed to ‘generate a mass demographic of followers’ in India was probably M. K. Gandhi!

On a more serious note, I am sure the statement is not meant to be as forceful to place this imaginary figure on a revered altar but it does give us an opportunity to discuss why India will be better-off sans a wine guru and still be a thriving wine-loving society.

To start with, let me clarify that this discussion is confined to the meaning of ‘guru’ as portrayed in the larger world nowadays as someone of authority and mass-following and not the literal Indian meaning; that of  a teacher.

Wine appreciation is a widely subjective as well as an individualistic matter. The mental perceptions and their physical counterparts (taste buds) respond in different ways in different people when it comes to wine enjoyment and hence vary immensely from person to person, one of the reasons which explains the existence of so many varieties in styles and types of wines. Now, being a ‘manipulator’ of all our actions, the human mind ultimately decides our preferences which in turn is instigated by many factors. One such influence can be an individual with a larger than life image and a clout so immense that it becomes ‘in-vogue’ and almost an obligation to try and relate to his/her ways to appreciate wines. No one embodies this cult-like status in the wine world more than the American wine critic Robert Parker Jr.

Parker is a wine guru in every sense of the word. Someone who wields the power to make or decimate a brand with a stroke of his pen. Someone whose 100 point rating system has almost become a benchmark for quality in the USA (and many other parts of the world). Someone who has singlehandedly created a national wine identity in the form of an ‘American Palate for rich and powerful wines in response to the more, so-called elegant ‘British/European Palate‘. And most important of all, someone who manages to sway huge public opinion conforming with  his thoughts. Not to mention the mind-boggling impact of his ratings and reviews on wine prices worldwide. On the other hand, to his detractors, Parker is a media-created hype who has mastered the art of feeding on the paranoia, cynicism, indecision, confusion and lack of knowledge of the wine consuming public. This lobby believes that his influence has more been a negative one.

Whatever the fact of the matter is, it is not hard to imagine the effect such a personality can have on a particular demographic of a society. It becomes more relevant from an Indian context as we are still a nascent wine culture and any such influence can only hijack a wine lover’s ability to think independently and follow personal instincts rather than becoming hostage of somebody else’s opinions and preferences.

The Indian wine community will be much better served by qualified wine ambassadors who will share their knowledge and passion for the subject without harbouring the desire to ultimately become ‘the Indian wine guru’. It is also in the interest of the country’s wine sector to promote a collective learning and development through credible means to ensure a consistent and healthy growth of the industry, instead of relying on one person to act as their torch-bearer.

Cheers,

Niladri