Robert Parker: Vintage Lawyer


Name and current title?

Robert M. Parker, wine critic and founder of eRobertParker.com.

That’s a cool title. But what do you really do? What’s a day in the life of a wine critic?

I have been a full-time wine critic since 1983. It is hard to describe an average day. Approximately three months of the year are spent visiting wineries abroad and in the United States. Of the other nine months, probably a total of two months is spent tasting wines in my office’s tasting room. The rest of the time is spent documenting the tasting notes, writing my reports for my journal, The Wine Advocate, and writing whatever book I am working on for my publisher, Simon & Schuster. I have written 14 books, and a 15th is in the works, which is essentially a new book every two years.

Until I brought on a few colleagues a number of years ago, I tasted a minimum of 10,000 wines per year. Today it is closer to 5,000-6,000 since I no longer visit or taste wines from the regions for which my colleagues are now responsible. My job requires a great deal of discipline as well as very focused tastings—and an enormous amount of passion and energy. More than anything else, my passion and energy, in addition to the fact that wine is so diverse and fascinating, explains how I have survived for thirty years doing this.

Where did you go to Law School? Did you make Law Review?

I went to the University of Maryland undergraduate school as well as the University of Maryland School of Law. I graduated in the top third of my class, but I wasn’t Law Review material.

What kind of law did you practice?

Between 1973 and 1983, I practiced as a corporate banking lawyer, specializing in the Uniform Commercial Code and Bankruptcy Law. In 1983, I retired fully from the practice of law. I worked that entire time for the Farm Credit Banks of Baltimore. This was primarily an agriculture bankruptcy and uniform commercial code law practice.

Did you like being a lawyer?

I never felt totally comfortable as a lawyer, and my primary interest, even prior to law school, was the study of wine and how compelling this beverage could be. While it’s easy to say I wasn’t happy as a lawyer, that’s not totally true. Law school deserves a great deal of credit for the success I have enjoyed in the field of wine. The difficulty of the studies, the discipline required, the deductive way of thinking, and the comprehensive, detailed, meticulous research required of a lawyer have all been applied over the last thirty years in evaluating and studying wine.

In addition, the 50-100 point scoring system for which I have become so well known was used at the University of Maryland Law School. Ironically, I had dinner with the dean of the University of Maryland Law School recently, and she informed me they have abandoned that system. However, I don’t intend to do the same since I believe it makes the writer very accountable, and when accompanied by thorough, meaningful tasting notes, it offers a purposeful guide for the wine consumer.

How did you transition from law to wine?

I was never quite sure how to make a living by writing about wine full time. When I launched my guide, The Wine Advocate, in 1978, most wine writers were actually part of the wine trade, or existed because of the largesse of the wine trade. The idea of an independent publication with no advertising and working separate and apart from the wine trade seemed somewhat far-fetched. I began by mailing out 2,000 free copies of the first issue to wine retailers in the Baltimore and Washington, DC areas, began receiving paid subscriptions, and slowly but surely gained credibility.

When you left the law, what did you drink to celebrate?

I remember exactly the day I left my job as a lawyer to launch into what seemed to be an uncertain career in the field I loved. My wife bought some filet of sole from a local fishmonger, and I splurged on a bottle of 1976 Dom Perignon champagne. We sat on the floor at the coffee table in our tiny apartment outside of Washington, DC, listened to music, savored the champagne, and enjoyed the filet of sole with almonds that she prepared. It was a celebration I will always remember.

Were you always fond of wine?

No. I did not know anything about wine until around age 20. I am the product of a middleclass farming family that never consumed wine, so I was never exposed to it as a young person. Certainly in college I partied, but the drink of choice was primarily beer and strong alcohol.

In 1967, I temporarily dropped out of undergraduate school to visit a girlfriend (now my wife of nearly 40 years) who was studying abroad at the University of Strasbourg in France. She was from a more sophisticated family and insisted that I drink carafe wine at the different bistros we visited. I began drinking wine on a daily basis, and even though they were a lot less prestigious and expensive than the wines I drink today, I found them to be fascinating beverages of moderation that were low in alcohol, complemented the food, promoted conversation, and prolonged lunch or dinner. I fell in love with this beverage, and when I returned to the University of Maryland in January 1968, I started a wine-tasting group at the school. My increasing fondness and passion for wine has led to a long, very successful career.

Are people actually born with a “great palate?”

There have been studies done that show people to have what they call “super palates,” but I have never taken the study and do not know whether I have one or not. I do have a very strong sense of smell, which has remained acute and powerful throughout my life. My father also had a great “nose,” so I probably inherited that. I tend to subscribe to well-known writer Malcolm Gladwell’s theory that there is a 10,000 hour rule, which suggests that after 10,000 hours of doing anything, whether it’s practicing the guitar, cooking, or tasting and studying wine, you become quite competent at what you’re doing.

I had immersed myself in this field long before I left the practice of law and began writing The Wine Advocate. I think part of it is just practice, practice, practice, immersion, immersion, immersion, and trying to be objective and open-minded about the multitude of wine styles that exist throughout the world. That in itself probably explains why most people think I have a great palate. While it’s probably not any better than the average person’s, I have worked harder, immersed myself more, and constantly thought and challenged myself on all aspects of wine.

Is it “work” for you to drink wine?

I actually have a very bipolar view of wine. When I am tasting professionally and visiting wine estates throughout the world, I am very focused on spitting, not swallowing, and I am able to maintain a razor-sharp mentality. At the same time, I love wine as a beverage, and I drink it almost every day with my meals.

I can easily turn off the analytical faculties and just enjoy the wine for its pleasurable, hedonistic qualities. This has never been difficult for me. In fact, when I am invited to friends’ homes, I ask them not to quiz me on the qualities of the wine, as I just want to relax and enjoy it.

How do you think the current economy will affect the wine business?

For nearly thirty years, wine seemed recession proof. Prices continued to rise, demand soared, and wine seemed to be far more immune to the currency exchange rates and various recessions throughout the world. However, that has all changed with the current global economic crisis. We have seen the top, rarest wines begin to retreat in price, although the reduction in price for the top wines is far less than the reduction of real estate and stock values. I do think this is the first major correction in thirty years, and I believe it will continue as long as the global economy is turbulent.

The good side to this is that consumers are starting to see wines that were beyond their reach financially become more affordable. Also, many wine lovers are downsizing to less expensive wines and finding that there are great values throughout the world (such as Spain, Argentina, southern France, southern Italy, as well as less prestigious areas of France such as the Loire Valley and Languedoc-Roussillon).

Any “economical” wine suggestions for our audience?

I think the smart money for maximizing the strength of your wine-buying power is to think of the following categories:

— Malbecs, which are terrific from Argentina and often priced under $25 a bottle.
— There are a lot of richly fruity, value-priced wines made from the Shiraz grape in southern Australia.
— France’s southern Rhône Valley, 2007 may be one of the greatest vintages I have ever tasted.

Those wines, especially the value-priced Côtes du Rhônes, are just hitting the marketplace and are terrific wines to drink over the next three to four years. Most cost less than $15-20 per bottle.

In addition, wines from southern Italy, including Sicily, have improved dramatically over the last decade. There are many great values from these regions.

Other areas include Sauvignon Blancs and Chardonnays from Chile as well as a bevy of terrific offerings from Spain’s Tempranillo and Garnacha grapes. Spain is an awakening giant, and there are an amazing number of great vineyards and old vines (which tend to produce better wines than young vines) making inexpensive wines.

What should law students buy if they’ve got $12 to spend?

The first thing to remember is that price is not proportional to quality. Today there are far more bargains under $15-20 than ever existed in the past. Even at $12 there are some terrific wines.

In 2009, I would focus on 2007 Côtes du Rhônes from the Rhône Valley in southern France, some of the $12-14 Shiraz or Grenache/Mourvdre/Shiraz blends from southern Australia (the Aussies call them GSMs), particularly from the Barossa Valley and McLaren Vale, and some of the low-end whites and reds from Spain. Believe it or not, you can find remarkable quality at that price point if you do a little research.

If you’re going to drown your sorrows in a bottle of wine, what’s the perfect bottle?

There is no perfect bottle of wine because it comes down to what an individual likes. I have seen people who do not like the great Burgundy and Bordeaux wines, preferring a rich, full-bodied, powerful Australian Shiraz or a Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. There are so many great wines from so many different wine-producing regions that the diversity and quality of selections available to the wine consumer is fifty-fold greater than it was when I started in 1978.

Finally, any advice for Bitter Lawyers out there looking to change careers?

The only advice I can offer is what my father gave me: If you are in pursuit of the almighty dollar, you may make a bundle of money, but your psychological happiness may not be guaranteed. But if you pursue your greatest passion, chances are you will not only become very good at whatever that passion is, but by being good, you will also love what you are doing, and probably make a sufficient amount of money to live very comfortably.

To find out more about wine worth drinking, check out Robert Parker’s site, eRobertParker.com.

Read more interviews and Bitter Success.

18 Comments

  1. Anonymous

    March 26, 2009 at 4:37 am

    Wha da Fa?  A lawyer who became a professional wino?  If you take out the word professional, that describes about 90% of us.

  2. Anonymous

    March 26, 2009 at 5:08 am

    Nice get, BL.  I’ve subscribed to TWA for 3 years now and never knew he was a lawyer.  And look, my law career might be training me to be a professional drinker.

  3. Wine Geek

    March 26, 2009 at 5:47 am

    Awesome interview!  This guy’s a legend.  Had no idea he was an ex-lawyer.

  4. Desi

    March 26, 2009 at 7:56 am

    It’s amazing how many former lawyers are doing such cool things now. I would trade by big city law job in a minute to be out in the vineyard drinking vino with him!!

  5. Anon Female

    March 26, 2009 at 8:19 am

    Thanks BL for another very inspiring interview!! You really find some cool and interesting people to talk to.

  6. Anonymous

    March 26, 2009 at 8:23 am

    Cool dude. Great story.

  7. Anonymous

    March 26, 2009 at 9:05 am

    Parker’s a Wine God.  Good on ya, Bitter Lawyer!

  8. DantheMan

    March 26, 2009 at 11:30 am

    Desi, I have first dibs—I want to swap my crapo job for his.

  9. Anonymous

    March 26, 2009 at 11:55 am

    @ DanTheMan.
    Why do you get first dibs?

  10. Anonymous

    March 26, 2009 at 1:04 pm

    I get first dibs on the hot chick, if there is one.

  11. Anonymous

    March 26, 2009 at 11:33 pm

    Superb interview.  Great story about a rare talent who found his way to the top of a profession bearing no apparent connection to law practice.  Parker’s intensity, discipline and lack of pretension come through.  Fear the turtle.

  12. Wine Geek

    March 27, 2009 at 6:24 am

    Took one of his suggestions—a random Sicilian red for 20 bucks.  Terrific.

  13. Anonymous

    March 27, 2009 at 6:42 am

    What I like about this guy is that he just worked his ass off and made something of himself. Good on ya, Mr. Parker.

  14. anonymous wino

    March 28, 2009 at 2:53 pm

    interesting interview. too bad Parker has had a profoundly negative effect on quality winemaking over the past 30 years, primarily as a result of his overwhelming ignorance about wine that led him to praise what we now call ‘alcoholic fruit bombs.’

  15. Junior Wino

    March 29, 2009 at 7:31 am

    Great interview.  Interesting life.  From what I understand, he’s a controversial figure in the wine biz.  A positive rating from him is so meaningful that many winemakers attempt to make wine that HE likes rather just making wine the best wine they can.  Or at least that’s what people say….

  16. vino juriscata

    March 29, 2009 at 12:47 pm

    I had no idea Parker was an ex-lawyer! He’s the man. Very spot-on re the Cote de Rhones.  I think the bitterness about him is largely due to his success in challenging conventional notions of what is a “quality wine”

    Thanks BL for the great interview!

  17. http://ladiesinthered.wordpress.com/

    April 2, 2009 at 11:29 am

    It is so wonderful when ballsy decisions pay off. His story is great. Thanks for the interview.

  18. Law Partner

    April 3, 2009 at 7:59 am

    I enjoyed this article. I myself am a big wine guy and look forward to reading more about wine on Parker’s site.

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