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The Rise of Robert M. Parker, Jr. and the Reign of American Taste

By Elin McCoy

Reviewed by Nancy Huang

The Emperor of Wine

Any person involved in the world of wine has, to some degree, heard about Robert M. Parker, Jr., wine critic and publisher of one of the most influential newsletters in the business: The Wine Advocate. His fans might call him a wine crusader, a driven man whose keen palate and empirical tastings revolutionized the wine industry. His critics might call him egotistical—maniacal, even—a self-proclaimed judge whose arbitrary but widely popular 100-point system could destroy wineries with the stroke of his pen.

Editor and wine columnist Elin McCoy exposes the public’s delicate love-hate relationship with Parker in The Emperor of Wine, a biography of the famous (and infamous) wine critic. McCoy’s journalistic style leaves no details behind in this thorough, almost cheeky, account of Parker’s life. We learn everything about this man, from his hash-buying excursion to Morocco to the intimate details of the lawsuit filed by Burgundy producer François Faiveley, an event that left Parker unwelcome in that particular region of France. Granted, some facts are extraneous, such as Parker’s experience with snobby waiters during his first trip to France, but we still welcome the vividness that McCoy pumps into her characters.

McCoy sets her story in the late 1960s and early 70s, at the cusp of America’s rise in the wine industry. It follows Parker’s discovery of wine, his declaration against French wines that did not live up to their prestigious name, and his preference for robust, fruity wines that significantly helped to boost California’s wine reputation.

Unfortunately, McCoy’s passion for detail goes overboard as she delves into the history of wine and wine critics. Her meticulous descriptions of the development of American and British wine critics are disjointed and misplaced, and she ignores the graceful chronology that she uses in describing Parker. While wine fanatics may appreciate the information, the book plods along during these history lessons, which happen early in the book.

Beyond the slow moments, however, is an interesting chronicle of Parker’s rise from middle-class American farm boy to the powerful but controversial wine critic he is today. McCoy makes no mystery of which side of the love-hate relationship with Parker that she is on; she was one of his first editors and has been a longtime friend ever since. All biases aside, this book is a charming and intriguing read, a biography of a man with a passion and a powerful palate.

  (Updated: 01/30/08 SCV)

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