Almost everyone who drinks wine in America has been impacted, in some way, by Robert Parker. But his influence on the current generation of wine drinkers is dwindling. News broke earlier this week that Parker would be stepping down as editor-in-chief of the Wine Advocate and shifting focus to Asian markets, and it set off a media firestorm.
Every wine writer with a platform spent Monday making sense of the news and drafting up prehumous eulogies for good old RP. (See: The San Francisco Chronicle, Reuters, Mike Steinberger's Wine Diarist, and Dr. Vino, among many others.) The end of an era, a sign of the times, more evidence that Asia is headed for world domination. All declarations. But focusing on Parker's influence and the growth of American wine culture got me thinking about the comparative lack of influence he's had on me and what that says about the current generation's changed perspective on wine.
New York Times wine critic Eric Asimov wrote Monday afternoon in response to the news that didn't so much signal the end of an era, but "changes that have been under way for a decade." I am a product of those changes, of what he calls the "decentralization of critical thinking about wine in North America and Europe." As we have grown up as a wine culture and the internet has allowed for a plethora of new voices, "To many, Mr. Parker's views began to seem narrow, outdated and defensive," says Asimov.
We started to grow out of Robert Parker. Thing is, I never grew with him.
I started reading about music well before wine and I read about it not because I wanted to know how a song or album sounded; I wanted to know why it mattered. I approached wine the same way. I didn't want to read about what a wine tasted like; I wanted to know why it was important. I read books like Kermit Lynch's Adventures on the Wine Route, David Lynch's Vino Italiano, Lawrence Osbourne's The Accidental Connoisseur, and blogs like Brooklyn Guy's Wine and Food Blog and Eric Asimov's now-defunct The Pour. I went to wine stores, made friends, and asked questions.
It never occurred to me that I should subscribe to the Wine Advocate. And before I even knew it was a topic of debate, I dismissed the 100-point system, not because I found it anti-romantic or ineffective, but because I just never felt like I needed it. I had other options that were more appealing to me.
I've often wondered whether my experience is something of an anomaly, mostly because I've been led to believe that I might be. I've been told that it must be because I live in an urban area, or because I went to college in New York, or drank wine as a kid. All of those things are true and they've all impacted my experience with wine, but I think my experience is less unique than it is indicative of how much the wine world has changed since Parker started leading the blind 30 years ago.
We can see now.
Wine is far less foreign to Americans than it was then, and we have Robert Parker to thank for much of that. But the question is: What now? Wine is not only a part of the everyday American experience, but it's become more important to us. And while I am not about to go all "wine is art" on anyone, I do think an increasing number of consumers want to know about what makes wine not just delicious, but culturally valuable. We've arrived to this point as a wine culture. And I think the more wine dialogue seeks to reveal its value beyond the aesthetic and easily quantifiable, the more relevant it will become to my generation.
I'm still inspired by the people who toil to give wine cultural context. And I would venture to suggest that there's a large portion of wine drinkers my age who are looking for the same thing. The magazines, newspapers, websites, restaurants, and wine shops that continue to put effort into being open to new wines — and finding meaningful ways of talking about them — will surely find a new generation of drinkers willing to support them. We aren't looking for one man to tell us what's good, we're looking to find that out on our own.
I would be naïve to deny that my experience had nothing to do with Parker's influence on the generation before me. I am a product of decades of progress. But the point is that as my generation continues to become more vocal in the wine world, the comparatively small impact that Parker has had on us will continue to reveal itself.
I wonder if he's thought about it. Perhaps he is well aware. All I know is that if Monday is an indication of anything, it's that, in the eyes of Parker, we may be the children, but we are not the future. Asia is.
Well, message received.