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New York wine merchant Alan Marschok is on the phone with a customer: “Yes, I know Parker gave the ’98 Quinault l’Enclos a 94. Yes, I know: You want it. I’m trying.” You can hear the frustration in his voice. Almost as soon as he hangs up, the phone is ringing again. In a little less than a week and a half, interest in the ’98 Bordeaux vintage has moved from being “kind of quiet,” in Marschok’s words, to “a fever pitch.” Frenzy might be a better word for it. While Marschok deals over the phone with big-ticket retail customers, all of them eager to tie down their own precious piece of the vintage, his partner at Rochambeau Wines & Liquors in suburban Dobbs Ferry, Dieter Kannapin, is standing by the fax machine in their small backroom office waiting for the latest word on wholesale prices. “Would you look at this?” he says, pulling out a fax. “They want $650 a case for it. Ten days ago, Quinault l’Enclos was going for $410. Then Parker comes out and gives it a 94, and almost every day since, the price has gone up: $525, $550, $575, $650. That is, if anyone actually has the stuff. It’s a ‘garage wine,’ you know.” A big man, Kannapin peers over his bifocals and shakes his head. “What can you do? It’s crazy.” Now, as Dieter Kannapin could tell you, Ch. Quinault l’Enclos is a small, heretofore unknown property in St-Emilion — it’s neither a premier cru nor even a grand cru class — and until this year it was also one of the most obscure wines in all of Bordeaux. But beginning with the 1998 vintage, Quinault l’Enclos emerged from obscurity with a bang. Its discoverer: lawyer-cum-wine-guru Robert M. Parker, Jr., the self-styled “Wine Advocate,” author of the eponymous bimonthly newsletter and a host of best-selling books on the subject. So what that nobody outside of Libourne, epicenter of the St-Emilion trade, had ever heard of Quinault l’Enclos (no surprise, since its first vintage was the 1997)? So what that the ’98 Quinault l’Enclos was still unbottled and in barrels at the chateau and wouldn’t even be shipped to the States for several more months? Or that only a handful of American merchants and a smattering of writers had actually tasted the wine? Parker, in issue 128 of The Wine Advocate (April 21, 2000), had, in characteristic Parker prose, pronounced Quinault l’Enclos “a fabulous effort,” and had praised the wine for its “aromas of blueberry/raspberry ice cream.” In the same issue, Parker declared 1998 “unquestionably a great vintage” in Pomerol and St-Emilion. Within ten days, Marschok and Kannapin had sold more than 200 cases of high-priced ’98s (25 of Quinault l’Enclos alone). Aside from the emergence of “garage wines” — wines of properties so small they could be made in a garage — there was nothing new in this scenario. I’d seen it happen before, most notably in the spring of 1992, when Parker changed his mind about the 1990 Bordeaux vintage, upping it from merely good to great. I’d stopped in at Rochambeau back then and found it a madhouse: phones ringing, faxes churning. Everyone, it seemed, or at least everyone with the oenophilic interest and the money, wanted a case or two of the ’90 Ch. Montrose. Why? Why else? Parker. He’d given the wine a perfect 100. And in less than a month, Montrose, a famous but not that famous Bordeaux property — it’s not Lafite, after all — had almost tripled in price (from $252 to $700 a case). Of course, it can work the other way too, especially when Parker takes a strong dislike to a vintage or a property. And while the drama critic from The New York Times might, just might be able to close a Broadway show with a single scathing review, Parker can pretty much make or break the reputation of a vintage in a single sentence. If you’re on the losing end of that stick, forget it. Take Ch. Rauzan-Gassies, for example. Located in the commune of Margaux, Ch. Rauzan-Gassies is one of the oldest properties in all of Bordeaux. At the time of the 1855 Classification of the M�doc, it and neighboring Ch. Rauzan-S�gla (originally part of the same property) were ranked at the very top of the second growths, beneath only Mouton-Rothschild. While S�gla has become a Parker favorite in recent years, with scores in the mid-90s for its “seductive, jammy, concentrated” wines, Gassies has gotten marks as low as 66, for wines that Parker has characterized as “bitter, attenuated, and frightfully tannic.” So bad have the wines been, in Parker’s opinion, that Gassies shouldn’t even be a fifth growth, much less a second. If Parker were to have his way, Gassies would be cast down into the ranks of the humble crus bourgeois. Ouch. No surprise then that young vintages of S�gla sell in the mid-$50 range retail. Gassies goes for about half that price. Similarly, Parker can anoint the obscure and raise it to the ranks of the premiers and the grands. Ch. Valandraud, a property that, like Quinault l’Enclos, didn’t even exist until recently, was the first of Parker’s “garage wines.” Its 1998 is expected to sell for $150-$200 — a bottle. Power? Did anyone say power? Powerful, yes. Born to the manor, no. Even today, despite having made millions of dollars from the sales of books, newsletters, CDs, and online wine services, Parker, 52, his wife, Pat, and their 13-year-old daughter Maia live in a relatively modest house in the Maryland hunt country, some 30 miles north of Baltimore. It’s here that Parker maintains his office and tasting room and his three wine cellars (with their 20,000 bottles of wine, most of it fine and not a little of it rare). Their rambling home in little Monkton is not only the house that Pat grew up in, it’s also a mere ten-minute drive from his roots: the dairy farm where he was raised as the only child in a family that had never seen one of its own go to college. Not to put too fine a point on it, but Parker’s wasn’t the kind of family where the claret was poured with the partridge or the port decanted for the Stilton. Bob and Pat were childhood sweethearts and attended the same schools in Monkton. Indeed, it was at Pat’s eighteenth birthday party that Parker got his first taste of the grape in its fermented form: Cold Duck. “I got ripped,” he recalls. “And then I got sick. Some initiation into wine!” A few years later, it would be Pat who introduced Bob to the taste of “something other than Cold Duck.” It was 1968, and Pat, a French major in college, was taking a junior year abroad, studying in Strasbourg. Bob joined her on vacation, and together they began making the rounds of the French wine country. “A light sort of went off in my head,” Parker says. “I knew I’d found what interested me.” Back in college, Parker quickly formed a wine tasting group, and began building a small cellar. His first purchases: some 1966 Ch. des Jacques from the village of Moulin-Au-Vent in Beaujolais ($2 a case), an assortment of only slightly more expensive burgundies from the Domaine Parent in the C�te d’Or, and some C�te Rotie made by Vidal-Fleury. After college Parker went straight to law school at the University of Maryland. In his spare time he continued to taste ever more widely. Meanwhile, too, he was catching up on the literature of wine. There wasn’t much in those days, little more than Alexis Lichine on the wines of France and Frank Schoonmaker on the wines of Germany, both, as Parker puts it, “books by merchants focusing on the wines they themselves sold.” The Parkers had gotten married in 1969. And while Bob studied law, Pat taught high school French. After his graduation from law school in 1973, Parker went to work as a banking and bankruptcy lawyer for the Farm Credit System in Baltimore. By the time they moved into their current house in Monkton in 1974, Parker already had a considerable cellar — and a new calling in life. Parker had now tasted with the best of them. Any number of the great, old-fashioned, traditional English wine men — Ch. Latour director Harry Waugh and Christie’s auction house wine director Michael Broadbent, to name but two — had passed through Washington, lecturing, teaching tasting techniques, sharing their memories of old vintages and long-forgotten bottles. Parker took it all in — and discovered that he not only had the bug, but the palate to go with it. “It was a revelation,” says Parker. “Here I was, this farm boy from Monkton, but I just knew I was a better taster than most of these [English wine] guys. Let’s face it: I had a gift.” Big — he stands six foot one and weighs a bit over 250 pounds — and bold even then, the young Parker must have cut quite a figure. One can easily imagine the restrained (but confident) English wine types thinking to themselves way back then: “Who the hell is he?” They’d soon find out. With $2,000 borrowed from his mother, Parker launched himself and his infant publication, then known as the Baltimore/Washington Wine Advocate, in 1978. It would be another five years, though, before he could escape his increasingly boring job at the Farm Credit System. Bored as he was with the everyday practice of law, Parker credits his law school training for much of his success as a wine critic. “Absolutely,” says Parker. “Law school gave me a tremendous work ethic. Taught me to question. Taught me the Socratic method. And gave me my points system.” Ah, the points system. Talk to Parker’s severest critics — English master of wine Clive Coates, for example, the author of the influential newsletter The Vine and a highly acclaimed book on Burgundy, C�te d’Or — and you’ll get an earful. “I think it’s a perfectly wretched system, 1-100. Or even 50-100, as it really is,” says Coates. “What I truly dislike about it is that Parker judges every wine on the same scale, whether it’s a fine old claret or a bottle of nouveau beaujolais. It’s apples and oranges all over again. But it sells.” Coates sniffs. “Well, I suppose you can blame it all on the American public school system, can’t you?” No one denies that Parker’s numerical points system is part and parcel of his appeal. “Any wine that Parker gives 90 or more points to sells like hotcakes,” explains retail merchant Alan Marschok. “And any wine he gives less than an 85 to, you can’t give away.” Just go into any upscale wine store, and you’ll see the little tags: “92, RP,” “89, RP,” “97 WS.” Yes, another of Parker’s rivals, an American publication, The Wine Spectator, also uses the 100-point scale. But there is no Mr. Spectator — owner-publisher Marvin Shanken employs a number of different critics, not one of whom can boast remotely the same individual star power that attaches to Parker. But all the clever points systems in the world wouldn’t have mattered without the lightning bolt that was the 1982 vintage in Bordeaux. Eighteen years ago Bob Parker was just about as obscure in the insular little world of wine criticism as he was in the somewhat bigger world of banking law. The big guys in those days were Terry Robards and Frank Prial of The New York Times, along with Robert Finigan, the author of a then-important newsletter. The 1982 vintage brought a seismic change to that landscape. The reason: Robards and Finigan, in particular, and Prial, to a lesser extent, pooh-poohed the vintage. By 1982, Parker had become a regular visitor to Bordeaux. His power might still have been limited, but he was known to be a serious taster, and he was allowed to sample at most of the major chateaux. What he put to his lips in the late fall of 1982 simply blew him away: “These were the best young wines I’d ever tasted in barrel.” But when he got home and wrote up his account of the vintage, Parker found his judgment under serious attack: “Robards vilified me. Even Frank Prial — and you know how uncritical he usually is — attacked me. Part of it, I think, was that these guys were just putting the new kid in his place, but part of it was, let’s face it, about money.” Parker had always seen himself as the Ralph Nader of the wine world. He proudly boasts, for example, that he has never accepted freebies of any sort, whether cases of wine or lodgings in “Michelin” grand luxe-rated hotels. Most English wine writers, Parker claims, “are shameless about this kind of stuff. And I could name a few Americans who are just as bad.” As for his enemies among the American wine merchant community, says Parker, “many of them had taken big positions with the ’78, ’79, and ’81 vintages. Their cellars were stocked with Bordeaux. So, of course, they talked down the ’82s. They didn’t have the money left to buy any.” One powerful New York retail merchant, William Sokolin, went so far as to put a full-page ad in The New York Times invoking Robards’s and Finigan’s criticisms and warning readers not to buy the vintage. “I was shaken by it,” Parker says. Shaken enough that he went back in June 1983 and retasted his way through the vintage. If anything, though, the wines “had put on weight and richness.” Parker’s final judgment: “Goddammit! I’ve got ‘em. I’ve got those bastards!” He was right about the vintage: The 1982s have proved — in the words of Clive Coates, no less — to be “liquid gold dust.” What’s not often taken into account are the peculiar circumstances surrounding that vintage. The Bordeaux market had tanked in the mid-1970s for a variety of reasons — a series of overhyped vintages, raging inflation, and the OPEC-induced worldwide oil shortage were all factors. The market was thus in need of a “great vintage” to redeem itself. The 1982 vintage was that, but it was also huge, and, perhaps most important, it was cheap: The franc was trading at the incredible rate of almost ten to the dollar. Big yield, high quality, cheap wine. All of it coming at a time when the American economy was thriving mightily: the yuppie years, defined by the advent of the baby boomer generation, not a few of whom were young lawyers with disposable income. You had to be an idiot not to get the picture. Unlike Finigan, Robards, and company, Parker certainly got it. What’s more, he shouted the news to the sky. His message: Buy, buy, buy. And, if you did buy, say Ch. Looville-Las-Cases, the famous second growth would have cost you $135 a case. Today, a case would cost almost twenty times that amount at auction, if you could find it. Many a Boomer who acted fast and bought cheap has a cellar full of now-priceless ’82s. No wonder that these are the folks who still smile at the mention of the hallowed name: Parker. Today, The Wine Advocate has a circulation of more than 40,000. At $45 per subscription, that alone produces annual revenues of $1.8 million. In addition, Parker has written best-selling tomes — even his books (all of them published by Simon & Schuster) are blockbusters — on Bordeaux, Burgundy, and the Rhone Valley. And his hefty “Parker’s Buying Guide to Wine” (1,703 pages) is in its fifth edition. There are other income streams as well, including a column in Food & Wine magazine, an AOL site, and a wine cellar manager program on CDs. And while Parker estimates that he’s away from home for at least three months every year on tasting trips and admits to spending upwards of $150,000 a year on wines, he makes more than enough to cover all that — and to leave a lot left over besides. Money for meals, for one thing. Issue 126 of The Wine Advocate includes a section titled “Robert Parker’s Most Memorable Meals of 1999.” Among them: “a mind-blowing 15-course meal” at Caf� Atlantico in Washington, D.C., “that was a challenge to both the hedonistic and intellectual senses,” including “a floating island of foie gras and corn.” Ever undaunted, Parker reported that while food at Le Grand V�four “is consistently three-star level … it still only merits two stars in France’s respected Guide Michelin.” Well, it’s a bold man who would take on the Guide Michelin. But the big American interloper is not exactly your typical wine hack either. A few months after Parker had pronounced judgment on the restaurant, the inscrutable Guide Michelin upped Le Grand V�four to three stars, the only such two-to-three star promotion of the year. The items hanging on the walls in Parker’s home also speak to his power. Here a framed thank-you letter from President Ronald Reagan, there a photograph of Bob, Pat, Maia, and President Jacques Chirac of France, arm in arm. Visit Parker in his small, cluttered office (there are literally hundreds of wine bottles piled up everywhere), and the first thing you notice are the medals nestled in silk sitting on his desk, not only the Legion d’Honneur but also the knight’s cross of the Ordre Nationale du M�rite, France’s two highest honors. The day President Jacques Chirac pinned the medal of the L�gion d’Honneur on him was, Parker says, “the defining moment of my life.” When Bob, Pat, and Maia journeyed to the Elys�e Palace in June 1999, Parker was the only American among the ten or so honorees. “It usually only goes to actors and actresses,” Parker says proudly. “Film directors. Nobel Prize winners. Stars.” Not many of them live in Monkton, though. Nor do many of them drive SUVs. “Let’s go have lunch,” Parker says. “What do you want to drink with lunch?” When I say, “Just something French,” Parker hustles off and quickly returns with three bottles of burgundy. “Let’s go,” he says briskly. “Follow me.” His white Toyota fairly roars down a steep country road in the rain. Ten minutes later, at the nearby Oregon Grill, we unwind by ourselves: Parker is such a regular that he gets the whole of the upstairs to himself at lunch. Soon the table is littered with food (Maryland soft-shell crab and rare filet mignon for Parker, crab and pinkish medallions of lamb for his guest) — and wine. The white burgundy is brilliant, a ’97 Meursault-Genevri�res from the grower R�mi Jobard that’s coolly elegant, yet spicy and earthy as well. A ’90 Gevrey-Chambertin “Clos St. Jacques” from Domaine Louis Jadot seems very shy today. “This should have been the best wine on the table,” says Parker, sighing, “but the atmospherics aren’t good. When the barometric pressure falls like this, watch out. The older wines like this just shut down.” A glow, however, suffuses Parker’s face when he catches a noseful of the ’97 Bonnes Mares, a grand cru burgundy from the young importer Fr�d�ric Magnien. To me, it seems rather too much of a good thing — too much extraction, too much new oak, too much perfume. A typical Parker palate wine, in other words. Bob Parker is in heaven. “Sheer unadultered hedonism,” he sighs, sipping away. And I think of something Denise Martin, the former executive editor of Food & Wine (a longtime venue for Parker prose), once said to me: “You can disagree with Bob Parker all you like. But you know what? I think people respond to the love he has for wine. After all these years, his enthusiasm hasn’t abated. It’s visceral.” Visceral it is when the waiter produces an ancient bottle of Madeira (also from Parker’s cellar). “How do you feel about 125-year-old Madeira?” Parker asks. Savoring the pungent old wine in his glass, Parker tries to imagine what it must have tasted like young: “Probably undrinkable.” But now? “When I taste this wine, I have to ask myself: Does anybody have it better than me?”

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