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Critics and pricing: Parker’s nose is not as big a pointer as it was

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Robert M Parker Jr, the influential US wine critic, has been called guru, emperor, pope, and other names – not all of them so reverent.

RParkerSince the late 1970s, when he began publishing his tasting notes and launched a 100-point ratings scale, he has redefined the role of wine reviewer.

Through the pages of his newsletter The Wine Advocate, Parker has influenced not only his readers’ preferences, but many aspects of the fine wine industry – from vinification techniques and wine styles to pricing.

His name is now a verb (Parkerise) used for the creation of a style of wine that pleases his taste: invoking it can transform a roomful of convivial wine geeks into a verbal mosh pit.

Yet he is now 64, and the wine world has grown beyond his capacity to cover even the very top end by himself.

In the past few years, he has expanded his team, ceding regions to new tasters; he has also been embroiled in allegations of impropriety involving trusted associates.

Both the world of communication and taste-formation have changed – all of which fuels the ever-lively debate, among Parker followers, about whether he still sways palates and prices.

Jaime Araujo, founder of Terravina, the wine marketing consultancy, says: « He is not as relevant to the younger generation of high-end buyers, who don’t collect in the traditional way, by finding a few sure values, getting on the distribution list and repeating each year. »

« This reflects the luxury sector in general, whether you are talking about young Chinese, young Americans, young French. They all want the top brands, but it’s rare to find a ‘Chanel and nothing else’ buyer. They want some Chanel, some Dior and some vintage that no one else has. »

For a certain type of fine wine buyer, one who is just starting or who prefers to rely on numbers rather than experiment – and certainly for regions such as Bordeaux (which Parker still covers) and California (which he has delegated) – Parker points remain the bellwether of a wine’s taste and traceability.

« He still sets the bar in Bordeaux, » says Chris Adams, chief executive of Sherry-Lehmann, the New York wine merchant.

« Positive comments on a wine that has been released will cause an increase in price and negative comments will cause prices to stagnate. »

The Wine Advocate also remains the benchmark for Californian wines.

« Sometimes, if The Wine Spectator gives a very high rating, we’ll get a few calls, but Parker steers sales, » says James Hocking, director of The Vineyard Cellars, an importer, distributor and retailer of Californian wines based in Newbury, UK.

« But really no one else comes close. If Parker gives 95 points or more, the phones don’t stop, » says Mr Hocking. Many of his clients follow Parker « slavishly », delaying purchases until he pronounces, he adds. « When a new container arrives and I call my private clients, I know the conversation will start with ‘what are the scores?’ « 

Calculating the impact of Parker points on futures and bottled wine is a popular game, made more challenging by factoring in vintage, economic climate and especially, rescoring.

« You can’t really quantify the correlation in dollars but you can in percentage points, » says Adams, citing Parker’s recent upgrade to 100 points of numerous 2009 Bordeaux (more than he gave to any other vintage).

To compare, Château Latour first growth was released at about €540 and the far less famous Château Smith Haut Lafitte, a Graves classified growth was released at €62.

« When they both got 100 points, the price increase for both was around €100 but, obviously, for Smith Haut Lafitte, the percentage increase was astronomical, » says Mr Adams

But for Henning Thoresen, chief executive of Bordeaux Winebank Group, which sells futures, ex-cellar Bordeaux and manages wine investment funds, it is precisely the possibility that Parker may change his mind that reduces his reliability for long-term investment purposes, as opposed to speculation. « For me, his influence is declining, » says Mr Thoresen.

« One key reason was how he handled the 2005 vintage. He hyped the vintage, but none of the numbers lived up to the expectations.

« When he released his final scores after retasting in 2008, all the potential 100-pointers were downgraded, which caused a lot of jaws to drop. »

Mr Thoresen also says that this year many châteaux released their prices ahead of Parker’s pronouncements indicating his diminishing relevance. Some observers say it reflects producers attempting to exert control over prices in a lesser vintage.

Determining the impact of Parker points on auction prices is harder, because of issues of provenance and condition.

« I really don’t think there is a correlation, » says Charles Curtis MW, Christie’s head of sales for Asia. « This is strictly anecdotal, but intuitively I’d say there are big swings in price for the same wine from auction to auction independent of his scores. »

A sceptic of the 100-point protocol, Mr Curtis says results for the same wine in two auctions may reveal a trend, but don’t tell all. « It’s not as simple as saying ‘Parker moved it up a point and therefore in bidding, it went two increments more’.

« In the same way that I don’t think it’s possible to quantify the beauty of a wine on a scale of 1-100, I don’t think it’s possible to track the price.

« There are so many factors that go into a price at auction, it’s hard to tease them apart. »

Source: Maggie Rosen
Financial Times
19th June 2012 

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