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The Parker era in wine, and beyond

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By Dave McIntyre
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, March 1, 2011; 4:07 PM

California felt an earthquake last month, and its epicenter was in Maryland. Buildings didn't sway in San Francisco, and the U.S. Geological Survey issued no reports. Winemakers, however, may be excused for thinking the earth moved underfoot when Robert M. Parker Jr., once described as the world's most powerful critic in any medium, announced he would no longer review current releases of California wines.

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Like real California temblors, Parker's shift was considered inevitable but still was a surprise when it happened.

Parker founded his Wine Advocate magazine in 1978 and has published it every two months since from his home in Monkton, Md., north of Baltimore. Through his use of the easily understood 100-point scoring system, his consistent palate and the unwavering perspective of a consumer advocate, he built a modest newsletter into the world's most influential wine magazine. Retailers use Parker's ratings to sell wine; collectors rely on Parker to tell them which rare wines to invest in; and his annual spring ratings of the most recent Bordeaux vintage send that revered region into a price-fixing frenzy.

For 20 years Parker wrote it all himself. He hired an associate in 1997 to cover a few regions, and in 2006 he hired a team of reviewers and divvied up the world like an emperor assigning territories to governors. But Parker kept California, Bordeaux and the Rhone Valley as his own beat - until last month, when he sent an e-mail to subscribers of his online bulletin board, Erobertparker.com, outlining some changes. The main news was that Antonio Galloni, who had covered Italy and Champagne for the Advocate since 2006, will take over Burgundy and California. Parker will continue to review wines from Bordeaux and the Rhone and will do vertical tastings of older wines to see how they have aged.

"I'm 63 years old and have been putting in 60- to 80-hour weeks for over 32 years in this profession," Parker said in an e-mail interview. "I'm looking forward to having more time in Bordeaux and the Rhone Valley. Although I will certainly miss tasting many of the current releases of California, I think it's time for a younger person (Antonio just turned 40) to be given the spotlight for both California and Burgundy, and he's more than up to the task, I'm certain of that."

Although Galloni has been writing for the Wine Advocate for the past five years, wine chat boards and blogs lit up with speculation on how his ratings might differ from his boss's. Parker, for example, champions the ultra-rich, highly extracted style that has fostered the growth of California's hard-to-get and extremely expensive cult wines. Will Galloni's ratings sell those wines as well as Parker's have, especially if they are a few points lower? What if he has a "European palate"? A drop of a few points could have a significant effect on sales of wines in the triple digits.

"We don't even know if this new guy likes California wines," said one winemaker, who asked not to be identified.

The inclusion of most of Burgundy in Galloni's portfolio marks the first time since 1997 that chardonnay and pinot noir from the Cote d'Or and California will be rated by the same Wine Advocate reviewer.

"I don't think that presents any unusual challenges at all," Parker wrote in his e-mail. Maybe not a challenge to Galloni himself, but California pinot noir has evolved into a bigger, riper, sweeter style over the past several years. That style is a decided rarity in Burgundy, where pinot noir typically has a more austere, mineral voice. A skilled reviewer should be able to appreciate both styles, but it will be interesting to see what effect Galloni's preferences might have on winemakers.

As Parker's handpicked successor, Galloni cannot be expected to diverge dramatically from his boss's style. Retailers still will promote wines with "Parker scores" or, more accurately, ratings from "Robert M. Parker Jr.'s Wine Advocate." As with a fine wine maturing, it will take time to discern the effects of a change in byline at the Advocate.


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