I couldn't resist asking Oz Clarke for his thoughts on Robert Parker, the American wine writer often referred to as the most powerful critic in the world. Parker is famous for his 100-point rating system, with a high Parker rating worth millions in sales to Bordeaux winemakers. A number of British wine writers, even those who deploy their own rating systems, have criticised Parker for the way he operates, in particular for apparently favouring a certain style of wine (big and full-flavoured), leading to the so-called Parkerisation of wines. Some have also questioned how he goes about tasting the wines and decides on his scores, with the suggestion that tasting some in the company of winemakers at their wineries is not necessarily conducive to objectivity. But then again – to play devil's advocate – all wine journalists go on press trips to wineries, and who knows how much those trips influence their judgments, either consciously or subconsciously?
I put it to Oz Clarke that Parker comes in for a lot of criticism from British wine critics. "Yes he does, but he asks for it, that's the trouble," Oz said. "Because he's so bloody rude to Brits all the time… and I can't understand… I've known Robert for donkeys' years, you know, we were quite good mates in the old days and we still would be if we ever saw each other, but he's too busy marking wines. You know we used to go out drinking and go to jazz clubs and drink beer, and I don't know whether we chased women together, perhaps not, but I certainly felt as though I did.
"And you know, we had a really good time together. And I used to taste with him on his panels. And I just think poor old Robert's got, you know... when you're so powerful and so successful sometimes you lose slight touch with reality - or you don't, but all the people around you do. And I think he's got an awful lot of people… you know, some of the people around him are very good - people like Neal who's the English guy who works with him, but some of the people around him, you think, did you really want those people saying 'I'm the voice of Robert Parker'? Because I like Neal and Neal's a good taster and he does a good job in Robert's name as well as in his own name - he's not in any way a sort of sycophant for Robert Parker - he went out on his own and said this is what I think, completely different to Parker some of the time. But… basically I just think Parker… he's more powerful than anyone should be, but I do basically like the bloke and I do basically... I enjoy his tasting because I understand it, so I know what he's tasting, I know the stuff he likes, I know why he likes these kind of wines."
By "these kind of wines", does Oz mean Parker does favour the full-flavoured, what you might call fruit bomb style? "Well yeah, yes he does. But on the other hand I can interpret that now. Even now if I had to choose somebody and say, let's see what another critic says, I would probably think let's see what Parker says. Not because I'd necessarily agree with him, but because I know how Parker thinks and for me that's important to know how the guy thinks."