Celebrated wine critic Robert Parker Jr., whose categorical pronouncements and reputation for infallibility have earned him the sobriquet "pope of the vineyards," is winding up for his latest review. But this one isn't about wine.
"It's a hateful book," says the 60-year-old bestselling author and newsletter publisher from Maryland, sitting in a Toronto convention hall last week. "She's clever enough that she pushes the defamatory right to the edge but doesn't defame me."
Mr. Parker, once described by The Atlantic Monthly as the world's most influential critic working in any field, is referring to Robert Parker: Anatomie d'un Mythe (Anatomy of a Myth), published two weeks ago in France and written by one of his former assistants, Hanna Agostini.
Alleging errors, deception and cronyism, Ms. Agostini's exposé is the most salacious swipe yet at the widely admired, sometimes reviled tastemaker whose judgments are considered gospel on both sides of the Atlantic. Mr. Parker's penchant for turbocharged, oak-flavoured "fruit bombs" has influenced countless winemakers who seek his imprimatur, which can send sales and reputations into the ionosphere. It has also earned him more than his share of mud-slingers, who mourn what they see as the decline of delicate, understated wines.
Speaking publicly for the first time on the exposé, Mr. Parker dismisses the work as proverbial sour grapes by a disgruntled employee whom he says he fired in 2003 amid accounting irregularities. "Anyone who looks at [it]actually with any sense of balance is going to say this is just a hatchet job," he says.
Ms. Agostini, who acted as French-language translator of the critic's influential newsletter, The Wine Advocate, as well as his books, accuses her former employer of bellying up to lavish banquets with producers whose wines he later praised.
She also claims Mr. Parker published reviews of wines he actually did not taste. Example: Château Jander, a lesser-known Bordeaux house, whose wine Mr. Parker once described as "good" and having a cellaring window of two to 12 years.
"Absurd," Mr. Parker counters. "Most of the criticism I actually get [from winemakers]is real, where they know I've tasted the wine and I haven't reviewed it."
As for his banquet attendance, that's a cheap shot, says Mr. Parker, who was visiting Toronto for the first time as a celebrity guest of the Grand Cru Culinary Wine Festival to help raise money for the Toronto General & Western Hospital Foundation.
He says he generally shuns winemaker banquets and in some cases has gone on to disparage wines served at them.
"I rarely eat out with people, because I don't want to get close."
Though the wine-besotted European media have been having a field day with Ms. Agostini's tell-all tome, Mr. Parker says those stories have failed to report that Ms. Agostini has been charged in a four-year-old criminal case in which he is a civil party.
He says that, in part because of his deposition, she could face five years in prison and more than $1-million in fines for fraud and misrepresentation.
Ms. Agostini has been accused of using Wine Advocate stationery to invoice personal consulting work for helping develop premium wines for a European client. The scandal briefly stained Mr. Parker's reputation in 2003, when it appeared that Ms. Agostini might be acting on Mr. Parker's behalf to peddle his influence.
"For about six months I stood by her, took a beating in the French press because people were just ready to convict her," Mr. Parker says. Then he saw the police dossier.
"I saw all this stuff and I fired her right away," he says. "Then I never talked to her again. But I kept hearing rumours that she was going to write a book."
Image-wise, 2007 has not been a vintage year for Mr. Parker, a mild-mannered and surprisingly unpretentious former lawyer who still calls himself a "student" of wine who is "still learning."
Next year he will celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Wine Advocate, with its seminal 100-point rating system, which he launched in 1978 after catching the wine bug on a trip to France.
In September, The New Yorker magazine published a lengthy article on wine fraud that raised questions about Mr. Parker's supposedly bionic palate. Though the piece was mainly about a trail of forgeries and suspicious bottles with apparent connections to a flamboyant European collector named Hardy Rodenstock, Mr. Parker figured briefly in the tale because of a fateful review he wrote about one such wine, a double-sized bottle - or magnum - of 1921 Château Petrus. The wine was supplied by Mr. Rodenstock at a lavish dinner he hosted in Munich in 1995, which Mr. Parker reluctantly attended.
Good wine it was, too, apparently. The world's greatest living palate described the red Bordeaux as "out of this universe" and awarded it a perfect, 100-point score.
Fast forward to this year. Patrick Radden Keefe, the article's author, noted that Petrus's cellar master informed an investigator he was not aware of the existence of any magnums of 1921 Petrus and believes none were bottled at the château. What's more, a second 1921 Petrus magnum, bought for $35,000 and also suspected of coming from Mr. Rodenstock's cellar, was examined by Petrus staff and found to have the wrong cork length and a label that appeared to have been artificially aged.
Could the Perfect Palate have awarded a perfect score to a doctored wine? More cynically, was he scoring with his eyes rather than his mouth?
With admirable candour and a glint of humility, Mr. Parker admits he may have been duped - though like any good lawyer he reserves the right to remain accurate until proven fallible.
He does, however, stress Mr. Rodenstock would have to possess exceptional bartending skills and overweening self-confidence to parade a fake Petrus before a gathering of seasoned tasters.
"If that was phony, then this guy is a master, master blender," he says. "He's brilliant in that sense. Is he a con artist? All I can say is that so many of these suspicious bottles, or actually fraudulent bottles, that are sold through conduits, the roads all sort of lead back in his direction."
Ironically, Mr. Parker was among the first writers to sound the alarm against the rise of fake bottles in a piece in the mid-1990s for The Wine Advocate that prompted the FBI into action.
If Mr. Parker regrets attending that "over-the-top" Rodenstock drunkfest, he certainly regrets his portrayal in the 2004 documentary Mondovino by American director Jonathan Nossiter. The film's thesis: Wine is tending toward stylistic homogeneity, and Mr. Parker and his winemaking alter ego, famous Bordeaux consultant Michel Rolland, are cast as the central villains - Hannibal Taster and Darth Vintner, if you will.
I ask Mr. Parker about the alleged decline in oeno-diversity and he is - with justification, I might humbly add - vociferous in his objection.
"Take southern Italy, indigenous grapes like aglianico, piedirosso, primitivo, things that were sold off to co-ops and commingled into some industrial swirl. Now you have [independent]estates and serious wines from these grapes."
And as any close reader of his newsletter will know, some of Mr. Parker's favourite weeknight-drinking wines come from the southern Rhône Valley in France, where wines see little or no oak flavouring from small-barrel aging.
"For $20 you can drink an amazingly good wine," says Mr. Parker, who consumes about half a bottle of wine every day. "These are naked [unoaked]wines. And meanwhile everyone teases me about these big oak bombs. That's totally untrue."