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Au Revoir et Bon Voyage

I doubt passers-by back in July 2006 would have noticed a young man on his haunches, leaning against one of the majestic oaks that line Hanover Square, jabbering away of his flip-top dog-eared Nokia. That was yours truly. I was talking to God. Not the imaginary one...the corporeal deity that resides in Monkton, MA. Details our transatlantic conflab are hazy though I do remember uttering the immortal line: "Hey Bob. Are you still OK for me to continue writing about KFC?" I mean, WTF? There was a pregnant pause during which I am sure Bob wondered what lunatic was on the other end of the line. I doubt Andrew Jefford would have asked whether he could namecheck Wimpy within his poetic prose. Moving rapidly onto any other subject apart from fast food, I enquired what he might be up to that coming weekend. He answered that he was hosting a Lafleur dinner. Mentioning that against the EU's bill of human rights act I had never drunk the 1982, he proposed to pop a bottle should I join his expanding WA team and as a welcome on-board gift that beats a ham sandwich and a pint of beer down the pub. True to his word that legendary Pomerol was patiently waiting on his table a few weeks later, chaperoned by Trotanoy and L'Evangile...plus a couple of First Growths...and some Chardonnays...and a Billecart-Salmon sharpener. Given the quantity and quality of fermented grape juice, I have no idea how I was not carried out a babbling wreck in search of alternative employment. I must have kept criticism of Neil Young to myself because I signed on the dotted line and life was about to change.

I soon learned that The Wine Advocate was not a multinational corporation whose headquarters was a glass-paneled ziggurat with external elevator pods whizzing employees up and down. To my amazement the modus operandi of this globally recognized and powerful name appeared little changed to how Bob must have started in 1978 with his stapled-together A4 newsletter. HQ was little more than an annex chez Parker. There were no glass panels. Or elevators. A couple of family members lent a hand performing office duties and you could count the IT department on two fingers. My monthly salary was sent by snail mail rather wiring it electronically, consequently on one occasion it was binned with the double glazing ads. Therein lies the secret of TWA's success, longevity and charm. Bob kept it dead simple. He could have cashed in on his omnipotence. God knows how many times people beseeched me to persuade Parker to host a tasting. His reason to get out of bed and work hard each morning was contained inside the next bottle of wine and those waving obscene fees for him to host corporate tastings were left waving a long time.

Baptized as critic-at-large, presciently predicting my waist line, I set about my twin passions of Bordeaux and Burgundy with gusto within my independent kingdom of Wine-Journal, ostensibly a continuation of the website founded in my spare bedroom in 2003 (it has nothing really to do with the present incarnation except for the name). My maiden article traversing my original website and the revamped erobertparker.com. It respectfully poked fun at my boss and name-checked darts TV legend Jim Bowen, a nod to my audience that there was no selling out, no compromise and no dilution of style, not least my puerile sense of humor. Reading the first draft my wife asked whether I was intentionally jeopardizing prospects of remaining employed until next payday? Thereafter, articles were written and published on Wine-Journal at a fair rate of knots but soon after starting, I donned a TWA cap when Parker asked me to report on the 2007 Sauternes, then the following year I published the first comprehensive report from New Zealand.

The newly assembled team gathered in Baltimore at the end of 2007. It was like Avengers Assembled without the superpowers and sadly, Scarlet Johansson. The intention was to discuss the strategy moving forward, which worked well until we broke for lunch and bottles from Bob's cellar began to materialize and, well, let's just say that productivity dropped away in the afternoon and hey ho, it was time for dinner. This was usually at Bob's favorite restaurant, Charleston.

Charleston group picture

I took this picture during the first meeting of the TWA team at Charleston in December 2007, including Antonio Galloni, David Schildknecht, Jay Miller, Mark Squires, Kevin Zraly and Karen McNeill, who was mooted to join for a very brief period.

Until 2012 I focused on Wine-Journal. In retrospect, maintaining my independence whilst under the umbrella of The Wine Advocate was a Godsend. I could build reputation under my own name instead of riding the coattails of my boss. Some dubbed me the "new Robert Parker". Wishing no disrespect to the man himself, I was happy being me. I had no desire to replicate his work, mimic his palate, use the same verbiage or proselytize the same wines, though we share the same work ethic and occasionally the same music. (Case in point, he fell in love with Glaswegian indie-rockers Glasvegas. Yes, that surprised me too.) Sometimes my views contradicted Parker and whilst I am not the only one, the nub of the matter is that unlike others with contrary opinion, he put a roof over my head. There was always temptation to take the easy route and align my palate closer to his, however that would be disingenuous and tantamount to fraud. A wine critic must stick to their guns and never sell out, even if the tide of opinion is against you. And credit to TWA because nobody has ever asked me to alter a single word or a single score. At the end of the day, differences of opinion never meant one iota less respect. A great strength of the publication, one that I always appreciated, is that I had complete autonomy. The onus lay upon myself to use the platform I had been given.

I met Parker infrequently, only at company powwows and the occasional breakfast at Sofitel during en primeur, never discussing wines but swapping tittle-tattle. At one of those petit-dejeuners he told me that Jay Miller as leaving and asked me to take over his portfolio. I did not immediately accept. I had always made it clear that Bordeaux was my ultimate goal, not because of the glitz or glamour or self-aggrandizement but because it had been my focus from day one. Bordeaux was and still is interwoven into my DNA. If I were to accept that baton then I would bide my time, patiently wait for the right moment for both sides. It was his to hand over, not for me to grab. After much consideration I agreed to take on Spain, Argentina and Chile. Spain was a challenge. I lacked experience and did not speak the language, notwithstanding the whiff of controversy that lingered over the manner in which prior reports had been done. So I kept it low-key and got up to speed the only way possible, visiting vineyards and meeting winemakers, splitting the country by region. I soon fell in love with the country, its people and wines. That year was tough because throughout 2012 I was putting the final touches to my 600-page tome on Pomerol. Self-publishing is not for the faint-hearted, especially when you distribute every copy yourself. Somehow I doubt Jancis or Hugh have spent hours in a warehouse lugging boxes of The World Atlas of Wine into their car to send off one by one! That book is still my proudest achievement and yes - there will be a second edition.

Philip Schofield

Lunch with Oz Clarke and TV presenter, Philip Schofield at Chez Bruce around 2008 or 2009. A certain wine merchat-cum-director of Crystal Palace FC had bet me that I could not insert in the words "Southend Shrimpers" into a Wine Advocate article (in print). He lost the bet. It is in one of my New Zealand reports. My prize was a lunch with those aforementioned celebrities with bottles of 1962 Mouton and 1949 Beychevelle.

When I began in 2006 it is fair to say that tasting notes and scores dominated content within The Wine Advocate. There was less accompanying prose not least because of the finite space of print, boundaries that do not exist in cyberspace. I am often asked if I am a wine "critic" or a wine "writer" and my retort is: I am a "writer who likes to critique". I introduced more narrative and context, storytelling that acts as a counterweight to what can be the austere realm of objective criticism. I just applied the tenets of Wine-Journal and colored in the backdrop to the reviews and over time this approach has seeped into TWA. To the best of my very limited ability I write in a personal way and aim to engage and entertain. Too often wine that is predisposed to elicit pleasure gives rise to verbiage predesigned to suck it all out. My policy was simple: never a score without a note and as much as possible, never notes without a story. A winemaker toiling in their vines through wind and rain deserves more than some self-appointed maven to ejaculate as many numbers over as many wines as possible. Nowadays a wine critic has a bundle of responsibilities: translate geography and geology; the personalities and their philosophies and foibles, introduce polemic surrounding a vintage or producers, a viewpoint with which readers can agree or disagree, to furnish text with images and videos. Above all, I sought to explain the personal connection between reviewer and wine since a review is no more than an interaction between the two at a specific moment in time. You cannot extricate one from another.

Denis

I have been lucky enough to taste with some legendary winemakers, some with us and some sadly not. This is Denis Dubourdieu in the vineyard attired in his cool leather hacket, just after a complete vertical tasting of his L'Extravagant de Doisy Daene.

Excluding Parker, over the years I have probably covered more regions than anyone at The Wine Advocate. Bandol, Sauternes, New Zealand, South Africa, Spain, Argentina, Chile, Tokaji, Port, Madeira, Oregon and English sparkling wine - they have all suffered my writing. But there were and always will be two constants: Bordeaux and Burgundy. I took over Burgundy in 2013. Three years earlier at the Meursault La Paulée there were boos when it was announced for whom I worked. What was I...some emissary of Voldemort? I resolved to ramp up the reporting to level it deserved, investing many weeks not only in the Côte d'Or but Beaujolais and Mâconnais, building bridges and putting Burgundy on the platform it deserves. Then came the announcement that I had the onerous task of taking over Bordeaux from the most influential critic in history. That could easily have been a poisoned chalice. By that point I had already covered around fifteen en primeur campaigns; accumulated a wealth of experience and credibility that stood me in good stead. There was no point in trying to step into Bob's shoes. I was happy to remain in my scuffed New Balance trainers and bring my own game to the table in terms of writing. Did I feel pressure? Not one bit. Responsibility by all means however, if you feel pressure then your objectivity is always at risk of being compromised and in any case, I been round the block too many times by then.

Sam Neill

I have been lucky to meet a few famous people during my time. Here I am with actor Sam Neill, owner of Two Paddocks in Central Otago, around 2009. Hot-blooded men who wish to see me with Salma Hayek can search my Facebook timeline.

I resolved that whatever happened, irrespective of whatever celebrity status might ensue, I should not alter as a person. I have witnessed at close hand how sudden elevation in status can go to people's heads. Stay down-to-earth, don't life too seriously, be kind, always say please and thank you and avoid becoming a complete tosser. According to winemakers that have known me for two decades the 2017 vintage of myself is no different to the 1997 save for being a little greyer and paunchier, despite wielding far more influence and power than I ever envisaged. Ah yes...power. My advice is to never pursue power. Never crave it. Endeavour to do the best work possible, always strive to go one better, avoid self-satisfaction, never rest on your laurels and your audience might bestow you power if they choose to follow your guidance. The only aspect of power that fulfills is the ability to shine a light on an unfamiliar winemaker making great wine. Wanting power for the sake of it is satisfying your own ego.

Albert de Villaine

Aubert de Villaine in the cellars at Domaine de la Romanée-Conti in 2006. This was taken on my old Nikon that had a hairs-breadth depth of field. I still love taking photographs.

The thrill of tasting fermented grape juice and meeting winemakers is exactly the same as when I started. I was recently scrolling through my archive of photographs on the Mac; awestruck seeing so many faces of people whose lives had intersected with mine, crazy enough to dedicate a life turning grapes into wine and like me, following their dreams. Practically every single one has been kind and a pleasure to know, some fleetingly and others over many years, some unknown and others legends. My tenure at The Wine Advocate is bejeweled with countless sensational bottles from 19th century Claret to bargain New World gems. It is equally bejeweled with people that encapsulate all the good things about the human spirit. The hardest thing about my job? It is the wrench of spending lengthy periods away from the family. Apart from that I am a lucky sod.

After 11 years I had amassed a body of work that, if I did go back and read after publishing, I am proud of. According to HAL that currently runs the WA search engine, I have contributed 35,345 tasting notes and that figure excludes Wine-Journal. How many scored a perfect 100 points? 27. Altogether since 2007 I have published around 1,000 articles that have ranged from the absurd to the technical. Some were short observations and others, definitive monographs on producers, pieces that entailed hours of research and countless rewrites. At times you wonder whether it is worth it. Why bother? Trust me, it is far easier just to regurgitate facts and ladle out clichéd prose that seeking inspiration, trying to compose something that's not like A.N. Other's. That can be challenging and frustrating, constantly plagued with self-doubt. What keeps you going are all those messages of support, the stranger's approach in the melée after a tutored tasting when they express how much they enjoyed this or that, even the odd person who says that a particular piece was a catalyst for their flourishing wine career.

Me

Johan Berglund took this as I was walking around the upper slopes above Vosne.

I had the plum job. At the age of 25 I had zero interest in wine. By the age of 45 I was covering Bordeaux and Burgundy for The Wine Advocate, a couple of writing awards on the mantelpiece and I had appeared on page 7 (no, not page 3) of The Sun. The easy option would be to stay and pick up that gold Rolex when I reach retirement, not that wine writers really retire if you look at the indefatigable Steven Spurrier or Hugh Johnson. Like cars, wine writers just conk out. I am in my forties. Unless Trump gets bored and presses the big red button, there are innumerable un-tasted wines and un-written words waiting for me. Irrespective of anyone's career path the human condition is one that seeks to explore new horizons and challenges. The publication today is completely different to the one I joined, though I maintain that at its core is the reviewer and their communication about the beverage we know and love. I love what I do however I reached a point where it was time to move on. When I discussed the opportunities at Vinous with Antonio, when I saw its potential with myself as a vital part, then I knew that I should grab it with both hands. I cannot wait to get started.

It is a copper-plated cliché but I have enjoyed every minute of my time at The Wine Advocate. Not a second has passed without feeling privileged being paid for my passion. There is a long queue of people more worthy than myself that would kill to do this job. Admittedly, there have been moments when my expression resembled Munch's "The Scream" as TWA lurched towards controversy, though that is surely the same for any employee. My affection for this chapter in my life will always remain.

I wish William Kelley all the best in taking over Burgundy. Who could have predicted how the following weeks would unfold after we dined together last June. Sincere thanks to those munificent and crazy wine-lovers that have shared mind-boggling bottles over the years. There is nothing that creates such a harmonious blend of disparate people as wine. You know who you are. Thanks to Johan Berglund for being my wingman over a dozen primeurs and captured incredible moments in the lens. Of course, I thank Robert Parker for taking a chance on a rookie. Irrespective of your opinion about the man, the wine world would be a lot poorer without him and I am just sad we never got to sit down and discuss Neil Young's albums one by one. When I called Bob this week he sounded no different to when we first spoke under that oak tree in Hanover Square, most importantly, still with that infectious joie-de-vivre. To have worked with such a legend has been an honour. Finally, I thank my fellow reviewers and comrades, in particular Lisa, Luis, Monica and Stephan for being 100-colleagues and far more importantly, 101-point friends.

To you all. Au revoir et bon voyage.