Where It All Began for this American Critic

Growing up, we always had wine in the house, but it was reserved for special occasions. And the wine was never that special.

I remember there almost always being a bottle of Blue Nun or Weber’s Zeller Schwarze Katz (the one with the plastic black cat attached by elastic cord to the bottle’s neck) in our refrigerator. And a bottle of Ruffino Chianti in the cabinet that also held the Harvey’s Bristol Cream Sherry, plus a few spirits.

The cat is no longer black, and the Chianti has a screw cap, but these are the modern versions of the wines I grew up on.

In the mid 1980s I was in college, and although I lived in the dorms, I had rapidly renounced the campus dining plan, which meant I had to fend for myself armed with only a toaster oven and a single electric burner. After a couple of weeks subsisting on Ramen noodles, spaghetti sauced from a jar and plenty of takeout, I started to broaden my repertoire. A family friend had given me my first cookbook when I went off to school, The Starving Student’s Cookbook, but I quickly exhausted its modest roster of dishes and moved on.

As a child, I had always been exposed to good food. My parents were both from New York, and we visited my grandmother in Brooklyn regularly. She worked in Manhattan and was part of several formal and informal dining groups, so she always knew which restaurants to steer us toward, from her local pizza parlor to Chinatown dives and the then-pinnacles of French dining, places like La Caravelle, Le Côte Basque and Le Périgord. The fancy meal at a grand restaurant left feel-good memories that still persist today.

Looking back, it’s easy to see that this was probably the main reason why I began to expand my cooking comfort zone with the classics. Sole meunière, linguine with white clam sauce, chicken fricassee—all were easy enough to make in my makeshift kitchen, and all were enhanced by white wine. Red wines went into coq au vin and deglazed pans to make a quick sauce for burgers and the occasional steak. And all this time I was buying wine, cooking with wine and drinking the leftovers, I was learning about wine, almost without realizing it.

When I got my degree, I still didn’t know how far my interest in wine had developed. I went off to graduate school, where I had an apartment with a real kitchen—and real cooking opportunities. Finally, I could make some more complicated dishes. I remember a duck with Cabernet sauce, with the breast seared and the leg-thigh roasted from a recipe in one of Jeff Smith’s (The Frugal Gourmet) cookbooks. The Raymond’s 1984 Cabernet Sauvignon was terrific with this.

By the end of the first semester, I wasn’t all that interested in archaeology anymore. I bought my first serious wine book—Tom Stevenson’s Sotheby’s Encyclopedia of Wine at the campus bookstore. I also bought Hugh Johnson’s Pocket Guide and used them to guide my first “big” wine purchases, which included a 1982 Château Meyney, a 1985 Warre (the only one yet to be consumed), two bottles of rot-tinged 1983 Vosne-Romanée and my first Châteauneuf-du-Pape: two bottles and one magnum of Domaine du Vieux Télégraphe (the bottles through one importer, the magnum via Kermit Lynch; I’d read Robert Parker in The Wine Advocate that it made a difference).

I drove from Madison back to New York in February with five cases of wine in the trunk of the car. It was bitter cold, and when my wife and I stopped near State College for the night, I brought the wine and the houseplants into the motel room so they wouldn’t freeze.

Once in New York, I found a job in a Manhattan wine shop on the Upper East Side. All the British wine writers whose books I was reading said that was the best way to learn about wine.

Well, it wasn’t, at least not for me, not at that particular shop. I worked until 10 pm most nights, which didn’t allow for evening tastings. I wasn’t tasting much as part of my job, which was in sales, and my employee discount was a measly 20%, which meant that my leftover cash didn’t go very far.

I do remember selling $10,000 worth of wine over the phone to some horse-insurance guy from Tennessee. He had one of the horse vans that was going from Belmont to Kentucky pick up the wine, including 1985 Clos du Tart. On the other hand, I also sold half pints of booze to hospital orderlies.

I got a job in magazine publishing, which paid better and had regular hours. I learned about wine on my own, as a passionate hobbyist. I ordered my first Bordeaux futures (12 half-bottles of 1988 Château Climens for $185 and six bottles of 1988 Château Poujeaux for $54), then drove all the way to Northampton, Massachusetts, to pick them up. All of you big-time collectors, don’t laugh—to me this was heady stuff.

I bought, I read, I tasted. I spent hours on the computer, sharing experiences with other self-professed wine geeks on various Internet fora. I drove to the outskirts of Philadelphia to meet a dozen people I had only ever met online to drink Zinfandel together. My wife jokingly called us “ax murderers” and warned me to be careful. That was more than 20 years ago and some of us felons still keep in touch.

The larger-than-life organizer of my first “offline”—a dental equipment rep at the time—was Russell Bevan. He introduced me to the wines of Mike Officer, a banking-industry computer wonk who made a few barrels of Zin in his garage for fun. Mike’s wines have since been widely acclaimed under his Carlisle label. And although I later dropped off all mailing lists, I was there at the beginning.

In 1999, I joined the staff at Wine Enthusiast as an associate editor. The company was expanding its tasting program, which made it an ideal opportunity for me to combine my profession (editing) with my passion (wine).

Over the past 18 years at Wine Enthusiast, I moved through a succession of positions: senior editor, tasting director, managing editor. During that time, I’ve become the foremost American authority on the wines of Australia and New Zealand, and written dozens of feature stories on wines from all over the world.

I’ve visited New Zealand regularly to research stories since 2000, and have judged at the Air New Zealand Wine Awards and Marlborough Wine Show. My first article on the country, back in 2001, was “New Zealand: Beyond Sauvignon Blanc.” Maybe just a bit ahead of its time, as I saw a recent Forbes article with a nearly identical headline this year.

I took over reviewing Australian wines in 2006, and have tried to make up for lost time by tasting and visiting as much as possible. I took part in the latest edition of Penfolds: The Rewards of Patience, tasting every vintage of Grange ever produced, and followed that up with a complete vertical of Henschke’s Hill of Grace. Over the last 12 months, I’ve visited Australia three times for story research and to speak at the Margaret River Gourmet Escape and Mornington Peninsula International Pinot Noir Celebration.

In 2006, I also took on reviewing Rhône wines for Wine Enthusiast, and have visited the region regularly ever since. Despite recent price increases, the wines still offer considerable value relative to those from other parts of France. Most exciting to me are the increases in quality occurring in appellations like Saint-Joseph and Crozes-Hermitage.

During my time at WE, I had the opportunity to be part of and subsequently develop a team of wine critics and writers, including Wine Advocate’s own Monica Larner. Now that I’ve joined the world’s preeminent team of wine critics, I can honestly say it feels like coming home.

Want to learn more about wine? Follow Robert Parker Wine Advocate on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, or go to robertparker.com.

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