Critic’s success story is an intoxicating read

Elin McCoy’s ”Emperor of Wine, The Rise of Robert M. Parker Jr. and the Reign of American Taste” ($25.95; Ecco) is an essential book for anyone interested in wine, but it would also be enjoyed by general readers, especially those interested in a uniquely American accomplishment.

McCoy chronicles Parker’s life from his childhood in rural Maryland near Baltimore, when he drank practically no wine (after drinking wine the first time, he vomited into a drawer of clean clothes, to his mother’s chagrin), to his adulthood as one of the world’s most powerful and influential wine critics.

Parker discovered a passion for wine at age 20 visiting his wife-to-be when she was studying in Paris. After slogging through law school, he took a job with the Farm Credit Banks in Baltimore. But his passion remained wine. He had an extraordinary ability to remember what he tasted and, more importantly, described it in terms Americans understood.

In 1977, with a $2,000 loan from his mother and a Ralph Nader-like zeal, he started a local consumer-oriented newsletter, the Baltimore Washington Wine Advocate, reviewing wines and listing their prices at stores. He pioneered the shorthand, 100-point scoring system that is ubiquitous today. The newsletter took off, and was followed by books, a website, and a CD, ”Parker in your Palm.”

Provident Insurance in Tennessee insured his sense of smell and taste for $1 million. He is one of the few Americans, in the company of Ronald Reagan and Colin Powell, to receive France’s highest honor, the Legion d’Honneur, directly from the president of France. And his success has come the old-fashioned way, via perseverance and hard work.

McCoy, who has written about wine for 30 years, writes exceptionally evenhandedly and lucidly about this man, who some credit with improving wine around the world and others damn because they believe that winemakers tailor their wines to his tastes to ensure high ratings. They argue that individuality and subtlety are lost in the process. But whatever you think of Parker after reading this book, you can’t help but be a little envious by how he left his mundane legal job to pursue his passion. It’s a story even teetotalers can embrace.

August 11, 2005.