Saturday, September 25, 2010

Parker Rants at Bibou's Expense

Consider a recent statement from a regarded critic:

"...the food was as great a bistro fare as one can imagine...the snail ragout, boudin noir, terrine en crout, out-of-this-world beef marrow bones as well as superb stuffed pig's feet with foie gras over a bed of black lentils had me in Rabelaisien Nirvana."

Then consider this:

"...better yet [there was] no precious sommelier trying to sell us some teeth enamel removing wine with acid levels close to toxic, made by some sheep farmer on the north side of his 4,000-foot foot elevation vineyard picked two months before ripeness, and made from a grape better fed to wild boar than the human species....we all know the type-saving the world from drinking good wine in the name of vinofreakism."

Seems kind of hard to believe they were uttered by the same person yet they were, by none other than the wine advocate himself, Robert Parker. Apparently, Parker dined a few nights ago at one of my favorite restaurants in Philadelphia, Bibou. That's him in the photo (above right), arms draped over the couple behind Bibou, Charlotte and Pierre Calmels. You can view the photo and quotes above, along with a laundry list of what Parker drank, in their original context at Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Michael Klein's blog, The Insider.

What really strikes me about the above diatribe is not so much the obvious case of diarrhea of the mouth but rather the fact that Robert Parker found it necessary to turn a simple moment — a photo op and a chance to send some much deserved praise the way of an excellent neighborhood bistro — into a self-serving opportunity to protect his own crumbling hegemony. What he's trying to protect against, lest I've left you scratching your head, is from what he obviously views as the culprit of his seemingly waning influence: the conversely increasing influence, erosive as Parker apparently views it, of independently voiced — and often freely disseminated — current trends in wine thought. Clearly, the emperor is piling on the moth balls in his own defense.

I could easily see someone thinking, "Okay, McDuff, you're just taking this as your own Parker-like opportunity to put a spin on things, to self-promote." But I have no such illusions of grandeur. If Parker was thinking of any one person, it may have been Alice Feiring, true-wine advocate extraordinaire and author of "The Battle for Wine and Love: or How I Saved the World from Parkerization." However, I think what Parker was actually having a meltdown over is, again, the ever increasing influence of an ever increasing number of voices being publicly expressed in the wine world. Bloggers, writers, sommeliers, retailers, bulletin board subscribers, distributors and importers, heck, maybe even collectors....

It's not really about what Parker called "vinofreakism." Rather, there is an undeniable backlash, though it's hardly universal, against what another wine critic, Eric Asimov, has coined "the tyranny of the tasting note." In this context, perhaps it's even more appropriate to think of as the tyranny of the wine rating system. Parker, like many of his peers at other major wine publications, has built his empire upon it and he is now clearly feeling the pinch.

* * *
On a more grassroots, more down-to-earth level, what I'm just as galled by is the possibility that Parker's diatribe might actually turn-off some true wine and food lovers to the idea of dining at Bibou. What a nasty case of guilt-by-association that would be.

Parker was right about at least a few of the things he was quoted as saying in Klein's article. The food at Bibou is indeed top-notch, an example of French country/bistro cuisine at its finest. And, as I pointed out in my original review of Bibou, everything about the BYOB, from the ease of its food to the quality of stemware and service, makes it a great place to take a broad variety of wines, be they classic or adventurous, heavy-hitters or simple pleasures.

The very same dish of foie-gras stuffed pig's trotters over a bed of lentils, mentioned by Parker, was a highlight of my last visit. Rich it was but over-the-top, as it might sound, it was not. All its elements were in harmony.

On that same August trip, the 2007 Chablis of Gilbert Picq showed much better than Nicolas Joly's Savennières "Les Clos Sacrés" 2005.

Likewise, Coudert's 2007 Fleurie "Clos de la Roilette Cuvée Tardive" was in a prettier spot than the 2006 Arbois Poulsard "Vieilles Vignes" from Tissot.

The real star of the lineup, though, was a bottle of 1997 Château Musar, eloquently expressive and a delight with the pig's foot and lentils.

So, I hope my point in this second half of my own little diatribe is even more obvious than that expressed in part one. Go to Bibou. Take good wine. Enjoy the company of good friends. Eat well. And leave the agenda where it belongs.

1009 South 8th Street
(between Carpenter and Washington)
Philadelphia, PA 19147
Bibou on Urbanspoon


TWG said...

'course if the review of Bibou hadn't been accompanied by the rant it would be even more difficult to get into.

What do you think of the alleged trend of licensed restaurants versus BYOB? I wonder where all the licenses are coming from.

Anonymous said...

I give this blog post 97 points

TomHudson said...

All the information you need on a specific wine is available on WS, RP, et al have been replaced by this service. Real feedback from real folks who tasted the wine recently.

'nuff said.

tom hyland said...


Good for you to take on Parker for that ridiculous, self-serving and in reality, rather mean statement.

You are correct when you write that he is protecting his own "crumbling hegemony." (I love that phrase!).

A true wine lover welcomes anyone that promotes wine and is secure enough in himself to admit that there are many other important voices out there in the world. Apparently Parker can't see that.

Anonymous said...


I think you got to the point of why this comment was so poor. The actual comment is not particularly surprising, nor is it as controversial as some might like it to be. The problem was Parker swinging what was a positive recommendation from the world's most powerful wine critic (tm) into a self serving statement about what he thinks about the current state of wine lists, somms, etc. The review comes across as half and half, because Parker seems to be saying, in the second half, that the restaurant gets points simply by necessity of being in a state where the liquor laws are archaic. It's faint praise indeed, and unfortunately Bibou had to be stuck in the middle here.

David McDuff said...

@TWG - It does seem as if more places have been opening with licenses of late, Tom. Of course, an overwhelming number of those restaurants are being opened by only two or three of the largest, most deep pocketed restaurateurs in town. Whether there are actually more licenses or there's just enough money being thrown around to get the licenses to come out of hiding, I don't know.

@Anon - Can I give ten of them back to you?

@TomHudson - CellarTracker has indeed become a fantastic tool, not just for managing inventory but also for checking in on recent tasting notes from a wide variety of wine drinkers. Based on Parker's tone, though, I don't think it's what he had in mind when he launched his rant.

@Tom Hyland -- If it hadn't hit so close to home, I doubt if I'd have bothered taking issue with this. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

@Cory -- Very good points all around, though I don't get the sense that the issue of PA's archaic wine laws figured into Parker's train of thought to any great extent.

John Lahart said...

All this negative reaction to some general comments posted in a Forum?
"A true wine lover welcomes anyone who promotes wine." Really! Nice thought except Parker 's general comments--he singles out no one, are met with very specific charges aimed at him. He is a wine critic, should he not be "critical?"
Oddly, a book title, by someone who claims to have "saved the world from Parkerization" is offered as part of a deduction that Parker was targeting the obviously intolerant author. Much ado.......

David McDuff said...


Welcome. As I've said here in the past, "It's my blog and I'll [a]do what I want." Likewise, albeit on a more serious note, Mr. Parker has his own magazine as well as his own BB and he's more than welcome to write about whatever he sees fit. Because of the historical prominence of his position, though, he's much more likely to get picked up in the national press when he speaks out and that's exactly what's happened here.

My response was based not just on my general sense of disbelief that his rant went to such extremes but that he saw fit to couch it in the context of some otherwise kind words about a restaurant. Parker is a wine critic, yes, but not a restaurant critic. His attack was misplaced and, as I tried to express in my post, could have negative ramifications for a restaurant which has absolutely zero to do with what he was railing against. As I said in my earlier comment, if the story hadn't hit so close to home I probably would have left it to the forums rather than blogging about it here.

The very fact, as you point out, that Parker singled out no one is exactly what makes his words more a rant than an expression of opinion or of constructive criticism. While he does point his words in the general direction of sommeliers, I got the clear sense, as I mentioned, that he was addressing a much bigger picture/trend in today's wine world.

As for my mention of Ms. Feiring and her book, I think it's very clear that I said "if Parker was thinking of any one person," and equally clear that I think he was not. As for what you've described as Alice's "intolerance," I would choose another word: "opinionated," or perhaps "critical." At least she had the chutzpah to name her target.

John Lahart said...

Parker's comments are either valid or they are not. There are, in fact, any number of sommeliers these days who are more interested in "pushing" wines they like rather than what the customer might like.
(This is no great revelation by the way).
One benefit of places like Bibou is one is not going to encounter one of these situations.
It's as simple as this.The hypothetical wine Parker notes is a poorly made wine. There is no attempt to criticize a particular styles of wine. There was a range of wine styles drunk (and enjoyed) at the Bibou dinner.
Style and quality are not synonymous.
I think some people are just reading too much into a critic's comments. My guess is if the "offending" comment were presented to any audience without any attribution, most would agree.

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