The Emporer of Wine (August 2008)

Posted on: August 1st, 2008 by Simon Carter & Daniel Darwood

Today we discuss the history and development of wine, its role in the fine dining experience and the impact of critics on our tastes.

The history and development of wine is unclear – even in Greek Mythology the history of the God of wine, Dionysus, is open to numerous interpretations. Their Roman counterparts called the equivalent God Bacchus or Liber. Contrary to some of the depictions of Bacchus, few of the stories associated with any of these Gods are positive or flattering to wine – intoxication was seen as a bad thing. Period. Ref

It may well hold that several hundred years BC a Roman Emperor was the first to bring wine to Britain, although as a beverage common across the population, Britain remained well behind European counterparts until the latter part of the twentieth century.

Today supermarket shelves are stacked with a great diversity of wines, couple this with access to all manner of specialist outlets (either directly or via the internet) then our choice is immense.

So it is too in fine dining restaurants, where the Sommelier can be considered the Emperor of wine. The etymology of the word Sommelier, according to Wikipedia, is derived from the Middle French for a court official in charge of transportation of supplies. An insulting understatement of the tasks carried out by the modern day counterpart.

The sommelier of a fine dining restaurant has a multi- faceted role. Having an easy manner with customers coupled with a sound knowledge of wine is just the beginning.

There is the cellar to run; meaning sourcing, procuring, budgeting and pricing as well as food and wine matching and typically contributing a solid 50% of annual Gross Profit to the restaurant.

One of the wonderful things about the world’s largest reference library – the internet – is that a few moments of typing uncovers knowledge that would have been painstaking to discover just a few years ago.

“Wonderful” with the proviso that the knowledge is both accurate and worthy. We can now, for example, find the retail price of wines instantaneously. This has removed, to some extent, the mask and cloak of mark-ups from even the most complex of wine lists.

This can only be a good thing. Today, the standard mark-ups made by Sommeliers in fine dining restaurants range between 300% and 400% of retail.

Armed with greater knowledge as consumers, with better and better information, the market forces of economics come into play, and inevitably mark-ups will come down.

The wine list is something to enjoy and not be an intimidating mine field. The adept Sommelier will expertly advise and guide to wines that match and enhance food while adding value to the overall dining experience.

A consumer’s prerogative is to optimise this interaction by assisting with taste and budget, this is easily achieved by pointing to a bottle and saying “I was thinking of this.”

In any event, the fine dining experience is about the intangible pleasure we enjoy. Should a recommended wine tick all the right boxes (and is proportionate to cost) then everyone is happy.

Apart from the Sommelier, who else is there to advise about choices in wine? There are the critics. In the UK these are notably Jancis Robinson, Oz Clarke, Jilly Goolden and Hugh Johnson – The latter’s World Atlas of Wine adorns over 15 million bookshelves worldwide.

Over a period of decades, all four have been prominent in highlighting the joys of wine and guiding consumers in their appreciation.

However there has been one man who has stood out in his sphere of influence – and that is Robert M Parker Jnr. The unauthorised biography, The Emperor of Wine was published in 2005.

The world famous Parker Points scoring system marks wines out of a 100. The ratings actually start at 50.

The impact of this system on the US market has been immense, with those wines scoring 96, 97, 98, 99 and 100 having their price per case rise exponentially.

Yes, a material difference to both demand and price, but what of supply? It has been argued that the production of wine in Bordeaux has been adjusted to meet the nose of one Robert M Parker Jnr. Extraordinary stuff!

With such power comes responsibility: Moreover, a critic with such unwieldy power can themselves attract the most fearsome of critics. Robert Parker has been sued and separately experienced death threats. At the same time leading lights in Bordeaux have lauded his contribution to their global development.

You just need to type “Emperor of wine” or “Robert M Parker” into Google to get an insight into the polarizing impact of his name.

After nearly thirty years, his regular wine advocate newsletteris still published. In the late 1970’s this was to a local community in Maryland, today it is to the world via

You may be a supporter or detractor or indeed, this may be your introduction to Robert Parker. The more you read the more fascinating this man becomes.