The rise of Robert Parker in 1980s as the formidable American wine critic once said himself is that he was “at the right time and right place”. That being the global wine consumer market’s tectonic shift from Europe to the US, which has since become the world’s biggest wine consumer.
His straight-talking style of wine reviews using a 100-point numerical system, effective and engaging, are quickly welcomed by disenchanted American wine drinkers and spread beyond its borders. For a long time, his lone palate dictates consumers’ buying choices and even wineries’ wine styles. Parker’s praise can send wine shelves empty, and wines with less forgiving reviews would crush under the weight of his opinions.
Much can be said about his legacy. Detractors bemoan his influence over ripe, jammy, high-octane wine style but there’s no question that Parker remained truthful – even to a fault- to his own palate through and through, and for 4 decades empowered American wine consumers.
China, on the other hand, widely tipped to become the world’s second biggest wine market behind the US, has yet to find itself a Robert Parker.
It’s not that they haven’t tried though. Publications like Wine Spectator, Decanter or other wine critics don’t wield the same power over English speaking consumers as they do in China, where cultural and social context dictates how wine is conversed and consumed. A Chinese wine drinker would have a hard time imagining what “cassis” or “quince” is and feel no need to follow course-by-course wine pairing.
There are “Parker hopefuls” inside the country but entangled commercial interests and education-driven communication have proved less effective.
However, that might change soon, with Chinese Master of Wine Lin Liu.
The Hangzhou-born, France-trained wine writer has just launched her bilingual wine website Wine Maniacs, setting out to be an independent wine critic. Focusing mainly on France, She has already published her 2019 and 2020 Bordeaux En Primeur reports, a few Rhone and Burgundy reports. The website primarily targeting Chinese audience, as she told me, is already been cited by Wine Searcher and Liv-ex, and most importantly, a mass hit within Chinese readers.
Liu’s first-ever Bordeaux En Primeur 2019 report published in 2020 – the same year she obtained her MW title- received over 40,000 views on WeChat, China’s most used social media platform. Her following Bordeaux En Primeur 2020 report went on to attract more than 100,000 views on WeChat.
Much of the buzz seems to be related to her ability to communicate effectively with Chinese readers and her refusal to buck under pressure to give out generous scores in order to be used by wine trade, a dilemma that confronts many new wine reviewers, she says.
Undoubtedly, numerical rating system is “an effective way” to communicate to the public, she told me but inflated scores can risk devaluing the system. “But essentially, a score is to tell ‘average’ apart from ‘good’, and from ‘great’ or ‘outstanding’. If Michelin Guide give 50% of the restaurants in the world with stars, they will be soon made redundant I suppose,” she explains.
However, numerical rating system is not with its limitations, she says, “out of context, many valuable information could be skewed or at least neglected without reading detailed tasting notes, or considering the occasion how they are consumed. But in terms of the scoring itself, my objective is to show the different scales to the readers.”
Given her rising clout over Chinese consumers, it’s hard not to imagine if she would emerge to play a more influential role for the country’s over 50 million wine drinkers. Positioning herself as a guide rather than an authority, she stopped short at Parker comparison.
“It is true that Chinese market has been making rapid progress in fine wine segment. It is logical to imagine that similar figure(s) could play a similar role as Parker,” she replied when asked about the possibility.
“But the current social climate is very different from the 1980s, in China and many other parts of the world. If we see this wine critic job is to win a power game, then fundamentally there is something quite wrong about it. This is perhaps why the scoring is becoming more and more generous!”
Indeed, today’s wine styles are more diverse than ever, and consumption is heavily influenced by social media, packaging, marketing and a plethora of wine authorities. Opinions vary, and often drastically.
“Generally speaking, Chinese wine critic is still a very new thing, I am personally just starting this new adventure, after being writing for a few journals/wine guides since 2012. So still a long way ahead,” she says.
“But the fundamental missions of wine critic shall never change: acknowledging and encouraging the note-worthy work of the producers, and introducing the right types of wines to the right types of consumers: an important bridge to keep both sides connected.”