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Escaping Robert Parker Reviewed

Feb 1, 2011
Escaping Robert Parker Reviewed
A new movie looks at a wine producer and a critic's power.

movieThere's a moment in the documentary Escaping Robert Parker when young winemaker Julian, the film's subject, meets legendary wine critic Robert Parker. We can't hear their conversation, but the two men--who don't know each other personally or professionally--appear entirely uncomfortable. Even in just that brief span, both their faces convey a hefty amount of skepticism about each other.

That feeling is constant throughout this movie, the story of one man trying his hardest to make a tasty wine and sell it--yet refusing to buy into the scheme of the all-important critic that could, potentially help him realize wild success. The critic and the winemaker have a powerful, awkward relationship in which the former drives the latter borderline insane without even trying.

Like it or not, that's pretty much what the modern wine industry is all about, and Escaping Robert Parker--though slow-paced at times--captures the industry as accurately as any film to date. Winemaking is often as boring as it is challenging. Marketing wine can be hell. China is scary but critical to the future success of the industry. And the business of importing and selling wine can be a years-long struggle before any signs of success appear. Yet the wine business still has an undeniable allure.

Click here to find out where a screening of Escaping Robert Parker is taking place near you, or to buy the DVD. To learn more about the movie and the making of it, read our interview below with Brian DiMarco, founder of import company The Barterhouse, who's featured throughout the film.

Bottlenotes: What are your impressions of Escaping Robert Parker, as well as how you and The Barterhouse were portrayed?
Brian DiMarco: The film started out as this idea about following a bottle of wine from a small producer to a shop in New York--what it took to make all that happen. I hate to call it a Travel Channel doc, but that's how it appeared to me. But as it progressed on, in parts I became a foil to Julian. There was about a year that I didn't hear from the producer, and then he called saying, 'We want to reshoot you in a few scenes.'

I said, 'I don't really think there's a story--you're just following a guy with a box of wine.' [But] he had this idea to make Robert Parker the foil, and make it a broader idea. It had more legs, and value was becoming a bigger topic. I kind of didn't understand what Parker had to do with the story...but Julian had said a bunch of times, 'If only Robert Parker would rate my wine,' and we realized that was more of a story.

I think everyone who sees it thinks there are interesting parts. Do I think it shows a really vital part of the business? Yes. It shows what small businesses have to do to make it, and it's a commitment unlike any other. You're not selling widgets. It's agriculture. It's people's lives. It's a lot. Then to have people in the chain of command who have such power....

So is there truly a prevailing, psychological blanket of Robert Parker fear among winemakers and importers? Because we never really get a taste of his power in the film, just the perception of it.
There's some of that. In New York City, I'm less worried about what Parker thinks or does, and most of the buyers don't care either. It's really a place about relationships. But as soon as you get outside of the city (New Jersey, Pennsylvania and big-box retail), that score is vitally important. There's no one in those stores who knows anything about wine--and if there's one, they're not working while you're shopping there. Without shelf talkers, there's no way for [people] to know anything about those wines. For that outlying market and people coming into wine as a new thing, they need that help. There's someone to say, 'It's O.K. to drink this wine.' Maybe they graduate to peer-review sites [like Bottlenotes], one would hope. But outside of metro markets, they need help. In New York, if you go to Bottlerocket, they have their own reviews. Once you, the consumer, develop a relationship with that store, you're set. You'll never see a Parker review at Crush or at Astor.

[But with Parker], be careful what you wish for. If he gives you a 90 or above, he just made your life. If he gives you an 89 you're fine. If he gives you an 88, you live and die by that score. But the truth is, if you or I could drink 88 or 89 point wine every day, we'd be living a charmed life.

If you're talking about everyday wines, wines by the glass, no one cares about a rating. It's about taste and value. But if it's a wine of great cost or experiential magnitude or a lot of folklore, the points help. Conversely, it's scary for producers: What if you get a 93 one year and an 88 the next? As soon as you get a bad rating, the product is psychologically not worth as much.

Early in the film, we learn that you struggled for the first couple years with Barterhouse and with Julian's wines. What were the biggest difficulties you found with the wine-importing business?
You have to sell a lot of wine. It's not a high-margin business. The only way I've been able to survive is to have a better palate than the other guy, pick better wines and make better relationships. But at the beginning, clout rules. I didn't have leverage like someone who sells Smirnoff vodka, and can say, 'Well, you can only have the Smirnoff if you also take this wine.' It was a competitive disadvantage for us.

We'd have a success, and say, 'We just sold $40,000 of wine...and costs are X, rent is Y, and we did all that work to make five grand?!' The only way to survive was to keep financing the dream. Only an entrepreneur could do that--the vanity of continuing to fund something that doesn't make money...and then one day it does.

Where was the turnaround? What made Barterhouse successful?
I was fortunate to have a prior life in advertising and marketing, and I have a lot of people I can count on and liked me and what we were trying to do. Julian's wines were 50% of my portfolio, and now they're less than 5%. The wines are very profitable for me, and probably 8% of our total thing. But to stay alive, I had to have Italian wine, more French wine and Pinot Grigio. It wasn't possible to make a living just selling Julian's wines.

I ended up getting a big deal done in China, not through any of the people you see Julian deal with in China in the film. He was there for months and got nowhere. I knew the right person who knew the guy in the Communist party you need to bribe. That's how it works over there. It took nine months to get paid, but when we did, it was a nice check. [Ed. note: There's an eye-opening scene in the film in which Julian's agent in China explains to him that the way you get wine into a store or on a restaurant list is to give cash to the purchasing manager's assistant, usually that person's son or daughter, as a sign of good faith and your willingness to invest in a long-term business relationship. Only then will the establishment consider buying the wines to sell to consumers.]

We cut overhead and just started selling more and more. We diversified, we got cheaper, we got broader and we just stuck it out. After six months or two years or three years, it's, 'Oh, of course we'll buy from you.' Eventually we became that old shoe, and [wine stores] liked working with us.

In the film, we see you going with Julian from wine shop to wine shop and, in one case, getting some pretty negative feedback. Do you just need really thick skin to sell wine?
You need thick skin to sell anything. It's hard for the producer because it represents such an investment of their time and passion. For Julian it's experiential, and it's family. He almost undersells the wine if he thinks people aren't liking it.

A lot of it has to do with the fact that everyone now has good wine. Five or six years ago, five people had really great wine, and everyone else had O.K. wine. But now, if you look at the market, it's a mature market. Wine is growing double digits. The person who was having cosmos after work is now having Chardonnay. And the guy who graduates from Heineken is probably having Cabernet. If you look at any 100 people, wine is gaining two drinkers a month out of the 100, and beer and liquor are each losing one a month.

It's hyper-competitive and relationship driven. If you have a wine locked up in a place, you do anything to keep it because the guy waiting in the wings has something just as good as your wine at a better price. It couldn't be more competitive. There are 2,600 sales reps legally selling wine on the street in New York City. There are probably another 600 that don't even have licenses. Even in northern New Jersey there are probably 12 guys. Here there are 2,600 people trying to sell wines to all the same accounts.

What are the most important things you think people should take away from the film?
That it's not this sort of faceless enterprise. That the winemaker and the families who make wine and the people who sell it, we're all doing it out of love, all trying to make a living. If they see the movie and they like it, [they should] walk away empowered to have the courage of their convictions to make their own decisions. If you like Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio, that's why it's out there. Drink it.

If the customer [sees the film and] says, 'I never knew how hard the process is, and I really want to figure out myself what I like,' that would be a win. 'I've had enough Chardonnay in my life; I'm gonna try Chenin Blanc today.' That people would link up, be more adventurous and try new things--that would be the takeaway.






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