West Norwood's critic-at-large
11 Nov 2006 by Jancis Robinson

This is a longer version of an article also published in the Financial Times.

Robert Parker of Maryland (you may have heard of him) is without a shadow of a doubt the most influential wine critic there has ever been. His taste in wine and mine vary in some respects. This hardly surprising difference in opinion manifested itself most obviously in early 2004 in our reactions to a particularly distinctive young red bordeaux, Ch Pavie 2003 which I rated 12 out of 20 and he rated 96-100 out of 100.

More than two and half years later this little storm in a wine glass, most unfortunately, refuses to die down. Parker v Robinson or The American v The British Palate is just too attractive a theme for the media. I am constantly being asked to provide juicy anti-Parker quotes, and to a small band of Parkerati I represent the Antichrist.

This is absurd. We have always enjoyed each other's company, have shared meals in each other's houses, and I retain the respect for Parker's skills and dedication that I have had since I first wrote about him 30 years ago. But a week last Wednesday morning (see Parker's Critic-at-Large is none other than our Neal!) my admiration for him soared to new heights when it was announced that, as part of a much-heralded revamp of erobertparker.com, he was taking on Neal Martin, a British wine writer from West Norwood. Later that day I found myself at a wine tasting in London with several of my fellow newspaper wine correspondents and asked if they knew about this surprising appointment, the first of a non-American to Team Parker, and from the reviled land of tea and bad teeth at that. "Who?" they all said.

Martin does, admittedly, fail to stand out in a crowd. He may have a particularly inexpressive face, but fortunately for us all he has the most distinctively expressive way with a keyboard, as evinced by his website wine-journal.com soon to be subsumed into Parker's site.

Born in Leigh-on-Sea in 1971 and possessed of a "2:1 Hons. Management Science degree, that has since proven to be completely useless" from Warwick University, he encountered his wine epiphany, as is so often the case, by accident. Having taught English in Japan he ended up at 25 being offered a job by Japan Airlines which included the procurement of vast quantities of wine, so had to mug up on the subject. A glass of Ch Montrose 1982 was enough to ignite a passion for both wine and writing tasting notes. "People always said jokingly, 'you'll be the next Robert Parker' because I always took notes," he told me last week.

By 2003, already a veteran of several useful trips to Bordeaux with his colleagues from Tokyo, Martin had amassed an impressive store of notes on wine. "I always thought it would be great to provide a different opinion on wines from all the published writers, so I thought 'I'll use the internet'. I didn't know anything about it at all at that stage." As he points out in his valedictory blog, he has managed to run his site on precisely £11.49 a month including VAT "(cue many webmasters to question the zeroes on their technical support bill)".

His tasting notes and producer profiles are useful and effective ("I started realising that my notes were having an influence on selling wine") but it is surely his writing style and Wistful of West Norwood persona that has lured so many to wine-journal.com and, so unexpectedly, Bob Parker to his door. Take this introduction to his book review of the annual guide Wine Report 2006:

"I must admit that when I purchased a copy of the first Wine Report last year, my motive was not so much the calibre of authors each writing about their pet wine region, but the fact that there, in the 'Best New Website' top ten was www.wine-journal.com, in like a bullet at number two. I was trumped by Bill Nanson's excellent www.burgundy-report.com but as he is a mate, I forgave him. Once in possession of this compact little tome, I spent endless hours looking myself up in the index: I had arrived in print, I had achieved a morsal of recognition."

That morsal (sic) is about to become a gargantuan global feast, so much so that Neal is now working out his notice at JAL and will be supporting his wife Tomoko, a fine taster who once worked for Berry Bros, and growing, much-chronicled family, on his eBob salary, which will allow him to travel freely and also (surely increasingly?) contribute to Parker in print, The Wine Advocate newsletter whose scores are so powerful.

Martin has been eager to reassure his readers that he will retain his own distinctive voice. "Even last night during Eastenders, Bob telephoned me and reconfirmed that he welcomes and positively encourages an alternative view and not an echo of his own voice (what would be the point of that?)" but he has still received a few emails accusing him of "going over to the dark side" - a sign of a worrying transatlantic polarisation of views.

"It's all a bit of a fairy story," he told me, still a bit dazed (he always looks a bit dazed) by his elevation to Bobdom. "He approached me in July by email via his internet business associate. I thought it was a hoax at first." See 'When Neal met Bob' on wine-journal.com for details how the signing was effected "and what CD I proffered as a gift in return from his famous crab cakes when I flew over to meet him" (Martin's quirky musical choices feature almost as much as wine on www.wine-journal.com.)

For Martin all this represents a triumph of cyberspace over print. "All this time it's been kind of weird. If you were to say you wrote, for instance, for the Dunfermline Evening Argus, people would be interested, but if it's a dot com they switch off."
Not any more, Neal.