The New Rise of the Wine Advocate Magazine

Wine Critic Robert Parker Jr.’s recently reported move to sell the controlling stake in the Wine Advocate to a Singapore-based group has the potential to turn The Wine Advocate into a publication of far greater importance and power than ever before. The move could address the issue of the Wine Advocate having left a great deal of value on the table all these years. Bottom line: it’s a very good move.

Consider that in the U.S. Market the top wine publication all revolved around providing a substantial number of wine reviews: The Wine Spectator, The Wine Enthusiast and Wine & Spirits Magazine. One of the key reasons these wine publications have succeeded is that their readers and subscribers 1) want a substantial number of wine reviews at their fingertips and 2) have invested a great deal of trust in these publications’ ability to provide useful and trustworthy reviews of wine.

The Wine Advocate, though only a newsletter and not full-blown wine publication, has also earned a great deal of trust among its readers and subscribers, but never went down the path of creating a full-blow wine magazine a la Wine Spectator, Wine Enthusiast and Wine & Spirits Magazine. Similarly, the Wine Advocate has never created a publishing platform where it could attract and present display advertising.

This is unquestionably the path down which the Wine Advocate’s new owners should go.

The brand equity possessed by the Wine Advocate is among the most significant in wine publishing. The Wine Advocate is known world-wide, trusted world-wide and read world-wide. This is a significant advantage when launching a publication. Furthermore. word is that the print version of the Wine Advocate will go away, leaving only the digital version. Presenting thousands of wine reviews annually is an endeavor particularly well suited for a digital publication given the lower production costs of digital magazines.

Finally, there is the issue of advertising. The Wine Advocate has never accepted adverting in its newsletter. Were it to build a much larger publication by lowering its subscription price to $50 annually from $99 and were it to include the opportunity for luxury brands to purchase advertising to display in front of its affluent readers, and were a relatively successful marketing campaign implemented, you would see revenue from the Wine Advocate increase sharply as they, as I believe they would, swiftly move their subscription base to 150,000 subscribers.

There is of course the issue of content. For the Wine Advocate to move from a niche newsletter to a globally read wine magazine, it would have to increase and expand its content. To-date, content beyond wine reviews at the Wine Advocate has amounted to regional vintage reports and descriptions of lavish dinners and tastings. Much more than this is needed to round out a newly configured Wine Advocate.

From a purely business perspective, I think this kind of move should have happened a decade ago. In that time, wine publications have generally seen failure, including long-established publication. Yet, this is not an indication that wine publishing is a losing venture. It indicates that wine publishing is most successful when the publication develops and retains trust among its subscribers, the most difficult assets to develop at a wine publication. The Wine Advocate possesses that asset.

Some have suggested that the era of the wine review, the wine critic and the 100 point rating system is in decline. This is a serious misreading of the global wine industry. More wines than ever before move into the global marketplace. And whether one likes it or not, wine remains one of those products about which consumers want to be advised. And they want advice from experts. And they want advice they can understand. The 100 Point Rating System offered up by a trusted source meets that need. Furthermore, the discontent over the 100 point rating system is a tempest in a teapot stirred by a relatively few individuals inside the wine industry.

I know an expanded Wine Advocate Magazine, well run, with advertising and with 1000s of reviews annually as its central element would succeed and be profitable. And I for one would like to read that magazine not just for the reviews, but for the content.

Congratulations Mr. Parker….Not just for your success but for laying the groundwork for what could become one of the most important world-wide wine publishing ventures in history.

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38 Responses

  1. Fredric Koeppel - December 10, 2012

    But does the world need another Wine Spectator, Wine Enthusiast and Wine & Spirits, which are, as you point out, the three big guns in the realm of wine guidence, information, travel, dining and entertainment. (I suppose you could add Decanter to the list, but it continues to uphold a grasp on british reserve.) The move of WA operations to Singapore speaks volumes about the aims of the new Asian investors and what they hope is the developing audience in China and India, in particular. But is that audience deep enough, knowlegdeable enough and sophisticated enough to grasp the new WA totally online publication to their bosoms? Parker has done a remarkable job, considered WA’s humble beginnings as a private newsletter, but can we countenance his claim (in his statement) that it “swept the civilized world”? Certainly he has had a stupendous influence on the way wine has been made over the past 30 years, but the world of wine seems to be turning to “smaller” sources of information: trusted friends, trusted wine merchants, word-of-mouth, bloggers (hopefully), all aspects that mitigate against what now seem to be WA’s world-wide aspirations, a la Wine Spectator.

  2. Charlie Olken - December 10, 2012

    Tom–
    You may well be right about the eventual transformation of the Wine Advocate into full-fledged wine magazine of the type that is printed on glossy paper, in four colors and takes expensive, lifestyle advertising.

    And you are absolutely right that the WA would substantially have to change from its current slow-moving caterpillar like form into a much more more mobile, generally atractive butterfly.

    That process is not the province of the wine critic. Mr. Parker, like Mr. Tanzer, Mr. Balzer, Mr. Finnegan, Mr. Olken were not trying to be big business tycoons in the manner of Messrs. Shanken and Strum. To become the latter, it would have meant giving up the role of critic and become publisher.

    It may be possible for Mr. Parker’s baby to grow up into a full-fledged mag. But, just as the WS and WE are not about their writers (how many WE writers aside from S. Heimoff (because of his blog) does the world actually know and speak of in hushed tones?). That is what will get lost at the WA.

    Since there are folks who believe that it is already lost with the retirement of Mr. Parker, perhaps it does not matter one way or the other. Who can say that the WA was not somehow doomed because of Mr. Parker’s earleir decision. After all, the world has almost universally referred to his rag as “PARKER”, not as the Wine Advocate.

    If this move leads to the creation of a new, more widely powerful publication, so be it. For wine geeks, it has never been about Marvin’s slick rag; it has always been about the wine reviews. The WA could wind up with more readers and a bigger financial footprint, but it will not be a more powerful influencer than it was in its heyday simply because its motivating force will be lifestyle advertising, not inner geek wine content.

  3. Tom Wark - December 10, 2012

    Fred:

    Yes, there is lots of room in the world for a new wine publication. In fact, were the Wine Advocate to take my advice, I think the Wine Spectator, Wine Enthusiast and Wine & Spirits would remain firmly in control of their readers.

  4. Tom Wark - December 10, 2012

    Charlie:

    You may be right about what the WA would become with lifestyle advertising. But I’m not so sure. I’m not convinced that revenue driven in part by lifestyle advertising means a reduced focus on serious reviews and seriousness when it comes to wines of the world.

  5. Nick P - December 10, 2012

    I agree, Tom, that it’s a good move on the whole, but I don’t agree with elimination of the print edition. Bad / faddish idea.

  6. Wine Harlots - December 10, 2012

    Parker’s street cred is based on his statement of ethics of impartiality. (Admittedly, they have been challenges to that recently). Being an impartial reviewer of wines has been Parker’s selling point. Getting into the event business and having to solicit business and promote your event (a la James Suckling) will make it a challenge to retain the credibility of objectivity.

    And it sounds like the Advocate is cleaning house, the quote from the Wall Street Journal doesn’t bode well for the writing staff. “Ms. Perrotti-Brown said the company is discussing terms with its correspondents, who include lead critic Antonio Galloni, as well as David Schildknecht, Mark Squires and Neal Martin, whom she and Mr. Parker hope will sign on as employees. If they decline? “There is a plethora of good wine writers out there. It’s a buyer’s market,” she said.” http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887324024004578169492614023194.html

    All the best,

    Nannette Eaton

  7. Lee Newby, AIWS - December 10, 2012

    Wine Advocate is a brand, and high end master classes under its banner may make more than the publication. All the aspects of a luxury brand will be milked from the name, I think the subscription base from well heeled westerners has slipped. This is the best way out for Mr. Parker, take the money and run to Singapore, or take the money in Singapore ;)

  8. Shelley A. - December 10, 2012

    “The move of WA operations to Singapore speaks volumes about the aims of the new Asian investors and what they hope is the developing audience in China and India, in particular. But is that audience deep enough, knowlegdeable enough and sophisticated enough to grasp the new WA totally online publication to their bosoms? ”

    Parker and the WA already have several years of experience in this matter.
    The model was developed with Parker’s Japan-based website, http://www.erobertparker.co.jp/

    Translations of WA content in web-only form, notification of up-coming WA-based events, searchable data-base of Parker reviews, Twitter translations, mobile apps, regular input from Lisa P-B.
    It’s all there.

  9. Gregg Burke - December 10, 2012

    Tom, with Parker out of the picture the importance of the Wine Advocate takes a huge hit. People talk about “Parker scores” not Wine Advocate. The magazine will continue and be more profitable but its influence will wane. It is no secret that i would not sad to see that happen. We will see if the 100 point sytem takes a shot as well. None of it matters to me, never used his reviews to sell wine anyway. Din dong the ……..

  10. Thomas Pellechia - December 10, 2012

    Wish I had a keyboard with a YAWN button.

  11. Terroirist: A Daily Wine Blog » Daily Wine News: Reaction to Parker - December 11, 2012

    [...] control. Check out commentary from Eric Asimov, Jeff Leve, Tyler Colman, Talia Baiocchi, Tom Wark,  S. Irene Virbila, and Joe Roberts. Parker’s hometown paper, the Baltimore Sun, also [...]

  12. Spencer - December 11, 2012

    Agree that there is a lot of untapped commercial potential within the Wine Advocate “brand”. Not sure why Parker never attempted to try to realize that full potential himself, but it seems clear that he has handed the reigns over to a group for whom that is a primary focus. I’m totally fine with that. This is a business, not a charity. The announcements around this move appear to be a bit unorganized, uncoordinated, and sloppy, so it is difficult to tell what exactly the new owners have planned. That said, based on what I can get out of the WSJ article and Parker’s own announcement and tweets, I’m concerned that the new owners have lost sight of the business’s current foundation in their excitement to expand the business. 80% of the current subscribers are American. How are they going to react to a new Asian market focus? And if I were Neal Martin, Antonio Galloni, or David Schildknecht, I would be a bit upset with the new world order. Some of the most well respected wine critics in the world now need to submit all of their reviews for editing and approval all of their actions and activities need prior sign-off. On top of this, their new boss basically said, via the WSJ, that she doesn’t view them as valuable assets…”There is a plethora of good wine writers out there. It’s a buyer’s market,”. I can only hope that this was a misquote.

  13. 1WineDude - December 11, 2012

    “Some have suggested that the era of the wine review, the wine critic and the 100 point rating system is in decline. This is a serious misreading of the global wine industry.”

    No one said, from what I can see, that the decline is precipitous, only that it’s happening. I cannot argue with that. It is eroding organically. It’s still quite important, of course, but it’s not as important as it once was, and if anyone is convinced that it will rebound then I’ve got a sizable bridge to sell you…

    • Mike Dunne - December 11, 2012

      Joe is correct, the 100-point scale is killing itself, largely because of its proliferation, partly because of conflicts-of-interest that consumers gradually are realizing, partly because of its suggestion of precision in an area where precision can’t be calibrated. Robert M. Parker Jr. was the first to popularize the 100-point way of rating wine, and his following was built on trust. With Parker out of the picture, the field is more muddled, and consumers are apt to forget about putting their confidence in one critic’s points and turn to others who come up with a more relevant/meaningful way of providing guideposts.

    • Tom Wark - December 11, 2012

      Hey Joe…

      What’s the evidence that the 100-Point wine rating system is in decline?

      • 1WineDude - December 11, 2012

        Tom – if enough people claim that scores do not or no longer or never have moved them to buy, then it is declining. Anecdotal, but strong, I think. The proliferation of alternative wine coverage (and some of it seeing a bit of success) is another.

        This is, I think, a movement more with passionate consumers – retailers and importers and distributors still use scores, of course. As do many collectors. But they’re no longer the only game in town.

  14. Rick Bakas - December 11, 2012

    If the 100-pt scale is declining, what is likely to replace it? And don’t say friends’ recommendations on Facebook. The industry and consumers want a system they can calibrate to.

    Do any of you see something on the horizon that would grow as the point system declines?

    • 1WineDude - December 11, 2012

      Rick – you’re not gonna like this, but I do think crowd-sourced reviews and recommendations are starting to gain more and more traction with younger wine drinkers (this is what those drinkers have largely told me, anyway).

      • Rick Bakas - December 11, 2012

        It’s not that I don’t like that answer. If anyone believes in the power of social media and peer input, you know I’m one of those people.

        What the peer input doesn’t do is represent a piece of credible information (ie.. points) on a shelf talker at the point of decision. That’s where the 100 pt. scale touches the average consumer most, aside from the publication.

        When I was a sales rep for Charmer-Sunbelt I learned buying decisions from the store owner and customers was so heavily weighted to a pieced of paper with a score on it stuck to the shelf. What will replace that?

        • 1WineDude - December 12, 2012

          Rick – totally agree, I wrote a lot about this fairly recently on 1WD. I think the crowd tends to anoint those that they feel have that kind of cred in those spheres. Doesn’t take away from the on the floor, or visual cues on the shelf. My understanding is that there is evidence that it’s not the scores on those shelf-talkers, but the the fact that those shelf-talkers have visual and reputable cues, that lead to increased sales and help for the consumer to “validate” their money isn’t getting wasted, etc.

      • Mike Dunne - December 11, 2012

        I’m more skeptical than Joe concerning the long-term impact of crowd-sourcing on wine sales, though it not doubt does drive some commerce. Over time, however, the potential is high for consumers to conclude that crowd-sourcing, like the 100-point scale, is too much confusing white noise. Maybe it’s more wishful thinking than strong belief, but I sense that the smart, aware and sensitive wine merchant will make a comeback – someone knowing and trustworthy who can listen intelligently to customers and make savvy recommendations. Interestingly, I’m running into more of these sorts of guides even in the wine departments of some large supermarket chains and big-box stores.

        • Tom WArk - December 11, 2012

          Mike:

          I don’t think those trustworthy, helpful wine shop folks ever went away. I think the emphasis was taken off of them. But you are absolutely right. These folks’ recommendations probably sell more wine than all the reviews and social media recommendations put together. They are indispensable.

          • Mike Dunne - December 11, 2012

            Imagine the business Costco could do in wine if it had just one person knowledgeable about wine on the floor! Or better yet, if it could hand out samples along with the hummus and chocolate chips. But this isn’t the only area where Costco is letting us down. How about small sample packets of pet food to take home to test them on cat or dog. With our finicky cat I’m not about to buy 40 pounds of meal just to watch him reject it. But I digress.

  15. Jack - December 11, 2012

    You mean A Pay for points publication..were only the largess of the wine industry dare travel? There goes Robert’s legacy down the tubes, I feel strongly about being unbiased and having the ability to serve one master. Advocate should stay just that–an advocate to the wineries and the consumer, not to those who play with a six digit advertising budget.

    Don’t Do It!

  16. Tom Wark - December 11, 2012

    Jack:

    I’m unaware of any publication that will give good points if you pay for them or advertise with them…and I’ve been in the business of wine PR and advertising for 20+ years. There is no such thing. If there were, I would have had a variety of clients pay for really good scores.

  17. Tim McDonald - December 11, 2012

    Tom is writing about the future not the past. He is also 100% correct about adverts. There are NO wine magazines where the score is connected to the amount of ads that are placed! It is a myth and simply not true. Content is king and regardless of the score is a big part of wine writing. The 100 point scale is not ever to be replaced, rather it is simply one of the reasons sales people sell wine in and consumers buy when in off premise account. The more a brand gets talked about the more likely it has drinkers. The comments from wine critics are the most important part of the review process…dialogue with wine drinkers is now the reason they purchase a wine. A retailer can be more important than any score from whomever. Good post on a fairly unexciting subject.

    • Gregg Burke - December 11, 2012

      Tim, there have been smoking gun cases of pay for points. But Jay Miller, Suckling, are riding a very fine line. Also look at WS top 100 Folinari CHianti at #41, really? That was one of the years best wines? I would like to think they are corrupt not inept. Wine publications that take and most of the times depend upon ad dollars for survival can not be trusted.

  18. Tom Wark - December 11, 2012

    Greg:

    Is that it? That’s the evidence you have for pay for play points? You’ve got to do better than that. And believe me when I tell you, I’d love to know about it if it’s happening. The Wine Spectator, Wine Enthusiast and Wine & Spirits are now in that business. It’s not even a possibility. I’ve met tons of folks who make this claim. But I’ve never met anyone who says they paid for points.

    • Gregg Burke - December 11, 2012

      Tom
      I never claimed to have proof. I find what happened with Jay Miller & Pancho Campo questionable. I find Folinari Chianti being one of the best Chianti’s of the year quite curious. I find it hard to believe that with the amount of money spent by Diageo for advertising in WS alone, that there is not a little editorial guidance going on. I just feel the way things are set up that it is too fertile a field for corruption not to have taken root. Everyone in the wine business has heard these claims for a very long time, sometimes it is a case of sour grapes, but even if those cases accounted for 99% that leaves a question. I can not believe that you think things are corruption free, you are far too smart.

  19. Michael Kinney - December 11, 2012

    As someone who sold advertising for over 25 years at one of the three wine pubs (other than WA) under discussion, I can say categorically that we never, not once, sold ad ad in exchange for either a good score or any kind of favorable treatment for a wine under review. What DOES often happen, though – and this can lead to the flawed assumption that there is a quid per quo going on, is this: a wine magazine’s critic, tasting blind, finds that he likes Chateau X’s wines over time, and the magazine publishes consistently good scores for X. The owner of Chateau X sees the scores, is gratified, and observes her sales going up in response to the good scores. When it comes time to portion out Chateau X’s advertising expenditures, she might very well be inclined to buy advertising in the magazine in order to support them, to keep them in good financial health, so they can keep on reviewing wines – and hopefully the critic will be consistent in his taste and will score – blind – future X wines in the same positive manner as before. And since most reputable critics do display relatively consistent palates over time, this if often a good bet.
    In other words, the magazine’s scores tend to motivate producers to advertise, rather than the producer’s advertisements determining how a magazine scores wines.

  20. Charlie Olken - December 11, 2012

    The Parker story is still unfolding and some of the early reactions now need to be filtered through the lense of later data–for better or worse because much of that later data is from Parker via tweet.

    That said, and taken advantage of Mr. Wark’s generosity, I would like to suggest that folks go read Steve Heimoff’s take on the situation. It does at least try to bring the story somewhat up to date.

    It cannot be fully successful, of course, because only the principals to the deal know what it means in terms of advertising, the form of the print publication over time, the status of the existing stable of writers.

    The WA is, first and foremost, a business. It has a few key assets–namely it subscriber base and the cash flow associated with it the name recognition and reputation of the brand and the writing talent that produces the product for which people pay.

    Even with Mr. Parker’s seeming clarifications, it is unclear how much and which parts of those assets were the coveted parts of the deal and what the new owners want to make of them.

    As for the pay for play assertions, there is evidence that it exists in terms of exposure but not necessarily in terms of rating. A winery can pay for what is essentially advertising in the display of its labels, etc, but I don’t know of any points for advertisers that goes on at WS, WE. It may go on elsewhere as there are more than just two or three places that take advertising and issue ratings (witness the kerfuffle a while back over activities at Andy Blue’s rag, The Tasting Panel).

    Stay tuned folks. This story may have more turns than General Hospital.

  21. Tom Wark - December 11, 2012

    Charlie:

    Must you be so reasonable and sane??

  22. Thomas Pellechia - December 12, 2012

    As I posted elsewhere, quid pro quo would be a stupid thing for a magazine/newspaper/newsletter to do, but there are other ways to marry an advertiser’s requirements to a periodical’s direction. I believe that Michael Kinney points to a beautiful way–first issue the points and then wait for the ads, which has the potential for maintaining the points without suspicion.

    I’m not claiming that any periodical does it. I am saying that if advertising drives revenue, eventually advertising will drive content, inadvertently or otherwise. Just like knowing the identity of what you are tasting can go a long way toward ruling out being un-biased, but you’d never admit it because you don’t even realize it–well, most reputable tasters don’t.

  23. Blake Gray - December 12, 2012

    Tom: I really hope you’re right. I’m tired of gloom and doom in the publishing industry. More paid stories means more work for all of us who write stories for pay.

    It’s true that Parker never leveraged the Advocate brand as fully as he could have. For all of the power and influence he wielded, he didn’t personally profit from it very much, something his detractors rarely address.

    However, you know that old saw about the wine business, about the way to make a small fortune? It would seem to happen even more quickly in publishing.

    But again, I do hope you’re right.

  24. Lee Newby, AIWS - December 12, 2012

    The Drinks Business reports this morning RP jr. took 15M out of the deal (so far), to me that would mean his tweets over the last few days are hogwash, as I said before, it’s all about the money, now there is no business plan outside of Asia that would Value WA at 15M+, RP jr. still has a piece, but for 15M in his jean ALL editorial and operational control goes to the investors.

    http://www.thedrinksbusiness.com/2012/12/parker-sells-wine-advocate-stake-for-15m/?article-source=newsletter&source=468&date=2012-12-12

  25. doug wilder - December 12, 2012

    As Mike Dunne points out, having a knowledgeable local wine retailer to go to is likely one of the most important relationships a consumer can have. No matter how popular a critic gets, there is the physical/emotional aspect of a retailer putting a bottle of wine in a client’s hands while they look you in the eye.

    Obviously, there is more than one method to evaluate wine and I completely support those who use other approaches. Recently, Lulu Parker Roberts compiled results of our subscriber survey done during the summer where we specifically asked what they thought of our using the 100 point system. And yes, we offered the choice of tasting note without a score. The following is excerpted from her report posted in our online journal, worth noting.

    THE 100 POINT SYSTEM, REGION AND NUMBER OF CRITICS

    “We are well aware of the debate that rages on over the 100-point system and how its detractors believe it is the wrong way to talk about wine. At pdwr, we find that our subscribers are comfortable that Doug uses the 100-point scale, which is not administered blind. When asked, results came back as a resounding yes on a review and numerical score (85%), which leads us to believe his method is well respected, understood and appreciated. So we will be keeping with what works.”

    And as far as the demise of hard copies? In the last three days, I have written the largest checks ever to my printer.

  26. Tom Wark - December 12, 2012

    Lew,

    The value of three years of WA subscriptions is worth $15 million alone. And that doesn’t even get into the value of the copywrited material nor the income from published works that may be owed to the WA and not RP. But more importantly, this doesn’t begin to address the value of the Wine Advocate brand. You can easily make a case that it’s worth many millions of dollars.

    The WA is worth far more than $15 million dollars.

  27. Daily Wine News: Reaction to Parker | Wine 2020 - December 13, 2012

    [...] control. Check out commentary from Eric Asimov, Jeff Leve, Tyler Colman, Talia Baiocchi, Tom Wark,  S. Irene Virbila, and Joe Roberts. Parker’s hometown paper, the Baltimore Sun, also [...]


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