An Open Letter to Robert Parker, Jr.

Recently at the eRobertparker forum, Mr. Parker himself suggested that he could have no impact in changing laws concerning consumer access to wine. He wrote: "I would have a better chance of raising the dead from their graves than
changing a totally corrupt system where the beer and liquor
distributors have their respective politicians right where they want
them…in their pockets….and then factor in 50 separate
states….yeah….totally disgusting and about as anti-wine consumer as
it gets….but let's not ignore history….those with the deepest
pockets buy the legislation that protects their interests….always has
worked like that…and always will."

I respectively disagree.

Dear Mr. Parker:

Even wine drinkers need heroes.

You, above all, should know this as you are perhaps the greatest hero to wine drinkers for your constant advocacy on their behalf. And for your efforts you have rightfully gained fame and recognition along with the respect and power that comes with dedication to an idea.

But for all the work and effort you've put in to being the eyes, ears and palate of the American wine drinker, let me respectfully suggest that your work is not done.

Even after the narrow victory in 2005 at the Supreme Court in the Granholm v. Heald ruling, many wine drinkers are stymied by onerous conditions placed on their ability to obtain wine. They are limited in the amount of wine they can obtain by direct shipment. Some states place highly restrictive conditions on wineries who want to ship wine to adult wine lovers, making it more profitable to simply not do so. Most states still make it illegal for wine lovers to have wine shipped to them from out-of-state wine retailers, meaning that the vast majority of Austrian, Australian, French, Italian, New Zealand, German and Spanish wines that show up in the pages of the Wine Advocate are impossible to obtain since these wines are not distributed in the states where the wine lovers live and they may not seek them from outside their borders.

The effort to free wine lovers and the wine industry from the grip of ancient and archaic laws that empower and protect only the shrinking wholesaler tier of the industry continues. Free the Grapes remains to fight on behalf of wineries. The California Wine Institute deploys talented lobbyists across the country. Specialty Wine Retailers Association looks to change the landscape for retailer-to-consumer shipping.

But where is the true voice of wine consumers? This is where you come it. This is where you must come in.

In some states, wine lovers have organized. In Michigan "Wine Consumers Across Michigan" fought wholesalers. In Illinois the "Illinois Wine Consumer Coalition" has formed. In your home state of Maryland "Marylanders for Better Beer & Wine Laws" fought the good fight in opening up the state for fair access to wine—and lost.  But these are shoestring organizations that fight for funding and attention. They and wine consumers in every state need a powerful, respected, educated and respected voice to speak on their behalf.

You should be that voice. You, with the recognition, respect and reputation for consumer advocacy that you have earned can do wonders to shine the light on the corrupt system that leaves free trade in wine wanting, punishes consumers for the sake of politicians retaining campaign contributions, and leaves a small shrinking clique of oligarchs controlling which of the now hundreds of thousands of wines Americans may taste and buy.

The power of your voice is needed in the halls of government where positive wine legislation often fails for want of exposure and gravitas among the laws' supporters. Your pen is needed in the editorial pages of the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Newsweek and Time. Your presence is needed on the sets of "Good Morning America", CNN, FoxNews and the "Daily Show With Jon Stewart". In all these places your voice and your advocacy on behalf of wine lovers is needed to finally draw widespread attention to a corrupt system and frustrated wine lovers and consumers that have been controlled and conspired against.

You, Mr. Parker, can and should be the hero to wine lovers that steps up and changes the debate, that alters the debate, that gives impetus to a new chapter in the slow moving story of wine drinkers rights and the false system that governs those rights.

The vast majority of the wine industry will get behind your effort. More importantly, your effort to raise this issue will inspire wine drinkers across the country to follow your lead, speak out more loudly and work for change. They will follow your lead and commit coin to the effort. They will follow you to rallies and write letters at your urging. It is true that small groups of dedicated people can move mountains. This is how it has always worked and how it will always will work.

It's time for a hero to step up, Mr. Parker. And you are the right person for the job.


Tom Wark

28 Responses

  1. Joel Goldberg - May 12, 2009

    Tom, you really nailed it. I salivate at the prospect of the cameras rolling as Parker walks into the hearing room in Lansing to tell the committee members what’s up with the latest wholesaler plan to restrict Michigan consumers’ wine choices.

  2. Arthur - May 12, 2009

    …if Parker would only realize how vital and potent social media like blogging, twitter, etc could be to broadcasting this message, he would understand that this is not such a daunting task.

  3. Tom Wark - May 12, 2009

    I don’t think an intimacy with the value of blogs or social media need play any role in the effectiveness Mr. Parker could play where this issue is concerned.

  4. Tish - May 12, 2009

    You are 100% correct, Tom. RP could make a difference, especially givent the fact that he is a lawyer to boot and had a special Maryland law written to allow him to receive samples without hassle. That privelege alone should make him consider reaching out on behalf of those not as fortunate to be a professional critic.
    Meanwhile, where are the major wine mags on these issues? They are busy filling “buying guides” with tasting notes no one reads. Meanwhile, thanks to the barriers of free trade, those buying guides are rendered useless in many states anyway.
    The only way for there to be a tidal shift in the direct shipping issue is for an actual political leader to come out and make a stink, or for a celebrity to do so. Parker could be that celebrity.

  5. Ashley Lauren - May 12, 2009

    Thank you, Tom! Your voice is prominent as well. Find a way to make this an ongoing request to Mr. Parker. Keep pushing.

  6. Tish - May 12, 2009

    Spot on, Tom. Considering RP had to have special legislation written in Maryland to allow him to do what he does, it would seem that reaching out on behalf of those less professioinally fortunate would be the least he could do. And as I have said before, I think the only realistic way we can expect a tidal shift on this topic is to have a major politician or celebrity join the cause of the little guy. RP could/would be that celebrity.
    Meanwhile, when was the last time a major consumer wine mag covered the direct shipping barriers that persist. I find it quite ironic that WS, WE et al devote so much time and effort ttranlating the vast universe of wines into rated “buying guides,” when in fact many readers can not actually “buy” those wines because of complications related to shipping.

  7. Mark - May 12, 2009

    I think the difference now is that there is a new focus on transparency and morality in government, esp at Obama’s level. I think it would be an opportune time to make noise about this and demand transparency and make known where lobbyists are putting there $$’s. A little exposure goes a long way right now and likely people will change their ways if they see a groundswell of scrutiny.

  8. Steve Heimoff - May 12, 2009

    Tom, I totally agree. Great post. Maybe this is the next step in Parker’s life. He could even run for Senator from Maryland!

  9. Arthur - May 12, 2009

    Hi Tom,
    If you are talking about legislative advocacy channels, then I suppose you are right. But I think that in order to be more than a lone crusader, he would need mass support. What better way to organize, inform and motivate that support base than through tools beyond his subscription base or his forum?

  10. el jefe - May 12, 2009

    One might despair that Mr. Parker will not see this open letter, because it appears on a blog. I hope that despair is misplaced, Tom, because you’ve hit the nail on the head.

  11. tannic - May 12, 2009

    Amazingly, Robert Parker won’t read this open letter because it’s in a blog. Or if he does, he’ll be counting syllables and pouring over your sentence structure and miss the message completely.

  12. Tom Wark - May 12, 2009

    El Jefe:
    I think Mr. Parker may have seen the letter considering this:

  13. Dr. Horowitz - May 12, 2009

    The more attention Parker gets the more it shows he’s still the man. When will people get over it?
    Check out what Elin McCoy said about Parker Recently:

  14. Bob - May 12, 2009

    Unfortunately, I don’t think Parker has it in him to anything about this. After all, look what his role model, Ralph Nader, has become. His ego was so big he was willing to try to harm Obama’s campaign by running as a 3rd party candidate, and may have cost Gore the 2004 election.

  15. Tom Wark - May 12, 2009

    I don’t think Mr. Parker’s commitment to any issue or idea is predicated on the way by which Ralph Nader conducted himself in 2008 or 2004. That’s kinda silly.

  16. Steve W - May 12, 2009

    I’m going to go ahead and say you people are all bored and not unlike middle class Roman women, you’re looking for a saviour amoung scoundrels. This guys knows nothing about growing grapes or crafting with style a unique wine.
    Online Wine people need to look elsewhere for a wine hero.

  17. Gretchen - May 13, 2009

    Obviously the “women” need your greater guidance…. naturally, none is offered..
    How typical of those who consider themselves more “manly” than others.

  18. paul r - May 13, 2009

    i disagree with steve w about parker knowing nothing about growing grapes, etc. u do not agree with his taste, fine.
    and while i agree that change needs to happen, and recruiting parker is not a bad idea, i would respect his decision not to get involved. he is already such a big target for so many, i’m sure his time is consumed elsewhere; why does he need to extend himself further?

  19. FrankM - May 13, 2009

    I look at it this way, as a consumer advocate, he has done more to raise prices to consumers.
    Here is his chance to actually have a lasting impact. Viva la Parker!

  20. el jefe - May 13, 2009

    Most excellent Tom – Thanks!

  21. Thomas - May 13, 2009

    I must play devil’s advocate and say that there is a huge amount of great people in the distribution side of the business that would lose everything if the middle man was cut out of the equation. Lets not forget them and the people who work hard to make a living distibuting wine and liquor. I’m talking sales staff, drivers, customer service, admin, and the whole nine yards. I do however understand your arguement in behalf of the consumer. Being a wine retailer myself I have come to love people on both sides of the business, both consumers and the “middle men”.

  22. Samantha - May 13, 2009

    Gotta admit, I’m with Frank M on this one, the second I heard the whole “2007 Rhone vintage of my lifetime” the first thing that came out of my mouth was, “shit, there go the prices!”. That being said, I think that Parker could help us move a few mountains on this interstate shipping issue…if he could even just start the conversation, maybe from there, people like you Tom could lead the charge.
    I am just as guilty as the next girl of taking swipes at Parker, but never once have I tried to belittle his influence, he has earned his spot and I think, like him or not…we as wine lovers owe him a bit of a nod, or tip of the hat. Cannot blame him for the fact that people so worshipped his reviews that it caused a mass, “chunk-a-fication” of once nuanced wines. I fully admit to not liking his palate but….he is the “face” of this world of ours, would be awesome if he lent a hand to helping his followers get their hands on some of those wines he gets to were able to change the law to benefit your business…how about lending a hand to your followers that are trying to benefit theirs?

  23. Thomas Pellechia - May 14, 2009

    Just want everyone to know that the Thomas who posted above is not I.
    In this case, I have no opinion–at least none that would lend to the debate.

  24. Howard G. Goldberg - May 14, 2009

    Ready your bows and arrows, friends, here comes a sharp dissent.
    Robert Parker would do himself and his constituency — his readers — a disservice by becoming in effect a lobbyist.
    Essentially, Mr. Parker is a journalistic critic. His advocacy should be confined to the Wine Advocate, where he can most potently express his wine judgments. Those judgments can rightly extend to the three-tier system. In my world view, it is up to others to carry the water politically for pro-consumer positions.
    If Mr. Parker wrote Op-Ed articles and testified before legislators, he would muddy his own waters, or, more likely, be subjected to forms of rhetorical waterboarding by the opposition. Does he need the kinds of diminishing takedowns that sewer-level political warfare set loose?
    Understand the situation this way: The apex of journalism is disinterestedness (in its primary definition: a lack of personal, selfish interest; neutrality). To become an activist on the stump is to risk being seen as an apparatchik of special interests, even if those interests are consumers. A critic, ideally, is nobody’s — nobody’s — friend; he is his subject’s friend. Period.
    Don’t drop the threadbare tabloid mantle of hero on him. Today’s hero is tomorrow’s goat. Heroism — except on the battlefield, in medicine and in the dignified unnoticed sufferings and overcomings of private life — is misplaced in wine. Perspective, please.
    Mr. Parker’s esthetics aside, like them or not, his chosen life role is thinking, feeling, judging, writing and publishing. That’s enough. Enough.
    Critics of my feeling that Mr. Parker should stop at the water’s edge might argue, plausibly, that advocacy is advocacy, whatever and wherever it takes form, so why not become more of a public man? I would say only that he is an island, not the sea, and in
    the sea he might drown. There are great white sharks out there.

  25. Tom Wark - May 15, 2009

    You’re a thoughtful man.
    I see Mr. Parker’s involvement in wine access issues as nothing more than an extension (and a logical one at that) of his already self declared consumer advocacy role. In fact, I’d think that being an “apparatchik” (boy, that’s not a word one has heard much since the 1980s) of a special interest would be something very close to what Mr. Parker understands his role to be. Though nearly by definition, consumers, being also “The People” in America, aren’t really traditionally understood as having an interest special enough to cloaked in that term.
    Also, isn’t professional criticism something a little different than professional journalism? You are right that “the apex of journalism” ought to have as its center a commitment to neutrality. But isn’t criticism the opposite? No professional critic, be they critiquing music, film, dance, architecture, literature or wine, can do their job with neutrality. They must be biased. It’s the very definition of their craft.
    Now, were Mr. Parker to accept my call to action, but were he also to merely lobby for Washington wineries to be able to do this or that, then I think he might muddy the waters where he swims. But were he to take up the mission of giving all consumers real and fair access to all wines, this would not put him in any danger of being accused of splashing around in waters frequented by any one element of the constituency he’s built.
    I think as we each of us specialize and become respected and proficient in that specialization, we put ourselves in a position to expand on that specialization, widening the circle in which we operate. Mr. Parker as advocate for wine lovers through his celebrated professional criticism of the drink puts him in a position to safely swim in much deeper waters of roughly the same temperature and color.

  26. Thomas Pellechia - May 15, 2009

    I would agree with you if I thought the word ‘advocate’ applied to critics.

  27. Steve Bachmann - May 15, 2009

    Tom, this post inspired me to write my own called “How to solve the wine direct shipping problem” (as my commentary was too long to add in here). Here’s the link:

  28. Letters to the Philippines - August 24, 2009

    You a good provider To,keep posting a valuable information.

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