In Defense of Robert Parker, Jr.
Sitting back and watching the mirth, outrage, smugness and concern issued by other watchers of the most current turn of events at Robert Parker's Wine Advocate, I'm reminded just how important, powerful and relevant the critics are to the Wine Trade. I'm further struck by how these events and the reaction to them shine a light on the very complex relationship that has developed between Mr. Parker and others in the world of wine.
By most accounts and from what I can see it appears that the great offense committed in "L'Affaire Advocate" was that Wine Advocate critic Jay Miller's handler in Spain, a Mr. Pancho Campo, worked hard to parlay his connection to Miller into some serious extra coin. Did Miller or Parker know about Campo's efforts to sell access to Miller's palate, and through it to the Wine Advocate's pages and readers? Did Miller recieve money in exchange for visiting regions where Campo apparently worked to wring money from the local wine industry in exchange for pushing Miller in thier directiion? Apparently not—on both counts.
Meanwhile, in midst of the cries and hues over these revelations, comes the announcement that Miller will be stepping down at the Wine Advocate at end of year. Signs of abandoning Miller before the ship goes down? Apparently not as it appears that the plan for Miller to leave the Wine Advocate was hatched far earlier in the year.
Finally, many have condemned Mr. Parker for his initial public reaction to these turn of events by noting he may be getting the lawyers involved at the very least to investigate if any unwarranted damage has been done to the Wine Advocate brand by the bloggers who first publicized the Spanish events. It appeared to many that the Wine Advocate was turning to its advocates to try to squash the work of the fourth estate.
The reaction to all this has primarily come from the folks in the wine industry, with a couple stories now launched from outside the industry. Unless something terribly untoward turns up, I don't expect this story to have much more impact outside the confines of those industry watchers and participants who honestly don't have the opportunity all that often to slow down and gawk at an accidents on the side of the industry's road. But there is something more going on here than simple morbid curiosity.
It appears to me that there are many who sport substantial amounts of glee at the prospect of seeing Robert Parker knocked from what is unquestionably a very high horse. I'm not talking about the blogger who broke the story, who turned out to be doing what doesn't happen all that often in the world of wine writing: investigative journalism. I'm talking about that collection of people who have, over the years, developed a certain animosity or resentment for Robert Parker and the power he has accumulated in the world of wine.
It appears to me, and Lord knows I could be wrong, that if Robert Parker is guilty of anything in this whole affair it is being to trusting or naive where Mr. Campo is concerned and perhaps being too quick to assume nefarious intentions with regard to the reporters of this story. Parker is hardly the first person to trust too much and he won't be the last to assume spite on the part of commentators.
If this sounds like a defense of Robert Parker, then you've read right. There has long been a undercurrent of resentment aimed at Mr. Parker that derives primarily, I think, from the gravitational pull he has exerted on the world of wine criticism and the fact that he has never been able to please everyone who might benefit or not benefit from the work he does.
Many feel resentment and feel unfairly treated because Mr. Parker does not review their wine. And it's true that Parker and his writers do not review all the wines available. Others despair at how he chooses the wines he ends up reviewing.
I think too that Mr. Parker gets in the way all too often of a powerful force resulting from a general push-back against the 100 Point Rating System that he and others have popularized.
We see on wine bulletin boards, in comments on various blogs and among some writers a real undercurrent of both glee and an odd dismay at his actions being expressed. It's all a little too unprovoked and churlish for my taste.
What is true, and this is really academic, is that from where I sit Mr. Parker made a mistake in how this issue was handled. While I understand his desire to push back and defend the brand that he has built around the Wine Advocate as well as his friend, Mr. Parker would have been better off to take another path upon hearing of the allegations and reading the blog posts and the emails in them. If any statement was called for at this point, and I'm not sure it was, it should have been simple and straightforward: "Before I can comment publicly on any allegations, I need to understand all the circumstances surrounding this issue and that's what I plan to do. In the mean time, the work of the Wine Advocate continues."
No threats of lawyers. No jumping to quick conclusions. No defense. A simple statement of the truth.
Robert Parker's power, like Jim Laube's, Jancis Robinson's, Steve Heimoff's, or Eric Asimov's, was not bought, was not unearned, was not illegitimate. It was the result of hard work and the development of trust with his readers. I remain convinced none of this has changed.
Has the Wine Advocate brand been diminished in all this? I don't think so. It remains an important publication of record with significant value and extraordinary potential in the right hands. However, It strikes me that Mr. Parker ought to, if he has not already, become accustomed to the kind of treatment he is currently receiving from some circles.