In Defense of Robert Parker, Jr.

TwaparkerSitting 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.


20 Responses

  1. Alicefeiring - December 7, 2011

    Bob should have you on the payroll. It’s a perfect response and one he should have employed. Unfortunately this is the second time he’s stepped into this trap. Remember L’affair of Hanna Agostini?

  2. Tom Wark - December 7, 2011

    Alice,
    Yep, he handled this somewhat incorrectly. However, he hasn’t sinned too badly…certainly not as bad as most others or even me.
    However, there is no denying the glee that has set in among some.

  3. Daniel - December 7, 2011

    Jay Miller got paid large fees for seminars in conducted with these visits. The money came from Pancho’s collecting of fees. Parker said he was okay with these payments when he commented earlier this year.
    Parker took in large sums of money through Wine Future on 2009 and 2011. Those large sums of money were paid by Pancho Campo and the Wine Academy of Spain.
    Like everything else in life, this is all connected somehow.

  4. Tom Wark - December 7, 2011

    Daniel,
    I don’t see the problem with someone being paid to make an appearance, give a talk or speak at an event. It happens all the time. I’ve paid speaking fees to people who I’ve asked to speak at events I’ve helped organize.

  5. Chris Albin - December 7, 2011

    I would imagine the longer Pancho Campo and Jay Miller worked together, the more likely Miller was to know about this. (Unfortunately, I am ignorant to the history of their relationship) I have heard corruption allegations leveled at wine critics before, so I think the question we should really be asking is: is this an isolated occurrence, or is this the product of any sort of culture that may exist in the wine critic community?

  6. Marc Lazar - December 7, 2011

    when you are the #1 brand name in an industry, you owe it to yourself, your staff and your legacy/future to deploy some basic back office practices that include vetting partners official or otherwise. That RMP continues to claim naivete in the face of offers/deals/opportunities gone wrong is the real head scratcher here. who does the diligence? I understand if he is too busy to do so, but a staffer could look into things like this, right?
    the combination of sloppy diligence and knee jerk defensiveness at those who are critical is very unfortunate.

  7. Tom Wark - December 7, 2011

    Chris,
    You assume too much in asserting there is any corruption on the part of miller or Parker.
    Marc,
    If what we have here is a matter of naïveté or a bad business decision, and not an instance of selling reviews, as the evidence suggest, why do folks care? Is Mr. Parker’s business practices really that interesting if they don’t effect the integrity of the product?

  8. Brian St. Pierre - December 8, 2011

    There is surely no question about Parker’s integrity, but there is certainly one about his management skills. On the other hand, Jay Miller’s conducting “seminars” for wine producers on their wines and the U.S. market, and conducting open tastings for an audience consisting of wine producers and their allies, and attending “meet the winemaker” cocktail parties and receptions, with fees involved, seem to cross the line between criticism and consultancy. It seems like being “a little bit pregnant.”

  9. David White - December 8, 2011

    Tom: While I agree with most of your post, I think Parker is guilty of much more than “being too 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.” I think he’s guilty of being a bully and a jerk. (Not crimes, sure, but important nonetheless. Bullying bloggers stifles commentary and debate, as Parker has very deep pockets. So threatening to “sue these bloggers” is a loaded statement.
    A few other notes:
    – Parker has announced “updates” on his site every Monday for quite some time. So to announce Jay’s retirement NOW — and not 11/21; 11/28; 12/12; 12/19; etc. — certainly raises questions. Sure, it might have made the most sense to announce Jay’s retirement in the contents of his last issue, but that’s somewhat arbitrary a date.
    – His treatment of his subscribers – who pay hundreds annually to read the Wine Advocate – is indefensible. Within minutes of people talking about the Miller/Campo scandal on the eBob bulletin board, Parker shut down the conversation. YES, as a staunch free marketer, I think people should therefore flee his site, cancel their subscriptions, etc. But nonetheless, a crappy way to treat your customers. (And before anyone says “it’s his site…,” remember that when he kicked off everyone who wasn’t a paying subscriber, the promise was that by getting rid of the “Wine Berserkers,” there’d be a loftier, less regulated debate.
    – Parker has contradicted himself time and again on this. So clearly, the truth isn’t yet out. So while I agree that Parker should have simply published your statement (“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.”) he instead chose to threaten lawsuits, accuse people of dishonesty, and act like a complete jerk.
    Consider that on December 1 (http://jimsloire.blogspot.com/2011/12/pancho-campo-mw-vinos-de-madrid.html), Parker stated, “We would never permit a winery to pay us for the privilege of tasting their wine or visiting the winery. Moreover, Campo also understands his organization cannot charge wineries for Miller’s visits. Both of them have full knowledge that is an appalling conflict of interest that would not be tolerated under any circumstance…. I have been asked by our USA lawyers to refrain from commenting about this given the potential lawsuits by Jay, by Pancho, and possibly by TWA against these bloggers. Until we are 100% certain of all the facts, I think this subject, which appears to be a reckless and malicious disregard for the truth and clearly aimed at damaging Miller, Campo, and TWA, needs to be closed.”
    Yet days later, he admits to the Baltimore Sun that he’s conducting an “international investigation” of Campo. Further, his dismissiveness of “these bloggers” is condescending and naive. Had this story first appeared in the New York Times or Wall Street Journal, would Parker so happily shoot from the hip? I think not.
    (Perhaps, as Joe Roberts has suggested, the biggest “story” here is that this was a real life scoop uncovered by a blogger.)

  10. Marc André Gagnon - December 8, 2011

    Miller admits:
    http://www.baltimoresun.com/entertainment/dining/bs-ae-wine-scandal-followup-20111207,0,1185435.story
    In french, we say “pot-de-vin”.

  11. Thomas Pellechia - December 8, 2011

    Maybe threatening to sue bloggers was a thought prompted by the fact that RP is a lawyer–or maybe, he read this: http://mashable.com/2011/12/07/blogger-vs-journalist/?utm_medium=emailutm_source=newsletter

  12. Tom Wark - December 8, 2011

    Hey David…
    I think your last point is the best: that it was a blogger who did the digging to get the boulder to roll down the hill.
    As for Parker’s bulletin board….you know what’s interesting….I don’t see many people there too put off by Parker’s shutting down the original thread. In fact, I see lots of folks defending him.
    No one will argue (including me) that Mr. Parker has handled things in an awkward way. However, there appears to me a great desire among many to see him fall not because he deserves to finally get his, but because he’s Robert Parker.

  13. Jeff - December 8, 2011

    Mr. Wark,
    Robert Parker as being “to trusting or naive”? Seriously? He’s a lawyer, so it should be equally assumed that he has a well honed BS meter, basic vetting skills, and not completely oblivious to past incidents where the WA’s independence and/or influence was called into question.
    I wonder how many wine associations around the world were notified that Jay Miller was just “freelancing” when he was tasting, speaking, and traveling to their wine regions? Since, he was on his way out anyway, nothing he has been tasting since August will ever show up in a WA publication. Did any of these wine regions know that?

  14. Tom Wark - December 8, 2011

    Jeff:
    Regarding: “Robert Parker as being “to trusting or naive”? Seriously?”
    Yes, seriously.
    And are you positive that nothing Mr. Miller has tasted since August will show up in print? I’m not.

  15. Christian Miller - December 8, 2011

    Some staggering sums have been bandied about for JM to show up, give a talk, and taste some wines. Money that could be used for extensive market research or distribution analysis or a promotion tour in several US markets or hospitality for multiple retailers and non-Pancho/Jay writers, etc.
    Let’s assume that the buying organizations are rational investors. Does anyone really think that Jay’s winemaking and marketing insights are worth that kind of money? If not, they must at least think they are paying for the reviews, no?
    Maybe rational is not the right word here. Anyone have any quantitative evidence that a high Jay Miller score can move the market for a whole region? The floor is yours.
    I think it’s the demand side of this exchange that is both fascinating and disturbing. There are always hucksters who will show up to fleece the unwary. Why do wineries and organizations fall for this stuff?

  16. Marc Emelianenko - December 8, 2011

    Many of these comments are a all-too-typical rushes to judgment. While obviously the court of public opinion and not a court of law, you should still afford the accused some presumption of innocence. Mr. Wark has done so quite persuasively.

  17. sao anash - December 9, 2011

    Tom,
    You’re so often the voice of reason and maturity in an otherwise increasingly divisive industry. Thank you for this.

  18. Gregg Burke - December 9, 2011

    Hey Tom,
    I do not blame Robert Parker, I blame Jay Miller. But like the cases of NYT journalist faking stories. Jay Millers actions if true will reflect on the WA. The accusations are ones that will erode the authority of the WA, and Robert Parker. Jay did damage as it was by his constant 90 point scores of most Spanish wines, to the point where it really lost its effect. I wish Robert luck. Also let me say good bye and good riddence to Jay. You will not be missed.

  19. John Skupny - December 9, 2011

    I see that more ink has been spilled, on miller-gate by the wine media and not the wine industry – The wine media seems to like to pillar their own whereas with the wine industry it is simply the classic conflict of the artist and the critic, which I think is only natural.

  20. Randy Caparoso - December 9, 2011

    So a “respected” journalist is caught in bed with a supplier/producer/PR firm, or whatever? What’s new? Yes, I have to agree that this millergate is more smoke than fire. Plus, folks, let’s not be naive here: since the days when the old-time journalistic “giants” walked the earth (Harry Waugh, Andre Simon, Robert Balzer, and on and on), the buddy system has been up and running, and it’s even more refined today. How do you think writers have been able to get around? The lifestyle has to come from somewhere.
    If anything, Mr. Parker himself has been the opposite: amazingly taint-free. I may not like the 100 point system or agree with his assessments, but let’s give The Man credit where it is due: he’s maintained a standard of credibility that others have been woefully short of. So let’s judge him by his words (and numbers), not the hints and allegations.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*


Click to access the login or register cheese