I’d apologize for the light posting, but after a year of light posting, the three of you who are still following this site are surely accustomed to it. Anyway, it’s been a busy last month. I was in Tokyo for a week on a magazine assignment. Despite a crazy case of jet lag—I am not exaggerating when I say that I got 10 hours of sleep in total during the six nights I was there—it was a great trip. Tokyo is an amazing, amazing city, and I can’t wait to get back. The food was sensational. There was a lot of this:
That needs no explanation. And there were some unfamiliar things, too, like this:
That’s blowfish sperm sac. No, it didn’t kill me, but I did spend a few anxious minutes reflecting on my life after I ate it (I only learned what it was after I’d swallowed). Maritime reproductive material was very much in season during my visit to Tokyo: In fact, I ate so much cod milt (it wasn’t by choice—it was one of those When in Rome things) that I started to fear I might return home pregnant with a cod. If you see me pushing a stroller with a fish tank in it, you’ll know.
After returning from Tokyo, I spent two days trying to catch up on sleep, and then I was off for the Paulée de New York madness. The highlight for me was doing a Q&A with Aubert de Villaine as part of the Paulée program; he was amazing (no surprise), and the event went very well. I also got to drink some fabulous wines during the Paulée weekend (and not just Burgundies!). I will try to post some notes on what I drank later this week, along with notes for the 2010 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti wines.
Some good news: my Vanity Fair article about Rudy Kurniawan has been nominated for a James Beard Award. They announced the nominations this morning, and the winners will be announced at a dinner in New York in May.
Also—and apologies for the very short notice (not that you would expect otherwise from me)—I’m doing a Q&A on Wednesday night in New York with Jancis Robinson. Jancis has a new book called American Wine: The Ultimate Companion to the Wines and Wineries of the United States, and we are going to be talking about the American wine scene. The event is taking place at the 92YTribeca at 5:30pm. All 130 seats were sold as of this past weekend. However, because of the strong demand, the organizers are now making some additional seats available—and, yes, wine will be served! Click here for more information, and I hope to see a few of you on Wednesday.
As part of this year’s La Paulée de New York, I am going to be interviewing Aubert de Villaine, the co-director of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, Burgundy’s most celebrated estate and probably the most famous winery on the planet. “A conversation with Aubert de Villaine” will take place at Restaurant Daniel on Saturday March 9th, from 10-11:30AM. De Villaine and I will discuss his many years at the helm of DRC and will also talk about Burgundy’s past, present, and future. De Villaine is a remarkable figure whose importance to Burgundy, and to wine, can’t be overstated. As Allen Meadows put it to me, de Villaine is the conscience of Burgundy; where he leads, the rest of Burgundy follows. Changes he instituted at DRC in the 1970s helped set in motion Burgundy’s quality revolution, and some 40 years on, de Villaine remains Burgundy’s guiding light. Needless to say, I am very excited about this event, which will benefit the effort to have the vineyards of Burgundy recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site*, and am honored to be able to play a part in it. Click here for more details and tickets, and I hope some of you can join us on March 9th.
*The most acclaimed of those vineyards, of course, is Romanée-Conti itself, which has been a source of brilliant wines going back hundreds of years, and which was also the subject of probably my favorite wine quote of all. A document published in 1794 noted that the wine from the Romanée-Conti vineyard was “the most excellent of all those of the Côte d’Or…Its brilliant and velvety color, its ardor and scent, charm all the senses….Well kept, it always improves as it approaches its eighth or tenth year; it is then a balm for the elderly, the feeble and the disabled, and will restore life to the dying.” The de Villaine family acquired the Romanée-Conti vineyard in 1869, and Aubert de Villaine has been its custodian, and custodian of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, since the early 1970s.
GM Bailout: A leading environmentalist changes his mind about genetically modified crops.
Brownshirts in Birkenstocks: The rise of right-wing organic farming in Germany, with a reference to Rudolf Steiner and biodynamics.
Schlockwork Orange: Top sommeliers deliver a much-deserved smackdown of orange wines.
The Wallaby Loses Its Bounce: Hurt by the strong Australian dollar, Yellow Tail suffers its first annual loss in 20 years and may have to sell assets and move its bottling overseas.
I hired a deputy editor over the weekend. His name is Patches, he is 10 weeks old, and as you can see, he is a true Burghound. He is also partial to rawhide treats and Ridge and adores the biscuity aroma that you often find in mature Champagnes. He is an MW (Master of Woof), rates wines on a 0-5 wag scale, and plans to start posting tasting notes as soon as he is done potty training.
“Welcome to Lake Wobegon, where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, all the children are above average, and all the wines are special.” Okay, I added the last part. But that famous line from “A Prairie Home Companion” came whistling through my ears as I sifted through the latest issue of The Wine Advocate. As you probably know by now, Robert Parker and Antonio Galloni both put on their Santa Claus suits (Parker even grew a beard) and handed out massive scores in the issue of The Wine Advocate that was released right after Christmas. Galloni awarded 95 points or above to 223 California wines, a quarter of the nearly 900 California wines that he reviewed. If you are a producer in Napa and got less than 93 points, you should seriously consider pulling up your vines and replacing them with condos. Parker, meanwhile, awarded 100-point ratings to 17 Northern Rhones from the 2009-2011 vintages. This was on top of the 17 100-point scores that he dished out in a recent retrospective tasting of the 2002 Napa vintage, and the 19 100-point scores that he bestowed on the 2009 Bordeaux vintage. In all, Parker has given out at least 53 100-point ratings since last March. Perfection is literally falling off the vine these days!
Not surprisingly, the generosity of these latest Wine Advocate scores raised some eyebrows, and true to form, Parker lashed out at those who dared to question him. In a comment on eBob, he griped that the naysaying was emblematic of the “dim-witted group think culture we live in where complete falsehoods are passed off as conventional wisdom (wines are too alcoholic, all wines taste the same, terroir is dead), and then this garbage is bounced around every social media site these knuckleheads can find, and voila, it becomes dogma in a self-reassuring circle of zombies who would make Ayn Rand’s discussion of ‘second-handers’ look prophetic, and prove that propaganda—even if false and totally unsupported by facts, is still alive and flourishing in some circles.” Got that?
(Just out of curiosity: When did the Ralph Nader of wine morph into the John Galt of wine? Does he believe the world is divided between winemakers and wine, er, takers? Now that he has sold The Wine Advocate, perhaps he can launch a new publication called The Wine Objectivist. At any rate, the best thing I ever read about Ayn Rand was the following: “There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year-old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.”)
For his part, Galloni gamely entered the lion’s den, as it were, wading into a spirited discussion on Wineberserkers about his California scores. Galloni suggested that he had been too conservative with his ratings in the past and said that relative to the volume of wine produced in California, the number of high scores in his latest report was not implausible. Most of the people participating in the thread seemed to think that Galloni, who started covering California in 2011, was guilty of grade inflation, and it appears he didn’t change many minds. But he was rightly praised for his willingness to engage with his critics rather than hurl spitballs at them.
I’ve already offered my opinion about what accounts for all the perfect and near-perfect scores we are seeing, and there is no need to repeat it here. Nor do I want to get into a debate about the merits of the 100-point scale. But I think one reason Parker and Galloni have encountered so much skepticism is that if you accept the 100-point scale as a quasi-objective means of assessing wines—and it seems to me that if you buy into the 100-point thing, you are necessarily accepting the idea that it is a quasi-objective standard—then the sheer number of wines clustered at the top of the scale simply isn’t credible. There are two basic ways of rating wines: on an absolute scale or on a curve. With an absolute scale, you are judging wines against the benchmark set by wines like the 47 Cheval Blanc, 61 Latour, 61 La Chapelle, etc.—the all-time greats, universally recognized as such. If Parker is grading in this manner, he is essentially saying that he tasted 53 wines in the past year that are equal to these legends. You believe that? Me neither. (But Rudy Kurniawan is undoubtedly kicking himself as he sits in his Brooklyn jail cell awaiting trial: what a business opportunity those 53 perfect scores would have given him!)
Parker, in his tirade on eBob, gave conflicting indications regarding exactly how he arrives at his scores. “There is really nothing sacred to prevent a perfect score,” he wrote. “It simply means you, me, or someone thinks the wine is as brilliant an example of a vintage, a varietal or blend, or terroir that exists.” The references to varietal, blend, and terroir can perhaps be interpreted as meaning that he evaluates on an absolute scale. But by invoking vintage, he raised the possibility that he instead grades on a curve. Let’s assume, for the moment, that he does grade on a curve—in the context of a particular vintage, or of recent vintages. In defending this latest batch of stratospheric ratings, Parker claimed that “wines are greater than ever”, ipso facto more wines are getting monster scores than ever before.
However, that shouldn’t be the case. I don’t want to get into Gaussian distribution and all that brainy stuff; a simple mind like mine needs to keep things simple. But even if the overall quality of wines is better, it doesn’t follow that so many wines should be receiving eye-popping scores. If the competition is much tougher now than it was 10 years ago, it shouldn’t be easier to get 96 or 97 points; it should be harder. Yet, the Wine Advocate is giving out many more such scores these days than it did a decade ago. (On Wineberserkers, Galloni said that around 500 California wines that he tasted didn’t make the cut, meaning they received less than 85 points. But even with those slackers factored in, he gave 95 points or above to 16 percent of the wines he sampled, which doesn’t strike me as a normal distribution.) Forgive the tautology, but if the bar has been raised, you need to raise the bar. You can do that one of two ways: by lengthening the scale—making the highest score, say, 110 points rather than 100—or by tightening the standards within the 100-point framework to reflect the fact that the quality is so vastly improved. If you don’t do either of those things, you end up in a situation like the one that Parker and Galloni are now confronting—with your reviews being greeted mainly with cynicism and derision.
I think the flap over the latest Wine Advocate scores is another milestone in the demythologizing of wine critics. There’s no denying that Parker and other critics have played an invaluable role in educating the public about wine and in steering consumers towards quality. But there’s also no denying that there was always a faith-based aspect to their work. You were asked to take it on faith that they had exquisitely discerning palates, never suffered palate fatigue, had total recall of the wines they tasted, and were blessed with a talent for divining when wines barely out of the fermentation tank would be ready to drink and would reach their peaks of maturity. And you were also asked to believe that there was a certain rigor to their point-flogging, that they weren’t just deriving their grades in the willy-nilly manner of the renowned professor Dr. Otto Yerass (hat tip: Charles Pierce). But oenophiles are no longer willing to take it on faith. In this instance, they demanded an explanation for the improbably large number of highly rated wines, neither Parker nor Galloni was able to offer a persuasive answer, and they have suffered another blow to their authority as a result.
One last point: it will be interesting to see how many producers truly benefit from these whopping ratings. I suspect that very few will. With so many big-scoring wines on the market nowadays, consumers are no longer easily impressed. Indeed, what might be gratifying for individual wineries could prove to be disastrous collectively—if people get sufficiently cynical about the scores, they may decide that all of these wines are overrated and not worth the money. Last year, a Massachusetts high school teacher named David McCullough, Jr.—yes, the son of that David McCullough—gave a bracingly candid graduation speech that made headlines across the country. Two sentences in particular stood out: “If everyone is special, then no one is. If everyone gets a trophy, trophies become meaningless.” The same can be said of 95-point wines.
I don’t do a lot of PSAs, but this is an event that should be of interest to some folks. Stephen Bitterolf of New York’s Crush Wine & Spirits is organizing a big Riesling bash for mid-February—a weekend bacchanal devoted to Riesling and modeled after the Paulée de New York. For the debut edition of Rieslingfeier (“Riesling Celebration”), Bitterolf has put together an impressive lineup of winemakers. Katharina Prüm of J.J. Prüm, Klaus Peter Keller and Julia Keller of Weingut Keller, Dorothee Zilliken of Forstmeister Geltz Zilliken, Thomas Haag of Schloss Lieser, Florian Lauer of Weingut Peter Lauer, and Andreas Adam of A.J. Adam are all traveling to New York to take part. So, too, is friend-of-this-site David Schildknecht, who covers Germany for the Wine Advocate.
The weekend will kick off on Friday February 15th with a dinner at Eleven Madison Park featuring Prüm and Keller. On Saturday afternoon, four of the producers—Adam, Lauer, Haag, and Zilliken—will join Schildknecht for a seminar on diversity in the Mosel and Saar. This will be followed by a Riesling Crawl; all of the growers will be doing free tastings at various Manhattan wine shops, with staggered start times to ensure that highly motivated crawlers can hit each one. Rieslingfeier will conclude on Saturday night with a gala dinner at the restaurant Rouge Tomate, with wine duties handled by some top New York sommeliers. The producers will supply wines, and in the style of the Paulée, each guest is supposed to bring a bottle of German wine (and, no, that doesn’t mean Blue Nun—the winemakers will be digging deep into their own cellars, and it’s hoped that guests will match their generosity).
Riesling commands devotion like no other grape on the planet, and as if the Summer of Riesling weren’t enough, the Riesling faithful have now decided to put their stamp on winter, too. But I think Rieslingfeier is going to be a terrific event, offering a nice snapshot of the contemporary German wine scene and much good drinking. Here’s a link to the website.
I hope everyone had a great holiday season, and my best wishes to you for 2013.
As we are only four days into the new year, I don’t think it’s too late for me to partake of that obnoxious wine writer ritual: the annual top 10 list (we don’t make much money; at least let us boast about the fabulous wines we get to taste). I drank some sensational stuff in the year just ended, and I hope you did, as well. Here are my greatest hits of 2012:
1961 Château Haut-Brion: Say what you will about Bordeaux, there ain’t nothing finer than a great Haut-Brion…
1959 Château Haut-Brion: …except an even greater Haut-Brion. Sweet Jesus, was this good.
1961 Château La Mission Haut-Brion: If I told you that I drank these first three at the same time and then fell asleep under a palm tree, would you hate me? I’d hate me, too.
1989 Château Pétrus: To paraphrase Teri Hatcher, it was real and it was spectacular.
1988 Louis Roederer Cristal Rosé: A killer Chambertin masquerading as a Champagne (surely, this is the best pink bubbly ever made?).
1961 Champagne Lanson: Yes, 61 was quite the year, and Lanson was once quite the house.
2002 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Romanée-Conti: At a bar with a friend, talking about life and loss. Any wine would have done, but we did well with this one.
1963 Quinta do Noval Vintage Port Nacional: Sometimes they become legends for a reason.
1967 Quinta do Noval Vintage Port Nacional: And sometimes they deserve even bigger reputations than they have.
1991 Domaine Jamet Côte-Rôtie: Bringing home the bacon and so much more. RIP, old-school Northern Rhone; we await the resurrection.
Happy trails to Martine Saunier. The acclaimed Bay Area importer, a pioneering figure in the American wine industry, announced last week that she has sold her business. The buyers are Gregory Castells, a French-born sommelier with experience on both sides of the Atlantic, and Kate Laughlin, who spent seven years working in operations for Thomas Keller’s restaurant group. The company will still be known as Martine’s Wines, and Martine will serve on its board.
Martine is one of my favorite wine people and someone for whom I have great admiration. A native of Paris, she moved to San Francisco in 1964. She started her business in 1979, importing wines from her native France. It was a gusty thing to do: at the time, the wine trade was still overwhelmingly male, and it took no small amount of courage and self-confidence on her part to walk into cellars in France offering her services, and into wine shops here offering her wines. But Martine, as personable as she is elegant, was able to put together an extraordinary portfolio. She represented two of Burgundy’s most celebrated producers, Henri Jayer and Domaine Leroy, and also imported the legendary Châteauneuf-du-Papes of Château Rayas.
I had the chance to spend some time with Martine while on an assignment in Burgundy a few years ago. Her affection for the place was unmistakable, and has now found expression in a documentary she helped produce called “A Year in Burgundy”, which will be released this year. In addition to visiting some of her growers, Martine and I shared a bottle of 1988 Jayer Vosne-Romanée Cros-Parantoux. Jayer had recently passed away, and as we took our first sips, her eyes moistened and she made a simple toast: “Thank you, Henri.” I don’t have a glass of Jayer’s Cros-Parantoux handy, but I’d like to offer Martine a heartfelt thanks—for putting such extraordinary wines on our tables, for her role in nurturing the dynamic wine culture that we now have in the United States, and for the knowledge and graciousness she brought to the American wine scene.
I suspect that in the not-too-distant future, the sale of the Wine Advocate and the public relations debacle that ensued will become a business school case study. A management professor with a taste for the absurd (and perhaps also a taste for wine) will see this train wreck for the cautionary tale that is it is, an example of how to needlessly tarnish a brand and sink a reputation. Reading about this imbroglio, M.B.A. candidates will marvel at the ineptitude and hubris that led to the botched announcement of the sale and the controversy that percolated for weeks thereafter. They will struggle to understand why someone as successful and seemingly intelligent as Robert Parker thought that he could disclose news of the sale yet keep the identity of the buyers and the terms of the transaction secret. They will be baffled by Parker’s assertion that the investors were “totally independent” of the wine trade, when that claim was completely false and easily refuted. (The fact that the wife of the main investor brazenly refuted the claim will be seen as emblematic of the entire fiasco.) Why, they will ask, did Parker try to play his subscribers for fools instead of just telling them the truth? Even after they have moved on to other topics, these future bankers, consultants, and entrepreneurs will still be puzzling over this odd tale of brand mismanagement and PR incompetence. And they will recall, too, the epigraph with which the Parker case study began: Whom the gods would destroy, they first marinate in Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
Now that it is known that the new owners of the Wine Advocate are not “totally independent” of the wine trade but are instead totally immersed in it, some people are expressing disappointment in Parker—they believe that he has betrayed his legacy by selling the Wine Advocate to members of the trade. Sure, it is a little jarring to discover that a critic who spent his career preaching the importance of keeping one’s distance from the trade has sold his business to a wine merchant. But hypocrisy has been running thick in Monkton for years now, so this news shouldn’t have come as a complete shock to anyone. And let’s be real: while I am sure that Parker would prefer to have found a different buyer, someone not affiliated with the trade and who could be trusted to uphold the Wine Advocate’s editorial integrity, this was the offer that came his way, and I suspect it was the only offer that materialized. And given a choice between a multimillion-dollar payday and nothing, Parker made a choice that I think an overwhelming majority of us would have made.
There is an interesting thread over on Wineberserkers.com about a Frank Cornelissen wine that turned out to be hideously spoiled. Cornelissen is an icon of the natural wine movement, not least because he doesn’t add any sulfur dioxide to his wines. It appears the zero-added sulfur policy, possibly combined with less-than-perfect shipping conditions or storage, yielded the microbial disaster described on Berserkers. Without meaning to further incur the wrath of natural wine advocates, the Berserkers discussion prompts the following observation: many of the people championing these wines—journalists, sommeliers—do a lot of their drinking for free. They can afford to be more tolerant of defective bottles because they are often not the ones paying for them. The wine at issue in the Berserkers thread runs around $40 a bottle. That’s not a cheap wine, and while the retailer presumably took it back, the point is this: when it comes to these fragile, easily spoiled wines, the risk/reward calculus for a regular consumer is very different than it is for a wine writer or sommelier who is drinking on someone else’s dime. Just sayin’….
With the NHL season currently on ice, we Americans have had even less reason to pay attention to Canada than usual. But our friends to the north have now generously obliged us with two big stories: a colossal maple syrup heist and a juicy wine scandal. I’ll let Maple Syrup Diarist take up the first story; I’m going to focus on the wine scandal. It involves Natalie MacLean, the Canadian wine critic writer content aggregator personality. According to two articles published this week by Palate Press, MacLean has been pilfering tasting notes from other wine writers and passing them off as her own content, and she also been requiring wineries to buy subscriptions to her website in exchange for reviews. Regarding the “borrowed” tasting notes, MacLean has promised that she will go back and make sure they are fully credited to their authors. She denies charging wineries for reviews, but Palate Press has now posted an email exchange between MacLean and an unnamed winery in which it appears that pay-to-play is indeed her M.O.
Evidently, MacLean is a big deal in Canada. Her influence doesn’t extend south of the border (or anywhere else), but she’s not unknown here. I met her perhaps a decade ago at a James Beard Awards dinner in New York. She and I were nominated in the same category; she won, a stepping stone on her way to being named the world’s best wine writer. She seemed pleasant enough, and we talked about having a drink when she was next in New York. A few years later, I was asked by The New York Times to review her first book, Red, White, and Drunk All Over: A Wine-Soaked Journey from Grape to Glass, as well as Jay McInerney’s second collection of wine articles, A Hedonist in the Cellar. I told the editor that MacLean had beaten me for a Beard Award and that I had just landed a book deal with the same house that published her book, Bloomsbury. He didn’t think either of those things posed a conflict (and I certainly harbored no resentment over losing out to her for a Beard Award—I don’t have a lot of use for awards, and just being nominated was fine by me).
MacLean’s book was not very good, and my review was respectful but unenthusiastic. Her writing was cloyingly purple, and she just didn’t seem to know all that much about wine. She concluded her chapter about Burgundy, for instance, by claiming that the region was falling out of favor and in need of revitalization. As if! After I filed the review, the top editor at the Book Review decided that the Beard thing could indeed raise questions about my impartiality, and the paper ran only my review of the McInerney book. I was not unhappy; I had taken on the assignment expecting to like her book, and I was concerned that she might have thought I had a grudge. I also wasn’t thrilled about the prospect of pissing off my publisher.
At some point, I noticed that I was getting a fair amount of spam from MacLean—emails touting her wine recommendations or announcing her latest product lines. I took a look at her website, and noticed that she had won quite a few awards (including world’s best wine writer) and wasn’t shy about advertising it. Again, I had the impression that she didn’t really know all that much about wine, but between the spamming and the self-promotion, it was clear she was relentlessly ambitious—the Tracy Flick of wine writing. I didn’t have a problem with that; we’re all brands now, so we’re told, and if she was more enterprising and energetic about building her brand than the rest of us, good for her. I did find it somewhat odd that she never seemed to interact with other wine writers. We are a small, incestuous tribe, united by our passion for wine, our poverty, and our fixation with Robert Parker, and we all chat with one another. Yet, as far as I could tell, MacLean existed in her own bubble, engaging only with her followers.
But while she largely kept her distance from other wine writers, she evidently helped herself to their tasting notes and posted them behind her paywall without proper attribution (citing the names of the critics and their respective publications). Given that she allegedly took the notes from a buying guide in which full attribution was given, one can only conclude that she was trying to pass them off as original material. That’s a big-time infraction, the sort of thing that would likely end a career at a reputable journal, and while it might have been an innocent mistake, this is not the first time that her journalistic integrity has been called into question (sock puppetry is never a smart idea).
Meanwhile, the pay-to-play allegations—which, again, she denies—have sparked an interesting debate. A few wine writers have said that opening boxes filled with samples and sorting, storing, and tasting the bottles can be a chore and that there is nothing wrong with charging wineries a fee for the time and effort. Uh-huh. It has also been suggested that charging for reviews is no more unethical than taking press trips or attending tastings hosted by wineries. I don’t buy that, either. Sure, the people sponsoring junkets or hosting tastings hope to receive favorable coverage, but that doesn’t mean a writer is obliged to provide it. I don’t take press trips, but I certainly attend tastings that are of interest to me. Occasionally I write about them, more often I don’t. However, attending a tasting put on by a winery or an importer is very different than telling a winery that you won’t review its cabernet unless it pays you.
No doubt, some people regard the MacLean matter as just more navel-gazing on the part of wine writers, and there’s an element of truth to that (we do like to talk about ourselves—a lot!). But I think corruption and misconduct ought to be exposed, and kudos to Palate Press for bringing to light MacLean’s cutting-and-pasting, as well as her possible pay-to-play shenanigans. It appears that MacLean didn’t disclose these practices to her readers; now that this information is public, those readers can make a more informed judgment about her trustworthiness. With so much wine content being put into circulation these days without editorial supervision, we wine hacks really do need to police ourselves, and I think Palate Press has served up a great example of journalistic self-regulation.
In the absence of an NHL season, it’s good to have another reason to talk about Canada, and let’s hope MacLean is promptly dispatched to the penalty box.
Because every wine writer is obliged to opine about Robert Parker’s big news this week—it is in our contracts—and because so many wine writers raced to opine before the ink had even dried on Monday’s Wall Street Journal, I decided to wait 48 hours to post a response. I figured this would give me ample time to sift through all the commentariat’s pontificating and prognosticating in order to try to come up with something, anything different to say. Herewith, then, is my not-so-instant but thoroughly original response to the Parker (hedonistic fruit) bombshell:
1. Although it certainly appears that Parker sold a majority stake in the Wine Advocate, neither he nor anyone else has confirmed that. In the Wall Street Journal piece, he said the Singapore investors had bought a “substantial interest” in the Wine Advocate. “Substantial” could be100 percent of the business, or it could mean just a hefty minority stake. Given Lisa Perrotti-Brown’s strikingly assertive comments, it would seem that the Singapore group purchased a controlling interest, and I’m going to proceed here on that assumption. But it would be good if someone at the Wine Advocate would clarify what exactly transpired. Yes, the Wine Advocate is a privately held company and is under no obligation to report this information. However, Parker chose to go public with news of the sale, and in doing so, he withheld two rather significant details: the identity of the buyers, and how much of a stake they purchased. Parker is now complaining about all the speculation surrounding the deal. If he is not willing to offer more information, he has no right to complain about the speculation.
2. Kudos to Parker for finding a buyer for the Wine Advocate, and I hope he got a great price for it. Say what you will about Parker, the guy worked tirelessly for 34 years and built an incredible business. If he was able to get someone to pay him fuck-you money for the Wine Advocate—enough money to buy a vineyard in Châteauneuf-du-Pape should he so wish, or to endow future generations of Parkers with an unlimited supply of Flannery steaks, Daniel Boulud Private Label smoked salmon, and Joselito Jamón Ibérico de Bellota—I say well done.
3. It seems clear that the new owners and new management of the Wine Advocate intend to turn it into a company that specializes in wine entertainment. The heart of the business will be events—tastings, educational seminars, etc. The Wine Advocate will still publish tasting notes and scores, but evaluating wines will no longer be its core mission; the reviews will simply be a way of promoting brand awareness and lubricating these new revenue streams. I suppose this might raise concerns about conflicts of interest, but even before the sale, Parker’s code of conduct was a dead letter. The Wine Advocate was already moving in the direction of wine entertainment; the new owners will simply accelerate that process and focus those efforts on Asia rather than the United States.
4. I’ve said before that I don’t think the Wine Advocate has much of a future post-Parker, and Monday’s announcement did nothing to change my mind. I am sure that the Wine Advocate was shopped around to potential buyers in the United States, and evidently, no buyer materialized, notwithstanding the fact that Parker has plenty of deep-pocketed friends. But what savvy investor would want this business? The Wine Advocate is a fading brand, and it is hard to see any value in it that exists independent of Parker. Parker has had outside contributors for years now, yet how many wine shops attribute scores to Antonio Galloni, David Schildknecht, Neal Martin, Mark Squires, or Lisa Perotti-Brown? As far as I can see, very few—instead, they still cite “Robert Parker” or “Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate.” That’s pretty telling. I think it would have been nearly impossible for Galloni, the best-known and most influential member of the Wine Advocate team, to keep the Wine Advocate going after Parker’s retirement; the fact that the least-known, least-influential member of that team, Perrotti-Brown, is apparently taking over does not improve the odds.
I suppose the new owners think that if they can keep Parker involved for a few years—bringing him to Asia for tastings, etc.—they can somehow figure out a way to make the business sustainable once Parker is gone. But I suspect it will simply reinforce the point that the business is nothing without him—and that’s assuming Parker is willing to stick around for an extended transition period. He’s 65 and not in the best health, and he is also a headstrong figure who has only ever answered to himself. Whenever family businesses are sold to outsiders—and the Wine Advocate was, at heart, a family business—there is invariably lots of happy talk about the original owner remaining involved. But more often than not, the relationship quickly deteriorates as the new owners assert themselves. The fact that Parker and the new owners couldn’t even announce news of the sale without the whole thing turning into a fiasco, with Parker and Perrotti-Brown sending conflicting signals about who would really be in charge, certainly doesn’t augur well.
5. The tip-off that something was brewing? Last month, Lettie Teague did a lion-in-winter piece about Parker for the Wall Street Journal (in light of Monday’s big news, the timing of that article now looks…curious, and it would be good to know how that story came to be). When I read the article, I was struck by Parker’s comment regarding Galloni. Asked if Galloni would succeed him, Parker said, “There is no apparent heir.” He had previously indicated that Galloni was indeed the chosen one. My inner Monktonologist was intrigued. What had happened to downgrade Galloni’s status? Now we know.
6. I’m sure Teague was thrilled to get the scoop about the sale, but the Wall Street Journal should have assigned the story to someone else. She and Parker are friends, and for a time she even had a blog on eBob; those facts should have disqualified her from doing the piece. No doubt, Parker gave her the scoop because he knew she’d let him spin the story as he wanted it spun—and that’s exactly why the Journal should have assigned it to another writer. I don’t know whether Teague’s piece contained inaccuracies, but the fact that Parker took to Twitter on Monday to contradict some of the juiciest morsels in her article (i.e. that the Wine Advocate is ending its print edition and is relocating its headquarters to Singapore) suggests to me that the Journal would have been better off putting this business story in the hands of a business reporter. (Parker disputing key elements of an article that he essentially dictated reminds me of the time Charles Barkley claimed to have been misquoted in his own autobiography.)
Monday’s announcement was the latest in a series of self-inflicted PR debacles for Parker. He could have saved himself a lot of grief in recent years had he hired a decent publicist. And if he does have a PR firm, he should fire it immediately and find a new one.
7. I think it’s great that a woman is taking charge of the Wine Advocate. Parker always pointed out that he had strong women behind him—his wife, his mother, his longtime assistant. Now the Wine Advocate will evidently have a woman out front, and based on what we’ve heard from Perrotti-Brown in recent days, she is no shrinking violet herself.
8. I give the last word to Kipling: “A fool lies here who tried to hustle the East.”