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.”
Sorry for the long hiatus here; it’s been a busy last few months. I will update you on things in my next post, which should be sometime around February or March (I’m joking—I think!). Anyway, a tweet the other day by New York sommelier extraordinaire Michael Madrigale reminded me that I’d neglected to post the photo below. Madrigale tweeted a picture of two bottles of 1971 Domaine Ponsot Clos de la Roche, one of which he confirmed to be a fake. The picture below is one that Laurent Ponsot shared with me back in the spring, and it shows two bottles of 1973 Domaine Ponsot Clos de la Roche, one of which was also a fake (it’s the one on the left). You will notice that there is a gentleman in the photo whose face is obscured by one of the bottles: that’s Rudy Kurniawan.
The backstory: In May 2009, Ponsot had dinner with Kurniawan in Los Angeles. It was a year after the Acker Merrall auction at which Kurniawan had attempted to sell those fake Ponsots, and Laurent Ponsot was still trying to get him to say where he had obtained the counterfeit bottles. True to form, Kurniawan came to the restaurant bearing wines—in this case, two bottles of 1973 Ponsot Clos de la Roche. One had the normal Ponsot label, the other had a label indicating that it was a special bottling for the Confrérie des Chevaliers du Tastevin. Why would Kurniawan have brought two bottles of the same wine? Ponsot told me that he thought Kurniawan was testing him to see if he could pick out a counterfeit of his own wines. The Confrérie bottle was legitimate, but immediately upon tasting the other bottle, Ponsot judged it to be a fake—it was a Burgundy, but neither a Ponsot nor a Clos de la Roche.
At one point, Ponsot decided to take a picture of the two bottles and surreptitiously tried to include Kurniawan in the frame. However, just as Ponsot was about to snap the photo, Kurniawan saw what he was doing and turned his face to the side. I love the resulting picture: the caption almost writes itself—catch me if you can. It was the only good thing to come out of the dinner. Kurniawan refused to cough up any information, and the evening ended in angry silence. Ponsot had arrived at the restaurant still uncertain about Kurniawan’s role in the scandal: had the young collector unwittingly purchased the fake Ponsots and then tried to dump them via the Acker auction, or was he the source of the fraudulent bottles? When Ponsot left the restaurant, he was no longer uncertain: he was now convinced that Kurniawan was the counterfeiter.
Doug Barzelay, the New York attorney and Burgundy enthusiast who set in motion the events that ultimately led to Rudy Kurniawan’s arrest, has posted his reflections on the Kurniawan saga. It’s a terrific essay, full of insights into Kurniawan and into the collector culture that enabled him to perpetrate his alleged scam. It’s a great insider’s view of what happened, and well worth a read.
…but some exciting news: Movie rights to my Vanity Fair article about Rudy Kurniawan have been optioned by Level 1 Entertainment, a film production company. You can read about the deal here. Although my kids are now walking around the house wearing sunglasses, it is a long way from the printed page to a theater near you. But just having the article optioned is very flattering, and I’m eager to watch the film development process unfold.
My apologies for the light (read: nonexistent) posting of late. It has been a busy last few months, not least because I was working on a piece for Vanity Fair magazine about the Rudy Kurniawan saga. The article is now online if you’d like to have a look, and if a discussion happens to break out here, I promise I will participate! Thanks for your patience.
A federal grand jury in New York today indicted Rudy Kurniawan on one count of mail fraud and three counts of wire fraud. Here is the indictment; the case has been assigned to United States District Judge Richard M. Berman of the Southern District of New York.
Pancho Campo resigned yesterday from the Institute of Masters of Wine (IMW). According to Siobhan Turner, the IMW’s executive director, he gave up his membership “in light of his move into more sports and music events and away from wine” (there was no mention of a desire to spend more time with his family). The IMW had been conducting a probe into Campo’s business practices, undertaken as a result of the controversy surrounding his work for The Wine Advocate and his dealings with some regional wine associations in Spain. According to Jim Budd, who had put a spotlight on Campo’s questionable conduct, the IMW had completed its investigation, and its board was due to meet this week to consider Campo’s case.
Via email, Siobhan Turner told me that 20 people have resigned from the IMW since its founding in 1953, a figure that includes Campo. I was surprised the number was that high; given the effort and money required to earn the Master of Wine designation, I had assumed that maybe just four or five people had ever quit or been defrocked. At any rate, the timing of Campo’s resignation—coming the same week that the IMW board was to consider his fate—certainly suggests that this was a case of jump or be pushed.
Yes, I’m still alive, and my apologies for the long silence. Thanks to those of you who inquired about my whereabouts and well-being, and thanks, too, for the very entertaining comments in the MIA post, which raised an obvious question: Does this site even really need me? (feel free to vote me off my own island).
Contrary to what some of you may have thought, I was not house sitting for Rudy Kurniawan, nor was I taken into protective custody by the FBI (the Secret Service didn’t offer me protection, either, but I certainly hope they used some). I’ve just been extremely busy since mid-March on account of several assignments and travel. Last you heard from me, I was in Strasbourg, where I took part in a debate about the state of French cuisine. I was the sacrificial American on a panel that included two eminent French chefs, Emile Jung (whom I had last seen when he absconded with my wife) and Jean-Georges Klein; the French food writer Gilles Pudlowski; and the French historian Pascal Ory. It was a good discussion, and I was treated very nicely despite being the author of the blasphemous text—call me Salmon Rushdie—that prompted the debate.
I was in France for a week. It was a hectic trip, with not a lot of sleep; mostly, that was on account of work, but one night it was on account of my inability to find my car. Some French villages can be deceptively labyrinthine: walk up the wrong rue, and you can be wandering for hours looking for your car. A certain winemaker, who pops in here occasionally, has promised to ridicule me mercilessly over my march of folly. He did say, however, that had he found me curled up on the steps of the village church the next morning, he would have tossed a euro my way. Fortunately, I was reunited with my car before I was forced to sleep al fresco and accept his charity.
After France, I went to meet my wife and children at Disney World. Waking up in Paris and going to sleep in the Magic Kingdom was a bit harsh, but I quickly adjusted. Disney was fine, although I do regret that I didn’t spend part of a day experiencing it in an altered state. One of the funniest magazine articles of recent vintage was a story John Jeremiah Sullivan wrote about his own trip to Disney and all the marijuana that he smoked there. I re-read the piece while in Florida, and it made me laugh just as hard the second time.
Speaking of marijuana: I did an article a few weeks ago for The Daily Beast about pot wine. It was a fun story to report, and talk about herbal, weedy wines!
Lastly, even as Wine Diarist was silent, it received a nice honor: it was one of six sites nominated for Saveur Magazine’s Best Wine or Beer Blog of 2012. Saveur readers will pick the winner; voting ends today (I wanted to give you as much notice as possible). Would you vote for a blog that was not updated for six weeks? Neither would I, but I am pleased just to have been nominated. As it happens, some of the first wine writing I did was for Saveur. It was purely a function of nepotism: at the time, my wife was a senior editor there. I got to do some fun stories for the magazine, and I’m flattered that Saveur thinks so highly of Wine Diarist.
I will try to resume regularly scheduled programming in the next few days, and thanks for your patience.
Greetings from Strasbourg. Sorry for the silence since all the Kurniawan news broke; last week was insanely hectic. My thanks to everyone who contributed to the discussion regarding Kurniawan’s arrest. It is a remarkable story, and it will be interesting to see where it goes from here. Thanks, too, to my friend Dr. Vino for unexpectedly pinch-hitting with an installment of The Wine Ethicist on Friday. I am traveling through the weekend but will try to resume regularly scheduled programming while on the road.