Wine Diarist

Miller Time, One More Time

On Monday, after I posted David Schildknecht’s email regarding Jay Miller’s departure from The Wine Advocate, another friend emailed me with a couple of thoughts. He said that if Miller and Robert Parker knew back in January that Miller would be stepping down at the end of 2011, it raises some obvious questions. One is whether Pancho Campo was apprised of Miller’s plans and, if so, when he was told. Another is whether the regions that paid hefty fees to have Miller visit them during his two trips to Spain this year were told. Navarra reportedly shelled out €100,000, or roughly $133,000, for a stopover by Miller in July. Valencia coughed up €35,000, or almost $47,000, to get a few days of his time on his swing through Spain last month, and Murcia paid €29,000, or around $39,000, for a multiday dog-and-pony show during the same trip. It’s hard to imagine that any of these regions would have agreed to such extravagant sums had they known Miller was leaving The Wine Advocate, particularly given the dire state of Spain’s economy and the financial difficulties besetting the Spanish wine industry. If it turns out that the information was not disclosed, my friend said, it would look really bad for Miller and The Wine Advocate, and for Campo, too, assuming that he was in the loop. I agree.

Parker appears to have done a complete volte-face regarding the Spain controversy. Last week, he threatened to sue Jim Budd, the journalist behind the story; this week, his assistant graciously replied to an email inquiry from Budd, and according to The Baltimore Sun, Parker has launched “an international investigation focusing in particular on Campo.” As for Campo, he had said that he would be announcing this week how he and his lawyers planned to respond to the claims against him; so far, there has been no announcement. Campo did tell that he will no longer be working with The Wine Advocate. Campo is a Master of Wine, and there are now calls for the Institute of Masters of Wine to open an investigation into his activities. Judging by what has come to light thus far, I suspect that if anyone is going to be sued, it is Campo himself.

In the meantime, the story has been picked up by the mainstream press. The Baltimore Sun, Parker’s hometown paper (Miller’s, too), has run two stories about the scandal. It even scored an interview with Campo, who insisted that no Spanish wineries ever paid money to have Miller visit them or taste their wines, and that any speaking fees Miller earned during trips to Spain were in a “freelance” capacity. (With Miller leaving The Wine Advocate under a cloud, Campo defending himself in the press, and Parker moving to distance himself from Campo, one can see the outlines of a circular firing squad beginning to form).  In a sign that the controversy has truly gone viral, Gawker posted an item about it Tuesday under a British tabloid-like headline, “Professional Wine Snob in Booze Junket Payola Scandal.” (Gawker said that The Wine Advocate is considered “very well-well-well by the la-dee-da set.” Sorry, Bob, but I am claiming that line for my motto. “Wine Diarist: Very well-well-well for the la-dee-da set.” I like it.)

Ironically, just as the Miller story has caught the notice of the mainstream media, some voices in the wine world are claiming that it is a trivial matter—jaywalking, in a manner of speaking—that has been blown out of proportion by bloggers who are jealous of Parker and looking to knock him down. A few of the tut-tutters seem confused about what the issue is here. The issue is not the fact that Miller pocketed speaking fees during visits to Spain; the guy is entitled to earn a living, and if he can get people to shell out thousands of dollars to hear him talk about wine, more power to him. This is not a speaking-fee scandal; it is a pay-to-play scandal. The emails Budd posted last week show Campo and a colleague of his, Adela Richer, telling officials in the Madrid appellation that a two-day visit by Miller would cost them €20,000, or around $27,000. The itinerary would include a tasting of wines that “have a U.S. importer and which Jay has not previously scored. (A prerequisite for their appearance in the publication)”.  Based on these emails, it appears that Campo was selling access to the pages of The Wine Advocate, something that is completely at odds with Parker’s ethical guidelines and inconsistent with any notion of journalistic integrity.

The question now is whether any of these regional associations were told that Miller would be stepping down at year’s end. The emails offer no answers, just clues. In an email dated June 3rd, Richer encouraged Madrid officials to agree to a Miller visit the following month, warning that if they failed to act “Jay won’t be able to do it until well into 2012.” After a lukewarm response to that email, Richer upped the pressure: “And, you know, the bus passes only once. In 2012 things could change and it could be that we may not even be able to taste Madrid wines.” Campo, in an email that he sent to Richer and one of the Madrid officials on June 3rd, said, “This is a unique opportunity for vinos de Madrid, seeing as how this DO is not in Parker’s plans to be visited in either 2012 and 2013. Private visits, off the set agenda, as this would be, rarely take place, and not for a price below 40,000 euros. The fact that Jay has agreed to stay 2 days more, and for half the usual price, is a miracle and an opportunity that Madrid will find it difficult to have again.”

What was being sold here wasn’t just the opportunity to have Miller review the region’s wines; it was the opportunity for local winemakers to mingle with him and to gain greater insight into his preferences—in short, to cultivate a relationship with The Wine Advocate’s Spain critic. Was the urgency with which Campo and Richer seemed to pursue the Madrid deal—even offering a deeply discounted price—indicative of anything? Impossible to say. But as my friend suggested in his email Monday, if the regional organizations that were hit up for money weren’t told that Miller was leaving The Wine Advocate, you have to ask yourself why that detail was withheld.

A couple of things to note. The proposed Madrid visit in July didn’t happen; according to Budd, the appellation balked at the cost. Despite Campo and Richer’s insistence that the July date was the only possibility for 2011, Miller ended up doing a tasting of Madrid wines during his most recent visit to Spain, free of charge.  Also, Robert Parker’s assistant, in response to an email from Budd earlier this week, said The Wine Advocate will be publishing Miller’s tasting notes from his last trip, but that they may only appear on the website.

I assume that this story will continue to unspool. If I were a Wine Advocate subscriber, I would want answers to the following questions:

-Why were Campo’s services enlisted by The Wine Advocate, and who made the decision to use him as Miller’s handler in Spain?

-Did The Wine Advocate pay for Campo’s services, or were they given free of charge?

-Did The Wine Advocate pay for Miller’s three trips to Spain this year?

-According to David Schildknecht, Miller and Parker knew back in January that Miller would be leaving The Wine Advocate at the end of 2011. Was Campo told of this, and if so, when?

-In the course of arranging Miller’s visits to Navarra, Valencia, and Murcia, did either Miller or Campo tell officials in those regions that Miller would be stepping down from The Wine Advocate at year’s end?

-Miller told The Baltimore Sun that he was paid $8,000-$15,000 for each of the speaking engagements that Campo arranged for him in Spain. Did The Wine Advocate receive any money from the events that Campo organized in Navarra, Valencia, and Murcia?