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.”