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Singapore Sling

2012 December 12
by Mike

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.”

37 Responses leave one →
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  4. December 17, 2012

    Hi Francois, nice to see you again. I’m sure the new owners are anxious to keep Parker on board. His Bordeaux ratings still carry weight, and when it comes to public events–tastings, etc.–he is obviously a much bigger attraction than any other member of the Wine Advocate team. But as you suggest, the new owners will also be anxious to recoup their investment, and one can easily imagine a situation in which Parker, upset about the changes being instituted (advertising, etc.), decides to quit. For all of the reasons I cited in my post, I think it is going to be very difficult for the new owners to succeed, but we’ll find out soon enough.

    I think your last point is a particularly good one. In the United States, certainly, the audience has changed, and I think there is a need for new forms of wine communication to emerge. Parker-style content seems a little outdated now.

  5. mauss permalink
    December 17, 2012

    Hopefully Mr Parker decides (or was asked for by the new owner) to still follow up Bordeaux and Rhône. Without this commitment, the value of the sale would have been probably lower.

    We had around the same story in France when GaultMillau magazine was sold. Usually, the new owner gives priority to get back in his costly investment.

    Not sure the actual readers (and money-subescribers) to TWA will stay faithfull.

    Many journalists will try to get a piece of the cake good luck !

    Moreover, this will open a new way to consider the communication inside the wine world.

  6. December 13, 2012

    Bravo!

    All the best,

    Nannette Eaton

  7. December 13, 2012

    Tom, thanks for the comment and the kind words. You make some fair points, and you may well be right. But–and forgive me for repeating myself–don’t you think it’s interesting that they couldn’t find a buyer here? I don’t think it was for lack of trying; I am reasonably certain that some very affluent people on these shores were given the opportunity to buy the Wine Advocate. Evidently, not one of them was interested in doing so. Surely, if the Wine Advocate were an undervalued asset with great growth prospects, someone in the home market would have snapped it. At any rate, we will find out soon enough whether the new owners bought themselves a great asset or an albatross.

    Derek, if you look at the thread on wineberserkers, you will find the Journal piece reproduced in full.

    Richard, thanks for stopping by, and delighted you liked the post. The bungled PR is just amazing. I trust you saw the follow-up piece in today’s Journal, and the press release from the Journal saying that it stands by the original story? So if the Journal stands by the original story, why did it feel obliged to run a second one? It would appear that Parker decided he needed to walk back some of the comments he made to Teague in the original interview, but since when does the subject of a story get a mulligan? It’s amazing that the Journal would let itself get ensnared in this clown show.

  8. December 13, 2012

    Greg, thanks for stopping by, and I completely agree with you. You raise a great point, too, about less supervision and less experience in newsrooms. At both newspapers and magazines, many of the senior people have been let go, and the effect on editing and, ultimately, quality has been pretty profound.

    Andrew, you are absolutely right. I read your column, and you did indeed tip us off. Your piece slipped my mind; my apologies for that. And, yes, it is amazing that even with all the time they had to prepare for an announcement, they managed to completely botch it. As I said in my post, it doesn’t exactly augur well for the new team.

  9. Bruce G. permalink
    December 13, 2012

    Mike:

    Good to see you as well.
    I was beginning to wonder where we should send flowers, given the lack of pulse on this site. Hopefully you can resist the siren song of Hollywood at least enough to grace us with your wise words every now and again.

    Re: Lisa… her choice of words was no doubt ill-advised. She has said that clearly in follow-up comments. But I don’t think there was ever an attempt on her part to suggest that she didn’t properly value the work of her peers.
    And I admire her response to chorus of negative comments: my words were poorly chosen but I DID say them, and I stand by what I said with the further clarification as provided.
    It’s a refreshing change of pace to see someone from the WA owning up to their own words.

  10. December 13, 2012

    Dan, good to see you again, and thanks for giving me a good laugh this morning (particularly liked Suck Ling Wine King). The scramble to conquer Asia is…amusing.

    Jackie, thanks for stopping and for the kind words. Jack provided you the quote; as I said before, what’s amazing is that she didn’t walk it back on eBob but instead doubled down (forgive the cliches). A strange way of announcing yourself.

    Bruce, good to see you again, too. Everything you say is true, and it sounds as if Lisa is a very pleasant and capable person. But obviously, she could have chosen her words with a little more care, and I would have thought that simply as a matter of self-interest, she would have been more diplomatic. She may be the new boss, but as I said in my post, she’s also the least-known, least-influential member of Parker’s team. Her cavalier attitude clearly did not play well–it was an own goal, and certainly not a great way to announce this big news.

  11. December 13, 2012

    Best piece out there on this fascinating transaction, and I completely agree about your conclusions. What’s astonishing to me is the bungled PR, but as you point out, that’s consistent with Parker’s track record of PR fumbles over the last several years.

  12. Derek permalink
    December 13, 2012

    Mike, Can you update us on the second article in WSJ that came out today – as per your tweets? Apparently it takes a subscription to read the articles on WSJ directly.
    Great piece.
    Derek

  13. December 13, 2012

    Mike:

    You wrote this:

    “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’m not convinced.

    It’s the evaluation of wine that lends credibility to educational events. Plus, the revenue derived from 50K subscribers is substantial. Additionally, I don’t agree that the Wine Advocate brand is in decline. In fact, I think the Wine Advocate brand has yet to really tap into its full value, which I think lies in more room to increase subscribers under its current model, the opportunity to attract significant numbers of new subscribers and advertisers by expanding the WA into a full fledged magazines (likely in two languages), wine events (as you mention) as well as significantly more room for one off publishing ventures.

    Outstanding piece….as always.

    Tom…

  14. December 13, 2012

    The tip-off that something was brewing?

    I wrote a blog column on the ‘brand for sale’ on October 1st, albeit as a rumour:

    http://www.decanter.com/news/blogs/expert/530497/jefford-on-monday-brand-for-sale

    The ‘emphatic denial’ I mention there came from Singapore, via a third party, though it was suggested that there would be some kind of an announcement ‘before long’. Over two months has elapsed since, so the fact that it has all been handled so ineptly when finally made public is a cause for wonder.

  15. December 13, 2012

    An excellent analysis, Mike. I agree with your take on the situation and after a whole bunch of years in wine and publishing, I can see why Parker would backpedal a bit on some of the statements in the original WSJ article. If, as you did above, we assume that the facts are as stated in that first article, the new owners have a significant interest in Parker’s existing subscribers believing for the time being that things will continue as is. There’s a significant income stream in subscriptions renewals to be considered. If those subscribers–many fiercely loyal to Parker–felt that he was going to leave the building completely, they might not renew. I also agree with your questioning of the appropriateness of Lettie Teague doing the story — it would seem to have been better to assign it to a more experienced writer without any connections to Parker. Perhaps as is happening in newsrooms (big and small) all across the country, there is far less story supervision by experienced editors–they just aren’t there anymore. Very interested to see how this all plays out…

  16. Jack Bulkin permalink
    December 13, 2012

    Bruce we all know people who have changed once they obtain significant power. Lisa’s words speak for themselves whether you perceived her as somewhat different and more gentle person when she was merely a MW in Japan.

  17. December 13, 2012

    Thanks, Jack, for the explanation as well as for correcting my name.

  18. Bruce G do. permalink
    December 13, 2012

    Personally, I think people are being far too hard on Lisa.
    I knew of her through her work here in Japan, and have corresponded with her periodically over the years.
    She is an intelligent, considerate, hard-working type, and rather humble to boot.

    Though better words may have been chosen, I think she meant just what she stated in her clarifying comments: she greatly values the input of the current WA team members and hopes that they will choose to stay on; if they chose not to, though, the WA will find a way to fill their positions with other talented wine people.
    Though the voices of people like David S., Neal M., and Antonio G. are both insightful and unique, there ARE other accomplished wine experts presently in circulation who could tackle any of the areas currently assigned to the WA team.

  19. Jack Bulkin permalink
    December 13, 2012

    Sorry Jacqueline Friedrich, I guess I had Lisa the boss’ name on my mind. : )

  20. Jack Bulkin permalink
    December 13, 2012

    Lisa, I will save Mike the trouble by answering your request. In the original WSJ article that broke the news of this transaction, Lettie Teague reported as follows:
    “Ms. Perrotti-Brown said the company is discussing terms with its correspondents, who include lead critic Antonio Galloni, as well as David Schildknecht, Mark Squires and Neal Martin, whom she and Mr. Parker hope will sign on as employees. If they decline? “There is a plethora of good wine writers out there. It’s a buyer’s market,” she said.”

    After considerable discontent from many members of the Parker online wineboard ERbobertParker.com, Ms. Perroti Brown stated:
    ” The quote by Lettie was not a misquote. I did say this in a phone conversation to her. It was however taken out of context. We were discussing the complicated situation with the current writers, which is admittedly a precarious one and I take nothing for granted here. As it stands our writers are all “freelance”, legally classed as “Independent Contractors”. This situation offers us limited control contractually over what writers can and can’t do. Going forward, it is our intension to make them full “employees”, which will add some benefits including greater job security but will also stipulate stricter guidelines when it comes to issues of integrity. Contracts are being draw up and negotiated now. After a longwinded explanation to Lettie not only of how I hope and pray everyone chooses to stay but of the process & rationale, she of course asked me the obvious question that any good journalist would: “What will you do if they decline?” My response was my response. While we very much hope everyone will eventually come over to the stricter terms we will be inserting in the new contracts, this ship isn’t going to go down if any one of them doesn’t want to row.”

    These statements reveal what many including me consider a nouveau riche attitude that considers labor as an asset of diminishing returns vs. the worth of those with the capital. Whether Marie Antoinette Perrotti loses her head remains to be seen.
    Hope this clears it up for you.
    Jack

  21. December 13, 2012

    Very good article, Mike. Intelligent, thoughtful, fair. Jack Bulkin mentions LPB’s thoughts on “independent contractors.” Where can I find that? Is there any possibility that she would be foolish enough to lose David Schildknecht?

  22. Dan McCallum permalink
    December 13, 2012

    “A fool lies here who tried to hustle the East.”

    Well chosen Mike.
    But I suspect there will be more than one burial under that epitaph.
    This venture has already destroyed itself. And now that the opportunity has been highlighted, better business people will be plunging in soon to fill the void.
    Shan Ken Enterprises? Suck Ling Wine King?
    Maybe such as this is why the Mayans didn’t bother extending their calendar?

  23. December 12, 2012

    Hi Martin, thanks for the comments and the kind words. Parker is certainly at liberty to bellyache about all the speculation. But he chose to go public with news of the sale, and in doing so, I think he had an obligation to his subscribers to explain the exact terms of the transaction and who the investors are. Obviously, he felt otherwise, but in withholding those details, he opened the door to all this speculation. Love your comment re Point 2 and extracted sweet wines. And with about 90 minutes left in 12/12/12, I’m cautiously optimistic that I’m going to make it to 12/13/12. Thanks.

  24. December 12, 2012

    Mike, a very interesting summary. I’m hoping you’ll expand on a few items for me.
    In point 1, under your premise, if the selling party doesn’t disclose every detail they have no right to complain? Interesting viewpoint. Legally, he can complain all he wants and disclose as much or as little as he wants. That’s up to him. What anyone selects to print is up to them. Why do you feel there’s some sort of commensurate ratio of “complaints” to “detail sharing” required?

    Point 2. Spot on. Just make certain future generations are also early diabetic so they too have a proclivity for overly extracted sweet wines. He did work tirelessly early on, sold a yet-to-be-determined percentage stake in the business he built from the ground up, at a time when people probably laughed at him. And that for certain is to be commended.

    Point 3- Spot on again. Point 4 and 5, agreed. And that brings us to point 6. You NAILED it. How are her past affiliations not disclosed? Where’s the objectivity and responsibility? She has many, many pals in the wine world, quotes and interviews them often, so I’m uncertain how this escaped WSJ. Disappointed. I’m glad you waited 48 hours as the summary is terrific. You are definitely on top of the entire episode and it’s refreshing to read.

    Point 7. Not informed enough to render an opinion. Point 8- Brilliantly played.

    Jack, I think your assessment is equally intelligent.

    Cheers all, and may you survive 12/12/12 glass in hand, and wiser for it.
    Best,
    Martin

  25. December 12, 2012

    Thanks, Lee. If that figure is correct, Parker made out very nicely, and perhaps there will be a true Parker cuvee in the not-too-distant future!

  26. December 12, 2012

    Thanks for the links, Vincent. Any clue you can offer as to your source for the information re the money?

  27. December 12, 2012

    Paul, thanks very much. I agree–if the Journal had put this in the hands of an actual reporter, we might well know more, or at least there probably wouldn’t be so much confusion surrounding the deal. Assuming that the editors were aware of Teague’s friendship with Parker and of her previous contributions to his site, I’m surprised that they let her write the piece.

  28. December 12, 2012

    Good to see your back, blogging.

    It appears 15M was the walk away price, and only a group of BRAND obsessed Asians would see that high a value in The WA. Good for him he can afford 20ha and an old chai in ChNdeP, where he can make 100 point wines.

    http://www.thedrinksbusiness.com/2012/12/parker-sells-wine-advocate-stake-for-15m/?article-source=newsletter&source=468&date=2012-12-12

  29. December 12, 2012

    And what about the price and the investors? It’s one one the keys, no?
    Some answers:
    http://ideesliquidesetsolides.blogspot.com.es/2012/12/qui-achete-parker.html

  30. December 12, 2012

    Interesting take. I think waiting a couple of days served your analysis well.

    I very much agree on the Teague thing… I’m not a huge fan of hers, anyway, but she really shouldn’t be writing stories about her buddies. She’s going to have buddies in the wine world, nothing wrong with that, but when it comes to something like this, a more seasoned business reporter would have been the better choice. Maybe we’d have more answers now?

  31. December 12, 2012

    Thanks, Jack; much appreciated. Like you, I was certainly struck by her comments. So a guy with David Schildknecht’s knowledge of Germany and riesling is easily replaced? I don’t think so. I was surprised by her comment in the Journal, and very surprised when she opted not to walk it back on eBob. Given how little name-recognition she enjoys, I would think she’d be eager to keep everyone on board. It’s baffling.

  32. Jack Bulkin permalink
    December 12, 2012

    Well written and fair voiced piece Mike. Much fairer than if I had written it. The new Boss has displayed a temperment even more aggressive and less balanced than the old Boss. She is the wife of a wealthy Banker who was transfered from London to Singapore. Her” let them eat cake” disposition regarding the WA “Independent Contractors” does not bode well in my opinion for continuity of the Brand as it is presently constituted. I wonder if that is her choice for the future of TWA.

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