The Robert Parker Train Wreck, and A Train Wreck of a Wine
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’….