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The Robert Parker Train Wreck, and A Train Wreck of a Wine

2012 December 28
by Mike

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’….

16 Responses leave one →
  1. April 28, 2013

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  2. January 9, 2013

    I’ve sadly not been privy to a vertical of 82 Bordeaux, so I’ll take your word for it and it’s true that a raw, absolute mathematical approach to scoring isn’t realistic given that it’s a natural, agricultural product. It’s just that if you don’t have a “best of the best” it can lead to inflation of points over time as it seems has happened. Of course, it’s just one person’s opinion in the end, which shouldn’t be taken as gospel.

    On that note, I’m not 100% sure as to who the taster of the Priorat wines was. I want to say it was Martin as it felt inflated, but not that much, and my tastes match up with his more than others. Could have been Miller though as the wineries love citing high scores for what seem decades after they’ve been awarded. Can’t blame them if it moves bottles I suppose.

    -miquel

  3. January 4, 2013

    Terrific observations as always, Dan, and Happy New Year. I agree, except at some point (pun intended) the point industry surely will realize that the grade inflation is a race to the bottom and is eroding whatever credibility the critics–I think. You are absolutely correct, too, about the Dark Ages. Nostalgia clearly animates certain segments of the wine world, but the reality is that the nostalgia is for something that never really existed. Yes, there were great wines produced 60 years ago, but these were true rarities, and most of what was produced in regions like Bordeaux and Burgundy was crap. But the notion that the past was a better place is a seductive one, and its seductiveness is certainly not limited to the wine world.

  4. January 4, 2013

    Vinologue, I’m not sure that things need to be graded exactly on a curve, with just one 100-point wine per vintage. Take, for instance, the 82 Bordeaux vintage, which Parker unquestionably nailed; to try to distinguish qualitatively between the 82 Mouton, 82 Lafleur, 82 Latour, 82 La Mission, etc., would be truly splitting hairs. I’m not a fan of the 100-point scale, but if it is going to have any credibility, that top rating needs to be given out very sparingly. Re those 95 point wines from Priorat, who gave them 95 points?

  5. Dan McCallum permalink
    January 4, 2013

    From the standpoint of a marketologist:
    “Train wreck of a wine”- The explosive pace of global societal progress has two tails. One is excess, the other is ‘left-behinds’. Each of these creates a degree of demand for retreat to the Dark Ages. And when there is demand, it will be supplied. This is not at all about tradition, a winemaker’s reverence for his land and his grandfather. It leap-frogs all that. The reality of course is that the Dark Ages were not so great at all. That is why they are known as the Dark Ages. And they were very dark.
    “The Robert Parker Trainwreck”- There has always been a degree of Europhilia at the top of the American culture. That same aforementioned explosive pace of global societal progress really took off in the 80s and one outcome (shrinking globe) created a desire among the majority of Americans to have a piece of that Europhilia, most particularly in food , drink, automobiles, and leisure. But the wine side of that was more foreboding than the pizza. With wine, there was a corollary demand for validation, both pre and post purchase. Thus the then emergent enterprises of producing and selling points. However, by the 21st Century this demand was dissipating despite that wine sales were booming- the consumer having gained his own senses through familiarity. The point industry responded with the only thing they knew- more points. Not just the topical point inflation, but more importantly, new point fields. IE, “let’s send our man to Chile to find 800 wines and 7200 points”. Thus the efficacy of points further diluted. What to do? Sell them in China? Good luck with that!

  6. Slim Vine permalink
    January 3, 2013

    I hate to break it to those that think the WA has been lily white all along. Parker has had agendas for at least 20 years. I know first hand how he X’d out a winery who was distributed by a close friend and off the hip associate of RP. The winery dropped the distributor because he would buy large volumes initially and then wouldn’t pay for them for 4-6 months (instead of the required 30 days) or until he needed to acquire more. The thought was this Distributor used his association with Parker to get away with this. The small winery couldn’t afford to do this with a large percentage of the inventory and thus ended their relationship.
    The winery went from highly scored to unreviewed.

  7. January 2, 2013

    I’ve never really understood how the ratings system got so out of hand. In a proper bell curve using Parker’s system, there should only ever be one wine that’s a “50″ and one that’s a “100″. If he encounters another wine that should be “100″ after giving that ranking to a previous one, then one of them should be downgraded.

    While my literal, mathematical take on this could be called extreme, at the very least, there should only be one “100″ point wine per vintage. Anything short of that makes it all pretty baseless.

    This is all without getting in to the issue of taste as we just finished up tasting nearly all of the wines from Priorat here in Catalonia and wines that were awarded 95 points, while good, didn’t stack up against many others. The reason being that we do much more than a quick spit taste of the wines. This is a total subjective issue though and gets back to the core problem of points in that people really need to find the wines that they like and points be damned. My mother loves California Central Coast 1.5L Sauvignon Blanc at $8 a bottle. My father, $15-20 Napa Valley Zinfandel. My father in-law, 5€ reds from France. My mother in-law, 12€ Cavas. I think it’s fantastic that they’ve all found a taste that they love.

  8. December 28, 2012

    The novelty wears off quickly, Jack–with artificially inflated breasts, I suppose, and certainly with 100-point ratings. I tallied it up: by my count, Parker has given 100-point ratings to at least 53 wines in just the past 10 months. Perfect just isn’t so special anymore.

  9. Jack Bulkin permalink
    December 28, 2012

    Over 50 “Perfect” wines in the past few issues of WA. Wowser. I’m sorry for the crude comparison Mike, but it sort of reminds me of when I first began dating women who had surgically received breast implants in the 70′s. When I first dated a woman with large silicone implants, it was an experience that I thought I would fondly remember for the rest of my life.
    Then I met another, and another and now all I see here in AZ is women that have made that appearance and lifetime choice. Today, it’s difficult to get too excited about dating a breast enhanced woman. I guess it’s sort of like getting too excited about a $300.00 100 Point 09 Bordeaux or 2010 Chave Hermitage.

  10. December 28, 2012

    Hi Francois, there’s too much here to agree with! I think Parker’s reputation was fading already, and the sale and the controversy that has resulted from it has only diminished his reputation further. His credibility as a critic has also declined: I hear now that he just gave 100-point scores to 17 wines from the 2009/2010 vintages in the Northern Rhone–who can take these ratings seriously at this point? At any rate, the GaultMillau analogy is perfect, and I suspect that what happened to that revolutionary guide is the fate that awaits the Wine Advocate.

    Miguel, that’s another terrific point (no pun intended). Per my comment to Francois, the points themselves have become completely devalued because of the huge scores that Parker and other critics now routinely award. Even if you don’t regard the 100-point scale as credible–and I am not a fan of it–a 100-point rating was something. But now, it is meaningless. If is true that Parker has now given perfect scores to 17 wines from the Northern Rhone, that would mean that he has given 100-point ratings to more than 50 wines in just the past nine months. Because of various scandals and now the sale, trust has been eroded. But the credibility is fast disappearing, too.

  11. mauss permalink
    December 28, 2012

    First of all, we have to be away from the french proverb : “to burn what we did love and to love what we did burn” : Brûler ce qu’on a adoré et adorer ce qu’on a brûlé.
    Then, we have at least a right to discuss what did happen, though for many of the Parker afficionados, it is still a taboo. Mainly in USA, Parker was the driver of many buying decisions and so, in some way, the cause (not the responsible) for some major investments by funds inside the wine. We may expect soon or later some major sales by smart investors of what they did bought inside the too big 100 points names.
    Naively, we are many to think that Parker is going out by the back door. The big door would have been to sell at an acceptable price, TWA to his actual “freelance” writers. To give such a priority for $$$$ (something more acceptable in USA than in Europe) does not participate to the elevation of Parker status. From a close “god status”, he is just now a simple businessman.

    The fact that the buyer (s) is (are) in the wine business does not help for a “credit of respect” for the new owner. You can be sure many critics will not fear anymore to publish in a different way and will want to establish themselves through a tough opposition to the classic Parker preference.
    We all know that nobody alone is able to cover all main wine regions and that only a strong team may find a consensus inside the amateurs’ world, though some specialists such as Allen Meadows is fully respected for Burgundy. This will not be the team of TWA since some basic rules written on the former front page of TWA will disappear slowly, like “blind”.

    I am sure the new investor is aware about all these points and most probably their main concern will be to be back inside their money as soon as possible. Exactly as what we did knew in France at the sale of GaultMillau, a major magazine in the food critics, 40 years ago.
    We do not know yet if the “freelance” writers such as Galloni and Martin will stay inside the new WA. Most probably this was certainly discussed before with them. But whatever will be their decision, right or wrong, the world of amateurs will probably not give to them the same level of credit of independance.
    Introducing advertising will be also a weakness in the possible reputation of TWA.
    Well : to resume all these points and many others : TWA will most probably become an other wine magazine but certainly not with the level of respect it has during the reign of Monsieur Robert Parker.
    Guess what ? Marvin Shanken will open a real special bottle for new year :-)

  12. December 28, 2012

    Probably, the bigger issue in the comparison is that Apple offers physical products, whereas Parker offers points. Sure, people make them physical by putting them on labels or on grocery store shelves, but they’re still just an opinion and like you (and many others) have said, it’s incredibly ironic that the one salient worth people placed in his points, “trust” was pretty much tossed away with this sale.

    Again, these days we’re all just brands supposedly and in this digital world, there is a short memory, so, who knows, maybe it’ll bounce back. I’m sure all the winemakers we know in Spain will still be putting scores on their bottles for the foreseeable future.

    -miquel

  13. December 28, 2012

    Those are some interesting points, Vinologue. I think Apple has gotten enough people hooked on its products that the mistakes haven’t proven fatal (not yet, anyway). Also, there is a certain “cool” factor with Apple, a degree of social cachet that comes with using its products, and as long as that remains the case, the company can survive its mistakes. Parker is no Steve Jobs (nor am I!), but there is an analogy there–can Apple continue to flourish without Jobs, can the Wine Advocate survive without Parker? I would say that Apple has a much better chance than the Wine Advocate does. The new owners of the Wine Advocate clearly don’t inspire a lot of confidence, and you suggested in your last sentence, the trust that people placed in the Wine Advocate had already eroded even before the sale was announced.

  14. December 28, 2012

    It will be interesting to see if the brand will ever recover. Destroying a brand is easy and not much of a story, but the reason people keep talking about a company like say, Apple is because somehow they’re able to completely crap up a product people love and yet simmer the hate and get people to stay with them.

    Obviously, Wine Advocate is a different story and that “product” was valued mostly on the trust heaped upon it, so maybe it has already had its fork stuck in to it.

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