Robert Parker On The Defensive

Ξ June 1st, 2009 | → 17 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Wine History, Wine News |

Yesterday evening Robert Parker belatedly addressed the subject of an article published by Mr. Kesmodel in the Wall Street Journal, which itself was the belated culmination of a series of energetic threads, weeks in the making, around the internet. Chief among them were Steve Heimoff’s compelling thread, most recently, that of the Wine Library , and arguably his motivational source, the ‘tipping point’, Dr. Vino’s effort. The controversy generally settles around the matter of a conflict of interest by two of Mr. Parker’s principle wine reviewers, Dr. Jay Miller and Mark Squires. It seems both reviewers have accepted, independently of Mr. Parker’s personal standards, previously undisclosed material advantages including, but not limited to, paid travel, meal and hotel expenses. It must be said both Dr. Miller and Mr. Squires are largely indifferent to the appearance of a conflict of interest. Neither gentlemen has been willing to hazard a comment independently of their boss, defering instead to Mr. Parker; hence his new ‘Hospitality Standards’.
What is particularly bizarre in all of this is the remoteness of the principle figure, Mr. Parker himself. As he explains with respect to the Wall Street Journal article,
Let me address the question of why I didn’t speak to the reporter. The facts as I know them from my staff are that he contacted my office on May 18th while I was away on a tasting trip to California. He did not indicate why he wanted to speak to me so my office sent him an email asking about that and about his deadline. He responded that it was a story about the blogosphere controversy surrounding Jay Miller and, to a lesser extent, Mark Squires and he said that his deadline was May 20th, an impossible schedule for me given my commitments on the west coast. He emailed my office again after it was closed late on a Friday extending the deadline but my assistant didn’t even see that email until she returned from vacation after the story had been published. However, had I been back from the west coast with time to respond, I would have directed him to my postings put on the Bulletin Board several weeks earlier. In fact, I’ve got a copy of an email Mark Squires sent him doing just that for his postings but their content wasn’t utilized in the story.
While his Empire implodes under the scrutiny of well-informed critics, he is unable to check his email.
Though he may refer in his defense to a mind-numbing, loquacious thread, it remains true that he is steeped in contradiction. Witness this strange contortion,
The WSJ story was a rehash of a story about Jay Miller and Mark Squires in the blogosphere a month earlier. I investigated it fully then, found absolutely no evidence of bias, and disciplined Jay Miller. He took three all-expense paid trips to Australia and South America and he knows this is unacceptable. Jay is a person of considerable talent and integrity, but used very poor judgment. Moreover, I am clearly at fault for not properly supervising him.
Mr. Parker found no evidence of bias yet he nevertheless disciplined Mr. Miller. What are we to make of this? Perhaps Dr. Miller was unaware of Mr. Parker’s standards. Is that possible?
Mr. Parker goes on to say,
There is absolutely no excuse for any of this but I should say all of the writers I hire are not employees, but do contract jobs with strictly defined parameters and ethical standards. They are all impeccable professionals, carefully chosen for both their talent and honesty. I am very proud of their contributions. While I am embarrassed by Jay Miller’s behavior, I am grateful it was brought to my attention. In short, this will never happen again. All of them understand fully that largesse and hospitality from the wine trade is unacceptable.
So, Mr. Parker hires contractors “with strictly defined parameters and ethical standards.” He insists they are chosen “for both their talent and honesty”. So where were Mr. Miller and Mr. Squires on that particular training day? And yet Mr. Parker is grateful the conflict of interest was brought to his attention. And who was it who brought it to his attention? It was select bloggers, the very bloggers he claims are writing fictions.
…the totally fictitous stories circulating are more difficult to comprehend, and I have seen so many of them over the years, it just saddens me how far journalists, and now bloggers, speculate, manufacture, and state as fact, without any attempt at investigation to substantiate the truth of what they write….
Perhaps some good will come of this, especially with the new FTC guidelines. Mr. Parker, Mr. Miller, and Mr. Squires may yet come to realize they are themselves bloggers.


17 Responses to ' Robert Parker On The Defensive '

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  1. Rui Bastos Amaro said,

    on June 1st, 2009 at 10:25 am

    This “traffic of influences” and “hospitality standards’ as you call it is like Washington lobbying. It is sickning and not only happens at a wine critic level in the wine industry. It is abundant in the supplier/winery relationships also. There are many customers (wineries) that actually expect these fringe benefits from suppliers. We are not talking about the occasional pen or polo shirt. We are reffering to paid trips to Europe to “visit manufacturing plants”.

    It is not new. It is very wrong to offer them or even worse, to accept them but again, expected.

  2. Mark said,

    on June 1st, 2009 at 10:47 am

    Where there is smoke…. you know the rest. Small, independent wineries have been claiming bias, payola (in one form or another)and elitism from Parker/The Advocate for years. Now this comes to light because of factual words from credible sources….finally. But what is to happen at this point? Certainly, if recent wine scores are tainted in this “Parker-gate” aren’t they all subject to at least a raised eye brow or two? Frankly, the general “Parker-izing” of wines is sickening and quite transparent to those in the winemaking community. The Pseudo-Wine-Loving-Lemmings who have forsaken real live wine merchants, and their own palate, to be led by the nose to highly scoring/rated wines should at this point feel cheated and duped. If not, then their lesson has yet to be learned…. and it is their own fault. Parker’s own contradictory comments cement the facts. You don’t want to pay, you don’t get Parker to play. OK, rant over.

  3. Joe Pupo said,

    on June 1st, 2009 at 11:17 am

    This whole game of giving points and ratings to wine is so out of line. I have buyers that will only purchase wine if it has a rating from Parker or Spectator….. Silly There is no way these publications should dicate what we drink.

  4. Tom Wark said,

    on June 1st, 2009 at 11:38 am

    “Mr. Parker found no evidence of bias yet he nevertheless disciplined Mr. Miller. What are we to make of this? Perhaps Dr. Miller was unaware of Mr. Parker’s standards. Is that possible?”

    Sure it’s possible. One can give off the appearance of a conflict of interest or even bias yet have no bias at all. As a PR person, I have in the past arranged for writers to visit clients, even paying their airfare and hotels. This most certainly appears to be a conflict of interest and is the kind of thing that might lead one to believe the writers would have a bias. And yet, even after all the gratuities, the writers have written not so flattering things about the clients that essentially paid their way.

    I think Robert Parker could have handled this controversy more effectively. But I’ve yet to see anyone prove bias on the part of his reporters and don’t expect anyone will prove any bias on their part or his.

  5. Administrator said,

    on June 1st, 2009 at 12:18 pm

    It is not exclusively a question of ‘proving’ bias. It also bears on the smaller winery’s ability to compete effectively should they have insufficient funds, not at all uncommon, to pay the critic’s way, for example. Although I have no doubt a critic may well write less than flattering tasting notes, should that be the point of their visit, but what of the favorable scores? It is simply a matter of timely disclosure. At least one ethical question then melts away.
    Yet I will also note that even the negative review may involve matters quite unrelated to a critic’s proper evaluation of a wine. I am aware of winemakers who feel their wines have been slighted, not necessarily by Mr. Parker or his ‘contractors’, precisely because of inadequate hospitality provided, shall we say. But that is the subject for another time.
    Again, in my view, disclosure is the key.

  6. Michael said,

    on June 1st, 2009 at 12:36 pm

    What a smarmy article. Robert Parker was responsible for bringing integrity to the wine reviewing business when it was nothing but junkets and payola. That’s the reason he is so powerful. And now those coming along after him want to tie him down like a bunch of Lilliputians. He investigated. He admitted that his employees made a mistake. He disciplined them. That’s called integrity. You might not recognize it.

  7. on June 1st, 2009 at 2:10 pm

    Dammit, I was not going to post on this whole thing again but…just wanted to say, that those of us that never gave a rat’s ass what Parker thought are feeling pretty good about that right about now. Kind of a get what you deserve for worshipping false idols huh? For the love of Gawd people, trust your own palates, find a wine shop that has a staff willing to remember what you liked last time and can keep turning you on to the next fantastic bottle, start a tasting group, something. This whole thing feels so, so…ancient, build something/someone up then tear it down, guess that is all part of the evolution, but the fangs on both sides are not very civilized. Maybe it’s becuase I don’t have a dog in this fight, but I don’t quite understand why everyone is so pisssed off…those that adore Parker still will, and those that did not will likely feel a bit of leveling of the playing field as the one that was wielding the all powerfull sword/pen has a dink in his armor, (shrugging) fun for the whole family right?!

  8. Administrator said,

    on June 1st, 2009 at 3:12 pm

    Ms. Dugan, I would hesitate to call Mr. Parker a ‘false idol’. The reason I provided links to other fora was because of the great diversity of opinion that may be found on those threads. I think the fascination some may have for this episode is that the building up and tearing down you mention is, to a considerable degree, the responsibility of Mr. Parker himself. The Shakespearian undertones are quite compelling. Now, fascination is very different from enjoying. Of course, that sentiment may be discerned in comments here and there, but I think the larger issue is that of the growing pains of an increasingly competitive slice of the blogosphere, wine writers, and the radical decentralization of opinion they are bringing about. But were a toiling blogger to hit the jackpot, become the ‘It’ wine review blog, I do not think they would hesitate for a moment to use all means available to consolidate and build upon their new-found influence. It is not necessarily at all about ‘defeating’ Parker but, rather, of becoming him. And that impulse is the very id of civilization.

  9. Arthur said,

    on June 1st, 2009 at 4:05 pm

    “It is not necessarily at all about ‘defeating’ Parker but, rather, of becoming him.”

    Kind of like the play “Urinetown”?

    Every revolutionary becomes the establishment when their cause/ideology prevails….

  10. on June 1st, 2009 at 4:15 pm

    Mr. Admin Guy,
    Please call me Sam, and trust me, as a fellow blogger and a retailer I have read all the threads about this AND about Parker taking swipes at bloggers, (which of course brings the whole, “those in glass houses” thing screaming to the front of my mind) and I can honestly see both sides, and have written about it. I was not implying that there was anything wrong with your post…I rather liked it and it inspired me to chime in, which I have been trying to resist. Not sure however, that it is fair to blame Parker, alone, for his spot as the “it” wine guy, there are thousands of winery and sales rep finger prints on that dudes back. I hear it all the time when tasting with a sales rep or winery representative, while pouring the wine they say, “Parker gave this a ___” before I even taste it, like that will somehow change or influance my perception of the wine, and truth be told…it might, but not in the way they may have hoped. I think that is what I meant by false idol, as someone that tends to like natural wines that taste of their place, wines he loves…I don’t, my anti-Parker palate goes back many years so this is just one more thing on a pile of reasons not to care what he says. I think the part that has me more redfaced, and pissy is his attitude about the whole thing, the “Emporer” should know better what goes on in his castle, I mean c’mon, it’s not like he has hundreds of people writing for him.

    As for the lucky bastard that gets to emerge from the rubble holding the golden pen…good luck to you my friend, I’ll just be happy with my tiny slice of SoCal wine drinkers and blog readers…I just want people to drink more wine!

  11. tish said,

    on June 1st, 2009 at 7:45 pm

    This Miller-Parker-Squires thing has become like a small pile of doggie-do that keeps getting stepped in and tracked around the house — making it worse than it originally was.

    I do agree with Tom that one can be wined and dined and still write without well and without bias; however, as one who is occasionally wined/dined I feel it is important to reveal this in context.

    I agree even more heartily with Samantha Dugan. SHe sounds like one of the many sensible retailers I know who have not drunk the 90-point Kool-Aid. Let’s start paying more attention to these peeps, and less to critics we don’t trust.

    Meanwhile, let’s not let Parker’s underlings getting caught with their bermuda shorts down distract us from the fact that other forms of shadiness and undue influence are alive and well in other corners of the wine media. Truth always wines out in the end. Fortunately, the Internet and bloggers are helping speed up the process.

  12. tish said,

    on June 1st, 2009 at 7:49 pm

    Two more things:
    1) I just realized my blog is displayed wrong on previous post [please click bold link.]
    2) No single incident is going to make ethical issures and/or problematic rating systems go away overnight, but the value in raising awareness of just how DIFFERENT various critics are, not only in their “palates” but aslo in their standards and methods, is very important for the wine community in general moving forward. The whole tyranny of the 100-point scale has imposed a sense of false uniformity that should not and can not persist.

  13. Robert C said,

    on June 2nd, 2009 at 8:18 am

    Who cares? This is why wineries should not be in the business of chasing scores and medals. They should be spending more time on their customer that buys their wine because they, the customer, can do two things 1)Enjoy it no matter what anyone thinks and 2)Afford it. Two guys got caught up in the hoopla of the wine industry and got some free trips. Is anyone trying to find out who footed the bill for the trips? That is what is appalling, that some wineries with more money than sense needs to lure critics to taste their wines and hopefully get an atta-boy and a score. What psychophants.

  14. Jack said,

    on June 3rd, 2009 at 7:53 pm

    “Mr. Parker, Mr. Miller, and Mr. Squires may yet come to realize they are themselves bloggers.”

    Or, as Mr. Parker calls them, Blobbers.

  15. on June 3rd, 2009 at 11:37 pm

    No one should buy a batch of wine without trying it aforehand if they can. But very few consumers have the time, energy, wherewithal to taste across a broad spectrum to know how to limit the choices.

    That is why some of us read what movie critics have to say and why some of us read Zagat ratings. Some help is better than none at all. And while Sam Duggan might be a great retailer, most retailers are “stockists”, not wine merchants.

    It seems to me that large numbers of folks will want independent help in choosing their tipple. They do not ask the movie theater if tonight’s flick is worthwhile. Sure, the Sam Duggans and the Richard Lelands (Vintage Wine and Spirits in Mill Valley) and the Peter Eastlakes (Vintage Berkeley) and the Greg O’Flynns (California Wine Merchant in San Francisco) do exist, but even at a store with the generally good judgment of a K and L, it is hard to get the kind of consistent advice that Sam advocates.

    Enter the advice givers. I suspect that we are not going away any time soon.

  16. Kat M said,

    on June 4th, 2009 at 11:34 pm

    I have spent many years defending Robert Parker. You can put wine for him to taste or you don’t have to (at different times I have chosen each of these approaches). However, I have always felt his ethics were beyond reproach – they would have to be. What Squires and Miller did goes to the very heart of what Robert Parker created. It should have been one of the major talking points of them writing for the WA. Mr. Parker has greatly de-valued the integrity of his publication. Squires and Miller should not be allowed to submit anything further and Parker needs to make a public mea culpa. (Think Odwalla!)

  17. on June 7th, 2009 at 8:50 am

    Mr. Olken,
    I am in no way advocating print media and critics fade into the mist, I think every voice is needed, the more “chatter” the more interest and I think all of us can agree, more wine drinkers is a very good thing. I just think that people get too wrapped up in the scores and less into the pleasure side of wine and that just bums me out. Cannot tell you how many times one of our customers somes in looking for a highly rated wine, one that I know, (from learning their palate) they won’t like. I try and explain that it may not be to their liking, (because they drink Bourguiel and the praised wine in question is like, Molly Dooker) they feel that if this critic gave it a good score it must be good…and it may very well be, just not for them…and what happens? They hate the wine and rather than say, “Okay that critic and I have different taste” they end up thinking that they don’t know enough or their taste is not as refined, which of course is not at all true.

    I just think that the more of us there are, the more happy…and return wine buyers there will be.
    Sam Dugan (The Wine Country Signal Hill)

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