May 26, 2009

The Parker Brouhaha

Are you as worn out as I am by the Wine Advocate's ethics flap? Yet somehow I am compelled to write to try to figure it all out so you and I can sleep at night.

Head Wine Advocate Robert Parker has long championed his critical independence from the wine industry. That's to be applauded. Yet there's more to the story now, with the Wine Advocate featuring several other writers who apparently aren't asked to uphold quite the same standard as Parker.

In recent months, everyone in the wine internet-o-sphere seems to be frothing at the mouth. ETHICAL LAPSE! Bloggers have uncovered the goods. The Wall Street Journal has now weighed in. The story is blowing up.

Only one problem. Where are the bodies?

Ok, let's back up. More than year ago, Wine Advocate writer Mark Squires was featured prominently in a CNN report on Israeli wine. According to reporter Atika Shubert's voice over narration:

Israel wants the world to know [about its wines]. In March [of 2008], the government launched a PR offensive to literally wine and dine critics and diplomats the world over. Mark Squires is one of the traveling critics.

The video continues with several comments from a notably happy Squires, whose affiliation with the Wine Advocate is highlighted and perhaps the reason for the face time.

The smiles continued back at the erobertparker wine discussion forum that Squires runs. In a love-fest of a thread posted when the video went public, several regular posters congratulated Squires on his CNN appearance, among them former longtime Wine Advocate writer Pierre Rovani. Only one person asked who paid for the trip, and Squires answered the question clearly. No one else seemed concerned with the potential conflict of interest.

Then last month, Dr. Vino published a bit of an expose that brought up another potential conflict of interest. Mike Steinberger had published an article in Slate questioning the direction of Australian wine. Squires rebutted on the discussion group, but the thread was locked (and deleted) before Steinberger could respond. Dr. Vino published the private correspondence from Steinberger and Squires, where Steinberger brought up another thread (also now deleted) on the discussion group about Wine Advocate writer Jay Miller's high profile dinner at Bern's Steakhouse in Tampa, FL, with three Spanish wine importers. Miller's beat for the Wine Advocate includes Spain. Needless to say, Squires appeared less than gentlemanly and perhaps gave the story additional legs for his defensiveness and outright rudeness. Where's there's smoke there may be fire, and Squires was smokin' that day.

Now comes the Wall Street Journal with a summation of the story delivered on the doorstep of the mainstream media. Wine may be a niche subject, but Parker's had movies and books made about him. Something tells me this story isn't done.

Yet where are the bodies? Where is the meat? So far, the issues are two, neither than impressive to me.

One, there's the potential for conflict of interest. But so far, the best people seem to have is that Miller was brought to Australia on a junket and now he's published high ratings for lots of Australian wines. What's new? Miller's busy publishing gobs of high ratings on pretty much everything he reports. It's a new running joke. "Jay Miller didn't like the wine. It only got a 93." The issue here isn't proven conflict of interest. It's grade inflation.

Two, there's a lack of transparency and consistency in the Wine Advocate's ethics policy. Perhaps. It is puzzling that Parker has published a policy now that sets one standard for himself and another, less rigorous standard for his writers. Really though, the junkets haven't been a secret. Sure, the newsletter could (and probably now will) be especially clear about who's paying for what, but it's not like these were deep, dark secrets. From the WSJ article, it sounds like a few of the trips in question were unearthed with a phone call. Others were hidden in places like...CNN and on the Parker web site!

If -- and it's a big IF -- if more news comes to light, perhaps this whole to-do will seem more worthwhile. I'm sure people will keep digging. It isn't helping that Parker's been calling out bloggers as essentially worthless parasites. Maybe that will bite him in the rear. If there is pay to play in the Parker kingdom or any other kind of major dealbreaker, well wouldn't that be interesting. But that's not the case yet, and I wouldn't hold my breath waiting for it. Just a hunch. Meanwhile, if you're really worried about all this, why not taste wines for yourself and give up worrying if something's a "92." Spend more effort of your food match.

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