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           Sydney Time

  

            

   Copyright © Ric Einstein 2009

 

 

 

 

Cronyism  (5 June)

 

When Robert Parker started out he became a self-styled “consumer advocate” for wine buyers. He was on their side. Parker was highly critical of a spate of wine reviewers, especially those in the UK, who he castigated for being too close to the wine industry. Some reviewers were employed in the industry or gained financial benefit by acting as consultants. As far as Robert Parker was concerned, being close to producers etc was not on!

 

Parker’s take was that these people had a conflict of interests and could not serve two masters, and that’s fair enough. Parker thought reviewers should be at arms length from the industry and avoid conflicts of interest. Good stuff!  Now that time has marched on, how are Parker and his Wine Advocate staff living up to Parker’s original, lofty ideals. Let me provide a couple of examples which may help you, dear reader, make up your own mind.

 

Subscribers of the Wine Advocate may have noticed a short article written by Jay Miller titled, Houseboating Down the Murray River. (For those that may not know, Parker has given away reviewing the Australian segment and Jay Miller is now the numero-ono reviewer of Oz wines for Parker’s Wine Advocate.)

 

The story starts off by mentioning the five bedroom house boat that “we rented” that even had a lounge (not surprising), a fully equipped kitchen, and a Jacuzzi. Sounds like the boat they hired was not exactly a slum. I don’t know who they hired the boat from or how much it costs, but $1750-$3,500 are two of the first packages available on the first website I checked.

 

On board for the weekend with Jay Miller were:

Dan Phillips – owner of the Grateful Palate, importer and negociant style producer of Australian wines

Chris Ringlandemployed by Dan Phillips, winemaking consultant and producer of his own wine label

Justin McNamee, owner and winemaker of Samuel’s Gorge winery

 

Given that the story states there were five bedrooms, a four course dinner (no dessert or cheese mentioned) and they opened fourteen bottles of wine, there may have been other people too, but that’s just speculation and not germane to this article.

 

I have no idea how much the whole weekend cost, who paid for it, and if Jay Miller paid for part of it or not, but from my perspective, spending a weekend on a houseboat with an importer of Oz wines and a couple of his winery owners looks like there is a very close relationship. It’s exactly the sort of “the relationship looks too close,” that Parker has criticised other wine writers for previously.

 

If this was the only instance, it may not have even been worth mentioning, but there is more.

 

In the past, when I have visited wineries, a number of producers have commented on the “cozy” relationship between Robert Parker and Dan Phillips, owner of the Grateful Palate. Some people may say that those comments are sour grapes, but that’s not true. In many cases, the criticism came from those who have been the recipients of high Parker scores. And surprisingly, even from producers who had previously been represented by Phillips. The general consensus was that if you were a member of the “blessed clan,” it was worth up to an extra four points. It would be remiss of me if I did not point out that when Robert Parker tastes wines presented by the Grateful Palate, the wines are judged openly, not blind. In a number of cases, not only is Dan Phillips there, he has the winemakers there too, so they can spruik their wines and answer any questions.

 

I don’t know if the comments are accurate about the four extra points or not, but given how often I have heard them from winemakers, that is an accurate reflection of their perception. About eighteen months ago when Robert Parker announced  that Jay Miller would be doing the annual Australian wine reviews for the Australian wine issue of the Wine Advocate, many people thought that the issue over the closeness of the relationship between Parker and Phillips would end. No chance! Not a chance in hell!

 

Firstly, as we can see from the House Boat article, it has now extended to include Dr Jay Miller but the closeness of that relationship with Phillips goes way, way back.  I am willing to bet that most consumers reading Millers reviews have no idea about the length and depth of the relationship.  In a previous business life, Jay Miller was part-owner of a wine shop that was known for its import selections; particularly its range of Australian wines. His livelihood, in part, was due to The Grateful Palate's portfolio. In fact he sold so much of their wine that he was included in at least one of the tours that the Grateful Palate sponsored. I understand the trip was entirely paid for by the Grateful Palate.

 

But unfortunately this relationship closeness has not only been extended to Miller, it still continues with Robert Parker. Even though Parker has given up doing the reviews for the Australian edition of the Wine Advocate, he is still reviewing some wines from Dan Phillips’ portfolio for the Wine Advocate. Favoured status indeed.

 

Now contrast that with a guy like Harvey Steiman from the Wine Spectator. A number of wineries have told me they have recently been visited by him. Steiman rarely accepts "invitations" and if he does, he is as cool as a cucumber at those meetings.  On a number of occasions, I have been told that Steiman shows zero favoritism to any wineries or importers, and that comment comes from those in the industry. As far as importers are concerned, although importers have to stand in line and work hard to an appointment, Harvey Steiman will meet with almost any importer, not just those in favour. He doesn't have mate type relationships with any Australian importers or wineries.  (The exception is Michael Twelftree who has a bit of a relationship going back to his days before he started Two Hands, but that certainly hasn't helped his scores recently.)

 

Lets face it, its almost impossible to be really good mates with someone and then give them a caning when reviewing their products, especially when you are very influential and know the effect your reviews will have on your mates business.  The job of a wine critic should be like that of a self imposed, anti-social pariah; or else its virtually impossible to review without some level of bias. More importantly, even if the reviewer was capable of reviewing a good mates wines without bias, reviewing mates wines looks like it lacks proprietary.  I am not saying there is any intentional impropriety here by Parker or Miller, but for someone who claims to be a “consumer advocate” and has criticized the UK wine press for being too close to the industry, this reeks of cronyism and smacks of hypocrisy. The old saying, if it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck the chances are it not a Billy Goat.   

 

 

 

Feel free to submit your comments!

From M Linke: Thursday 5 June

Your article was an interesting read - I cannot comment on the politics/motivation of Parker/Miller nor on Dan Phillips but what I will comment on is Chris Ringland's involvement with the "trip".  He is a man of much integrity and one of the nicest and most genuine people in the wine industry.  I find it impossible to believe he is open to bribery/persuasion (initiated or accepted) of any sort. 

 

Indeed, the wine industry certainly has a lot of questionable aspects to it regarding show results/points given. Whilst you have been rather brave in approaching this controversial topic, I did find it a little unfair to see Chris implicated in anything untoward. 

 

TORB Responds:

Thanks for your comments. I have never met Chris but have only heard good things about the man. Its possible that you are reading more into the article than was intended or even intimated, but the point you make is worth clarifying.  I am certainly not suggesting that Chris is initiating or accepting bribery. What I am stating that the sort of close relationship between Dan Phillips and Robert Parker/Jay Miller looks inappropriate for an operation that calls themselves "consumer advocates."   I don't blame any winemaker for trying to get close to a reviewer, but I do think that to maintain ones credibility, it does not look good for the reviewer, if the reviewer is seen as having a close relationship with producers and/or importers.  

 

From Peter Kaplin: Thursday 5 June

Again thank you for a well written and argued article. While I agree with your assertion , I believe that there room for more in this debate .


Who made Robert Parker a consumer advocate ( I know that he claimed to be that, and might still do so, although from a reading of your article that might not be the case now ) , Not me or any person that I know. While I believe that he plays an important role in the industry, I think that he has become a brand himself, and as a brand he is subject to all the pressures and compromises that afflict or effect all brands .

He has to make connections with winemakers in order to further his brand, in fact he has to make connections with media , importers, and negioants and many others in the industry. I don't think that this validates the argument that it is ok to do what he does or not. It is just that we would be fools to believe that he represents our best interests as an advocate for me or you or any consumer. I believe it would be more accurate to say that he is first an advocate for his brand and all that entails. His Job if you want to call it that has gone beyond Wine Critic; he has become ebob, an all massive brand that has its fingers in publishing, both print and web based. I do use and like his products but I do not believe that he is anything more than an advocate for him and his brand, and as such use his information accordingly; with a grain of salt and only when I want too on my terms .

So Cronyism it might be, and if they all hold themselves up to paragons of vinous virtue ( I quite like that phrase ) well they deserve what the get , and as you said if it looks like a brand, acts like a brand, markets itself as a brand, charges like a brand, it just might be a ......Brand. ( Ocams Razor via TORB with a mix of me.)

( PS I am in the trade selling wine and do use his brand to sell wine.)

 

From Murray Paterson: Thursday 5 June

SUBJECT: TORB on God, er, um, Cronyism

 

I think it is impossible in this industry of ours to be without friends in the wineries one may review. So your ideal of utter independence is probably impossible. If that is the case then all readers are relying on the integrity of the reviewer … to praise only praiseworthy wines and to can those that are poor.


TORB, you have friends in the industry. In reading your notes and tour diaries over the years I know that there are winemakers that do receive favourable status from you, however, I also have noted that you don’t pull your punches when you have tasted a poor wine. This is as it ought to be. Surely for WA (their hypocrisy apart), you can extend the same disinterested opinion to Parker et al?


I have been in the industry now since 1972. Though most of the men I started with are now retired/retiring, I know a huge number of people in the Australian and NZ industries – whom I am proud to call my friends. I also regularly review wines and have done since my days in Sydney thirty years ago. These folk know my system and though they might not be “pleased” if I can one of their wines (or more), they do acknowledge that it is an honest opinion of the wine, on that day.
 

All wines I review are tasted double-blind (I don’t know whose wine is in the line-up; only glasses are on the table, no bottles; another person sets up the tasting), and the tasting notes (of a panel) are written down and circulated to the panel before the wines are unmasked.


If tastings are held to these standards then even my most biased opinion cannot sway the end results. If Parker’s/Miller’s tastings are on similar lines then I doubt that most winemakers could identify their own wines in a commercial tasting line-up let alone show bias.

 

TORB Responds:

As usual Murray, you make some good points.

 

Unfortunately The Wine Advocate rarely cans wines that are poor. They are just not written up in the magazine, so readers don't know if the wines have received low scores or have not been reviewed.

 

Your method of  reviewing wines completely blind in these situations is great. It cuts out any hint of impropriety and is completely fair to all parties involved. Unfortunately, when Parker and Miller are reviewing these Australian wines, they are not only not done blind, in many cases the winemaker is there giving gentle hints about the wine.  

 

I do have some favourite wineries that I regularly review, but I am reviewing those wineries because they are good, not because the owners are good mates. Whilst I have many acquaintances in the business, I only have two that could be even remotely be called friends, and we are not close friends; and I was friendly with one of them before I started writing about wine.  I am also very conscious of those two situations and if anything, I am harder on their wines to ensure that I can not be accused of taking care of them. 

 

Tony DeLisio (ex Classic McLaren) is a good case. I really like the guy (although we are not friends as such) and have been buying his wines since before I was writing. Whilst I may praise his wines for their quality, he has copped a huge bagging from me about his pricing; time and again.  

 

From Michael McMahon: Friday 6 June

My nose tells me that any sort of relationship even if it is subconscious taints the review especially in the area of pulling your punches. As your readers quite correctly point out this may be unavoidable in an industry such as this but as you quite correctly point out it is therefore not really ethical to claim that the reviews are fiercely independent.

 

I really like the Harvey Steiman approach but interestingly enough I find his opinion off the mark on occasions. There are so many good competently made wines out there these days that the ones we really want to know about are those that are overpriced or faulty, outcomes that Parker judiciously avoids in Australia. All in all an interesting topic and more evidence that you need to try yourself before you buy.

 

From Andrew Smith - Warribilla Wines: Friday 6 June

Saw the article on the WA.


My criticisms exactly.


How can you taste with the importer and winemaker present and call it reasonable. Not only are they in a position to spruik their wines, but also to bag the opposition.
 

Finally, anyone who calls himself the "worlds most influential" anything is deserving of our scorn..even if its true! Humility is a lovely personal attribute!

 

From Stuart Barton: Saturday 7 June

 

Cronyism (5 June) was a spot-on article – well done.

My comment is I am really over the whole Parker thing. Who do this character and his cronies think they are with their Parker Points and their bullshit reviews that can make a bad wine sell and a good wine languish in the Bin End stock? At the end of the day the only points on a wine that matter are those awarded by an individual. So my message to all is – taste the wine, do NOT be influenced by these turkeys and make up your own mind, then award the points YOU think the wine is worth to YOU. (oh, and bugger Parker and bugger his cronies).

Do you know I tasted a friend’s Barossa Shiraz some years ago. Parker had awarded this wine (from memory) 93 points, but both the friend (who made the wine) and I agreed it was a mid ’80’s effort – 85 from me and 86 from him. Still a bloody good wine, but not the great wine Parker claimed. Mind you, in the interests of marketing into the US at the time, my mate took the points and had his US agent publicise like mad! The moral is that the Parker Point phenomenon is only one individual’s opinion. It is simply a marketing ploy and can bear little or no relationship to reality. It is also utterly inconsistent.

More realistic comments come from, for example yourself and from Halliday. I don’t agree with every comment you make – in fact I disagree more than agree; however you are totally consistent in your approach and your comment and I can usefully find wines that suit me from your comment. Similarly Halliday, but I always have in mind his commercial relationship with Rosecorp and probably subsequently with Fosters – not that he has realised this concern yet.

Finally everyone that is interested in the life and times of Robert Parker should have a look at Jonathan Nossiter’s film Mondovino. Quite a revelation of the approaches both of Michel Rolland (world’s leading winemaking consultant – his version!) and of Robert Parker, as well as their cronies. I have it on DVD - Roadshow Entertainment 105485-9. Watch it and you soon understand who is interested in profiting from wine and who takes the art of winemaking seriously.
 

 

 

 

Copyright © Ric Einstein 2008

 

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