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Copyright © Ric Einstein 2009
Should it be Called Robert Parker’s Wine Hypocrite? (19 March)
In years gone by, the annual Australian section of The Wine Advocate would hit the streets around the end of October, but for some reason, and as far as I know no explanation was given, it did not come out until the end of February, some four months later than usual.
In the latest issue of TWA, Miller rated 1,072 Australian wines, which is the biggest coverage TWA has had of this category. Sound Good? But its not!
According to the front page of the hard copy of TWA, Parker says, and its one of the few items highlighted in bold to ensure its emphasis, “Scores, however, do not reveal the important facts about a wine. The written commentary that accompanies the ratings is a better source of information regarding the wine’s style and personality, its relative quality vis-à-vis its peers, and its value and ageing potential than any score could ever indicate.” That’s an emphatic endorsement stating the tasting note is more important than the score.
When I was looking through the latest Oz section, I was astounded how many wines had scores, but no tasting notes. According to Daniel Posner, in this thread on the eBob forum, forty percent of the report lacked tasting notes. I don’t know if the actual number is 10%, or 20% or 30% or 40%, because I didn’t count them, but when I looked, there were a lot without tasting notes.
Parker, the man that owns the store, by his own admission not only recognises the importance of the tasting note, Parker stresses its critical nature, so why did all these wines have scores but no reviews?
I can think of four possible reasons.
1. The workload is too high
2. Lack of space in the publication
3. Wines below, say 90 points, are considered not worth writing up.
4. Inadequate performance by the reviewer.
That thread on the eBob forum went on for pages, 230 responses all told, and the exchange got a little heated at times, but despite the fact that Posner asked Miller on a number of occasions why the wines did not have tasting notes, and Miller responded to a number of Posner’s posts, Posner never got an answer to this question.
Posner did hypothesise on the workload aspect, but Miller stated, “He makes it sound like I'm whining and complaining about my workload. In fact nothing could be further from the truth. I love what I do.”
In terms of lack of space in the publication, that may be true in a hard copy publication, but it is certainly not valid when it comes to online storage, and the online edition does not have tasting notes on many of these wines.
According to Parker’s rating system, wines between 80 - 89 are “barely above average to very good wine….. with no noticeable flaws.” Are we to believe that wines that may be “very good” are not worthy enough to interest TWA readers? If this proposition is not true, then that eliminates the third possible reason.
As far as the fourth possible reason is concerned, as I have not seen the way Miller reviews wines, I can not comment from personal experience. However, I can pass on what I have been told by people who have presented wines to him and have seen him taste.
One importer recently told me, “On many of the wines reviewed, Miller would just put a score down, with hardly a note about the wine itself. On publication of TWA, most of these turned out to be wines with scores of up to 92.”
Finally, the thread was closed down by Mark Squires who stated, “Well, this seems to be just a exhibition of Posner's ego at this point, along with a few comments that achieve libel status.
In any event, at Bob's request, I am closing it down. For the record, Jay requested no such thing.”
As Sergeant Shultz used to say in Hogan Heroes, “very inter-rest-ing….. but I don’t like it!”
Yes, the forum is hosted on Parker’s site, and Parker has every right to decide what is allowed to be posted, but the closure of this thread, at the instigation of Parker, does nothing positive towards the credibility of Miller. The questions Posner asked, and the accusations he made, were basically avoided by Miller or answered with obfuscation.
Michael Opdahl of Joshua Tree Imports told me, “I think Parker’s/Miller’s job is a no win situation. In 6-8 weeks of tasting 4 to 5 times a week, a person has to adequately cover an entire continent's worth of wine, and keep accurate notes. And try & keep everyone (wineries, the trade, consumers, and subscribers) happy.
Look at the discrepancy in scores between TWA & WS/WE/Tanzer/Halliday/Oliver; who do you think is credible?”
Now to examine the process. Many of the Oz wines Miller reviews are presented to him by the importer, and sometimes the winemaker is there as well. The tastings normally take place in a restaurant.
On these occasions, the wines are served in non-blind conditions and the importers/winemakers are allowed to make comments during the tasting. Barrel samples are allowed. If one wanted to, they could put a high-end California Cabernet into an Aussie branded bottle, call it Aussie Cab, and probably, nobody would know. What is stopping someone from taking a well regarded, high scoring wine from another winery and passing it off as their own wine? It is also possible to present a wine, claim it is a barrel sample, receive a point range, and never show the wine to Miller again.
When Parker goes to Bordeaux and spends a few weeks tasting barrel samples, he then re-reviews the wines at a later time. This is a very different scenario to Miller’s approach. Clarendon Hills, to their credit, shows both barrel sample and then the finished product the next year. They are one of the few who do. Why would a producer jeopardize a lower score if they already had a 95, or whatever the score happens to be? Other publications like Wine Spectator and Halliday’s Wine Companion do not allow barrel samples. Many publications will not take wine unless it is bottled and labelled.
The tasting normally starts between 9 and 10 am goes all morning, with a late morning break, possibly serving an appetiser if it’s running slowly. It then moves into the early part of the afternoon. Once the tasting is finished, a late lunch and wine is served, and then it’s over. The actual time spent tasting may be as little as three hours. I understand that 120 wines a day is the maximum Miller will see.
Assuming Miller followed the same sorts of percentages as Parker did, then he would have looked at about 3,200 wines to come up with 1,075 that was worth of inclusion in the review, (even if there was only a score.) However, in reality we have no idea how many wines Miller tasted to come up with those 1075. It could have been as little as 1500, there is no way of knowing unless Miller tells us.
Compare this to Halliday’s annual effort. For the Wine Companion, in 2007 he looked at approximately 8,000 wines and produced tasting notes on 5,836 wines, although many of them are brief. Halliday tasted (as far as I know its double blind) between 150 and 200 wines a day, so it took him about six weeks, working seven days a week, to produce the material required. Halliday did all this on his own premises, without the need to have spruikers whispering sweet nothings in his ear, and he even found time to personally wash and dry the glasses at the end of the day. Who looks to be the more professional?
On the front cover of TWA it states, “Where possible all my tastings are done in peer-groups, single-blind conditions (meaning that the same types of wine are tasted against each other and that producers’ names are not known). The rating reflects an independent, critical look at the wines. Neither price nor the reputation of the producer/grower affects the rating in any manner. I spend three months of every year tasting in vineyards. During the other nine months of the year, six and sometimes seven-day work weeks are devoted solely to tasting and writing. I do not participate in wine judging or trade tastings for many reasons, but principally among these are the following: (1) I prefer to taste from the entire bottle of wine, (2) I find it essential to have properly sized and clean professional tasting glasses, (3) the temperature of the wine must be correct, and (4) I prefer to determine the time scale allocated to the number of wines to be critiqued.
These objectives are very laudable. However, it is interesting to observe, that when it comes to judging the Oz category, much of it is not done blind. One can only wonder why this is not possible. It seems, in theory at least, the other categories can be reviewed blind, so why not the Australian segment?
Halliday manages to do it, achieving all four of Parkers objectives.
It should be noted that traditionally the tasting of the Australian segment occurs at the hottest time of the year. The restaurant is air-conditioned but I have been told that due to the high humidity, it’s still possible to sit there and perspire very freely. The importers have to try and control the temperature of the wines being presented to keep them at the optimal serving temperature. Esky and ice anyone? Dear reader, does that sound like the most professional way to go about things?
Time, and time, and time again, I have heard complaints about the way the Australian category is reviewed. Most interestingly, in many case, the criticism comes from wineries that have been the recipients of high scores, so many of the people making these complaints don’t have a hidden agenda, or are dirty because they did not get good results.
Another criticism that I have continually heard for many years, from a number of producers (and others) is in regard to the close relationship between Parker and Miller and The Grateful Palate. From all reports, Dan Phillips of the Grateful Palate is on very friendly terms with both Parker and Miller, but particularly Miller, and that is where the possibility of a problem lies.
Many companies ‘entertain’ clients, there is nothing new about sort of ‘corporate courting’. Wine and dine, tickets to sporting events etc are par for the course, but there comes a point when the largeness of the company’s largess is questionable, and the probity of the recipient is questioned. For example, I can remember when years ago, Halliday accepted a trip to Portugal, with a cork organisation picking up the tab. Halliday made no secret of who funded the trip, but when Halliday returned, the wine forums were abuzz with comments, and precious few were favourable to Halliday, or the sponsor. The big question is where the line is drawn, and to each reader, it may be at a different point.
Acknowledging that factor, having one company ‘entertain’ a writer on a regular basis, to events like a football grand final, house boating on the Murray, and wine/dinners costing many thousands of dollars at amazing restaurants, leaves the situation open to question. And questions about the closeness of the relationship between importer(s) and Miller are something I have also heard over, and over, and over again. I understand Miller has travelled to Australia at Dan Phillip’s expense (in his previous career as a retailer). Miller has also vacationed (house boating on the Murray) with Phillips, and some of Phillips’ wineries/winemakers in Australia, and that sort of action opens the door to questioning whether a conflict of interest exists. This perceived conflict by the trade (and knowledgeable consumers), together with the multiple 100 point scores awarded to Spanish wines by Miller a few of years ago, in his first published article as part of the WA staff, when Spain had never been awarded any 100 point wines previously, opens the door to questions being raised about the validity of the points now being awarded Australian wines.
In the current issue of TWA, Miller gives a ‘free plug’ to the Grateful Palate, when he said, “When the category got hot (and for this Dan Philips of The Grateful Palate has to get much of the credit)….” In the same issue, Miller also stated, “One prominent importer whose opinion I respect told me,…..” And then later Miller also said, “Another respected importer states,….” The quotes from these two importers made a significant contribution to Miller introduction to the segment. The issue here is that Miller respects these two importers enough to quote them, but for some inexplicable reason does not respect them enough to name them. Having Miller name them and say they are ‘highly respected’ could only help these two importers; importers can not buy that sort of publicity. It is exactly this sort of example that leads people to perceive bias. And basically I can’t blame them!
Some in the trade are indicating their displeasure, as this incendiary post from Daniel Posner, quoting an unnamed industry source, shows, “The entire process is rigged----its non blind, the wines can be completely manipulated before hand (and if Jay doesn't think that is done, regularly, than he is a fool), and quite simply I don't believe that his personal relationship with Dan Phillips gives him even the slightest shred of impartiality when it comes to reviewing Dan's wines. Why would I support someone/a publication that is inherently biased? Until Jay is gone I won't play the game anymore.” After speaking to numerous people in the trade, this unnamed source is certainly not alone in his displeasure.
In the past, Parker was highly critical of the British wine press because of their perceived close relationships to producers and/or those in the distribution chain. I can’t state there is anything improper in the relationship between Miller and any importers/distributors, but many in the industry do question it. If one is part of a team that presents themselves as “The Wine Advocate,” who is meant to be looking after consumers’ interests, when probity is possibly open to question, they can be perceived to be hypocritical. As part of an organisation that claims to be a consumer champion, especially one that has criticised others for something they perceive to be wrong, it’s not good enough for staff to be white, they must be seen to be whiter than white.
Finally, and probably most importantly as it concerns the demand for Australian wines in the US, in the words of retailer Kyle Meyer, a man that knows as much about the Oz category in the US as anyone, and who has sold more at the coal face than most, “Jay's impact is minimal now, unfortunately. Maybe not his fault, as there is only one Wine Advocate and his name is Robert Parker! End of story.”
Feel free to submit your comments!
From Andrew Smith: Thursday 19 March
Your best work yet.
Someone had to say it.
I hope it doesn't get you in trouble with the worlds most influential wine reviewer...but as you know, I think if you call yourself the "worlds most influential anything " I think you are a knob.
From Andre Soo
:Saturday 21 March
I am not a subscriber to the Advocate but I do buy their ‘back issues’. However, I am surprised that Kay Brothers is not reviewed in issue 181.
Copyright © Ric Einstein 2009