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Parker redux

43 comments

Robert Parker should have seen it coming.

In a way he reminds me of Bill Clinton. The former President was at the height of his populist popularity when the Monica Lewinsky scandal struck, making him look like a lying hypocrite. Some of us (me, included) didn’t care all that much. Hell, it was “just sex,” and there were lots of weightier things to worry about.

But Monica led to impeachment and the tearing apart of the country, proving that sometimes, even trivial pursuits (and let’s face it, kneepads in the Oval Office were pretty trivial) can have enormous consequences.

Cooler heads wondered how Bill could have let it happen. He was so smart — too smart for his own good? Why didn’t he see it coming? We’ll never understand what makes a person don the blinders and not see the freight train heading straight at him.

And now we have the Wall Street Journal’s account of the Parker “Travelgate” affair, which I blogged about last week. I wrote that the reporter, David Kesmodel, had called to interview me. We had a long chat but, alas, my part ended up on the cutting room floor, as it were; there was no mention of “noted wine critic Steve Heimoff,” and while that disappointed me, I’m not surprised. For I didn’t say quite what Mr. Kesmodel wanted me to. I didn’t harshly condemn Mr. Parker or his “independent contractors,” Mr. Squires and Mr. Miller, for the latter two having accepted free travel (although I did note that, if Parker had failed to alert readers to that fact, he was at fault). I didn’t condemn the air travel, accommodations and lavish meals of “crayfish on a bed of squid-ink linguini” Squires and Miller were treated to by their hosts, whose wines they then reviewed. And I did note that there is an ambitious clutch of bloggers out there who hope to be the Woodwards and Bernsteins of the 21st century, finding scandal and malfeasance wherever they can and exposing it to public condemnation and ridicule.

Look, folks. Every wine writer with any influence or connections has partaken of gourmet meals for free. Every wine writer with any influence or connections has been hosted, or limo’ed, or accommodated, by his or her hosts, to some degree, and at one time or another. I have, and so has each critic I’ve ever known — because over the years I’ve run into them at the same feasts, in the same hotels, at the same festivals whose entry fees were waived for members of the media. I don’t know Dr. Vino personally; perhaps he is that rare bird, a wine writer and critic who has never taken a dime from a winery or winery organization. If that is so, he must be independently wealthy, which few wine writers are.

As for the hypocrisy factor, if, as I said, Mr. Parker led his audience astray by implying that, not only he but his “independent contractors” never accept freebies, then he deserves this egg on his face. But let us not make mountains out of molehills. I have always insisted that, no matter what I accept, it doesn’t influence my scores and reviews. Most people, I am happy to say, have taken me at my word. At this point, I’m willing to take Parker, Squires and Miller at theirs.

  1. Steve,

    Not defending him, but maybe Kesmodel was not trying to get you to say something in particular. I was not there so I can’t say for sure. His piece, though 40 days after the fit hit the shan, is not terribly biased. Yes, that whole crayfish and squid ink linguini thing was obviously thrown in to conjure up an image of hedonistic decadence (puns intended) of the “bourgeois” critic and thusly manipulate the emotions of the “proletarian”-minded reader. Other than that, it’s not more than a loose chronological account of the whole fiasco. But at 40 days old, this story is like a well-worn, dog-eared paperback with a salacious but predictable plot…..

  2. You’re the next exposé victim steve {B^D .

    That wine writers must by necessity (limited budget) take the goodies offered by the entities they are reviewing does not dismiss the ethical issue. Even if disclosure occurs it puts the person doing the critiquing in a conflict of interest situation.

    All sorts of consumer (and professional) product and service providers seek to gain the favor of those who can help or hurt the merchandizing of their widgets. Look at what’s going on in the contretemps between Big Pharma and Big Medicine (the grandest tasting I ever went to was held on all the floors of the Galleria in SF with tables staffed by our most illustrious vintners–all paid for by Wyeth for group of docs in town for their annual convention; now that’s all over).

    This is why we have Consumer Reports which has such a large readership.

    It’s also why sites like RottenTomatoes.com and Yelp.com–though there was some hanky panky there with hosted dinners–are so appealing. Any individual preferential treatment gets diluted by the large number of other assessments.

    The same logic holds for sites like CellarTracker and Snooth where no reviewer, who might have a golfing buddy who is a winemaker, can dominate.

    In short, the only way to really eliminate conflict of interest, whether real or perceived, is to rely on a group of enthusiasts. Either that, or work for a publication like the NY Times or the Wall Street Journal that picks up the tab for their critics.

    TOM

  3. Great post . . . and I agree that RMP probably has learned a thing or two from this experience . . .

    Still a huge fan of him and erobertparker . . . not willing to ‘give it up’ at this point . . .

    Cheers!

  4. While I won’t jump to the conclusion that accepting freebies necessarily implies score inflation, it certainly seems that any critic would want to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interests.

    I remember a time in the mid 1990s in which a score of 90 or higher was coveted and rare. Now, it seems that a majority of wines from certain winemaking areas of the world routinely score at least 90 and even a score of 89 is now considered “mediocre.” Seems score inflation has occurred. But why?

  5. Hypocrisy is the entire issue for me. I have no issue with writers or trade accepting free dinners and travel. This happens in every industry.
    The gall to pretend you are above this is what bothers me.
    I have not noticed a blogger vendetta against Parker necessarily.
    But doing business on the internet demands transparency and authenticity, Parker is simply being taken to task for lacking both of these virtues, on the freebies issue anyway. He just seemed irritated about being found out and being forced to explain himself and his employees.
    Cheers
    Amy

  6. It is a question of full disclosure at the time of the publication or posting of a wine writer’s ruminations, not months later when the sh*t hits the fan.

    And perhaps we might imagine a scenario wherein the urgency of a winery, collective, or related business is so great to get a critic’s attention that it leads to greater perks offered: “What will it take to get you to visit?”

    Clearly, many smaller wineries do not have the financial resources to attract the wine critic who commands top dollar. I know of many who might be able to afford a Motel 6 and a Denny’s Grand Slam breakfast, but not much more. Alas, they have only their wines to offer.

  7. Morton Leslie says:

    God, I haven’t read a blog in a month and we are still talking about this? Gimmie a break, these practices are just a normal part of business. Whether it be the film industry, theatre, literature, autos, drugs, … special treatment to people who have influence is an important element of marketing practically anything.

    Every critic or journalist will tell you, these practices are not effective and they are not influenced by them. And we give them slack, what are they supposed to say. But dudes, think about it; if junkets, meals, pampering, and special treatment did not influence critics and journalists, if it didn’t influence their opinions and what they write, industry would long ago ceased these practices.

    It would be nice to believe that winegrowers pamper journalists and critics because we love them so much; because they are so much fun to be around; because wine people are just naturally hospitable folks and they expect nothing in return. But the simple truth is that winegrowers provide “special treatment” because it works. Like it does in every other industry.

    And about the fact that there might be hypocrisy amongst wine journalists? Now that’s a scoop!

  8. Bummed that you didn’t get a mention.

    More bummed that Parker didn’t comment or interview for the WSJ article. He needs a PR department…

  9. Mr. Schaffer may be a big fan of the WA. I have been as well, even though Mr. Parker is a competitor. I pay to read his journal, have done for decades, continue to and will continue to.

    But, I have wondered at times when I see scores like 90 wines from one distributor averaging 92 points or everything from a Sonoma County Pinot Noir producer scoring from 90 to 96 even though only the Pinots are any good by my standards–and I have reasonably acceptable standards–just how reliable some of Parker’s tasting methodology really is.

    Some of what Parker’s folks did was just plain antithetical to good practice, and why Parker has condoned it is beyond reason. I was interviewed by the WSJ writer. He asked how I felt about Parker’s comment that his writers were not held to the same standards that he is. I replied that I believed Mr. Parker would like to take that comment back if he could, because if he truly means that the purported standards by which he has sold the WA all these years no longer apply to the bulk of the reviews that appear there, then he has been selling the WA on false pretenses.

    That is the issue that Tyler Coleman raised. It is not a tempest in a tea-pot in my opinion. It is a legitimate question of journalistic ethics. It not only smacks of a lack of transparency, it smacks of a loss of independence. How else do you explain all the things that Jay Miller has done. No other writer has ever reviewed so many wines under false pretences. And Mr. Parker has mistakenly condoned it. He should, instead, have said simply, it was not the best practice and it won’t happen again.

    His failure to do that bothers me as a fellow journalist. We all learn from our mistakes, our inconsistencies. We change and we move on. Why is Mr. Parker not held to that same standard?

  10. Yeah 1WineDude, Parker definitely should have said something. Maybe he will.

  11. Dear Morton, nice to see you back in action b.w.i.

  12. Jason: Could it be because the quality of wine is getting better?

  13. Nice post Steve.

    I fault no critic for taking free meals, free private jet rides, free admission and free lodging. I have no problem with reviewers tasting wines non-blind while on junkets and then scoring them. You folks have to eat after all, and you need a ride to get there. Why not do it in style?

    While I don’t condemn Parker for what’s happened, I am extremely pleased at recent events.

    Why? Because it has given me the perfect opportunity to convince key influencers to stop comparing themselves to the pseudo high standards that parker set forth by Parker in the WA and in his books.

    Citizen reviews on Twitter, blogs, cellar tracker and vinfolio should all be viewing themselves as mini Kermit Lynchs, not mini Robert Parkers.

    The same way that bloggers can post affiliate links to books that they review and earn a commission from Amazon, I believe that bloggers and others in social media should be able to post links to purchase the wines that they review and earn a set dollar commission.

    Further, I believe those links should go straight to the winery’s website. Reviewers should acknowledge the fact that they are earning a commission. They should also be paid handsomely for it, because they are the channel of the future.

    It’s transformational. Imagine social media links on multiple platforms all driving recommendations and reviews right to the source, to where the wine is made. All done transparently. All done ethically.

    How? As you point out, credibility is earned and folks must take critics on their word. They won’t read you if they don’t trust you.

    The same logic applies to citizen reviewers. And if they disclose that they are getting paid if you click a link after a good review, there can be no conflict of interest. Why? Because if their readers begin to sense that they are giving wines that they earn money from good reviews, they will stop clicking those links. They will stop trusting those reviews. No readership, no trust, no revenue.

    The system is self policing. This disperse channel will coalesce, and it will be the most transformational event in wine since the repeal of prohibition.

    These are exciting times. And in large part we will have Parker, Jancis, and you Steve for helping speed its arrival with your candor.

    Josh

  14. Why don’t we give those guys a break?

    I actually like to have wine writters as friends, they are nice educated folks with a good sense of humor (at least most of them).

    I would miss having diners with them if they cannot let me pick up the bill…

    Nico

  15. So, Josh, let me get this straight. You’re suggesting only wineries with advertorial budgets need apply, budgets that can jingle the tin cups of bloggers, citizen or otherwise. Small wineries will simply have to continue to depend on charitable bloggers.

    So how would it work? Would a blogger contact winery X and alert them to a forthcoming tasting of their wines? Or would winery X seek out bloggers and proposition them? How would the accounting be done? How would the blogger ever know a click-though led to a sale? How would winery X know the blog review was the sole purchasing trigger? (Perhaps the customer could be asked to fill out a questionaire…) And would a customer be happy knowing their hard earned money was being redistributed to who knows how many bloggers and other wine review platforms? Or should winery X be upfront with consumers about how much money of the purchase price goes to internet fluffers?

    And would this not lead to the wholesale indifference of winery X by bloggers with no pennies to earn from them? And could winery X ‘suggest’ that their bloggers not review the wines of a competitor? Or would that best be handled by their distributor who, after all, has a portfolio of suitable wines for a blogger’s review? Why would a blogger ever drift from such a revenue stream?

    And would this lead to bloggers being pitted against one another to curry favor with winery X? “I’ll review for less than him! I even had better stats last month!”

    The idea that this brave new world of internet shilling, “the most transformational event in wine since the repeal of prohibition”, would even remotely be transparent is a little far-fetched. Rather, it sounds very much like the world of today. Meet the new boss…

  16. Reminds me of when Jose and I were being give a complete trip to Maui, and the company that was facilitating the reservation was Sun Trips.

    Remember those days?

    While we were waiting to go to Maui at the gate (pre 9/11), a local news team was circulating among those who were patiently waiting to board. A camera person asked Jose if he was “Okay,” looking for a disgruntled patron. Hey, this was a free trip to Maui, staying at the Kea Lani ($485/night right now), and we were going to be having a rental car… all gratis of Jose’s company for his hard work.

    How could we possibly give the interviewer what he wanted to hear… He left us in the dust. If it’s not salacious enough, you don’t make the cut.

    You’ve just got to yammer more, Steve ;^)

  17. Steve,

    Studies have shown that doctors who receive free goodies, lunches and trips from pharmaceutical companies are in fact influenced by these gifts, even after physicians claim they have no effect on their practices. Check out this NYT article — http://www.nytimes.com/2006/07/28/business/28lunch.html — this influence is called “invisible” because it does have an effect on the prescribing practices of physicians.

    So why wouldn’t it be the same for wine writers? Just because wine writers aren’t rich doesn’t mean they shouldn’t avoid taking free meals from wine companies. I worked as a newspaper reporter for several years and I never, ever accepted a gift, and trust me, I didn’t make very much. I never accepted a free meal nor took a free trip. Honestly, I wouldn’t respect the opinion of someone who had taken a free meal from a wine company and rated the wine several weeks later.

    Read the NYT article — I hope it will change your mind.

    Best,
    Michelle

  18. Seems like people are forgetting something rather important, if you bought the wine based on the score, (and this is where I point out the whole number system for scoring wines is retarded) and you liked it….does it freaking matter if the writer had it over a paid for dinner?! Is not the bottom line what is in the bottle? If the reviews are BS then stop reading…funny thing is I am not a Parker fan, not the man but his palate and I was leaving this same comment when people posted about his cracking on us bloggers. I doubt any of us, critics, bloggers, buyers are going to give a fantastic review to a shit wine no matter how, where or with whom we tasted it….if someone does then they will lose their readers pretty damn quick, problem solved.

  19. I have posted this before, and will do so again. Full Disclosure. That is how they do it in the medical world, and i cannot see why it couldn’t be done in the wine rating world. In medicine, if you write a paper, or if you give a speech, good, accredited mags or organizations require that you first state your affiliations ( or not) with the drug you are reviewing or the paper you have written. That way, everybody knows up front, all readers or listeners are “fully informed”, and everybody is happy. Full disclosure…it would work in the wine biz, too.

  20. I’m with Amy.

    The fact that these were received is not the issue, but that they run counter to the WA’s stern stance and primary selling point (their independence more than their palate).

    This is very much like when a preacher gets busted for being a sinner…

    A winemaker bought me a $9 sandwich (w/ fries) last week. His scores went up 2pts because they fry them ‘taters in duck fat! ; )

  21. Michelle, I can only respond that I could not do my job without some assistance from wineries. You either trust me or you don’t.

  22. Ken,

    Allow me to point you toward my blog as you raise a number of issues that are best answered there.

    BTW, your blog is quite a resource for me. You post on the wine brick from last year has allowed me to finally track down an extant copy of a piece of my family’s past that I thought was lost. Many thanks for that!

  23. But Steve, re: your remark to Michelle, why put the burden of teasing out credibility on your readers? Is there nothing, no positive steps toward disclosure, you might embrace to enhance transparency? I don’t think the ‘you’re either with me or against me’ model is productive in the long run. Not even RP believes that, hence his (parsed) mea culpa.

    The bottom line is that, even here, you are intimating there are more sophisticated truths behind the curtain that the uninitiated are in no position to appreciate.

    I used to work for Bill Graham years ago. The sheer tonnage of drugs, women, fast cars, not to mention the threats given to get some of the most celebrated acts to go onstage, is the great unwritten history of rock. And so is such a history unwritten here, in the otherwise decorous, polite wine world, that of wineries and their critics.

    Take us backstage, Steve…

  24. Josh, you are very welcome! I had a ball tracking down that wine brick. To this day my pic, via the good offices of the Ontario Museum, remains the only one on the net. Thank for the notice. You made my day!

  25. Ken: Happy to take you backstage if you’d let me know what you want to know. My Social Security number? Password to my online checking account? I don’t think so. Ask, and if it’s relevant, you shall receive.

  26. Your SS# and password are already well-known to Russian mobsters and Chinese hackers thanks to a weak internet security technology on wine buying sites. Not much value there.

    But, if you are sincere with respect to ‘backstage’ haps, I may well take you up on your offer, unattributed, of course.

  27. Ken,
    Steve can take you behind his own stage, but you will not believe it if you do not also trust him or his publication.

    That said, it would be a good thing if the entire wine critique process were more transparent at every level. But please note that it was thought that the Parker process was transparent, and it turned out that it was not.

    Furthermore, transparency only goes so far. There is still an open question as to what standards should wine consumers reasonably expect of the wine critics.
    –Buy the wine or accept samples?
    –Accept samples or solicit samples?
    –Taste blind or with the label showing?
    –Taste hundreds of wines in a single sitting or a limited number?
    –Taste at wineries with labels showing and the winemaker and owner standing there telling you what you are tasting or only taste on “neutral territory”?
    — Never go to lunch or dinner that a winery is paying for or go only to events that are open to a broad group of media persons?
    –Go only to big media events paid for by wine interests or go also to one on one luncheons with winemakers at modest restaurants?
    –Go to limited cost luncheons or go also to fancy luncheons at very expensive restaurants?
    –Go on trips paid for by wine interests or refuse to go on any trip paid for by any outside source?
    –Go on trip but fly coach or go on trips where the sponsors fly you first or business, put you up on the fanciest hotels and do everything for you except providing escort service?
    –Write about wines tasted on those trips or wait until you get back and taste the wines blind against their peers?

    Given the quality of your website and the interest that you and your fellow authors have in wine, it would seem appropriate for you to suggest standards that you think ought to be followed. Steve or I or anyone else who writes about wine may agree or disagree or be someone in between. Steve and I are good friends, have been for years, agree on some parts of this discussion but not on all. But, in order for this conversation to move forward, it must become the province of the independent observers and not the province of the critics. We already know what to think. We just have not told anybody in any consistent and comprehensive way across the broad spectrum of wine criticism.

    Here is one for you personally. Your site has pretty pictures of several important wine books. Why are they there? Where did you get the pictures from that decorate your site? Are those books avaiable from you? Did you receive review copies or buy them? Please note that I am asking simply to expand the range of the conversation. I receive review copies of books all the time. Do you? I don’t sell books, except my own–and it is now out of print although I hope to revive it in the next year.

    Your comments here have been thoughtful and your website is intelligent. Please feel encouraged to contribute to a fuller discussion of what should be.

  28. Many good points here, especially by Amy of mydailywine and Josh of pinotblogger, IMO.

    Steve, I spoke to the WSJ reporter as well, and my impression was not that he was looking for salacious quotes. I think he was genuinely trying to gauge how serious this issue is, and where RP fit in the bigger picture. I believe he did not quote you or me or several others simply because he was keeping this article focused on the issue of RP.

    Proof of how big this is came yesterday. Just look at the threads on this blog, drvino’s and even eRP, where apparently the discussion drew 5,000 visits — and many highly critical but civil comments – before being closed. I would bet a magnum of Mouton that Robert Parker himself will not address the topic again. He thinks he took care of it. And no doubt there has been nothing “new” reported, so it is effectively over.

    The issues of hypocrisy and ethics, however, are still quite alive, especially on the Web, where (as Amy says above) transparency and authenticity are imperative. THis is proving to be the most important distinction between print and Web with respect to modern wine writing.

    Months from now we will probably look back and see the Jey Miller kerfuffle as a minor, isolated incident within a much broader issue of wine writing/reporting/reviewing/rating ethics.

  29. Steve is right; it’s nearly impossible to be a wine writer / critic — on any scale or level — without constantly running into ethical issues and conflicts of interest.

    That makes the Clinton analogy particularly apt, because his attempts to parse words and cover things up launched the impeachment process — not the initial act.

    Parker could have gotten “out in front” of the story on day one by simply issuing a statement saying, “It’s my responsibility for not making it clear that my personal conflict-of-interest standard has not, in the past, been required of those who wrote for me. For this, I apologize, although it remains my belief that their actions did not compromise the objectivity of their content. Nevertheless, here is the standard to which ALL WA writers will be expected to adhere, going forward…”

    If he’d done that, the entire dust-up would be yesterday’s news by now. But he didn’t.

  30. Steve, due to two recent experiences with 95-point (not WE scores) duds, I can tell you that score inflation does occur. These wines were from large wineries with presumably large PR budgets. Are these isolated incidents? Probably not. Are wines in general getting better? Maybe, but it’s hard to push that argument when wine is supposed to be a product of terroir which, by definition, doesn’t change.

    It would seem the answer is to submit wines to reputable competitions, having the wine pass under the nose of more than one judge. As flawed as competitions are, the process is much more meritocratic than a rating from a single judge. It is telling that ultra-pedigreed wines avoid the competition circuit. Why? The assumption is that it is not a foregone conclusion that these wines will win by a landslide, and thus there is too much to lose in being bested by a no-name wine at half the price. More importantly, competitions are a closed-system. They are isolated from the one-on-one relationship a producer has with a critic/judge. Morton Leslie makes a good point. If these practices didn’t influence a critic, then why do it at all?

  31. I’m with Samantha here – good call: “…if you bought the wine based on the score… and you liked it….does it freaking matter if the writer had it over a paid for dinner?” The question has been raised about the responsibility of the media consumer. I think this statement nails it neatly.

    Arthur has pointed out that this story has had legs for over 40 days – wow!Parker has not had this much relevance in decades! Blah blah blah Squires needs to learn how to moderate a blog and Miller needs to disclose his freebies. Can we be done with that discussion?

    The crux of this story is not ethics or the perception by some that ethical lapses occurred. It’s not even hipocracy. The issue is Parker’s utter tone-deafness to the zeitgiest, and complete lack of any ju-jitsu PR skills that might have been able to turn this schlamozzle to his advantage 30 days ago. Steve – the Clinton analogy is apt.

  32. Excuse me, Steve, for writing on your thread a specific response to Charlie Olken. I’ve taken up my fair share of space, no doubt about it. That said…

    Charlie, thank you for your thoughtful post and for your encouraging words about my wine blog. About the books pictured, they are directly linked to Amazon for no particular reason other than they are available there and I think readers would be well served to acquire them. Amazon and a WordPress widget make it particularly easy to link a book cover.

    I am a little concerned about pic copyright issues so I figure interested parties might not object to my use of the image provided I pointed people to a reputable vendor. I, however, have no financial relation with them. In fact, it has never occurred to me, so dimwitted am I.

    But I will say, and this gets us back to the very general discussion above, that books are very expensive, though some may be available via Kindle, I really don’t know. Now, many high quality wines are not expensive, certainly not as expensive as books. So, with respect to a wine blogger becoming quasi-partners with wineries, a question does suggest itself: Would a wine blogger tend toward the review of higher priced wines to realize a better return? I don’t know the answer.

    BTW, your idea of my posting standards is a good one. Though I will say I’ve yet to receive a penny from anyone, wine samples never come my way, neither do I inquire (though I am on some kind of list as a potential reviewer, but my conditions are hardly friendly), no free lunches, I’m not invited to parties or go on junkets, etc. It must be my sparkling personality. Besides, my blog is new; I’m quite unknown to the wine cognoscenti. I really haven’t yet earned my stripes, to be perfectly honest. And just to keep my head above water among such a sophisticated group as may be found just here is a small miracle. Cheers.

  33. I suspect that this discussion of ethics has just started. It may die down and its focus on Parker will shift, but there is a whole network of new media out there and it invites all kinds of good and bad behavior. We will experience that going forward. Some folks will get called for their failures. Some will fail on their own, but the notion of fairness, methodology, etc is going to continue to be important.

    Parker screwed up, but his standing will be only slighlty and temporarily affected if his reviews are believed by the folks who pay for him. Who would you rather belief? A one-off tasting of a wine at dinner or the results of an independent blind tasting in which wines are compared peer to peer?

    There will be no “one size fits all” in this discussion in any event. Some will be happy with simple recommendations and some will want more rigorous tasting methodologies. This discussion is far from over. It will just change focus over time.

    Just ask Josh about his desire to sell the wines he recommends. His website is alive with controversy on that subject–as it should be.

  34. One final note. I shall be posting an update tomorrow on the FTC’s proposed ‘truth in advertising’ guidelines that will, for the first time, be extended to bloggers. Further exchanges with the Office of Public Affairs has yielded some fascinating and important info bearing directly on the matters discussed here.

    For a bit of background you may want to read my earlier gloss on the matter: http://reignofterroir.com/2009/05/21/bloggers-face-new-ftc-scrutiny/

  35. Ken, fascinating stuff. Will look forward to your update. Thanks.

  36. The WSJ and almost all the chatter on the blogosphere misses the point of the true challenges the Wine Advocate
    (http://winezag.wordpress.com/2009/05/10/one-robert-parker/)

    and the overall industry faces (http://winezag.wordpress.com/2009/05/26/wsj-misses-in-coverage-of-wine-advocate-and-industry-problems/)

    rendering the trade relations ethic banter immaterial.

  37. I find it fascinating that so many folks think ethics are not important anymore. Bloggers who think that they are somehow immune to the long-held principals of fairness will find out soon enough that those who write positive wine reviews in exchange for favors will be outed.

    There is a name for that kind of activity. It is called advertising. It is folly to think it will go unnoticed forever and accepted as a new and admired form of writing. Just ask Robert Parker. You cannot have your cake and eat it to. You cannot review wine and have the world that pays you for honest reviews accept dishonest or questionable behavior.

    We can debate, as we have here and elsewhere, what levels of transparency and what types of wine tasting methodology are expected of professional wine critics, but most folks expect the opinions offered by those who sell those opinions to their readers to be honest. Claims of “who cares as long as I am honest” only go so far. Ask Robert Parker.

    When a blogger takes money for a positive review, that blogger and does not state that he or she was paid, that blogger is masquerading as an independent agent. No matter that he or she tries to claim “amateur” status. You have just taken money for a falsehood. There is also a name for that and it is not advertising.

    I can think of no way to wreck the value of the blogosphere more effectively than to pollute it with advertising that passes for critical evaluation and for bloggers to sell their souls for money in the process. Honesty is still the best policy.

  38. Charlie,

    I have been a subscriber of your publication for more year than I can remember. I have been a media executive for thirty years, about 5 more than I have been drinking, buying, and learning about fine wine. I used to subscribe only to CCG and WA in my early days as I was forming my personal preferences for the very reasons of independence that you are leaning on here. So thanks for your continued good work.

    I do want to weigh in that taking advertising and conducting sponsor oriented business or having financial links to the industry that a media property serves does not absolutely mean that there are always ethics violations where content is being represented one way while its intentions are more dubious. There has been an underlying assumption on this linked to the hopefully dying down Parker brouhaha reverberating through the blogosphere.

    I currently publish local home and garden consumer magazines and we would not have been in business very long if we compromised our opinions in favor of advertising companies. I published technology magazines for almost 15 years that were advertising supported and if we violated good technology reporting and favored advertiser technologies we would also have had a short lifespan.

    I agree with your disposition and firmly share your thoughts about paid bloggers. Still, it is tough to paint all media that is not 100% reader revenue supported or totally independent of any financial connection to the industry it serves as most probably unethical.

    Adam Japko
    winezag.wordpress.com

  39. Adam–

    Thanks for your kind words about my efforts. I guess you and I must more or less of the same vintage. I like to think that folks like us who have been around a long time and still care, still have the passion for what we do are like very fine wine. We are mature but going strong.

    That said, if my passion for reasonable behavior on the part of reviewers has suggested that folks like Steve Heimoff or Jim Laube are somehow less than ethical, I want to correct that impression now.

    I am not even sure that Jay Miller was less than ethical in his behavior. What I hope I have been saying is that bad behavior raises suspicion and ultimately gets outed. I don’t care if Miller goes to Chile or Argentina or the moon on a paid visit. I do care about the way he tastes wine because some of it strikes me as unprofessional. I do care that he spends a week on a fancy holiday paid for by one of his best friends and then reviews that guy’s wine with scores that average 92 points. I care because those practices raise ethical questions that I answer in the negative. Others disagree and that is also OK.

    He can go where he wants, he can learn whatever it is he needs to learn and he should. I do. Steve does. Most writers in most fields do. It is not the trip or the advertising per se that is the issue. It is the relationship between advertising or gifts and opinion that concerns me.

    I read Car and Driver and do not worry about who advertises there. I used to read PC Magazine regularly when I was trying to figure out how an old dog like me could learn new tricks in the information era, and I did not worry about who advertises there.

    My rant about paid bloggers operates at a different level than my concerns or lack thereof about Steve Heimoffs’ reviews or Jim Laube’s reviews. Frankly, I have more respect for their tasting methodology than I do for Jay Miller’s past and possibly future practices if he is going to continue to taste 600 wines in three days with the labels showing and winemakers pouring the wines for him.

    Joe Dressner, who I have come to enjoy for his unique take on things, may think blind tasting is useless. I have a different opinion.

    Some may think that paid bloggers–not support on fam trips, but directly paid to post an opinion–are OK. I do not, and I apologize if I gave the impression that there was no way to separate advertising dollars from opinion making. Not everyone agrees with my form of independence, or agrees with the opinions that Connoisseurs’ Guide reaches, but I believe in the process we established 35 years ago of letting the wine speak. I still believe that the objective of all people who post about wine, wherever they do it, should be the same. Let the wine speak, not the label, not the winery and not the money.

    Respectfully submitted,
    Charlie Olken

  40. I disagree with you (again).

    “never accept freebies, then he deserves this egg on his face.” Why just egg and not something more real, like Dollars. Why shouldn’t Parker, for example, have to give his subscribers a free issue? Why is there no real penalty? Or, why aren’t these two guys fired? (There are other publications who would fire such employees.)

    What? You’re saying Wine isn’t serious and so there should be no serious penalties? Com’on Steve, you take it super seriously – esp. being a responsible wine writer. And, we are talking about the most influential wine publication in the world. How can you dismiss this so off-handedly?

  41. Jack – I just don’t think it’s that big a deal. Maybe I’m wrong. Of course I take wine and my job totally seriously. But Parker’s been publicly embarrassed by this, has promised it won’t happen again, so what else do you want him to do? Commit hari kiri?

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Why We Owe Robert Parker - [...] Steve Heimoff’s most recent post regarding the controversy surrounding Robert Parker’s independent consultants (you can read [...]
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