What did Jay Miller really do?
Until we understand what really happened in Spain concerning Jay Miller and Pancho Campo, it would be the height of irresponsibility to take one side or the other. Miller/Campo have denied all suggestions of pay to play, Robert Parker is promising a full investigation, and in the meanwhile, we can only wait and see.
This is a good opportunity to reveal my own practices with respect to traveling in wine country and visiting wineries. Number one: I would never “charge” a winery for a visit. Against Wine Enthusiast policies, and against my own personal ethics. I visit wineries only for specific reasons: (1) when it’s relevant to a story I’m working on, or (2) as a favor to someone who’s helped me in one way or another. If somebody goes to great lengths to help me in my job and then asks nothing except for me to visit a client winery, I have absolutely no problem with that. There obviously are no guarantees for scores or reviews or coverage, just a friendly visit resulting in a win-win-win situation.
I do occasionally accept money for appearances, but never from individual wineries whose wines I review. I, personally, don’t believe it would be a conflict of interest if I did, since my reviews would be entirely separate from the acceptance of pay, and I don’t think my reviews (blind in any case) would be affected. But the appearance of a conflict of interest should be avoided.
Deep analysis time: Let’s consider this paragraph from Campo’s now-famous email concerning Miller visiting local wineries:
Break it down. Jay “agreed to stay two days more,” this being “a miracle.” I understand this part. When a writer/critic is well known and visits a particular region, his visit tends to be big news in that region. Many more people want to see him than the writer has actual time for. If I stopped by to visit or have lunch/dinner with all the people who want to see me on a typical visit, I’d be there for 2 weeks instead of 2 or 3 days. That inevitably spells disappointment to some, which is why I suppose it is “a miracle” when a writer agrees to lengthen his visit (“a miracle” from the point of view of those who wanted to see the writer but couldn’t, the first time around). This is entirely natural: writers possess great power to help a winery (this isn’t an egotistical thing for me to say, it’s a simple truth), and so winemakers are grateful to host a traveling writer.
Then we come to that troubling phrase, “for half the usual price.” I have no idea what it means, but look: writers need to make a living. I don’t know what Robert Parker pays his reviewers. Whatever it is, wine writing isn’t the most lucrative career, and I would never blame a writer for wanting to make a little money on the side. Like I said, I occasionally accept fees from third-party entities, not wineries themselves. This seems to me a well-established precedent, especially in the case of independent contractors (such as me), as opposed to actual employees, who have employer benefits such as retirement accounts, healthcare and Social Security payments. I don’t know if Jay Miller is an independent contractor, an actual employee of Robert Parker, or what. That information would be useful in making judgments.
If Jay Miller’s “usual price” for visiting wineries is paid for by third party entities, would that make a difference in the ethics? I think so. Some bloggers seem to take the position that a writer shouldn’t make any money at all, except in the most direct way (selling a newsletter, a salary from an employer). But until we have a thorough understanding of just how every single heavyweight writer and blogger in the world makes money (something we’ll never know, because they’ll never tell us), we would be wise to refrain from being overly critical. This isn’t to exonerate Jay Miller, or to defend the practice (if that’s what it was) of charging wineries exorbitant amounts of money for a mere visit (£40,000!?!?!? Yikes, that’s about $70,000!) Personally, any winery owner who forked over that much just for the “privilege” of having Jay Miller (or any other wine writer) visit should have his head examined. I mean, that’s Bill Clinton territory–and Jay Miller is no Bill Clinton!
If there’s a takeaway from all this–and this isn’t speculation, it’s just my opinion–it’s this: as his tasters are replaced one by one, Parker’s empire shows signs of wear and tear. In California his brand has been weakened by his “retirement” and replacement by Antonio Galloni. This is to say nothing about Antonio’s talents or qualities, only that he will never be another Parker because there will never be another Parker. It is inconceivable that Antonio will have the relevance and impact Parker did in California. I could be wrong.
Anyway, can we please hold off on Miller’s lynching? He may be a scoundral but, as of this moment, we just don’t know.