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What did Jay Miller really do?

44 comments

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:

The fact that Jay has agreed to stay two days more, and for half the usual price, is a miracle…

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.

  1. Actually, $70k would not be a bad price for a good review. A winery could easily burn that up in advertising or other promotion to little effect. Let’s say you make 10,000 cases of something and a good score enables you to charge $5 more a bottle. That’s $600k and a tidy return on your investment, even if it only works half of the time. Whether it is an airfare, a meal, lodging, or cash with no guarantee, a winery or a wine region calculates the odds and the potential return and places the bet. The only difference between Pay-to-Play and PR are the odds.

  2. I find it a bit funny that so many wine bloggers are so quick to cast stones at Mr. Miller when so many of them are also quick to acccept freebies in exchange for reviews.

  3. Steve –

    Can you explain why you would hold independent contractors to a different set of standards than paid employees?

  4. Carlos Toledo says:

    Yo Morton-man, your math is correct provided that there are sales and revenues after all that nice review that is to come up. But don’t forget that the money-critic will give a very high score and the rest of them are going to give (oh boy) “fair” reviews.

    Your word BET may sum up how not smart paying for these scoundrels can be.

    I’d rather work and live without having to bribe anyone, wine critics included. In my country i rate wine bloggers and critics very low in ethics and knowledge. They add nothing to anyone’s sales. All they care about is the free meals, samples and trips.

  5. Bill Klapp says:

    Steve, with all due respect, are you naive or merely woefully under informed on this matter?

  6. I’m with Wayne on this one.

  7. It’s kind of like the terrible Sandusky case in my home state, in that the jury of public opinion seems quick to make up its mind and doesn’t wait for all the trials or facts to come in.

    Not that I am NOT saying that Sandusky or Miller did or didn’t do what they are accused of doing, nor am I equating the Sandusky case to the WA scandal.

    What I am saying is that when it looks, walks and quacks like a duck, people will naturally be (very) quick to scream “LOOK! A DUCK!!!”

    Samantha / Wayne – There is an enormous difference between accepting junkets and samples with no conditions, no “upgrades,” no promise of coverage, etc., and charging a winery or region for tasting its wines. In the former, for most of us it is the ONLY way we can hope to cover those products or regions; in the latter, it is an exploitation of the power of a critic with an audience and a violation of the trust of that audience, particularly if that audience has been told that such practices are expressly forbidden by the publication / critic /etc. I don’t see stones being thrown so much as I see people aiming at the biggest target in their field of view…

  8. Whoops – in my comment above it should be “**NOTE** that I am NOT saying…”

    Sorry!

  9. Joe, I didn’t comment on the case specifically pertaining to Mr. Miller because I don’t follow the WA myself and don’t know much about it. I think there is a chance that if the allegations are true, Mr. Miller was unaware. If he was aware, then yes, I agree it is very different than accepting a junket, in fact, it would be wrong.

    I am also not calling out those who accept samples or lodging or whatever, I have, you have. I think some of that is a part of the business. I just know it is very easy to game the system. As Carlos said, there is a portion of the community that only “care[s] about the free meals, samples and trips.”

    In my honest opinion and my personal experience, the best way to be non-biased is to pay your own way, or have an employer pay it. When you get into scenarios where other are paying your way in the hopes you will treat them kind in return, you get on a slippery slope. Joe, I have always found you to be a pretty straight forward guy and I respect that and I hope you don’t think I am accusing you of anything, I am not.

    It is a very interesting topic, what level of interaction any kind of critic should have with those who produce the item they are critiquing.

  10. The other HUGE issue is transparency.

    New Zealand critic Sam Kim charges to review wines. I have no issue with this — I’m sure most successful bloggers, critics, wine writers, etc., receive a boatload of samples. Kim is simply providing a not-terribly-expensive way for wineries to make sure he reviews their wine.

    Yes, this hurts the little guy and helps out the big guys. But again, Kim is transparent about it.

    The issue with the Miller/Parker/Pancho controversy is that The Wine Advocate pretends to be THE publication that’s standing up for consumers. It has a strict code of ethics, still claims to purchase its own wines, etc.

    Steve: I also must take issue with your line about how employees have a leg up because of things like “social security payments.” Both independent contractors and employees share the same burden — it doesn’t matter who cuts the check; it’s coming from the individual.

  11. Personally i think that with the information available the only one who seems to have done something wrong is Pancho Campo. We still have to wait and see…

  12. Thanks, Wayne – no offense was taken whatsoever, just trying to paint the full picture for those following along the comments here.

    I find that balance that you described quite difficult, actually – it is an interesting topic to explore!

  13. Joe, me too. I never got into reviews, but I have certainly gone above and beyond for a few producers who have been extra supportive of me. I can imagine being in your shoes and I appreciate you are open about it. That’s a good sign.

    OK, I will stop hijacking the thread now.

  14. Steve

    As usual, we are trying to uncover the truth at the Wine Advocate.

    You are right…we don’t know everything that happened.

    Here is what we do know…
    1) Jay Miller went on paid for trips with trade orgs to Australia, Chile and Argentina. These trips go against WA policies and ethical codes. He also went to Spain (on multiple occasions) and Australia with wine importers, previous to that. Also against WA policies and ethical codes. Since being “busted,” he has not been back to Argentina or Chile (as far I can tell) and Australia was handed off to another wine critic, living in Singapore.

    2) The Wine Advocate “hired” Pancho Campo to take Jay Miller around. Pancho Campo also runs Wine Future, a for profit event for him and the Wine Academy of Spain. Pancho was hired by Robert Parker and the WA around the same time of organizing the first WineFuture event in Rioja. Parker was a paid lecturer there, as well as in Hong Kong, last month.

    3) Campo had a fee schedule set up with the DOs of Spain for Miller’s visits. If you want Miller to visit, it will cost. As part of that fee, Miller received a portion ($15,000) to run a “master class” at the end of his visit to that region. I believe this masterclass was a one day seminar…nice pay day. In Argentina, if a region did not pay Wines of Argentina, them Miller did not visit there, either. In addition, wineries that did not fund Wines of Argentina for Jay’s visit, could pay $500 when he was there and he agreed to review their wines. Pancho’s fees were upwards of 40000 euros, or $60,000 USD. Miller seemed to get $15,000 for his master class, leaving $45,000 on the table, per visit to each DO, except where a DO might have received a discount, like Madrid was offered.

    That is what we know. So, if you think this is not a big deal, clearly you do not know the “facts” of the case. The Wine Advocate claims to be the consumer advocate. These instances prove anything but that.

    Does anyone know how much money Robert Parker was paid to speak at Wine Future 2011 in Hong Kong?

  15. Evan, because indie contractors don’t have employer benefits and so their pay tends to be much less [overall] than employees. In the case of wine writers, the pay is considerably less than what you might think [Jay Miller excepted!!!].

  16. Not all wine bloggers have a mercenary bent; as for me, it’s all about fun and New Hampshire wine advocacy, education, and the hobby of it all; I’ve received no wine, no money, and no advertising for my efforts to share my wine experiences and opinions (I have no problem with those that do). What if, coulda-woulda aside, where most people go to be informed about wine is the supermarket’s isles of discounted and couponed wines. The few left who are in for the deeper aspects of wine, they are the ones who are susceptible being bought with an inflated rating (Caveat emptor). At least that’s my 2 cents worth.
    Steve, this is interesting reading, and I suppose you’re writing for “The few left”, but how many angels can sit on a needle? My guess is that in general, Spain and its industries (Wine in this case) are economically fighting to succeed in a very difficult environment; they have great wines at very low prices, Campo among them, so they are doing what capitalism requires: “putting money where (our) mouths are.”

  17. So, Steve, are you saying people who make less money should be held to different standards than those that make more money? Why is ok for you to accept money funneled through a third party but not, say Eric Asimov?

    David White hit the real issue, that you fail to understand, square on the head. If you (not you, but wine pundits in general) easily bought, then just make that known and don’t portray yourself as ethical.

  18. Colorado, I try to be transparent in all things. It’s okay for me to make money on the side, as an indie contractor, because I need the money and because my magazine doesn’t strictly prohibit it, as long as there are no conflicts of interest. As for Asimov, I would imagine his contract with the Times prohibits side gigs.

  19. Dennis T., I agree with your take. The one thing I’d quibble with is “inflated rating.” Speaking for myself, there is no such thing. The rating is what it is. If a wine gets 99 of 100, it’s not “inflated,” it’s just a high number.

  20. I think the whole story is way overblown, but I think there are genuine points that call in to question WA policies and that of all wine bloggers and reviewers. I frequently send out samples of our Hahn Family wines to bloggers and while I don’t ever pay them, I do ask them to review it honestly and for the most part that has been a positive experience. I know there are many bloggers that seem to have connected with those with money to spend over seas for coverage here, particularly in Spain and South America. I think we all get into this business with great passion and ethics and I think a long the way we can become jaded and complacent like politicians. Not pointing any fingers but there are now always inherent biases when money or gifts are involved. Just my 2 cents @spiritandwine

  21. I had to laugh about the indie contractors without benefits discussion. Decades ago and hired to head and improve the bottom line of a winery, i was reviewing employee benefits and was surprised to see a prominent syndicated wine writer on the list of those we covered. The controller referred me to the director of PR who explained to me that the deal was we got four articles and the writer got health insurance. I cancelled his benefits immediately partly as a matter of pride, abd because of the risk of such a thing becoming public, and to be perfectly honest, because, in my opinion, the articles were crap!

  22. Per Colorado: To read in a previous post about toasting Chad Melville at “a long lugubrious dinner” with a bunch of other vintners in Santa Barbara for all that he has done for you over two decades and then to go to the listings on the mag site and the first page for Melville shows 95, 97, 95, 95, 94, 94, 94, 94 can’t help but give the ‘impression’ of undue influence on the WE critic (no matter how good the Melville wines are). Which is why–following the Olken rule–wine reviewers should avoid hob nobbing with those they review.

  23. Steve

    Can you tell us about some of your side gigs and how you have been compensated?

    For instance, has any California winery ever paid you for something?

    How about Napa Valley Vintners or an org like that?

    Like David White and others say, transparency is key. I have been beating that drum for years now.

    Here is the big problem…
    http://www.erobertparker.com/info/wstandards.asp

  24. Daniel, my side gigs–and they are far and few between–are paid by third party businesses. There are never any quid pro quos. I have turned down a lot of offers from individual wineries. Napa Valley Vintners has never paid me for anything nor can I imagine they would.

  25. Tom Merle, you ask a good question, one I’ve thought about for a long time with respect to reporters. My attitude is: if you can’t take their money, eat their food, drink their booze, screw their women and sleep in their lodges, without feeling you owe them a damned thing, then you shouldn’t be in this business. I think my reputation speaks for itself. You either trust me or you don’t.

  26. Morton: WHAT A GREAT STORY!!!! This is the first time EVER I have responded in all caps. I would love to know who the wine writer was, but knowing your penchant for privacy I doubt you’ll share it.

  27. Mark Buckley, yes there are “inherent biases” among some reviewers, but you have to use your brain to figure out who’s trustworthy and who isn’t. This “one charge fits all” doesn’t fly.

  28. If It Walks Like A Duck says:

    Who on earth would pay to listen to Jay Miller give a “master class” on the wines of a region he is visiting? Wouldn’t the best authority to learn from regarding the wines of that region be the winemakers, vineyard managers and wine critics/experts from that region? In addition, when one is affiliated with a publication shouldn’t that person be required to adhere to that publication’s editorial policies and standards? How can Miller justify accepting profitable fees for these so-called speeches when the only reason he may be getting paid for them at all is due to his affiliation with the Wine Advocate to begin with? Believe me, nobody is going to pay $1500 per day to hear the co-owner of a wine shop talk to wine professionals about wine. A Senior Reviewer for the Wine Advocate, however, apparently can command that much. Nothing smells right in Denmark.

  29. “You either trust me or you don’t.”

    Steve, this is a very true statement. But to know whether to trust you, or anyone else, one needs all of the facts of the case.

    As I have mentioned above, the Wine Advocate ethical standards is a great piece of propaganda. That is all it is, because it contains very little truth in it.

    When you read it, you might say that these are the critics for me (if you were a consumer) and many people did and still do, but when you take a closer look…it is like a butter face…one big ol’ mess!

  30. Steve, even you can’t be superhuman. Friendships count. You state you “owe” people like Mr. Melville and other of his peers in SB. But being so lovey dovey in any field of endeavor with those you scrutinze has to have an impact. Like a movie critic who is chums with certain directors, s/he simply can’t give a disinterested review. Yes, in your case you (may) taste the wines blind. But when it comes time to send in the scores, those 95s give the appearance that you are returning favors. And you could justify these extremely high scores by assuring yourself that after all the wines are damn good. Or put differently, there is no way, given those close relationships, that you could bestow any number below a 90 on your friend’s vino. We need an experiment with UN voting proctors ;)

  31. Tom, why don’t you just send some investigators from the U.N. to live in my house and make sure that my tastings are free, fair and unfettered.

  32. Steve,

    Do you taste all wines blind for review?

    Does that appear in the magazine, anywhere?

  33. A flight of 10-12 wines that Steve wraps and knows the labels is barely blind. He tastes visually impaired…

    I have no problem not tasting blind, I usually don’t, but saying you’re tasting blind when you really aren’t isn’t fair. Steve knows when a Melville is in the lineup and probably can pick it out easily. Not so difficult to keep the points high that way.

  34. Colorado, I’ve explained this, like a dozen times. I don’t know what the wines are when I taste them. Yes, I know there’s a Melville in there, but I don’t know which one. The exception is when it’s that 5 pound Shafer Hillside bottle, but that’s rare. So I do taste blind. What I don’t do is taste double blind.

  35. Colorado – it’s why you have someone else wrap the wine. I’m a big believer in blind tasting. But let’s say the writer doesn’t taste blind. That’s OK – nobody would want to taste blind all the time.

    But if they’re reviewing the wines for publication is it still OK? I guess so but they should say so. And even if you can tell there’s a Melville or whatever, there’s always that little bit of doubt if you can’t see the label.

    Is there a difference between tasting non-blind in say, the office when you’re tasting through a peer-group and tasting non-blind with the producer who’s buying you a great lunch or dinner? Or the distributor who took you out last month for a dinner filled with hard-to-find rare wines?

    And let’s say those are roughly equivalent, are they the same as tasting non-blind with the producers who are going to pay you a handsome fee for a lecture the next day? I would suggest that there’s a difference between tasting alone in the office and tasting in a place with the people who are going to pay me a lot of money. Not money to taste the wine mind you – that’s not the case at all. It’s money for a lecture. It’s mere coincidence that it’s all done at the same time.

    We all take this way too seriously also. At the end of the day, it shouldn’t really matter. Who cares if Steve or anyone tastes this way, that way, or another way.

    But if you say you’re doing one thing and you have certain standards, and then you do quite the opposite and violate your standards, the one thing you lose is your credibility.

  36. Steve, I know you’ve explained it a million times. I understand how you taste. I’ve tasted blind in that format many times, and when I know which wines are in the bags I can sometimes pick out which wine is which. Sure, this doesn’t happen all the time, but if someone tastes a lot of wine and is an expert, he or she might be able to correctly pick Melville a majority of the time. If you have a preconceived notion of or owe favors to a winery that you can identify more often than not, this could influence your scores. By knowing which wines are there, you have certain expectations about the wines which you (probably) can confirm without seeing the label. I’m not saying that how you taste is wrong/bad, but just that you are not exactly tasting blind.

    Greg, I agree with everything you said. My point was that Steve is not as immune to bias as he claims.

  37. Man, Steve. Wow. Something to hide?

  38. What does it matter if you taste blind unless you WRITE blind? What a load of b.s. Are these blind tastings monitored, along with the writing of the notes that follow? Why doesn’t anybody talk about this???

  39. Jacques: everybody talks about this. You are not keeping up with the conversation.

  40. GregT “But if you say you’re doing one thing and you have certain standards, and then you do quite the opposite and violate your standards, the one thing you lose is your credibility.”

    Yes, Greg, this ought to be true.

    But the title of Steve’s blog is “In Defense of Jay Miller.”

    Steve and some others are defending the lies and deceit. Otherwise, why defend the Wine Advocate and this behavior.

    For a few years now, I have said the same thing…the ethics page of the Wine Advocate is a joke…beyond a joke…it is one big, fat lie. Until that page is ripped out, and Robert Parker elects to come clean about how he and other wine critics at the WA really taste, so his subscribers can see it, what he is doing is basically criminal.

  41. I think the blind tasting discussion is the more interesting part of this thread. I can understand the expediency of tasting single blind in dealing with the responsibilities of reviewing large quantities of samples. But I think everybody in the business ought to taste double blind periodically. I’m in a tasting group with other winemakers that has been meeting regularly since 1978 (quite a few are original members). We always taste double blind, except for the person hosting, who is single blind. (we take turns). Sometime it is an exercise in humility (e.g. when the chumps are stumped or just plain wrong). Other times it is confidence building (especially when we as a group zero on the identity of the group of wines). But it is always good training for the palate.

    I think a danger inherent in single blind tasting is that outliers might be prone to getting higher scores. What I mean is: if it is known that one is tasting (for instance) a large group of high end Cabernets from a single region, and they are generally of high quality, maybe some aspect of a wine that might be perceived as a flaw if tasted on its own, will make it appear distinctive in the haze of palate fatigue. A bit of R.S. makes the wine seem smooth and round; some VA gives the aroma some lift; a touch of Brett comes off as complexity. That kind of thing. I have heard a couple of retailers say they pay more attention to wines that are in a range of something like 88 to 93 points because above that the wines are all too often weird.

  42. Steve
    Who cares? Twnty people, who keep posting. Out of 9000000000. BFD. Bunt

  43. If you are a business owner and one of your suppliers (or your rep) is doing shady stuff, you will probably change to a different supplier. I say, forget about RP and his magazine, get scores from 4 or 5 different writers, average them and advertize your average score on your website. Or not?
    Shady is not good in any business.

  44. Mauricio, I don’t think the average consumer is interested in an average score. They seem to want to see specific reviews from specific individuals and publications.

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