In defense of Jay Miller
I know that Jay Miller’s resignation from The Wine Advocate will have a younger generation cheering that the blogosphere just outed another lying, cheating sleazebag, and that the old order is crumbling faster than a chocolate chip cookie at an Overeater’s Anonymous meeting. But somebody has to put this into perspective.
I tried to begin that the other day, when I said we didn’t have enough information to come to any conclusions, even though plenty of people were. Today, we know more, mainly from the Baltimore Sun’s coverage. To me, here’s the salient point, taken from the Sun article:
“Campo said in that exchange he wasn’t arranging a visit by Miller to any wineries, but rather that he was negotiating fees for Miller to host a seminar….The speaking engagement — not Miller’s first — had nothing to do with The Wine Advocate, and the governing body for the local wine region, not any wineries, paid for it.”
If this is true, and there’s no reason to think it isn’t, then Miller’s critics are saying that Miller shouldn’t be allowed to make extra money through speaking fees, beyond whatever remuneration he got from Parker. That’s my reading, anyway. But on what basis do the critics make this charge? Does Roger Ebert ever make money from speaking engagements? I’m sure he does (or did, before his stroke). I don’t hear anyone getting all steamed about that. I, personally, don’t see anything wrong with Miller, or any other writer, taking fees for speaking before groups that’ve invited him.
Now, if the wineries who indirectly pay for these speaking engagements believe their wines are going to get higher scores from Miller in exchange for the fee, that’s their problem. I would hope Miller made it abundantly clear that wasn’t the case and could never be.
In another version of the same article, which you can read here, Miller said, “What I write is totally based on what’s in the bottle.” Again, is there any reason not to believe that? I’ve said the same thing over and over again. It doesn’t matter what a winery does to me or for me: My reviews are totally based on what’s in the bottle. Not, I hasten to add, that I speak very much for a fee–it only happens a few times a year, Wine Enthusiast‘s policy is for the fee to be paid by third parties, not wineries, and the fee is never anywhere close to Miller’s purported $26,000 for a two day trip. (I should live so long!) But if that’s Miller’s market value, then he has a right to accept it, if someone is willing to pay.
I still don’t understand all the details of the relationship between Miller and this Campo fellow, but from my reading, there doesn’t seem to be anything lurid or particularly scandalous about it. Campo runs a wine organization; he occasionally arranges local events for Miller, and perhaps he [Campo] even makes a little extra money off Miller. Nothing wrong with that.
This blogger, Jim Budd, who busted Miller, came up with the clever phrase, “No Pay, No Jay,” implying that unless wineries forked over big money to Miller, he wouldn’t review their wines. I don’t believe that for a minute. Is anyone suggesting Miller refused to review a Spanish wine because the winery didn’t pay him? Or that Miller lowered a score because the winery wouldn’t fork over money? No.
The more subtle implication Mr. Budd is making is “The reason why producers and their [organizations] were prepared to pay these sums was because Miller was going to review and rate their wines for The Wine Advocate.” According to this view, Miller would never have been in a position to charge money for a private visit, unless he was the famous Spanish reviewer for Robert Parker.
Well, duh! Do bears crap in the forest? That’s just reality. Name me a famous wine critic and I’ll show you somebody making money beyond his or her paycheck from the company, from speaking engagements, consulting, book writing, etc. We even have critics who own wineries: Robert Parker and Beaux-Frères! Does anybody not think that Beaux-Frères (which retails in the $60-$80 neighborhood) has cachet because of Parker’s part-ownership? If you do, there’s a bridge in San Francisco I’d like to sell you.
Now, we can have a discussion about the various lines that separate a true conflict of interest from the appearance of a conflict of interest. We can say, “No wine critic such as Miller should ever be allowed to make a penny from private arrangements, because a blogger says that would ‘fail to pass the sniff test.’” But that, quite honestly, is to let some bloggers dictate to professionals how they should run their businesses. A blogger has the right to his opinion, of course, and that applies to Mr. Budd. But from everything I’ve read, I just don’t see what Miller did that’s so wrong. And it’s soooo easy these days to stir up a shitstorm on the blogosphere.
Maybe I’m wrong. I know that my brilliant readers will show me the light, if I’ve misinterpreted this. If I’m wrong, I’ll gladly do a mea culpa.
Here’s the bottom line: there is absolutely no way to convince doubters of a wine critic’s objectivity, or that he’s being as honest as he can. Naysayers will always find something to criticize, and in this business, being accused of accepting money for reviews is like being asked “When did you stop beating your wife?” There’s no answer that can possibly satisfy the questioner, and no matter what the critic replies, he ends up looking guilty, even when he’s not.
Still, for all my misgivings about the Jay Miller case, I’m glad it arose, because we always need to talk about these important issues, instead of letting them fester.