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In defense of Jay Miller

21 comments

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.

  1. Steve, this is the culture of envy, and since we’re not of the mind to nail enough of the thieving politicians we so blithely put in office , it’s got to be someone-anyone (Miller will do for today) as a scapegoat.
    Sorry! The other day I should have said: The “few left” who are in for the deeper aspects of wine, they are the ones who are susceptible to being bought with a (rumored) inflated rating (Caveat emptor).

  2. Woooo, boy. Good luck with this.

    If it turns out that Budd’s assessment (below) – which I think can seriously be argued is a logical, reasonable interpretation of the events, but technically unproven – then your analysis, which hinges on the premise that Miller is being attacked for accepting speaking fees, will get, well, unhinged:

    ‘”The conference/masterclass is a smokescreen/fig leaf tacked onto the program,” Budd said. “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.”‘

    The exposed emails are not clear at all as to WHY the fees are being charged, Steve. Those attacking Miller are doing so under the interpretation that the charges are for visits during which Miller was reviewing wines for TWA, *not* for him accepting any fees. I don’t want to be harsh, but only the densest of those following this would get riled up over someone accepting a freelance speaking fee. If it comes to light that Budd is correct and Miller’s intention was to accept a fee for tasting, then we should logically assume that 1) his previous reviews from visits where he may have been paid similar fees are suspect, 2) he was fired and not retired from TWA.

  3. Steve, nice try. I think Newt needs you to join his campaign and explain the million six he got from Freddie Mac. Heck, maybe they were paying for a “Master Class” in Finance, not access and lobbying, as some might opine? I mean it is very much like why a wine region would pay a hefty fee for the chance to sit and listen to a wine critic blab about the wines they like. Enlightenment has its price! Just like Newt’s professorial instruction on economic theory and global finance was worth the money to Freddie execs. I don’t know about you, but I don’t see any hard evidence why we shouldn’t believe either of the gentlemen.

  4. Steve, the sums demanded for Jay Miller to visit and speak in a wine region desirous of an image pump-up remind me of nothing so much as the fig leaf disclaimer on an escort service websites: the fee charged is for time and companionship only.

    Nudge nudge, wink wink.

    It really doesn’t matter whether Miller was complicit in the process of selling his appearances, or simply pocketed his share of the money obtained by Campo. It doesn’t matter whether those fees in fact influenced his reviews of wines from those regions.

    What matters is that his agent — and possibly he — require an eyebrow-raising sum of money to simply show up to speak (and, incidentally, taste wine for review) in a region he otherwise wouldn’t visit. That alone presents the appearance of a conflict of interest. Full stop.

  5. Let’s see how many future large fees Mr. Miller commands for “speaking” now that he is no longer the Parker parrot. That will tell you a lot about the real motivations behind Campogate.

  6. Steve,

    This post reads like it was written by someone who hasn’t gone back on Jim’s web site and actually read the text of the e-mails that produced this scandal to begin with. Only in very recent correspondence has the notion of a “seminar” really been the focus of the discussion. The original e-mails are quite clear: pay money for a visit from Jay, his coverage of your region will be very valuable to you.

    Now I don’t actually believe that Jay has done anything wrong, other than to let Campo do his work for him in terms of coordinating his visits. There is, indeed, nothing wrong with getting a speaking fee for a seminar.

    But the fees that Jay says he normally gets for speaking are $8k to $15k. The charges that Campo was requesting from regions run to the $45k zone.

    You tell me, where is that extra money going? Or maybe Campo should tell us.

    Alder

  7. Alder, thanks for weighing in. Frankly, I can’t get too upset about the money. Like I said in my post, that’s what the market apparently will bear for Miller. If Campo is pocketing extra money, I don’t care about that either. The ones who should be upset by the money are the idiot Spanish vintners, who are stupid enough to shell out that kind of cash. If Miller is guilty of anything, it should be cynicism. “Wow, $15,000 for a talk to the Spaniards. Hola!!!”

  8. No matter how you slice it, when an organization area pays exhorbitant fees to a reviwer prior to that reviwer’s visit, there is a problem.

    The operative rule for journalists ought to be the “caesar’s wife” rule. I have no problem with people who go on non-paid, but organziationally supported fam trips to place. I have a big problem with the size of the fee.

    What Jay Miller has done is to sully all of us by going beyond the reasonable bounds of the “caesar’s wife” rule. If you or I did that, we would rightfully be pilloried for it. So would Alder or any other jouralist who claims independence and objectivity.

  9. bill weatley says:

    Unfortunatley Mr. Miller has had this stench about him for quite a few years in the industry. He has personally rated wines sometime 10 points higher and given unjust praise to wineries that other reputable wine writers have either given mediocre ratings to or they did not publish the ratings at all due to the wines being flawed. Being in the wine industry it’s unfortunate that alot of the “experts” don’t taste blind. I suppose if I had $10,000 a month in advertising budget for Mr. Speculator’s rag I might just get a few extra points added onto my numbers each vintage and sell out fast.
    It’s high time that the wine rating business gets cleaned up and a touch of ethics comes back to the business-long overdue.

  10. If I may add my two cents.

    There seems to be a lot of inferring happening here. If we are going to play “What If?”, what if Jay has nothing to do with this and it is all Campo’s doing?

    Here is what we do know. Campo was coordinating Jay’s visits. Is it hard to believe that Campo was independently (key point) using the pay-to-play tactic in order to recoup costs his organization spent/would spend on Jay’s speaking fees? Jay would be nothing but collateral damage from the scandal fallout.

    I don’t know the first think about Jay-gate except what I have read online. But if we are going to make inferences we might as well make all possible inferences and discuss all the possible “what ifs?”

    Is it possible Jay was complicit in this scandal? Without any direct evidence you can not prove without a shadow of doubt whether or not Jay was complicit. What if Campo was making pay-to-play assertions independent of Jay’s knowledge? The only evidence so far presented demonstrates Campo’s guilt. Jay’s name is used but nothing has been presented implicating him in the scandal.

    “Innocent until proven guilty” may not strictly be an American concept, but it is a fundamentally sound one.

    [Beaux Frères may have some cache because of Parker’s ownership but I would argue most of it comes from it being a damn good wine. No amount of Parker affiliation could overcome swill.]

  11. Bill Weatley, the fact that one critic rates a wine higher than some other critics is really meaningless. That’s the nature of wine reviewing: critics differ, although I would argue that there is a consensus to be had if you factor in enough reputable ones. Also, your conclusion that Miller gave “unjust praise” to wineries cannot be based on fact–it is just your opinion. Why was Miller’s praise “unjust”? Was it unjust in the same sense that praising Hitler would be unjust? I don’t know Miller but I’m just trying to be fair here and not pile on.

  12. Charlie, why is the size of the fee the issue, and not just the fact of the fee? If you take the position that a writer has the right to ask for a speaking fee, then it’s difficult to argue that “x” amount is okay, but “100x” is too much. I’ve been arguing that Miller apparently was taking what the market would bear. Screaming Eagle is able to command $750 a bottle because that’s what the market will bear. Maybe the people who buy Screaming Eagle are idiots. Maybe the Spaniards who paid that much to hear Miller are idiots. That’s their problem. Nor is it clear to me that Miller was engaged in pay to play, i.e., “I won’t even review your wine unless you pay me first.” THAT would be unethical. But so far I haven’t seen evidence for that. If it turns out that Miller extorted money for reviewing, then I’ll change my position.

  13. bill weatley says:

    Steve
    All very good valid points I agree. But a 10 point differntial is huge in the rating business. If you have ever seen how some of the experts rate the wine it’s like they are pulling magical numbers out of mid air to spend less than a minutes on a wine is unfortunate. Everything I said abouve is all alleged and he has not been found guilty of anything I agree.
    All I would like to reiterate is the ethical side of the wine rating business has long been thought of in our industry as a component that is missing when the wines are not reviewed BLIND by some. Please don’t overlook this statement blind tasting is the only way to know if the wine writers are truly giving their honest unsolicated rating of the wine and as I said before it’s unfortunate that it’s not done that way.

  14. Bill Weatley, if you were a regular reader of this blog you’d know I have long argued that blind tasting is the best way to objectively taste. I know for a fact that some of the most famous critics in the world don’t taste blind, even though their publications say they try to. The operative word is “try.”

  15. Steve -

    Can you address Steinberger’s points?

    http://winediarist.com/miller-time-one-more-time/

    Do you agree with Mike regarding what the pertinent questions are? Do you seriously not understand why some might want to know when people were told that Miller was leaving the Advocate?

  16. Evan, I might do so in the morning, but my immediate reaction is is that people who are addicted to the blogs, including mine, love this scandalous stuff. It’s the crack cocaine of wine writing, and I’m not addicted.

  17. Steve

    This is extremely disappointing. While you are just a “Blogger” in this instance, you are also a wine critic.

    In addition, before you form an opinion on a subject, you ought to be educated on the subject. As Alder and Evan have suggested, I suggest that you read what Jim Budd and Mike Steinberger have written. They have quoted actual emails written by the parties.

    Those emails appear to be quite damaging.

    As for your ability to go to a wine region, demand 100,000 euros for staying a few days there, taste the wines and not feel compelled to push up some ratings, well, we all know that you are full of shit to suggest that that does not happen. Heck, Miller is not even tasting wines blind in Spain. So, he collects a $15000 fee that we know about. Campo collects nearly $150,000 in total. Do you really believe that Campo keeps the balance? Are you the least but curious as to where the money train is headed?

    While you ay refer to this stuff as crack cocaine, I just seek out the truth.

    And your continuous bashing of the Wine Spectator, not tasting blind, while refusing to name names in the publication is a bit tiresome.

    If you have a story, I would love to hear it (truly), otherwise I would hope that you would move on from that.

  18. Here is some good meat for you to chew on, Steve…from the Wine Diarist website

    Antonio David
    December 10, 2011
    Dear Mike,
    Another one from Spain here too. We as winemakers, winery owners, vintners, enologists need a voice to be heard and Pancho provided us all with paid access to Mr. Miller. He said, they said, we said doesn’t matter, it is our bottom line and that is why we paid access to Mr. Miller. My wine is not yet rated and not imported into the US. If I don’t secure some way of having the Big US Critics to discover my wines and write about them, I will never export. The amount of money we all paid Campo was obscene, but what choice do we have? None. Questions on the expenses and how the money was spent? We were told a large portion of the money went to Pancho for arranging the trip, airlines, transfers, hotels, meals, video, and publication in The Wine Academy of Spain portals. I hope Mr Campo gets run out of Spain as he is nothing more than a vagabond. While I struggle to pay for my tractor repairs, Pancho if flaunting around in his Ferrari, having lavish 50th birthday & anniversary parties in Marbella (all on the social media to see), and acting like a jet set multimillionaire. Fuera Pancho Fuera! He has no shame and no place among the good people of Spain. Any winery supporting him now are only doing so because they are holding on to a thread of hope that he still has some tricks up his sleeves to sell them.

    Gracias for letting me speak, Antonio David

  19. Steve,

    I am not jumping on the bash-Jay-Miller-for-getting-paid bandwagon. I am just glad the guy is done because he was a LAZY reviewer. The effort he seemed to have put into South America and Spain in particular was laughable. 90 points with NO NOTES WHATSOEVER? As a retailer, how am I suppose to use that one? Just a big honkin’ number hanging from a shelf sign? I even called the Advocate TWICE, and the same response with regards to his lack of notes? “He did not turn in any notes with his reviews.” When you have a wine prose machine like David Schildknecht on one end, I guess having a reviewer who seems to possess no redeemable writing skills on the other end would give balance to the magazine, no? I could do a better job than he did, and that isn’t saying a great deal. Would someone with an apparent work ethic such as his be allowed to continue at Wine Enthusiast, scandal or no scandal?

  20. Daniel Posner, thank you for forward Antonio’s comments. That provides a lot of the background we need to more carefully understand this story.

  21. No problem.

    It is all very troubling and I fear that this is only going to get uglier.

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