Shedding a little light on The Wine Advocate’s new mystery man
There’s been something weirdly mysterious about Soo Hoo Khoon Peng, the Shangain businessman who bought Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate, for a reputed $15 million.
While Mr. Soo’s company (or ex-company, depending on which account you read], Hermitage Wines, is usually described as a “fine wine retailer,” it’s virtually impossible, especially for a western reporter, to find out much about it. We do know that Hermitage is, or was, the distributor of Francis Ford Coppola’s wines in Singapore. Other than that, the company has an extraordinairly thin presence on the Internet. The online site, exporters.sg, which profiles international exporters, reports no reviews, bank information or anything else on Hermitage. Another site, which lists companies registered in the U.K. [as is Hermitage Wines], was able to find no information, beyond standard incorporation and other dates. Mr. Soo at one time apparently had a Facebook page, but it no longer exists.
Beyond its business functions, there is a fair amount of information on tasting events Hermitage and Mr. Soo have conducted. A report from 2007 on a “Champagne tasting session” by Mr. Soo at his wine shop quotes an admission price of “$35 or $45” per person, and it may be that part of Mr. Soo’s business plan from the start was to become an early sponsor of wine events in China, which can be quite profitable. In July, 2009, the Australian blog Brokenwood reported on a “degustation to end all degustations” Mr. Soo held at a Shanghai private club “boasting unsurpassed views of the city.” For that one, he hired the famous Australian wine writer, James Halliday, as commentator, suggesting that he (Mr. Soo) always has understood the value of bringing in well-known wine experts to attract an insecure Chinese audience in thrall to western writers. As far back as 2006, he was described as having “hosted numerous wine tasting and wine appreciation classes.”
In 2011, his Hermitage staff organized another elite tasting, this time of top Pinot Noirs, including ones from Romanée-Conti, at Singapore’s St. Regis Hotel that included such famous names as Halliday, Andrew Jeffords, Allen Meadows, Josh Jensen and Lisa Perrotti-Brown, who now will be the new editor-in-chief of Wine Advocate, under Mr. Soo’s ownership.
Whatever Hermitage is or does, Parker apparently still has links to it, albeit indirectly. Mr. Soo may (or may not) have left the company, but his wife “still has close ties” to it, according to Decanter. Actually, Robert Parker’s ties to Mr. Soo are nothing new. They go back to at least April, 2010, when China Daily reported that Hermitage Wines brought Parker to Singapore for his “maiden, three-day ‘Ultimate Parker in Asia’ event.” That may have been Parker’s first three-day event, but it wasn’t his first wine-oriented trip to China. That occurred in May, 2008, when he “led 50 people on a ‘trade tasting’ of eight wines in Beijing,” according to the Grape Wall of China wine blog.
Even then, 4-1/2 years ago, Parker was laying the groundwork for his grand entry into the People’s Republic. Asked by the Grape Wall of China how he planned to engage China’s wine market, “He said his Web site has an ‘enormous database’ that can be translated. He pointed to cell phones as a way to disperse the information. He also cited the importance of visiting China, doing tastings and seminars, ‘and letting people see who you are – a wine lover.’” He concluded, “I want to play a part. I want to show my passion for wine.”
That Parker has done that, with considerable planning and skill, and to his enormous profit, is obvious. It would be interesting to determine exactly what wines Hermitage has a relationship with, as importer, distributor, or retailer. Until the role Mr. Soo, his wife or any of their relatives and close associates enjoys with Hermitage is clarified, the Wine Advocate should take the precautionary step of refusing to review any wines connected to Hermitage, in order to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest.