When I was still a beginning wine writer, one of the giants of our trade was Nate Chroman, who died last Friday at the age of 83.
I am looking now at his 1973 book, The Treasury of American Wines, which I have owned for many years. It’s a fine read, although for me its usefulness is limited by the fact that it has no index.
Nate was the wine critic for the Los Angeles Times in the 1970s and 1980s, but lost his job after another Times reporter, the paper’s media critic, David Shaw, wrote a series of articles on wine writing in which he questioned Chroman’s ethics. (I wonder if they ran into each other at the water cooler.) Nate, it seems, had accepted meals and travel from wineries, whose wines he then reviewed in the paper. This was the first instance, so far as I am aware, of a wine writer’s ethics being questioned in the media. My oh my, how far we’ve come. As we all know, gotcha! articles about wine writer ethics have become a staple these days, especially in the blogosphere (paging Jay Miller). Nate Chroman had the dubious distinction of being the Alan Shepard of that agonizing trip.
I met David Shaw, who passed away in 2005, in the 1990s, at his home in the Silver Lake district of L.A., where he had a modest wine collection he wanted to show me. Yes, David was a wine lover, and a knowledgeable one. Although he’d come under fire for what some perceived as an unnecessary persecution of Nate Chroman, who evidently was well-liked (I never met him), David never apologized or reneged. He had a sense of justice, not to mention a nose for a good story (he won the Pulitzer Prize for reporting about a preschool child abuse scandal) and felt strongly that wine writers should accept nothing for free from the wineries they cover.
I think David was a little harsh. Reporters can err too much on the side of being judgmental, especially if it makes for lurid reading. The worst thing I heard about Nate (I can’t locate a copy of David’s series, so I don’t know if it was in there) was that Nate used to demand that winemakers who invited him to lunch or dinner bring super-expensive bottles of wine, like Lafite, which he then wouldn’t even drink, but take home! I don’t know whether or not that was true, but it made the rounds, in those pre-Internet days when you heard things from an actual person’s lips.
I personally don’t think it’s a big deal to occasionally accept a meal from a winemaker. I do it on rare occasions, almost always lunch at my local Whole Foods, not exactly the Everest of haute cuisine, but convenient for me. Obviously I would never ask a winemaker to bring an expensive bottle, especially one he didn’t himself make. That’s over the line.
This next is a little irrelevant to the topic, but mentioning Jay Miller made me think of Robert Parker, so I went to his website where he’s described as “the million dollar nose.”
That made me remember the actress Betty Grable, who was described as having “million dollar legs.”
Through the magic of The Google Machine I learned the following:
The TV star, Holly Madison, has a million dollar insurance policy on her boobs.
The porn star, Keiran Lee, has a million dollar policy on his penis.
Head & Shoulders shampoo took out a $1 million insurance policy on the hair of the NFL star, Troy Polamalu.
Gene Simmons, of KISS, insured his tongue for $1 million.
And according to the same website, Tom Jones “allegedly” insured his chest hair for $7 million.
When I was in my 20s I was in a rock band [on keyboards]. We were good enough for Mr. Tom Jones to audition us as the opening act for his upcoming tour. My band had 8 or 10 female backup singers (the number varied over the years). They were all beautiful, sexy women. It turns out that Mr. Jones didn’t hire us, but he did put the moves on the ladies, whose reactions can be summed up in the word “Eeeew.” And finally, for your listening pleasure, here’s Tom singing “Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee” on YouTube.
Following the news last week that Robert Lawrence Balzer had died, there’s been a flurry of obits in the media. I never knew Balzer, although I’d certainly heard of him. His heyday was before my time, and in my considerable library of wine books I have none by him, for some reason; I certainly never avoided buying them.
Then yesterday I was reading the New York Times and came across Frank Prial’s obituary of Balzer, in which Frank wrote, concerning Balzer’s stint as the Los Angeles Times’ wine columnist [a post Frank held at the Grey Lady before Eric Asimov took over], “His own newspaper, The Los Angeles Times, mildly criticized him at one point for being too close to the people whose wines he judged.”
Suddenly the memories came back. I vaguely recalled the L.A. Times firing a wine columnist for being too cozy with winemakers, demanding expensive wines from them at expensive restaurants…but, no, that wasn’t Balzer, it was Nate Chroman, whom the late reporter David Shaw wrote about in the L.A. Times more than 24 years ago, in his six-part series, “Wine Critics: Influence of Writers Can Be Heady.” It brought back pleasant memories of David, whom I knew briefly in L.A., when he’d invited me to his home in (I think) Silver Lake, where he had just installed a wonderful wine cellar.
I read all six parts of the series, which covered Robert Parker, Robert Finigan (whom I also hanged with back in the day; we were part of the little group that helped Gavin Newsom put together the wines to sell at his first PlumpJack store), The Wine Spectator, Connoisseur’s Guide to California Wine (hello, Charlie Olken!), and Gerald Asher, then still at Gourmet. (I fancied that, had David written his article a few years later, I might have crashed the party.)
All the young bloggers should read this series. It’s the best analysis of the impact of wine writing that’s ever been done by a journalist, and the fact that David wrote it 24 years ago makes it even more remarkable. The same things we obsess with today–ethics, pay to play, accepting freebies, the abuse of power, conflicts of interest, the relationship between writers, editors and publishers–make appearances in David’s series; like the Ghosts of Christmases Past, the flit across the stage, each more disfigured than the last. One cannot read this thing without coming to the realization that some things never change, because the world remains essentially the same place it’s always been.
David, who died at the age of 62 in 2005, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1991 for his coverage of a sexual abuse scandal at a California preschool that turned out to be a witch hunt. David was a helluva writer: careful, observant, intrepid, passionate. Unlike some today, he got his facts straight (helped, no doubt, by the L.A. Times’ fact checkers), but even if it hadn’t been for fact checkers, I’m sure his many articles would have been correct anyway, because David placed that demand on himself. He was proud of his Pulitzer, but he also was proud of his series on wine writers. He was a wine guy, bigtime–food, too–and re-reading the series, after all these years, leaves me breathless that David had the instincts to write it. Twenty four years ago, nobody spoke of such things as the ethics of wine writers. It wasn’t considered important. David realized there was something going on; he spent a long time researching his series, talking to everyone from Randall Grahm to Harvey Posert, then Mondavi’s mouthpiece, now with Fred Franzia, at Bronco. He put together a splendid tale that raised more issues than it answered, issues that we’re still talking about today, and that still have not been answered. Was it legit for Chroman and his wife to accept a junket to France, Italy, Germany and Spain? Unclear; Chroman was a freelancer, not an employee of the L.A. Times, which in any case had no policy about freebies at that time. Was it inappropriate for Chroman, who’d been asked to lunch by a wine importer, to demand the importer bring him to Scandia (the most expensive L.A. restaurant back then) and also bring along $1,000 worth of Burgundy? That seems like a stretch to me, but letting somebody who wants to get to know you pay for your lunch, I have no problem with that. I do it, not because I need another fancy lunch (I’m trying to lose weight, not gain it), but because it’s important for me, as a Wine Enthusiast editor, to form good relationships throughout the industry.
So you see, we’re still struggling with the same issues David highlighted in 1987.
After last week’s brouhaha over Jay Miller I decided to double check what Robert Parker says about blind tasting. From “The Wine Advocate Rating System” page on his site:
“When possible all of my tastings are done in peer-group, single-blind conditions.”
You can see that the loophole here is “when possible,” but how big a loophole is it? So small you can barely squeeze a pinky? Or big enough to drive an 18-wheeler through? Well, here’s Parker on his own “exceptions to this policy”, followed by my comments:
(1) all barrel tastings
That’s cool. I’m down with that.
(2) all specific appellation tastings where at least 25 of the best estates will not submit samples for group tastings
I had to read this a couple times to understand it. I would guess this means, for example, Napa Valley Cabernet. I, personally, am never sent the wines of more than 25 Napa Cabs (Colgin, Araujo, Staglin, Screaming Eagle, etc.), and I would guess Parker isn’t, either. Perhaps he buys them, but my educated guess is that Parker actually travels to the wineries, or to local third party venues, to taste (of course, from now on it will be Galloni), and that these tastings are open. If you roll in other “specific appellations” (Bordeaux, the Northern Rhône, Burgundy), and if you assume that lots of the wineries there “will not submit samples” (do the First Growths or DRC?), then you have to also assume that Parker’s Rule #2 gives him ample leeway to taste openly, pretty much whenever he wants to.
Sodden thought: Who determines what are “the best estates”? And if you know you’re tasting one of “the best estates” wouldn’t that bias your perception of that wine?
(3) for all wines under $25
This is a pretty weird “exception to this policy.” Why should wines under $25 be held to a different standard than wines over $25? Parker doesn’t make this clear. It’s especially difficult to understand, given this statement, from his “Wine Advocate Writer Standards” page:
“In a tasting, a $10 bottle of petite chateau Pauillac should have as much of a chance as a $200 bottle of Lafite Rothschild or Latour.”
Truer words never were spoken! But how can that $10 petite chateau wine have “as much of a chance” if it’s tasted openly? Why not sneak it into a blind tasting against Second, Third and Fourth Growths? That would be giving it “as much of a chance” to earn a high score. If Parker (or anybody else) is staring at the label (and, even worse, at the tech sheet)–and particularly, if he’s sitting down to an open tasting of petite chateau wines–isn’t it possible, and even likely, that his mind is being influenced by knowledge of what he’s tasting? I should think so. “These are just petite chateaux, so they can’t possibly be very good. Everybody knows that,” is how the mentation would go.
Okay, back to blind tasting. Here’s Parker’s guideline (on the Writer Standards page) for “The Other Wine Advocate / eRobertParker.com Wine Critics”:
“All tastings…are done under both blind and non-blind conditions…”.
It’s curious that on this very long page, which is practically an essay, this is the only mention of blind tasting. You would think Parker would focus much more deeply and candidly on this topic, since it’s really at the heart of everything he (and we) do. But no–just this slapdash little reference. And even it is unsatisfactory. “Both blind and non-blind”….How? When? Why? Under what circumstances? So this looks to me like another loophole, as big as the “when possible” loophole mentioned above.
Loopholes are funny things. Everybody uses them. Most of the time, it doesn’t really matter. We give ourselves just enough wriggle room so that, if we have to break a promise, we can say, “Well, I didn’t swear on a stack of Bibles, did I?” But sometimes it does matter. I should think in the case of a wine writer it would be obligatory to have a little note beside every review indicating how the wine was reviewed, and where. In a blind, big regional tasting? Individually and openly, at the winery, with the proprietor? These things matter. People have the right to know. We’ll never do away with loopholes, but we can make them so tiny that only a pinky can fit through.