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.
13 tweets and counting in the last 24 hours from Robert M. Parker, most of them seemingly designed to correct statements made by Lettie Teague, of the Wall Street Journal, in her article about “The Big Shake-Up” at the Wine Advocate.
Lettie apparently got so much wrong that Bob felt the need to correct the record as fast as he could, before the misinformation becomes embedded into popular consciousness (as these things tend to; even the New York Times’ Eric Asimov passed along some of Teague’s incorrect information).
Lettie: “the fiercely independent publication…will start accepting advertising, though none that is wine-related.”
Parker: “The Wine Advocate print edition will never take on ads.”
Lettie: “The company’s headquarters, an office just down the driveway from Mr. Parker’s home in Maryland farm country, is also moving to Singapore.”
Parker: “headquarters REMAINS [sic] in Monkton but a second office…in Singapore.”
Lettie: “Mr. Parker said the print version might disappear before the end of 2013…”
Parker: “no plans to eliminate the print edition…”
If Bob’s tweets have an air of weariness about them, it’s understandable. He even provided a link to a report on his sale of the Wine Advocate in Bloomberg News, which he apparently feels is more accurate. The Bloomberg reporter pointed out that the facts “contradicted a Wall Street Journal story, which said the Wine Advocate may phase out its print version by the end of 2013.”
In so many respects this story has been blown out of proportion, not just in the Wall Street Journal and other popular media but especially on the wine blogs, which are going nutso. Not much has really changed at Wine Advocate nor do I expect much to change anytime soon. Parker will “continue to focus [as he tweeted] on Bordeaux, Rhone, retros of CA & the big picture…”, just as he does now. My take: good for him. He’s worked his tail off for decades and now deserves whatever he got.
Far more interesting, to my way of thinking, is this paraphrase, from The Drinks Business, concerning Wine Advocate’s new editor-in-chief, Lisa Perrotti-Brown: She “hopes [the move] will give her more control over wine reviews.” Granted, this wasn’t a direct quote, but we have to imagine Perrotti-Brown said something to that effect. Will the current writers, including Antonio Galloni here in California, be content to “become full-time employees of The Wine Advocate, rather than independent contractors,” as The Drinks Business article said? And what does “more control over wine reviews” mean anyway? Danger, danger, when management says they want more control. Parker’s correspondents have some deep thinking to do: report now to a bunch of Singapore businessmen via Perrotti-Brown and lose the freedom of being an indie contractor? Risk being told their reviews need, uhh, editing? Or hold onto their ethics and lose their precious positions as writers for Wine Advocate, with all the perks it brings? As an indie myself, I can tell you these are difficult decisions for a writer to make.
The buzz in media circles for many years has been how traditional print publications, such as newspapers and magazines, can stay alive in this age of the Internet, where content (for the most part) is free.
The challenge of remaining relevant (and profitable) isn’t limited just to print pubs, however. It encompasses old broadcast media, too, including television and radio. Briefly, how can these models stay in business in a mobile era in which nobody wants to pay for anything, and advertisers are having second and third thoughts about investing large quantities of money into vehicles that look increasingly anachronistic?
There are no simple answers. This blog has grappled with the question for years, as have other blogs and social media platforms. Some extreme social media adherents have argued that print and broadcast media are inexorably doomed. Others, including myself, have said, No, that’s not the case, we’re in an evolution whose outcome is uncertain. Nobody really knows. On the many occasions I’ve been asked to make predictions, I’ve resorted to a standard quip: If Rupert Murdoch doesn’t know what’s happening (and he doesn’t), then how am I supposed to?
If you think about it, the times are indeed changing, what with the entire world going social and mobile, but beyond that, we don’t really understand what this means for traditional for-profit media. We know that the instrumentation of accessing media is changing—from paper and plugged-in electronic things to portable, wireless things. What’s so difficult to figure out, though, is how information is going to be researched and reported, if the money that used to pay for it is draining out of a system increasingly reliant on “free.” There used to be standards of journalism that reporters were expected to respect, if they wished to get paid. There used to be obligations to the society at large, to be useful and helpful. Now that everyone in the world can be his own reporter, what happens to those standards? To put it another way, can Twitter substitute—in value, relevance and historicity–for the New York Times or, for that matter, for the hometown newspaper or public radio station?
Smarter minds than mine are grappling with this question, and it’s not surprising that many of them live in my neck of the woods, the Bay Area, where not only Silicon Valley is located but also that bastion of traditional media, San Francisco (whose big newspaper, the San Francisco Chronicle, almost went belly up a few years ago). San Francisco also is home to one of the most successful, wealthiest public radio and television stations, KQED, which just announced that it’s partnering with two other nonprofits to create “a $2.5 million accelerator fund for selected media startups — of the for-profit variety — to tap.” (An accelerator fund invests capital in externally-developed companies in return for capital, whereas an incubator fund brings in an external team to manage an idea developed internally.)
The investors, who call themselves Matter Ventures, are looking for “media startups with multi-disciplinary teams who have early-stage prototypes, such as participatory platforms, mobile applications, B2B media services, and content production engines.” Ring a bell? Think of a website that produces content (say, a blog), that encourages two-way communication between provider and users (such as a blog), and that can go mobile. They seek “entrepreneurs who show high potential to create media ventures that make a meaningful, positive impact on society while pursuing a sustainable, scalable, profitable business model.”
That “profitable business model” thing is the catch. How would that work for, say, something on social media that’s wine related? Wine blogs have proven notoriously incapable of producing anything beyond modest profits, if any. In this, of course, they echo the Internet in general, where many are called but few are chosen. There are very few web platforms that make money. Porn does. Google does. Online stores do. But those aren’t what Matter Ventures is looking for. The CEO, Corey Ford [who was involved with ex-Google CEO Eric Schmidt’s venture capital fund), is aware that a “profitable business model” on a social media platform is really hard to achieve, but he believes that the brilliant minds can come up with something. “Is there a way that we can leverage that type of [Silicon Valley innovation] model to support innovations in the areas we care about, in the future of media that matters?” he asks. He thinks there is, but he can’t say what it is, anymore than anyone else can, beyond proposing that “a culture of experimentation”, properly loved and cared for by Matter Ventures, can succeed. The new business will have “to impact society in a way that makes its citizens more informed, engaged or empowered.”
Who knows if this will succeed? It’s risky for the investors and particularly for KQED, whose donors may well ask why their money is going towards such experimental things instead of paying the bills. But if anyone can figure out how to make social media make money, in a way that helps society, it’s the combined brain power of Silicon Valley and San Francisco media.
Quite a brouhaha they’re having over in France, where the government plans to tax beer, but not wine.
This, despite the fact that the French barely drink beer at all; France has Europe’s next to last lowest beer consumption rate. (Maybe that’s why the government is targeting foam heads. There’s not enough of them to organize a proper riot.) The extra funding the proposed tax will bring in is to go to the country’s social security system.
There may not be many beer drinkers in France, but such as they are, they’re an ornery lot, annoyed they’re being asked to dig deeper while snootier wine drinkers aren’t. “I am shocked that beer is the only target,” said a café owner, quoted in the New York Times, which added, “Complaints about the tax increase are coming not just from customers, but from brewers, the food industry generally and politicians, who know that some voters, at least, like French ales.”
The controversy also has stirred up an old dualism: that beer drinkers are more blue collar, conservative, downscale and traditionally male than wine drinkers, who are portrayed as effete metrosexual strivers. The German online journal DW, reporting on the French tax, called it “A question of class” in which “beer…the drink of the poor” plays second fiddle to wine, which “has always been a middle class drink.”
This split, between beer drinkers as “real guys” and wine drinkers as the “San Francisco brie-and-Chablis” crowd, long has been most visible in the U.S. through advertising, and particularly T.V. commercials, in which beer lovers, overwhelmingly men, are depicted carousing in sports bars. Wine T.V. commercials by contrast—well, there aren’t enough of them to speak of, since the giant breweries can afford air time that top wine companies cannot. Cavit, the big Italian wine company, occasionally has a commercial, like this one, which couldn’t be further away, in symbol and spirit, from a beer commercial. Scantily clad couples in a hot tub! Trattoria music, with accordions and violins instead of screeching electric guitars and pounding drums! And, the ultimate anti-beer touch, men in tuxedos! Contrast that with this Miller commercial, in which a guy who orders a Lite beer in a bar has his masculinity questioned by the babelicious bartender who tells him to “put down your purse” which is actually a carry-on bag.
I thought things might be changing when the craft brew movement exploded, and certainly in places like coastal California and the Pacific Northwest, the wine and beer cultures overlap so perfectly that Nick Gislason, Screaming Eagle’s winemaker, is a home brewer. And the nation’s Metrosexual-in-Chief, President Obama, also practices the art of home foaming.
But elsewhere, the dichotomy seems alive and well. As the Daily Iowan lampooned, Are you sick of hearing women talk? Are you stupid and lazy? Do you need constant reassurance that you are a man? Have a beer!
That’s satirical, of course, but all satire depends on a resemblance to reality in order to strike home. There remain, in this country, millions of people who will not drink wine because, to them, there’s something suspect about it.
Well, in a form of reverse snobbery, I’m a wine guy, but tonight, I plan on drinking an IPA home brewed by my friend, Jeremy, an Oakland firefighter. He’s not stupid or lazy, and he loves women. He’s enough of a man to rush into a burning apartment building and rescue people and he doesn’t need to be thanked for it. “Just doing my job,” is what you’ll get from Jeremy, who also loves a nice Pinot Noir.
You remember recently when the news out of Italy was that some seismologists who had failed to adequately warn residents of an impending earthquake were threatened with lawsuits? According to published reports, some of them actually were sentenced to prison terms for manslaughter.
When I heard that, I thought it was insane. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I idly wondered if perhaps a wine critic, who was trying to be similarly objective in his reporting, could not someday be sued, for giving a wine a lousy review. The winery proprietor could argue something along the lines of slander, or defamation, or interference with his ability to run his business successfully, or monetary damages–something like that. And, in our litigious society, that proprietor might easily find a sympathetic jury. As this thought was mildly disturbing, I quickly got rid of it.
Then, there came this report, from just a few days ago, where a Minnesota doctor sued someone who had given him a bad review on a rate-your-doctor website. According to the report, the case has now reached the state’s Supreme Court.
Now we have Rob McMillan, the resident wine guy at Silicon Valley Bank, musing on the question, “Can you sue a wine writer?” From Rob, we learn (I didn’t know it) that Parker had been sued back in the 1990s by Faiveley for libel, after Parker implied that the Burgundy producer might have been “cheating” [Rob’s word].
Rob also wondered about whether a bad Yelp review could result in a lawsuit, and about the culpability of bloggers. Speaking for myself, as both a published critic in Wine Enthusiast and as a blogger, I can’t imagine a winery proprietor coming after me legally for a poor review. He or she would be so attacked by the media (other bloggers, editorialists, critics, mainstream columnists, the ACLU and other free speech defenders) that it wouldn’t be worth his time or money to pursue such a case.
Besides, most of the wine I review–pretty much all of it, actually–is either sent to me by the proprietors, or submitted by them to large, regional blind tastings in places like Napa Valley and Santa Barbara County. If a proprietor elects to send his wine to a critic, he is rolling the dice and has to accept the consequences.
On Yelp’s Usage Language box, they write that posters “…may expose yourself to liability if, for example, Your Content contains material that is false, intentionally misleading, or defamatory…”. A review cannot be “false,” since it’s the writer’s opinion, not a statement of fact. Nor can it be “intentionally misleading,” unless someone can prove that the critic’s state of mind was such that he really liked the wine in question, but then deliberately wrote otherwise. The word “defamatory” is harder to parse, but “defamation” means the intentional slander or libel of someone or something, and that, too, would have to be proved in court. Of course, an angry proprietor could know he didn’t have a case and still wish to harass a critic, legally and financially, out of sheer pique.
I can see it happening one of these days, maybe not to me, but to someone else. It’s already happened to restaurant critics. The San Francisco Chronicle’s great reviewer, Michael Bauer, wrote a few years ago on his blog about how restaurant critics in both Australia and Philadelphia were sued for “liable for a defamatory review…These type of cases are nothing new,” Michael wrote, adding that “The next frontier will be when a restaurant decides to sue a Web site, community reviewer or a blogger about comments made on the Internet.” We may be perilously closer to that frontier than we think, if in fact we haven’t already crossed it.
The classic way the government tries to regulate alcoholic beverage consumption is through so-called “sin taxes” that raise the price of booze, thus making it harder to people–especially poor people–to drink.
Our own U.S. government does it, and so do state governments. The federal and state governments collectively generated $5.8 billion dollars in alcohol beverage rax revenues in 2009, according to the Tax Policy Center of the Brookings Institution,
That’s the price consumers pay. Wineries in addition pay a tax to the Treasury Department, depending on the alcohol content of their wine: for example, $1.57 per gallon on wines between 14%-21%.
There are few people out there, I think, who would say that no taxes at all should be raised on alcoholic beverages (maybe a few extreme libertarians or Tea Party types). The question that has plagued our government for many years is exactly where to draw the line. How much tax is too much tax?
Years ago, in the early 1990s, there were a series of measures to raise taxes on wine in California. These were largely sponsored by a loose collection of individuals and organizations commonly referred to as “neo-prohibitionists.” Those efforts were opposed most strenuously by the Wine Institute, the San Francisco-based trade group then under the leadership of John De Luca. I don’t know who came up with the term “neo-prohibitionists,” but it was brilliant marketing, as it made the pro-tax side look like a bunch of tight-ass teatotalers led by Carrie Nation-type angry non-drinkers who hated fun, sex and dancing. Needless to say, nothing came of these tax-boosting efforts, and I can’t recall any similar threat so far in the 21st century.
Well, not here in the U.S., anyway. But Down Under, it’s a different story. The Australian National Preventative Health Agency, an official part of the government, is set to propose “that a ‘floor price’ and new taxes be calculated as a way to make alcohol dearer,” according to news.com.au.
And the tax hike would not be a modest one. “The cheapest wine would cost $8.40 for a bottle of white or $9.60 for a red.” (The U.S. and Aussie dollars are pretty much equal in value.)
The Australian Medical Association is pushing the pro-tax plan, while the country’s hotels, retailers and wine industry trade groups are fighting back. It’s a Battle Royale and the outcome isn’t clear.
I obviously hope this tax hike doesn’t go through. Prohibitionist schemes, whether for recreational drugs or alcoholic beverages, never work. Look at this country’s own sorry experience with Prohibition in the 1920s, which gave rise to organized crime’s lucrative choke hold on booze, or to today’s strictures against marijuana, which have turned Mexico into a narco-state whose violence routinely spills over the border into our own country.
Much better, in the case of alcoholic beverages, to teach young people to drink responsibly, at the table with food and companionable company. But I guess that’s asking too much in a country whose culture still has a streak of puritanism running through it.