Robert Parker states that his publication, The Wine Advocate, purchases “more than 60%” of the wines that it reviews. Parker previously said that he paid for 75 percent of the wines, but amid the furor last year over the free trips that two of his contributors, Jay Miller and Mark Squires, had accepted, he scaled back that figure. However, many people wonder if even the revised figure is true. After all, The Wine Advocate reviews thousands of wines a year (16,474 wines last year), and more than a few of them are extremely expensive. Also, Parker now has six contributing writers, all of whom are presumably drawing salaries from The Wine Advocate.
In 2006, Parker’s assistant, Joan Passman, told a New York Times reporter that Parker purchased bottles “on occasion” but that “by far the largest portion” of wines he sampled were free samples. (Parker publicly dismissed her assertion, saying she had “no clue as to whether I spend a dollar or a million dollars on wines to be tasted.”) In the related article, Marvin Shanken admitted that the Wine Spectator, which has many more subscribers and much higher revenues than the Wine Advocate, was dependent on free samples. “It’d be economically impossible to buy all those wines, especially the ones that are $100 to $300 to $500 a bottle,” he said. During the Miller/Squires flap, Parker seemed to suggest that shouldering the travel expense could lead him to “sacrifice” coverage of some areas. If that travel cost is too much to bear, it certainly seems reasonable to wonder if Parker is really buying as much wine as he claims.
To find out what the Wine Advocate spends on wine according to the stated policy, I crunched the numbers from the December issue, #186, which included 3,067 reviews of wines from Napa, White Burgundy, Australia, Champagne, Greece, Cyprus, and Portugal. The newsletter conveniently provides price information on many wines; however, some rated wines received no price information, often on the basis that they are not-yet-released samples from barrel or bottle. Despite the fact that some of these wines (e.g. Hundred Acre, Colgin, Staglin) will retail for hundreds of dollars per bottle, I coded these as barrel sample (BS) and assigned a price of zero. Such BS accounted for 304 of the 3,067 wines reviewed, or about 10% of the wines reviewed. It is also worth noting that the Wine Advocate generally does not list wines that have received scores of less than 85 points. It seems reasonable to assume that at least several hundred wines fall below this threshold each year.
The total value of the wines listed in Issue 186, excluding those categorized as BS, is $210,168. Parker publishes six issues a year; extrapolating from Issue 186, The Wine Advocate reviews $1.2 million worth of wine every year. If Parker is indeed buying 60 percent of the wines reviewed, he is spending in excess of $700,000 per year on wine for review. Related to this discussion, it is worth noting that according to self-reported figures on Parker’s site, The Wine Advocate has 50,000 subscribers (the current rate is $75 a year making $3.7 million a year in revenues). Unless Parker decides to release audited figures, there is no way of knowing whether or not he is buying “more than 60 percent” of the wines that are reviewed in The Wine Advocate. I just thought it might be useful, in light of the discussion concerning this issue, to try to come up with some numbers.
Interestingly, although Issue 186 included tasting notes for almost 1,000 wines from Napa valley, two iconic producers Chateau Montelena and Dunn Vineyards, were not reviewed. These omissions sparked a lengthy discussion on erobertparker.com, and in response to concerns raised by some participants, Parker chimed in with this comment: “I wanted to taste Dunn and Montelena with other Napa cabernets in October…they were invited to participate..I even called Montelena several times as I love their wines and own quite a few vintages(Dunn as well)…but for reasons they only know, they did not want their wines tasted in the company of other Napa cabernets..I respect that….” By “invited to participate,” Parker was presumably saying that Montelena and Dunn had been invited to submit samples. In response to his remark, one commenter noted that he could have purchased the wines in order to include them in his tasting. Parker did not reply.