Robert Parker has sold a “substantial” interest in the Wine Advocate. He is stepping down as editor and the newsletter will now be run out of Singapore. The new owners plan “wine education conferences” around the world and will accept non-wine advertising.
This seems like quite a volte face since, as Felix Salmon notes, Parker just told the WSJ last month that he has refused all offers over the years in part because he “would not relinquish” editorial control of his newsletter. Now the WSJ ran a story by Lettie Teague on the sale to an group of three unnamed, “young visionaries” in Singapore. The story reports that Lisa Perrotti-Brown, currently the Australian wine critic, becomes editor-in-chief and that they will cease the print edition, shifting to exclusively online. (Parker also posted details on his own web site in an announcement.) The WSJ story presents no history of the subscriber arc at the Wine Advocate but claims it currently has 50,000 subscribers (Since this is a news story in the Media & Marketing section, can one assume that this figure was verified in some way other than Parker’s word?).
Perrotti-Brown, long the least-known member of the staff, seems to have a swagger in her step as she commented to the WSJ that she and Parker “hope” the current contributing critics stay with the publication. But, if not, “There is a plethora of good wine writers out there. It’s a buyer’s market,” she said. On the thread on eBob, Neal Martin, who was rushing out to a tasting, posted that he is “very excited” about the changes.
The authority of the Wine Advocate has long rested on Parker’s perceived tasting prowess and his probity. With the titular shift of editorial to Singapore, Parker’s tasting ability becomes less relevant. Parker, 65, has said since the beginning that he was steeped in the post-Watergate awareness of conflict of interests. He has held up Ralph Nader’s consumer advocacy has a guiding light and touted his independence from the industry, often using that as a cudgel against other wine writers or publications he deemed too close to the wine trade. However, in recent years, his contributors have not maintained the arm’s length from the trade, whether that is in the form of “masterclasses” involving Jay Miller or the Festa del Barolo or Solaia events of Antonio Galloni. So it is particularly interesting to see that the “wine education conferences” feature prominently in the new Wine Advocate yet at the same time, Perrotti-Brown seems to be showing Galloni, considered Parker’s heir, the door.
Will the new editorial group rewrite the vaunted ethics statement to stop what many have seen in recent years as untenable and/or hypocritical? Will they continue to publish an estimate of how many wines they purchase and perpetuate the notion that their critics taste blind “whenever possible”? Will their contributors openly accept trips from national or regional promotional groups? Will the “education conferences” purchase their own wines at retail or follow the Festa model and source directly from wineries whose wines they then review in print? Given Perrotti-Brown’s hardline comment about the tenure of existing contributors, is she cleaning house to start anew, a strategy that itself has risks? The Wine Advocate has hit a fork in the road. Where it goes in 2013 and beyond remains to be seen.
UPDATE: Robert Parker has just launched a barrage of Tweets regarding the transaction and contradicts a number of things in the WSJ story. Namely, he denies the print edition will cease, says that the headquarters will remain in Monkton, MD and there will be a “second office” in Singapore, and says that Perrotti-Brown will be doing “day to day editing” while he will set the “big picture.”