On Wednesday evening I attended a tasting of fifteen wines from Bordeaux 2005. The vintage was widely hailed as superb and pre-recession demand drove the prices into the stratosphere. Aside from the outrageous apparent quality of the wines, the tasting had two other attractions: the ability to taste some of the top wines blind and to do so in the company of Robert Parker.
Over 100 of us packed a room in a midtown hotel for the event, organized by Executive Wine Seminars. I arrived fifteen minutes early and it was already hard to find a seat at a table. Five wines were pre-poured into five ISO glasses, and there was some bread and cheese. At my table were people who had come in from Chicago, Wisconsin, Delaware and Napa. And they had paid a lot of money too: $795 each (I was fortunate enough to have gotten a ticket from someone who couldn’t attend). The air practically buzzed with anticipation.
Even though the tasting was blind, everyone knew the lineup of wines and it included some of the most heralded wines of the vintage as the Parker scores (in parentheses) indicate:
Angelus (98) • Cos d’Estournel (98) • Ducru Beaucaillou (97) • Haut Brion (98) • Lafite Rothschild (96+) • La Mission Haut Brion (97) • Larcis Ducasse (98) • Latour (96+) • L’Eglise Clinet (100) • Margaux (98+) • Montrose (95) • Pape Clement (98) • Pavie (98+) •Le Gay (95) • Troplong Mondot (99)
In addition to my excitement about tasting these wines, I was eager to see Parker engage in a blind tasting. Blind tastings are incredibly challenging, of course, and can humble even the most accomplished tasters. On the other hand, Parker is known to be a formidable taster, and he has made some impressive claims about his own tasting abilities. In the famous profile of Parker published in The Atlantic (that Parker displays on his web site) back in December 2000, the author wrote that Parker “stores the sensation of each [wine] into a permanent gustatory memory. When I asked him about the mechanical aspects of his work, he told me in a matter-of-fact way that he remembers every wine he has tasted over the past thirty-two years and, within a few points, every score he has given as well.”
2005 is a vintage that is obviously very fresh in his memory (and he has said it is the greatest Bordeaux vintage he has experienced in his storied career), and given his apparent total recall of the wines he tastes, I was obviously very keen to see how he’d fare in a blind tasting–particularly one involving his favorite wines of the vintage. Read more…
The Wall Street Journal has a story today on page D1 entitled, “Wine Advocate Writers Spark Ethics Debate: While Newsletter’s Founder Champions Independence, Two Reviewers Accepted Trips.”
Reporter David Kesmodel details the divergence between policy and practice at Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate. He acknowledges reporting on this blog that initially raised the questions (see my original correspondence with Parker and critic Jay Miller here and a follow up here).
The Wall Street Journal story adds details that Miller accepted trips to Australia and Chile paid by wine industry groups. I contacted Wines of Argentina last month and their staff in Mendoza verified that they had also had paid for two trips for Miller to visit the country. Other parties verified that he was ferried around the country by private jet on one of those trips.
The WSJ story says that Parker declined to respond to interview requests, as did Miller and Mark Squires who has admitted to taking press trips to Portugal, Israel and Greece. Joining a press trip from a regional or national association is not out of ordinary for wine writers; it’s that Robert Parker laid down ethical standards years ago that state “It is imperative for a wine critic to pay his own way” and “it is imperative to keep one’s distance from the trade.” Parker’s lack of response to the reporter seems odd since not only would it clarify the situation but he encouraged reporters to call him just last month, writing in his forum “Today…most journalists don’t even call if they want to write about me…no sense having me provide a well documented rebuttal that undermines their story line……”
“Wine Advocate Writers Spark Ethics Debate” [Wall Street Journal]
In a recent posting, I published my correspondence with Robert Parker and Jay Miller concerning an apparent divergence between the ethical guidelines set down by Parker and the actions of some of the contributors to The Wine Advocate.
One claim that came up several times in the over 130 comments was that Mr. Miller took one or two trips to Argentina, organized and paid for by Wines of Argentina, a trade group representing over 100 wineries that also receives government funding according to their web site. I contacted Wines of Argentina and they confirmed that they paid for and organized the two trips and several people in the trade there also confirmed them. Robert Parker has also now admitted as well but referred to them as “vineyard tours.” There was apparently more to the trips than just that–multiple sources said that there were lunches and dinner at wineries, and I was also told by several people that Miller was ferried around the country by private jet during one visit.
I alerted Miller yesterday that Wines of Argentina had told me that the trips were comped and asked him for comment. Not long thereafter, Parker posted a message that indicated that Miller would no longer be able to take “vineyard tours paid by Wines of Argentina.”
Parker laid down ethical guidelines years ago–guidelines that are the source of so much of his authority and that have set the standard against which all other wine critics are judged. The divergence between the action of some contributors to the Wine Advocate and the stated policy was (and perhaps still remains) a legitimate and important issue given the power of the publication; if the Wine Advocate was bending the rules, that was something his readers had a right to know.
Over the weekend, on his web site, Parker characterized those of us raising these concerns as the work of “extremists who could care less about the truth.” On the contrary, the truth was precisely what I’ve been after. Perhaps the larger issue then is Parker seemed to resent that people wanted to know the truth. While Parker lamented the state of journalism, the examples he cites of good journalism seem to be anything that speaks well of him.
But journalism is precisely what I’ve been doing all along. I went to Parker and Miller with legitimate questions and they were evasive. I spoke with Wines of Argentina and the truth came out. That’s called journalism. Instead of lashing out with invective (“extremists” or “jihadists” or eliding wine bloggers with the Taliban) at me and others who have raised very legitimate issues, Parker should take this episode as indicative of the respect he commands and the seriousness with which the wine community takes the ethical standards he established long ago.
Since Mr. Parker has shown an affection for ending his interventions with quotes, here’s an aphorism that he might remember from his days as a lawyer: “If you have the facts on your side, pound the facts. If you have the law on your side, pound the law. If you have neither on your side, pound the table.”
Robert Parker set an admirably high standard for ethics in wine journalism. In the introduction to the latest edition of his Wine Buyer’s Guide, he emphasizes the need for wine critics to avoid potential conflicts of interest and lays out the ethical guidelines that he believes they must adhere to. Among other things, he says that is “it is imperative for a wine critic to pay his own way. Gratuitous hospitality in the form of airline tickets, hotel rooms, guest houses, etc., should never be accepted either abroad or in this country.” He also writes: “While it is important to maintain a professional relationship with the trade, I believe the independent stance required of a consumer advocate, often not surprisingly, results in an adversarial relationship with the wine trade. It can be no other way. In order to pursue independence effectively, it is imperative to keep one’s distance from the trade. While this attitude may be interpreted as aloofness, such independence guarantees hard-hitting, candid, and uninfluenced commentary.”
In his correspondence with eRobertParker.com moderator, Mark Squires, Mike Steinberger brought up the “Weekend at Bern’s,” a road trip to the Tampa Bay wine mecca, Bern’s. Click through to read a first-hand account in the erobertparker forums. The Wine Advocate’s Jay Miller, whose editorial ambit includes reviewing the wines of Spain, Australia, and Argentina, was among the attendees. Also there were three importers whose Spanish wines Miller reviews: Eric Solomon, Patrick Mata, and Jose Pastor. Miller’s participation in this purely social event would seem to be distinctly at odds with Parker’s stated policy regarding interaction with the trade.
This isn’t the only example of Wine Advocate contributors deviating from Parker’s guidelines. Last year, Mark Squires, who reviews the dry wines of Portugal as well as the wines of Israel, Greece, Lebanon, Cyprus, Bulgaria and Romania for the Advocate, went to Israel on a trip, in his words in the forum, “”paid by the Israeli government…approved by Bob in advance.”
To the best of my knowledge, Parker has not given any indication, in print or online, that he has relaxed the Wine Advocate’s ethical standards. But in light of these examples, and given that so much of Parker’s authority derives from the perception that his integrity is beyond reproach, it seems fair to ask if the Wine Advocate has changed its policies regarding gratuitous hospitality and interaction with the trade. So I put the question to Robert Parker via email and post his reply here. I also sought clarification from Jay Miller. Further down, I post our exchange.
From: Tyler Colman
Sent: Tue, 14 Apr 2009 4:51 pm
Subject: request for clarification
I have always admired your independence. I am curious about some perceived changes at The Wine Advocate and would welcome a comment from you.
In a recent thread, Jay Miller was shown to be on a road trip that included three dinners at Bern’s restaurant in Tampa Bay in the presence of, among others, three importers (Eric Solomon, Patrick Mata, and Jose Pastor) whose wine he reviews for the Advocate. [link]
Separately, Mark Squires admitted last year that he took a trip to Israel that was not paid for by the Advocate–with your approval, he says. [link]
I’m curious how these actions square with the policy in the Wine Buyer’s Guide, which reads in part: “It is imperative for a wine critic to pay his own way. Gratuitous hospitality in the form of airline tickets, hotel rooms, guest houses, etc., should never be accepted either abroad or in this country…In order to pursue independence effectively, it is imperative to keep one’s distance from the trade. While this attitude can be interpreted as aloofness, such independence guarantees hard-hitting, candid, and uninfluenced commentary.”
The recent actions of Squires and Miller have left me wondering: Has there been a change in policy for The Wine Advocate reviewers? If so, have you disclosed that to your readers? What is now allowed?
Tyler Colman, Ph.D.
The forums at eRobertParker.com are a lively place. Unfortunately, they are often moderated with a heavy hand: several voices have been expelled and some threads that have even a whiff of criticism are deleted in their entirety.
Such was the case with a thread last week concerning Mike Steinberger’s recent Slate column about the state of Australian wine. Mark Squires, who moderates the Parker board, accused Steinberger of selecting “biased” retailers for the story. One of the retailers shot back with a stinging rebuttal of the bias claim. Shortly thereafter, the thread was deleted in its totality.
Subsequently, Steinberger had an email exchange with Squires. Steinberger questioned the decision to delete the thread and said it had unfairly deprived him of a chance to respond to Squires’s assertions. Squires was unmoved, and a spirited discussion followed. With Steinberger’s permission, I am posting the exchange here. Sit back and pass the popcorn.
Sent: Thursday, April 9, 2009 11:21:34 PM Read more…
The book is called A Year of Wine: Perfect Pairings, Great Buys, and What to Sip for Each Season. In it, a collection of essays and hundreds of wine recommendations, I encourage readers to break out of their chardonnay or cabernet rut and drink different by plotting a seasonal arc to their wine consumption. Simon Spotlight Entertainment, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, will publish the book, available November 11 at a retailer near you or on Amazon.
Epicurious flagged it on their short list of books for “thirsty readers” this fall.
If you like this blog, you will love this book! Why? Because I sold the book based on this blog. But since you readers were not there in the book to post comments, I recruited 13 of America’s leading sommeliers to lend their voices to the book with their thoughts on seasonal drinking and perfect pairings.
I’ve just received some finished copies of the book and have three to sign and give away! All you have to do to qualify is post a comment on this posting saying which is your favorite season for drinking wine. And while “all” is certainly an acceptable answer, maybe there’s one that brings particular pleasure to you.
Comments will close on Thursday and Friday I’ll throw all the commenters’ names in a hat and draw three names. So check back then to see if you are among the winners!
See the listing for A Year of Wine: Perfect Pairings, Great Buys, and What to Sip for Each Season on Amazon.
If you decided to get a Wine Spectator Award of Excellence for you restaurant wine list, what would you need? The answer according to Robin Goldstein is $250 and Microsoft Word. Restaurant not actually required.
Goldstein, the author of The Wine Trials, has a posting up on a new web site describing how he invented a restaurant name, Osteria l’Intrepido, a riff on “fearless.” Then he typed up a menu (“a fun amalgamation of somewhat bumbling nouvelle-Italian recipes”), put together a wine list, and submitted both to Wine Spectator–along with the $250 fee. The list was approved and given an Award of Excellence (see screenshot).
Then Goldstein decided to add a twist. To the tape:
It’s troubling, of course, that a restaurant that doesn’t exist could win an Award of Excellence. But it’s also troubling that the award doesn’t seem to be particularly tied to the quality of the wine list, even by Wine Spectator’s own standards. Although the main wine list that I submitted was made up of fairly standard Italian-focused selections, Osteria L’Intrepido’s “reserve wine list” was largely chosen from among the lowest-scoring Italian wines in Wine Spectator over the past 20 years.
Click through for the list complete with WS annotations and scores.
Reached by phone today, Goldstein said that he also presented this information at the annual meeting of the American Association of Wine Economists in Portland over the weekend.
“I didn’t have any empirical evidence of the quality of the restaurants other than my own impressions,” he said. “I wanted to see what the standards of the Awards of Excellence were. The results speak for themselves.” His experience will be part of an academic paper he is working on about standards for wine awards.
In 2003, Amanda Hesser explored the Wine Spectator restaurant awards in a piece in the Times entitled “A Wine Award That Seems Easy to Come By.” She concluded that the 3,573 restaurants that year grossed Wine Spectator $625,275. But the annual application fee then was $175 as opposed to the $250 that Goldstein and others paid for their application fee this year.
I am an op-ed contributor to the New York Times today urging wine producers to upgrade the quality of wine available in boxes. If you’re new to the site, welcome and feel free to explore the site including wine picks. Also, consider subscribing to the site feed or get caught up on my joint research on the carbon footprint of wine.
Overall, I’m disappointed with the quality of box wine here in the U.S. But the time for good box wine has come for environmental as well as economic reasons as I argue in the piece.
There are some rays of hope in the box wine landscape. Unfortunately, the $40, 3-liter D-Tour wine, made by Dominique Lafon of Burgundy and imported by Daniel Johnnes, wine director at Daniel Boulud’s restaurants, has been temporarily withdrawn from the market (search for this wine). However, the Cuvee de Pena, an old vine grenache from the French side of the Pyrenees, is still available (find this wine). And the newest and brightest star is the $11 unoaked, organically grown malbec called Yellow + Blue sold in a 1-liter TetraPak (not bag-in-box; find this wine). There’s also the Bandit from California (find this wine).
So what do you say about boxed wine? Have your say in the latest poll! And hit the comments with your preferred box selections.
poll now closed
Related: “Drink outside the box” NYT
“An open letter to Jorge Ordonez” [Dr. V]
“How I gave up bottled water and lived to tell the tale” [Dr. V]
Drinking box rosé in the south of France
The excellent image is by Grady McFerrin and ran with the story.