Soo Hoo Khoon Peng is the newest owner of the Wine Advocate, report blogger Vincent Pousson and Decanter.com. They point to email received from sources close to the transaction saying that he led a syndicate of buyers to pay $15 million for an undisclosed stake in the company. Soo Hoo, listed as vice president at Detsche Bank on his LinkedIn profile (and on his Facebook page, which has now been removed despite frequent updates prior to Monday), was a co-founder and director at Hermitage Wines, an importer and retailer. Pousson and Decanter report that the email says he divested himself of the Hermitage stake last month.
In his announcing of the transaction, Robert Parker had described the buyers as “totally independent of the wine industry.” He also noted that the Wine Advocate headquarters would continue to be in Maryland. Decanter quotes the email as saying that Singapore is the new “command and control” of the Wine Advocate.
Hermitage Wines has organized events for various wine world luminaries, including Robert Parker at the three-day “Ultimate Parker in Asia” event in 2010. “Parker is god when it comes to wine, nobody in any business is as influential as he is,” Hermitage co-founder Arnaud Compas was quoted in the Reuters story at the time. “He has vision, the ability to anticipate how a wine will develop, and he has always been spot on, which sets the benchmark for prices. Because of that, Robert Parker has created fortunes.”
After several days, there was no reply to an email to Soo Hoo seeking verification of his role in the transaction.
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. Read more…
Wine scores cloak wine with a false sense of objectivity and precision. If they are to have any rigor, they should be replicable under various situations. Joel Peterson, the Champagne-sipping founder of Ravenswood Winery, has a telling vignette in this regard:
I have made wines under two labels and I’ve had them scored in the same periodical as much as five points apart. Same wines, different package. Like all judging of wine, it suffers from the wine that came before, the wine that came after, the time of day. All those things can affect a wine by as much as five points.
Many Burgundy reviews have higher scores for each wine at a domaine as the prestige of the appellation increases. To add some rigor, it would be interesting to see if those results were replicable if the wines were tasted blind or intentionally mislabeled. But I guess the folks at Caltech already did something similar to that.
Wine tasting notes, long bastions of affectations and preciousness, have come under scrutiny recently. Apparently Eric Asimov spends a chapter savaging them in his recent book. The other day, over on wineberserkers.com, Bill Klapp performed a merciless forensic analysis on a note. But then there’s this:
Surely the problem with many wine writers is not that they write tasting notes but that they aren’t very good writers.
Ouch. Tasting notes are often badly written, which may be the the shortcomings of the writer. Possibly compounding the situation, or adding a new wrinkle, is the sheer quantity of tasting notes some critics produce–it’s hard to say something original when churning out dozens of tasting notes about similar wines that you’ve had on a few minutes with. Sadly, many wine publications appear to be joyless tasting note (and score) factories.
Throwing the Barolo out with the bathwater?
Even though they may be hard to write, tasting notes still can play in important role: a reader has to know if she’s in for a Barolo or a Bourgeuil or a Barossa shiraz. And even in a horizontal tasting, where the differences can be small, some discernible distinctions can still be be conveyed. Since they are inherently boring, it helps if tasting notes include an opinion or wit. The mass production of tasting notes leads repetition and the reaching for fanciful descriptors. And, really, it’s the rare consumer that skims skims the tasting notes to find a wine to buy–fancy a wine with some “Asian spice”? Or notes of saddle leather? Granted, I would definitely seek out a syrah that has some black olive character or a pinot noir with acidity so they certainly can be useful. But tasting notes are best produced and consumed in moderation–the tasting note as artisanal product, if you will.
A reader writes in:
I have just seen that Robert Parker has tasted the wines for Jorge Ordoñez and given points instead of Neil Martin. What is going on? I thought after the No Pay No Jay scandal they would be doing things by the book. Very disappointed as I was very happy how Neil Martin was doing things. I personal will cancel my web subscription. These points given can not have any creditability.
This is not the first time that Parker has reviewed the import portfolio of Jorge Ordonez separately from the Spanish critic: When Pierre Rovani reviewed Spanish wine, Parker kept the Jorge Ordóñez wines back to review those personally. This time, Parker uses the 25th anniversary of the importing business as a reason for singling them out. He also adds this line:
Jorge Ordoñez can sometimes annoy people, and he seems to have no shortage of competitors who are clearly jealous of his great success.
It’s an odd line, with more bitterness than a wine before microxidation; if he likes the wines, why not just leave it at that? To include this line in a short piece praising Ordonez seems spiteful and almost paranoid since nobody had said anything badly about Ordóñez, as far as I am aware. From my perspective, the Ordóñez wines appear less visible than they were a decade ago and there have been some notable wineries that have left his portfolio. Meanwhile, the rise of boutique importers of Spanish wines has been one of the more exciting stories out of the Iberian peninsula in the past decade. Given that Parker frequently mentions Ordóñez wines, and Miller had been the recipient of hospitality, I understand why the reader is irked.
Frank Prial, who wrote the Wine Talk column for the Times for the better part of three decades, has died. An obituary in the Times has details on his career and important place in the history of wine writing, particularly in the 1970s when specialty wine publications had yet to emerge.
He had previously worked at the Wall Street Journal and brought a business reporter’s sensibilities to the task and often sought the business or political angles in his stories.
He also had a human touch. I recall him once telling a group of us scribes about the best wine he ever had. Even though he had the opportunity to taste many of the world’s finest wines over the course of his career, the best wine he ever had was some rotgut American “Chablis,” the first wine he had back on American soil after serving in the Korean war.
The day after the election, there’s always much to discuss. With Obama’s victory yesterday, who will be the new Treasury Secretary and whether Daniel Shanks will survive in his post as usher in charge of wine at the White House will no doubt be at the top of the agenda.
One of the big winners yesterday was Nate Silver and the empirical analysis he brought to forecasting the election. He ran daily aggregates of polls with pinpoint precision–and accuracy. On November 5, while many pundits were calling the race a “tossup,” Silver said that Obama was 91% likely to win the electoral college with more than 300 votes, which proved accurate on both counts. Further, he called every state correctly, batting 50 out of 50.
Will Silver’s sabermetrics extend to the wine world? Will sommeliers start saying, “Based on our algorithms, there’s a 91% chance you will like this wine.” Could sommeliers with a high OBP (Open Bottle Percentage), DRS (Diner Rating Satisfaction) or PECOTA (Probability Enology Contains Oak TCA Algorithm) start getting traded from one restaurant to another?
In all seriousness, there’s a lot of subjectivity in wine that masquerades as objectivity under the false precision of point scores and distant drinkability windows. Just because you see a number in wine, doesn’t mean that it’s empirical.
If [wine writers] are beholden to wine producers for the wines they taste, they are not likely to fault them…
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.
That’s from the boiler plate material on ethics that appears at the beginning of each edition of Parker’s Wine Buyer’s Guide, now in the seventh edition. Robert Parker set an admirable standard long ago. Read more…