Last week, Pancho Campo resigned from the Institute of Masters of Wine. An email from the Institute’s executive director said that “in light of his move into more sports and music events and away from wine, he has decided to resign his membership of the Institute of Masters of Wine, effective immediately.” The Institute had commissioned an independent investigation–the findings of that report were about to be released.
A couple of weeks ago, Robert Parker released his own investigation into the Campo/Miller tours of Spain (For a backgrounder, read “No Jay, no pay.”). The summary report stated that no actual impropriety occurred yet suggested revisions to the ethics statement to apply to all Wine Advocate contributors, not just Parker. The report prompted a lengthy thread on eRobertParker.com, including a stunning intervention that laid out a chronology of some of the events and said that the “decent and classy” thing to do would be to apologize to Jim Budd, who had reported on each development of the scandal on his blog and had documented cooperated with Parker’s lawyers despite Parker’s insistence to the contrary.
The conversation there shifted to the topic of whether Antonio Galloni should have attended an importer’s lavish dinner in the company of producers from Burgundy, California, and Italy whose wines he reviews as well as some big-time collectors, including a member of the Forbes billionaire list. After responding to some questions, Galloni accused his questioners of having an “agenda” and complained of how tiresome it is to attend dinners and constantly field questions about “wines, vintages, producers, the WA etc.”
Yesterday, Jay Miller posted a comment on eBob arguing that since 2006 (when he was hired) all Wine Advocate contributors should have been employees, not “independent contractors,” been banned from schmoozing with the trade, and have any outside activities pre-approved by Parker.
Robert Parker long ago laid down an admirable set of standards for wine writers. If those are no longer tenable for the Wine Advocate, they should be altered. If they are still tenable, they should be applied to all contributors at the publication.
With little fanfare, the FTC released updated guidelines for endorsement disclosure on blogs. Diannej.com has a good run-down. Wineries and wine blogs are both affected but the guidelines are a jumble and the FTC has said they have not been getting complaints, they will not fine bloggers (if anything, they would target advertisers), and they are not monitoring blogs.
The crux of the matter remains sponsored posts and paid reviews, which look like editorial but are really ads. Fortunately, we don’t see much of those in wine writing and magazines tend to flag advertorial as such. But given the high cost of wine and low rates of journalistic pay, virtually every wine writer from a magazine to a newsletter to a blog evaluates wines received for free. This constitutes an “arrangement” between the writer and the advertiser, according to the FTC. Yet the guidelines state that bloggers, not newspapers or magazines, should disclose that each and every time a wine is reviewed. While transparency is essential, it’s a double standard not applying this to all forms of wine writing and evaluation, no matter the medium. Further, wine blogs don’t hold lavish consumer events, as some magazines do, profiting from ticket sales while wineries whose wines could be featured in future editorial pour their wines for free. This seems a little higher stakes than some chump change from amazon affiliate revenue.
In the end, it’s probably people in the trade who will be most affected by these updated guidelines, particularly on social media. The FTC is insisting on enhanced disclosure, saying that commercial tweets should be identified as such, adding something like “#paid” or #ad” to tweets with a relationship to the product. In related news, the FTC is performing a review of how 14 alcohol brands engage their audience on Twitter.
In all, these relatively toothless revised guidelines will probably see those with nothing to hide adding more cumbersome disclosure language. Even if there’s little enforcement, it’s better for writers to err on the side of transparency, not for the FTC, but for credibility with readers.
Last week, NewYorker.com engaged its readers by asking which words should be eliminated from the English language. The surprising winner was “moist.”
Now that they’ve jettisoned moist, it’s time for us to have our fun. Wine tasting notes are all-to-often laden with obscure, sometimes overly precious, redundant or otherwise silly words or phrases. We started circulating a few on Twitter yesterday with the hashtag #sillywinetastingterms. A few that came up were: “dusty minerals,” “a hint of clean earth,” “vinous,” “melted asphalt,” “hedonistic” and…”liquid Viagra.”
So, have your say: which wine tasting term is officially the most useless and worthy of expulsion from our vernacular?
SAQ, the state-owned wine entity that has a monopoly on wine retail in Quebec, paid wine critic James Suckling $24,000 last year. Suckling and SAQ had both denied any financial relationship.
La Presse reports in their online edition that they obtained documents through freedom of information law. The documents reveal that the SAQ paid Suckling $18,000 directly and bought 119 subscriptions totaling $5,950 to his website, which offers wine reviews to members only.
Suckling, the former Wine Spectator critic and European bureau chief, went to Montreal in early 2011 to taste wines and produce tasting notes that would appear both on his website and on that of the SAQ, he wrote at the time. La Presse reports that when Suckling was in Montreal the SAQ had stated “Mr. Suckling was not compensated to do the tastings.” Suckling, for his part, had blogged, “There is no financial relationship. It’s a sharing of information and contacts.” The documents obtained by La Presse state that Suckling was paid for “the tasting and scoring of products, the production, the creation, and putting the brief videos live.”
The SAQ spokesman told contributor the story’s author, Karyne Duplessis Piché, that the purchase of subscriptions was not unusual for the organization. This year, they have spent $26,000 on subscriptions to wine newsletters, the spokesman said.
James Suckling did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Image: PR Web
Gawker ran a piece recently that rips into the idea that the “one percent” don’t have enough money to live on. What provoked it was a Canadian one percenter who wrote in Toronto Life about his plight, and details his living expenses and several others posed for the magazine and detailed their expenses. One line item that caught my eye–as well as those of numerous commenters at Gawker–was that a one percenter admitted to spending $800 a month on wine. Assuming a bottle every evening, that works out to $26 per bottle, or adding them all up, about $10,000 a year. Granted, this one percenter lives in Toronto so he has to buy his wine at the LCBO, which has higher prices than in the US.
Still, it does raise a question or two about wine writing: how often do wine columns recommend wines north of $26? Assuming the answer is pretty often, then are wine columnists writing for the one percent? (In fairness, Canada’s threshold for inclusion in the one percent is only about half what it is in the US and we’re extrapolating this all from one single guy’s spending on wine.)
Certainly some columns, such as the current Wall Street Journal’s, might be more openly trying to target the one percent than others. Still, a lot more than one percent of wine recommendations are north of $26 a bottle (and still a lot above $52, if we use that as the American one-percenter wine threshold) even wine writers aren’t consciously targeting the “one percent” reader. While it’s true that a reader can pick and choose from a list of recommendations, it’s still worth bearing in mind that if a reader were to have a $15 bottle of wine every other night, the total spend on wine a year would be $2,730, a significant figure for most household budgets. (Clearly, a $30 bottle every other night would be $5,460 and every night would be $10,920, etc.) While we wine writers often delight in wines from specific places, as opposed to “brands” that can source from multiple vineyards or even wine regions, we should strive to highlight those elusive wine picks, the singular bottles at reasonable prices. Then we would be doing our small part for decoupling “wine” from “snob” in America.
There’s something of a cottage industry that has emerged in trashing the reputation of wine experts. Richard Quandt of Princeton wrote an hilarious essay entitled “On Wine Bullshit.” Bob Hodgson had his two devastating papers about wine competitions. The Wine Trials books suggest high-volume, low-priced wines are all that you’ll ever need. The WSJ got in on the action too a while back.
So at some point, someone had to ride to the rescue of the experts, right? Well, now we have it: a new study suggests that “wine experts” can discern more flavors than regular Joes. Yay, experts, right? Well, not really, the authors say:
“What we found is that the fundamental taste ability of an expert is different,” said John Hayes, assistant professor, food science, and director of Penn State’s sensory evaluation center. “And, if an expert’s ability to taste is different from the rest of us, should we be listening to their recommendations?”
Oh noes! We’re back to the wine-experts-as-useless line! Granted, there’s a lot of pretension and bluster worth bashing but let’s not throw the Burgundy out with the bathwater.
Looking at the details of the study published in the American Journal of Enology and Viticulture, the authors had volunteers identify themselves as wine experts or not. Fully a third of them were classified as “experts,” which seems not quite a representative sample of America (or perhaps Canada, where the data collection occurred.) Moreover, these self-selected experts showed a higher rate of detected the bitter compound, PROP, thus possibly making them “super-tasters.” As Mike Steinberger pointed out in his lengthy (self-)exploration of the physiology of taste, having a sensitivity to PROP does not make one a supertaster and being a supertaster does not make more of a wine expert. (As we’ve seen, blind tasting can have more bitter outcomes than PROP.)
So, yes, there may be biological differences in tasting ability. But in this nature-versus-nurture discussion, I vote for nurture as being more influential: it’s the catalogue of knowledge and tasting references, the experiences with wines in the glass, that make most of the great tasters I know really good. Also, many wine experts are self-styled and have varying capabilities, so I am skeptical there’s a genetic explanation for superior wine tasting ability. And what about the disconnect Hayes suggests between the masses not picking up on tasting note descriptors? Well, for some notes, there may be more than a whiff of what Quandt was talking about.
We quite often talk about the 100-point scale and its impact on wine, but is it correct to say that Robert Parker “invented” it? He certainly popularized the approach and it has come to be large part of his legacy as other magazines shifted to the numerical system.
In “The Emperor of Wine,” Elin McCoy writes that Parker and his friend Victor Morgenroth tried various systems of rating and evaluating wines in their (blind) tasting group in the mid-seventies. They tried letter grades from A to F as well as the UC Davis 20-point scale, which had already brought numerical ratings to wine with the gravitas of an institution. McCoy continues that “one of the men–Parker isn’t sure who–came up with the 100-point idea, which was really a 50-to-100 point scale…” (For international readers, the scale follows the system that we have in American schooling for most tests.) McCoy says that Parker and Morgenroth thought that the system was “much less likely to result in the inflated wine ratings they saw all around them.” Ironically, score inflation is the most likely threat to the 100-point system today.
Back on a thread in 2009, a commenter flagged Dan Murphy, an Australian, as pioneering a 100 point system. The retailer that bears his name today describes Murphy’s 100-point system as predating Parker’s use. Another commenter on the thread, Claude Kolm, relayed that in Maynard Amerine and Maynard Joslyn’s Table Wines (1970 edition) they discuss various scoring systems including a 50-point, 100-point and even a 200-point system.
Just for laffs, here are a few tasting notes and scores from one of first issues of the Wine Advocate: “a terrible wine…very thin and acidic with a dull, dumb bouquet and taste. A poorly made wine that should be avoided” (55 points). And another one: “atrocious wine devoid of any redeeming social value” (50 points). Care to guess which they were?
“The Internet has changed the way we think about wine. Once shrouded in mystery, it’s now shrouded in ignorance.”
That’s in the latest post from Hosemaster of Wine. Needless to say, I think it has been a huge net (pun intended) positive, since increasingly knowledgable consumers posting online is one of the most exciting things about the wine world today. BS be gone! But click through for context; it’s funny.