The Robert Parker bombshell

By Felix Salmon
December 10, 2012

This is a bit odd. Last month, Lettie Teague had lunch with Robert Parker, and asked the questions on everybody’s mind: “Was Parker planning to retire? Did he have a replacement? Was he selling the Wine Advocate?”

Parker told Teague that he had no intention of retiring, nor of selling:

Parker said he has entertained offers to buy his newsletter over the years, including three from “hedge-fund guys,” but so far he has refused them all, in part because he would not relinquish editorial control of the newsletter.

Today, however, Teague is back, this time in the pages of the WSJ. And it seems very much that Parker has sold the Wine Advocate after all — to a shadowy group of investors in Singapore, no less. What’s more, he’s relinquishing that editorial control as well: he’s “turning over editorial oversight to his Singapore-based correspondent, Lisa Perrotti-Brown”.

Nothing about this deal makes any sense, on its face. The new owners are going to start accepting advertising — something which makes sense financially, since those 50,000 subscribers tend to be extremely well-heeled. But at the same time, they’re scrapping the print version of the newsletter,* despite the fact that (a) it’s profitable, and (b) they would surely be able to charge much higher rates for print ads than for online ads.

The new owners also have no experience either in wine or in publishing: Parker says that they’re “young visionaries” in the financial-services and IT fields, whatever that’s supposed to mean. Their vision is, to say the least, a big jump from TWA’s current incarnation:

More than four out of five Wine Advocate subscribers are American, but the new investors are planning an abbreviated Southeast Asian edition aimed at corporate clients like airlines and luxury hotels.

The newsletter also will put more emphasis Asia’s nascent wine industry. Ms. Perrotti-Brown plans to hire a new correspondent likely to be based in China.

“The correspondent will cover wines produced in China, Thailand and other Asian countries,” she said, and will help to produce tasting events, another focus of the new Wine Advocate.

Corporate clients? Chinese wine? Tasting events? These are huge new steps for TWA — and, contra Teague, much bigger steps than the decision to accept advertising. I don’t think there’s any good way of rating Chinese wines: either the scores will be low, thereby annoying the very customers they’re supposed to appeal to, or they will be high, and ruin TWA’s reputation for impartiality among its 40,000 US subscribers. There might come a day when China produces world-class wines, but that day has not yet come, and no one knows that better than Robert Parker and Lisa Perrotti-Brown.

As for tasting events, you can’t run those without having a business relationship with winemakers. Perrotti-Brown tells Teague that “no winery or wine-related business will be allowed to advertise,” but there’s not really any need for them to advertise, if they can simply underwrite a grand wine-tasting event instead. Having your wines featured at a Wine Advocate tasting event is the best marketing any winery can hope for, and they will be very willing to pay top dollar for the privilege.

Parker himself will retain the title of Chairman, and will continue to review his beloved Bordeaux and Rhone wines, but none of this seems like the action of a man who wants to preserve his legacy. Robert Parker is the Wine Advocate — and now he’s handing his baby over to a group of people he won’t even name, but who will probably eviscerate everything he stands for? He told Teague he was presented with “a plan he couldn’t refuse”, but I can’t imagine what that might be. He’s never been a profit-maximizer, but he’s managed to become rich all the same; it’s hard to see how a large check alone would have sealed the deal.

I suspect that in coming days and weeks there will be further shoes to drop; quite possibly, this deal won’t end up closing at all. But if it does, and if TWA does indeed move to Singapore, then that will only serve to accelerate the backlash against Parker’s palate which has been gathering steam for some time now. What’s bad for TWA could be very healthy for the wine industry as a whole: if it is no longer particularly beholden to one man, it can branch out into making more heterogeneous and individualistic wines. The idea that a 95-point wine is always better than an 85-point wine is an idea which deserves to die. And this deal, with luck, might just hasten its demise.

Update: Parker now tweets that he’s not scrapping the print edition after all. And if you were missing a hint of squid in your wine, here’s Adam Lechmere:

Decanter.com understands that agents acting for the critic have been approaching high-net-worth individuals in Asia since the early part of the year.
All those contacted have denied any involvement and refused to speak on record, although one told Decanter.com he was approached by ‘current and former employees of Goldman Sachs’ with a business prospectus for ‘commercialisation of the Parker brand.’

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