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.’

14 comments

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I started out my wine experience reading Spectator and then Parker. Frankly I find both of them lacking, with the former praising questionable wines and the latter over-rating wines and praising over-the-top, in your face wines. At least with myself Parker has lost all influence and in talking to others who have been involved in wine for some time the same is true for them. Perhaps he is selling because he realizes that the value of his franchise is at a peak or has already started declining.

Posted by Sechel | Report as abusive

Wine ratings make as much sense as fast food ratings. Everybody has the experience of fast food, and the confidence to say I’m nuts if I assert the MacDonalds Big Mac is the tastiest mass produced hamburger (or what the heck, just THE best hamburger on the planet).

Parker has opinions about which wines taste good…that’s it. And that is fine. And critics, be they food, movie, or theatre, can provide some value. The problem with wine critique is that it evolved in the most pretentious drivel imaginable.
Slate…(the rock) – that is suppose to be a taste???

Posted by fresnodan | Report as abusive

From the sound of this deal, he better get paid up front.

Posted by maynardGkeynes | Report as abusive

Understanding the importance of the far east’s obsession with wine is the key to understanding Parker’s motives.
They have completely taken over high end wine purchases. They buy everything and anything that is expensive. Price does not seem to matter.
Follow the money!!

Posted by jhenline | Report as abusive

Sounds like he made a lot of money, what is not to understand?

Posted by QCIC | Report as abusive

George Lucas sold to Disney, these guys can’t live forever. So either they pick who to sell to, or their heirs do.

Posted by KenG_CA | Report as abusive

I vote for Tommy Lam for the China Correspondent´s job!

Posted by Galbraith | Report as abusive

Frankly, I only subscribed to the Wine Advocate because Parker, while I don’t always share his enthusiasm for big fruit bomb wines that don’t seem to pair well with ANY food, at least had integrity. And he was usually fun to read.

This group of Singaporean investors seems like they’re going to upend everything that made subscribing to the Wine Advocate (over other similar publications) make sense, which means a lot of American subscribers (if they’re like me) are going to let their subscriptions lapse, and then the audience that Parker spent most of his adult life building, which represents the goodwill that the group of Singaporean investors are buying, will shrink, with a significant concomitant reduction in value of the newsletter as an enterprise.

So the purchase only works on economic terms if they more than make up for the loss in American readers with lots of Asian ones.

And fresnodan, yes, slate is a taste. Take some very pure water, run it over some slate (yes, the rock) and taste what results. That’s the taste that’s being referenced in the reviews you’re referring to.

Posted by Strych09 | Report as abusive

What difference can it make? Wine quality is almost entirely subjective. I have had tastings with wine connoisseurs and the result almost always was that the most expensive wines were among the lowest rated while in general opinions “varied” widely. So why worry about who runs an wine evaluation scheme? Warren Buffett with his no nonsense Nebraska good sense had it right when he said most of the satisfaction from comparing wines comes simply from being able to waste time talking about it.

Posted by Chris08 | Report as abusive

PS I recall reading one “expert” (maybe it was Parker) who, when asked what wines he preferred, said “I usually go for the cheapest since most of them taste pretty much alike,” or words to that effect.

Posted by Chris08 | Report as abusive

And my last laugh here: this pretty much validates my viewpoint,

http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/fr ontal-cortex/2012/06/wine-taste.html

Posted by Chris08 | Report as abusive

I sense a disturbance in the force, and so much sour grapes… and poor journalism. Perhaps Singapore is destined to be the centre of the wine universe…and perhaps there is a wine and food audience and ‘life’ beyond America. One should not underestimate the talent involved here or be poisoned by the agendas of the competition… it is time to shake up the status quo

Posted by WanderingPalate | Report as abusive

I believed that not only significant structural changes were to take place at TWA following the move, but also the entire evolution of the F&B scene. Each transformation could help Singapore achieve her vision of becoming the region’s gourmet capital and a world-recognized destination for dining, nightlife and entertainment. It’s just like “Gangnam Style” in the wine world, with the newly appointed Singapore-based editor-in-chief, would boost “brand Singapore”.

Recently, the two new integrated resorts are changing the tourism landscape with Michelin-starred restaurants, celebrity chefs and world-class clubs. Certainly, it would be my dream to make Singapore into a wine-hub that Asia cannot do without!
Cheers
George Wong, Wine MBA
Oenologue & Consultant
Singapore

Posted by GeorgeWong | Report as abusive

easy, restrained and stylish