Monday, December 5, 2011

Jay Miller leaves the Wine Advocate

I've been laid off from jobs I loved, most recently after a few glorious months as food editor at SF Weekly. When that happened, I know a few restaurateurs, a reader or three, and a bunch of non-readers did a little jig or opened a bottle of sparkling wine. And I've taken a buyout from a wine writer/editor position at a major publication, the San Francisco Chronicle. As with any position like that, some people were happy then too.

Of course I don't know exactly how Jay Miller feels today, after leaving a position as one of the three most influential critics in the wine world. Miller leaves the Wine Advocate within a week of Jim Budd's blog posts (here's the one that broke it; here's a key one following up) detailing arrangements made for Miller to visit Spanish wineries for a large fee.

But I can guess how it feels, from how I felt each time I left a job I loved. Dazed. Vulnerable, and aware of it. Trying carefully to make all the small and bureaucratic but crucial decisions about dental plans et al. Should I travel? I shouldn't make any big decisions. I should bounce back quickly.

I'm worthless. I mattered yesterday. Today I do not matter. That's the worst thing. There, I have been. It is not pleasant. It is an opportunity to exercise the kind of emotional strength I aspire to and admire. And another such opportunity, tomorrow.

Another thing that sucks is going to events when you're suddenly less important. You've always realized people love you for your column inches, but still, people who begged to buy you dinner now give you their elevator smile and look away to chat up one of "these bloggers," as Robert Parker put it.

Here's one that's very hard: You used to be able to try any wine you wanted, just by asking. That is such a gift. Today, from now on, you cannot. It is, maybe, like no longer being able to fly.

I have been where Miller is. But I haven't been where Miller was, nor have few other people in the modern era. Miller has wielded power more akin to an African dictator than a food or wine writer.

I call Miller the third most influential wine critic in the world, after his now former boss, Robert Parker, and Wine Spectator's James Laube, because these are the only three writers who have changed the style of winemaking at many wineries. There are many better critics, but those go to the wine stylistically, rather than making the wine come to them.

Maybe Miller is the third most influential critic of any kind. Do filmmakers change their style for any critic? How about playwrights? Do automakers make their cars differently to please Car & Driver?

The kowtowing Miller received, the depth of insincere worship around him, perhaps only kings know.

Yet there is tragedy in a boy without the strength to be king, and that would be most of us.

I do not know how my palate would fare in the spotlight of the throne of the Wine Advocate. I do not like the wines Jay Miller likes. But what if I had the power to make all Viogniers light and floral, because that's how I like them. Would the world disdain me as the guy who ruined the grape? How would any of us fare?

I want to see the soul behind the 100-points granted to syrups. But in the context of the history of the wine world, this is a great day. It could be an epic drama's climax, with bells ringing and attractive young people running in the streets to lock hands, sing, dance and pour unfiltered wine from refillable jugs into each others' mouths.

In Spain, we may see the end of Vinos Expresivos, those huge oaky wines made from international varieties, where some of the best grapes go to rot. Did anyone other than Miller ever like them? In Washington, perhaps Syrah will less often taste like blueberry pancake syrup. For me, and for many others, it is a day of liberation.

Hours before I heard this announcement I attended a large sommelier-only tasting. One of the presenters casually said of Spanish wines, "You know how the wines that get the highest ratings aren't the best wines or even good wines. They're certainly not wines we like." Nobody disagreed.

The ethical scandals made Miller easier to criticize and ultimately precipitated his departure, no matter whether he jumped or was pushed. As bad as they may have been, they weren't really the problem. Jay Miller, as a critic, was against the concept that wines should fit into a meal. The bigger and louder the wine, the better.

I know something of how Jay Miller feels today. Yet he is like the pitcher for the team I have rooted against my whole life, limping dejectedly off the mound after giving up a walkoff home run.

And I am one of those road-team fans. I see the slump of his shoulders. I do not wish him this pain. But I do not share it.

So I cheer. Loudly. Sorry Jay, but hurray. Hurray!

Follow me on Twitter: @wblakegray and like The Gray Report on Facebook.


Anonymous said...

Jay Miller was one of the three most influential critics in the wine world? Um, wow. Please elaborate on that one. You could start by naming a single person who didn't think that he was an absolute clown. He influenced lots of knee-slapping and derision, that's for sure. Who are the other two, by the way?

W. Blake Gray said...

Wow, reading comprehension just isn't what it used to be.

I guess sometimes it is better to be anonymous.

sidewaysandtotheleft said...

Whoa. Wine smackdown. Well, at the very least this has been very entertaining. Glad the bloggers won this one. Gotta speak your mind and not fear punishment from the "wine establishment."

1winedude said...

I kinda see this as just a big "meh, so what?" moment.

This move will matter to some (SOME, not all) WA subscribers, I suspect (I'm not one of those people).

I also suspect that it won't matter much to retailers, who will still display "RP'S WA" scores because (as some studies have shown) most consumers don't care who's score is on a wine at the shop, they just respond to the score itself?

1winedude said...

But you know why this IS news?

The blog-o-world (and by extension WA subscribers and people who are dedicated wine consumers) took WA to task on this and they had to act.

THAT is news, and it wouldn't have been done without wine blogs.

Anonymous said...

Couldn't get past that statement, sorry. And now that I did, I disagree even more. Please name a single winery that changed their style to suit Jay Miller. Just one. He was with teh Sdvocate for just over four years so even if wineries did change their style to suit him the changes wouldn't have time to be realised. You give the guy far too much credit.

W. Blake Gray said...

Joe: You should blog about your indifference, but I disagree with you. I think this is a huge moment for the wine world in a couple of ways. The way that you mention is one.

And Vinos Expresivos are another. Spanish wineries have been investing a lot of time, energy, new oak barrels and top quality grapes into making these wines pursuing high scores specifically from Miller. This gives those wineries an opportunity to put their energy into their top of the line non-cartoon wines.

W. Blake Gray said...

Anon: How 'bout we start the naming process by giving you one? Otherwise, go troll elsewhere. Thanks.

satomitu said...

In the other day,i went to Union des Grands Cru de Bordeaux tasting in Tokyo.
There,I met some people from Parker's Magical20 Chateaus. All claimed that Parker has admitted his taste to be changed.Some even claimed Chinese market is in favor of elegant matured wines rather than fruit bombs,that is what all is all about.
He will never revise all he has ever written.But a lot will change.
Will these whole thing,Change of Parker's taste and departure of Miller,mean end of WA dynasty?
Thank you for reading my poor English.
Is everything clear?

Anonymous said...

He left with his head high and pockets full, good on you Mr. Gray.

W. Blake Gray said...

Dear Sato-san: Thanks for your comment.

This is a good day not only for the wine world, but also for the Wine Advocate. Miller was hurting its credibility in two ways, both with these ethics issues and his overly high scores for low-acid, indistinct wines.

The Wine Advocate seems likely to decline in power over the next few years because so much of its power came from Robert Parker, and he is gradually giving up his tasting portfolio.

Parker's move to replace Miller with people who are better able to understand what wines from a region should taste like will help. But it may be too late.

However, much of the wine trade has become dependent on the Advocate's ratings to sell wine. So while many writers have written about how the Advocate doesn't matter anymore or won't matter soon, it's way too early to say that.

W. Blake Gray said...

Aussie Anon: You may be more accurate than you know. Check out Mike Steinberger's post here:

Now if you knew you were leaving a source of income, wouldn't you be motivated to teach a few well-paid "master classes"?

gianpaolo paglia said...

this a Spanish story, but the tale you have told us could be easily applied to Italian wines as well. Liberation day will arrive in Italy too? I think for many, maybe not the majority but a sizeable number of winemakers that day iha already arrived, before someone had to resign. Long life to wine that looks more like wine and less like syrup.

Portland Charcuterie Project said...

Big Whoop.

Another uptight ass telling me that I should drink what he likes has left the building.

( soon to be replaced by another ).

Nice blog again, btw.

I really enjoy your writing Mr. Gray.

W. Blake Gray said...

PCP: Thank you so much! It's staggering the number of people who read something for free on the Internet, then leave an anonymous comment insulting the person who just entertained and/or informed them, often without any remuneration (and certainly not at Jay Miller level.)

But unexpected praise, that is a gift, and I accept it with heartfelt thanks.

Mike Dunne said...

Reality check: Jay Miller isn't leaving the Wine Advocate because of some posting by wine bloggers. Plans for his departure apparently predated the latest posting concerning his alleged conflicts of interest. Not to take anything from the work of Jim Budd, but even in his tracking of the Miller matter he graciously acknowledged the old-school journalistic legwork of Harold Heckle, an Associated Press writer, not a blogger, though he could be that as well.

jo6pac said...

WOW and with a good ending.

Pietro said...

I'm a retired (and repentant) winemaker. When I first started my operation in Chianti in the early eighties I was pleasantly surprised to receive a request for samples by the then king of Italian wine gurus. Gee, I said, to myself, he really wants to discover and evaluate everybody. I hastened to send a few bottles of my then limited library but never heard back.
A year later, chatting with an older and more experienced colleague, I mentioned my disappointment that the guru had not even replied to me. Even a negative judgment can be helpful if it points you in the right direction, I noted.
The wiser man asked me: "Did you send a check with the samples?"
"Check? What check"
" Well, a check for his favorite charity!" was the terse answer.

Gerry Dawes said...

Great Post, Sr. Gray. Your readers may want some more info and opinion about Miller's resignation.

No Way!! Under Pressure Over the Mounting Pancho Campo Murciagate Scandal in Spain, Jay Miller Resigns as Critic for Spanish Wines for Robert M. Parker, Jr.'s The Wine Advocate.