Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Dear Robert Parker: You MUST address the latest Jay Miller scandal

Pancho Campo (l) with Jay Miller. Courtesy, via Jim's Loire blog
Wine blogger Jim Budd has scored a journalistic coup: Proof that Wine Advocate critic Jay Miller's visits to wineries are for sale.

Budd's post details an offer made on Miller's behalf to make a short visit to "3 or 4" wineries in the Madrid D.O. for "half his usual rate" -- 20,000 Euros (US $27,000), plus VAT, meaning it's not an under-the-table transaction at all; it's official Wine Advocate business. (As usual?)

If not paid, Miller apparently would not visit the region or review the wines, according to the email sequence on Jim's Loire blog.

Parker has been embarrassed by ethical issues with Jay Miller before, regarding him accepting free travel and meals. But most of the wine journalism community looked at our shoes while business writers covered that story, because most of us (me included) accept free travel and meals.

However, charging wineries more than $6,000 each to visit for a few minutes and taste their wines -- and then later issuing a rating to consumers that you claim is unbiased -- seems to go way beyond any ethical boundary you want to draw.

Robert Parker, as owner and publisher of the Wine Advocate, must address this immediately. Otherwise, we in the wine community must assume that he condones this practice and perhaps receives a percentage of the profits.

And maybe he does. Here is a link to the 2498 words Parker writes on "Our Wine Critic Ethics and Standards" on his website. I just read through it and I don't see anything addressing the sale of visits to wineries. So that's OK for the Wine Advocate?

There is this:

I expect the writers to learn about the regions they cover from first-hand observation, but I demand they have access to all wines, not just one particular sub-segment category or region. Moreover, I require full disclosure of such hospitality they receive in the articles that emanate from these trips.
With respect to historic wine regions, The Wine Advocate and will continue to cover all of the independent writers’ reasonable travel expenses related to their reviews.
But I don't see anything in there about selling the visits. And the hedge here seems to be "historic;" maybe the Wine Advocate pays for Antonio Galloni to go to Burgundy, but for less-established regions, you pay the Wine Advocate. I wonder how much a 98 point rating for a Colorado Cabernet would cost? Just asking ... although if there's a "usual rate" for winery visits, you do have to wonder about a "usual rate" for, well, I said it already.

Consumers should be told that visits by Parker's staff critics are for sale. But let's take a step back first and see how Parker responds.

Dear Mr. Parker: Are your publication's ratings for sale? Your credibility demands a rapid, public response.

NEW INFORMATION: Parker did respond. He threatened to sue "these bloggers." Here's the subsequent post. 

NEWER INFORMATION: Apparently Jay Miller will no longer write for the Wine Advocate.

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Alder Yarrow said...


I've followed this matter closely, and while I completely agree that Parker needs to address this matter publicly (and for heaven's sake, fire Jay Miller before he erodes what little brand equity the Wine Advocate has remaining), I want to suggest that there in no way seems to be any scrap of evidence that Parker or Jay Miller would be getting any proceeds from these visits (other than the speaking fee for Jay Miller referenced in some correspondence -- a relatively standard thing for wine personalities). It seems like the Spanish Wine Association would clearly profit from brokering these visits (they're the ones asking for the $$) and what is more murky is whether Pancho Campo is getting paid for making these visits happen (by the WA or via a percentage of the deals).

As I wrote in my own post about this kerfuffle, this is a case of influence peddling, where others are seeking to profit from their ability to influence where and when Jay shows up. With, at least for now, no evidence of complicity on behalf of Jay and the Wine Advocate.

A smoking gun may in fact appear at some point, but for now, it's just mud splattering on the face of the WA in the wake of yet another Jay Miller visit.

W. Blake Gray said...

Alder: A $15,000 speaking fee for Jay Miller from Navarra seems like proceeds to me. Does anyone in Navarra need to learn anything about winemaking from Jay Miller?

Nelson said...

Agee it's a totally unacceptable situation, and action needs to be taken now. Perhaps a by use of a name and shame website might help. I'm sure there are many who would be happy to assist with this. Even then, it needs to be ensured that the shaming is for the right reasons, be fair and be based on accurate facts. It may end becoming a 'vendetta' site. It will most likely push the situation further underground, and make it more difficult to detect.

It's a very difficult situation to resolve really.

One question however. Why should Jay Miller be fired, wasn't It Wine advocate who were being paid for reviews? Shouldn't it be the person who's running Wine Advocate being fired?

SUAMW said...

In 2005 as I was looking to develop my website into a business, I spoke at length to a friend, fellow wine lover and CEO of some fame (and infamy) who also teaches at a So Cal B-school.
He floated the idea of taking retainers from wineries or AVA associations as a model of revenue flow.
I brought up the WA as an example of an independent publication which does not take money from wineries or associations.
My friend's response was short:
"Maybe he [Parker] didn't [take money] in the beginning, but he does now".
To this day, I'm not sure if he knew something others are just coming to glimpse because of "inside" info or because his understanding of business made it plain to him that this was the only way Parker could make a serious living as a wine writer.

Robert C. said...

I am not wise to the wine writing ways but I would like elucidation. If each winery pays the same amount to have their wines reviewed and assuming they are given equal time, why would that be unethical? It is WA expectation to get some renumeration for their opinions is it not? These wineries were asking for him to come and would he go there if there were no incentive? Just to taste the wines cannot be the only draw. To be paid for your time and opinion is fair. Now if one of the wineries were aware of the ratings that Mr Miller gave another and then paid him to give them a better rating, then I would say that is unethical. But as I said, I know nothing of what goes on in the writing world, just on the outside looking in.

Robert C. said...

Okay. Now that I read Jim's blog I see the real issue is Mr. Campo and his wheeling and dealing. He basically is using Miller as the bait and not telling why it is costing the sick amount of money he is charging. Now that is unethical.

Jim's Loire said...

Blake. Thank you for your support in covering this.

I should make it clear that I have no evidence that Jay Miller is charging money to visit wineries and taste wines for WA. Campo's email (4.6.11) suggests that he does. However, I do not regard Campo as a credible witness.

Yesterday I emailed Miller asking for a comment on Pancho's email, so far I have received no response.

It is highly regrettable that Parker has chosen to issue threats of mass legal action rather than calmly and factually answer the questions raised.

For me the real issue is Campo as Robert rightly says.

1winedude said...

I fear that WA won't respond unless this gets covered in one of the major newspapers, CNN, or the like. And I suspect that it won't.

If the main competition, like WS, covers it, I still don't think we'd get a response, because it will be written-off as a jealous smear-tactic.

I'm not saying any of the above is *right* - it's NOT - but I wouldn't expect anything but silence from WA otherwise, because for their core audience intrepid blogging reporting probably doesn't even "count" in their minds. :(

bruce nichols said...

Lots of speculation here as to what amounts to "payola" (from the radio days of rock and roll), but is it not just possible that TWA relies on the revenue from their $99/subscription fees? How many ante up their $100 every year. I've been doing so for 20+ years.

kschlach said...

Blake, just out of curiosity , how much would 98 points for a CO cab cost???? You know that I hate points, but I'm pretty sure there are no 98-pointers here, yet. However, there are plenty of excellent Colorado wines waiting for the wine cognoscenti to discover...

Mark Buckley said...

I feel that Wine Advocate needs to answer this charge as there can be no excuse for this ridiculous policy. If I'm a wine blogger I may get wines in the mail to review. Advocate surely gets that. Perhaps the publicity with getting a respected reviewer to visit your winery or region is notable and fees by some sort of tourism or wine board is one thing. But to single out individual wineries that appear to be going to the highest bidder is just shady. To hide and make no statement only makes you look worse. Have some respond WA and answer the question as your silence is deafeningly screaming for a loss of total respect.

Kurt Burris said...

Robert Parker, Jay Miller and the WA appear to have done nothing technically wrong. But, still if it walks like a duck....The appearance of impropriety does not enhance a journalists reputation and there is a tad more than an appearance of impropriety in this case. I agree with W. Blake on Mr. Miller's speaking fees. Who is paying that and what do they expect to get from it?

Anonymous said...

I always apply "Jay Miler score" with a minus 3, he is almost as bad as Suckling with his points. He loves the fruit bombs and is all over the ice with the points. He makes me giggle when I read his reviews, and no one has made me giggle since Chris Farley! Jay should go back to old day job and save us from the over extracted hedonistic wines he loves.

Anonymous said...

Why in God's name would anybody pay Jay Miller $15,000 to speak about wine? That's insane! Watch the youtube video of him in Navarra and decide what he'd be worth. Whoah.

W. Blake Gray said...

Anon: Well, that's kinda the point. You can't write a check to someone and say "for better point scores." But a "masterclass," that's something you can pay for without anyone raising an eyebrow.

jpvazquez said...

For me all of this is vary unfortunate.

As i see it the problem is in becoming to involved with wineries, governing bodies...

I remember when i started to read Parker i really saw him as independent, but once you start doing these WineFuture things and become to get close to certain people (like Pancho Campo).. You begin to lose your biggest asset... Your independence

Anonymous said...

Conducting a "masterclass" at the very least implies that the conductor is a master. It's a mighty stretch to call Dr. Miller a master of Spanish wine, much less a master of the wines of regions that he was visiting for the first time. The whole thing is appalling, especially Parker's defence of Miller getting paid such a huge sum to talk about a subject where he is a naif.