Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Wine Advocate bares its teeth; here's why

After a brief cease fire for the professional wine writers' symposium, the war of words in wine criticism flared up hotter than ever last week, with a barrage of insults from the Wine Advocate for a tasting of leaner-style California wines curated by Eric Asimov and Jon Bonné, and later at least one lawyer letter.

Sadly, Robert Parker seems to have become bitter, trying to hang onto what he long believed to be his position as sole arbiter of taste in the wine world. It was pathetic, but no longer surprising, to see him upset about a tasting he didn't even attend. He wrote, "Any defense of 'different tastes for different writers' ain’t gonna’ fly either….they are alleged to be professional writers…and this dribble misleads their readers."

Please note that though the Advocate's lawyers sent Wine blogger Tyler Colman a letter demanding that he remove  longer quotes than this one, I believe I have the right to publish it under the Fair Use principle. I'm not going to fight Parker in court over this sentence, though, so if I get a letter, I'll switch to a paraphrase. Yes, it has come to this.

Parker's outbursts have become commonplace, but it was surprising when Lisa Perrotti-Brown, an MW and now the Wine Advocate editor, chimed in with a wine-by-wine trashing of the tasting, which I'm not going to quote, because, see the previous paragraph. And new Advocate critic Jeb Dunnuck piled on as well.

I didn't go to the tasting, and while I deplore any writers threatening legal action at other writers, I want to try to stay independent at a time when much of the wine writing world seems to be choosing sides.

But I think I can explain what would motivate the Advocate to be so aggressively negative about wines other critics like.

The Advocate is making a play for China; this isn't a secret. They see China as the future growth market not just for wine, but for consumption of wine criticism.

Parker is still the world's most important wine critic; his scores are still news. But you look at photos of him and think, he's not going to be around much longer, which is why the Advocate's new owners need to parade him around China now so they can capitalize on his personal brand to popularize theirs.

When Parker retires, there will be a scrum to be the most influential critical voice on wine in the US, but also in China.

Perrotti-Brown and her bosses aren't particularly worried about Wine Spectator, Antonio Galloni or James Suckling. They are all doing the same thing the Advocate does. Competing against them is like trying to win an election.

The leanness movement, with Asimov as its figurehead: that's a revolution. They're not trying to win power through using the same system; they're trying to eliminate the 100-point system, and even the very concept of critics telling people which wines are best. Asimov is thoughtful and intellectually generous, but many commenters with similar views are, as revolutionaries tend to be, loud and tediously dogmatic.

If the Advocate wants to establish dominance in China, it needs not only to parade around its figurehead, but to ensure that the system he established takes firm root -- not an easy task in a country that has its own long-established ideas about food and drink.

It's easier to understand the Advocate's actions viewed in this light. It's doubtful that three Advocate critics would pile onto a tasting of wines that Galloni or Suckling likes; that's a country-club disagreement. But when your grip on power feels tenuous, and you hear people shouting slogans outside your door, perhaps it's time to call in the tanks.

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Bill Haydon said...

The last sad outbursts of a supremely arrogant and self-important man watching his influence wane to irrelevance.

The age old riddle: If Robert Parker throws a tantrum in Asia does a millennial in North America hear it.

Either that or he wanted the pic taken down because he didn't want the world to see the grotesque man-boobs he's sporting.

Anonymous said...

I guess the wine shops of the world should take down the WA shelf talkers........... or expect the dreaded lawyer letter which is so American, odd for a Singapore based company to do this as it wouldn't hold up in their court system........ well it wouldn't get into their court system.......... it would become a joke at the bar which would start " did you hear the one about the US wine critic.........."

W. Blake Gray said...

CCDV: That's a very interesting thought I hadn't even considered, and might be worthy of a story on its own. Will look into it. Thanks.

James Biddle said...

I don't come from the wine-world, but the world of organizational change. In that arena, back-in-the-day, some folk talked about "paradigm shifts:" shifts resulting from seeing the world (organizations or wine) through a different lens. That lens revealed things the dominant perspective either missed or ignored; the dominant power was convinced he (almost always) was right. At the "tipping point" of the shift, this refusal to see another's viewpoint is the last grasp for power. None of this is about wine--it's all about power, ego, and $$$$$$.

Jon Bjork said...

I agree with CCDV. Parker's team is shooting themselves directly in the foot if the word within winery circles becomes, "You'll be sued if you cut, paste and share that Parker 94 you just got." Certainly makes you think twice...

Robert said...

It's good to see that wine critics and Mexican drug cartels have something in common. When the kingpin is killed or arrested there is a power vaccuum and everyone else begins to kill (verbally, in the critics case) each other to see who comes out on top.

The Sommeliere said...

Re: James Biddle's comment. "At the "tipping point" of the shift..." Or at the TIPPLING point...

Just a bit of humor to deflate a very unpleasant situation!

Jon Bjork said...

You should check out this opinion from other wine lawyers: http://lexvini.blogspot.com/2014/03/parker-bloggers-and-fair-use.html

James Biddle said...

THE Som:
If "TIPPLING" than maybe "tripping?"

Unknown said...

An apropos read to put some of this into perspective is
Wine Wars: The Curse of the Blue Nun, the Miracle of Two Buck Chuck, and the Revenge of the Terroirists
by Mike Veseth. I highly recommend one reads it before making any grand predictions about the fate of the wine world.

Lewis Perdue said...

Why don't we ALL post the fair comment quotes on ALL our blogs ... and Tweet the quotes (in serial 140 character segments of course).

That way Parker has to go after us ALL.

Anonymous said...

Back when I was working in winery communications, Parker did threaten to take legal action for unauthorized use of his quotes on shelf talkers. True story.

Chris Wallace said...

I think your quote is fair game and qualifies as "Fair Use". Dr. Vino's publication of the entire piece, or even substantial portions, should properly be viewed as copyright infringement. And frankly, as a journalist, he should have known that. Dr. Vino could have easily made his point through proper excerpts, as you have done.