Friday, January 21, 2022

Lisa Perrotti-Brown makes some interesting accusations, and maybe solves the Wine Advocate sake mystery

Lisa Perrotti-Brown MW

Longtime readers of The Gray Report may remember that in 2016, I discovered an unusual situation whereby every sake rated 90 points or more by the Wine Advocate was available at one retailer that sold only those sakes. It was as if the retailer, which I later learned seemed to have a connection to, had prior knowledge of which sakes the Advocate would recommend, so it could corner the market and raise prices.

At the time, Wine Advocate Editor-in-Chief Lisa Perrotti-Brown said she would investigate, but never released any results of the investigation.

Earlier this week, she may have revealed what happened.

Perrotti-Brown has only worked for one wine ratings organization: The Wine Advocate, where she was Editor-in-Chief from 2012 until last year, when she quit to go solo.

In launching her new project, The Wine Independent, Perrotti-Brown issued a press release and did interviews with writers from The Drinks Business and Wine-Searcher (not me.) In all three of these opportunities to speak out, Perrotti-Brown leveled some interesting accusations about ratings organizations. The wine world isn't as obsessed with the Wine Advocate as we were before Robert Parker retired, but nonetheless I'm surprised this hasn't been bigger news.

This is a story she seemingly wants to tell. But she might be afraid of being sued by her former employer, which is now owned by The Michelin Guide, which has been accused of ethical breaches for its food guide. It's worth noting that Robert Parker recruited Perrotti-Brown to the Advocate -- she started writing a column for the publication in 2008, before he sold it -- and Parker's personal ethics were always impeccable.

Let's start with her press release:

Perrotti-Brown and (partner Johan) Berglund seek a return to the high ethical standards initially championed by Robert M. Parker, Jr. back when he started The Wine Advocate in 1978 ...

"Still, numerous conflicts of interest have come to light in recent years, such as selling event tables to wineries and score previews to retailers through ultra-premium subscriptions. Some supposedly reputable publications – ones that claim to be independent - are guilty of such practices. As a result, faith in wine reviews has been eroded to the point where buyers no longer know who they can trust.”

Hmm, score previews through ultra-premium subscriptions. Well, that would explain the sake mystery, right?

But as I said at the time, score previews for sake are a small market. Imagine how much retailers might be willing to pay to know Bordeaux scores, if there's a possibility to buy futures before the ratings are released?

Here's what The Drinks Business article says:

Perrotti-Brown told db that such “shenanigans” were the source of “large amounts of money” for wine criticism titles

But there's a bigger ethical problem she hints at, much bigger than selling scores to retailers or semi-blackmailing wineries to buy event tables.

What if a 95-point score can be bought?

Here's what she told Don Kavanagh at Wine-Searcher (hi Don!):

There are other models now where you get wineries to pay huge amounts of money – I mean, thousands of dollars – for an event table, or to do this or that. And that's happening behind the scenes, and everybody's like "Oh, yeah, no, they don't do pay-to-play, you know, there's none of that going on". It's just hidden and nobody realizes.

We all know the shenanigans that go on, but I'd say, 90-95 percent of consumers have no idea that any of this is going on – all they see is a score, and they just believe that it's got some meaning behind it. But the problem is, you know, the penny is starting to drop [with consumers], because they're starting to say "What's the big deal about this 95-point experience that I'm supposed to be getting? This is a mediocre wine at best." What's going to happen is wine criticism is going to become meaningless. So because there is too much emphasis on scores, scores are being inflated, you don't know what's behind those scores in terms of agendas, and ultimately the consumers are being had. They're, they're the ones that are getting a bad experience when they follow scores. And that's just wrong.

It's possible to read the criticism of event tables as a criticism of Wine Spectator, which (pre-pandemic) staged a huge event every year called the Wine Experience. Winery people have bitched to me for a long time that they feel pressured to participate in Wine Spectator's shindig.

It's not just Spectator; independent critic James Suckling, a Spectator alumnus, hosts "Great Wines" grand tastings. Vinous, run by Advocate alumnus Antonio Galloni, hosts wine events as well. Wine events are a good way for wine ratings organizations to make money.

Is there a connection between participation in events and the ratings a winery receives? People including me have tried to prove one, but I haven't seen it proven yet. You could read Perrotti-Brown's criticism as being leveled at other organizations.

But let me say this again: Perrotti-Brown hasn't worked at these other organizations. She has only worked at The Wine Advocate, which also hosts events called Matter of Taste. So while she might be leveling criticism at a ratings-industry trend, the fact is she only has inside knowledge about one organization.

As she said, you don't know what's behind those scores in terms of agendas. But she does. And she sounds like she really, really wants to tell us.

Whenever you're ready, Ms. Perrotti-Brown, I am all ears.

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


jo6pac said...

Sadly it’s follow the Benjamin’s. That problem seems to be everywhere.

Unknown said...

There certainly IS a problem with scores. Here in Argentina there are dozens of 98-99-100 pointers that are lame or downright awful. High scores no longer correlate with quality. Plus, critics charge for scoring wines. So scores are being sold.

Unknown said...

90 is the new 80

Thomas Matthews said...

At Wine Spectator, we would never "pressure" a winery to participate in the Wine Experience. We don't have to - many more wineries would like to participate than we have room to accommodate. Our goal is to assemble a group of wineries that will excite the consumers who attend. Also, it's worth noting that Wine Spectator makes no money from the Wine Experience -- all revenues go to the Wine Spectator Scholarship Fund; our most recent donation was $10 million to Napa Valley College to enhance its winemaking and viticulture program. So by participating in the Wine Experience, wineries are in fact supporting their own industry, not the publication.

Thomas Matthews
former Executive editor
Wine Spectator