Wine consumers who either havent been awake or dont follow Robert Parker should count themselves lucky. The rest of us probably know all about the latest problem that the famous wine critic has had thrust upon him, thanks to a couple of critics whose words appear in Parkers Wine Advocate.
For over a month now, these wine critics have been connected to a story of potential impropriety that has circulated throughout the Internet. I dont call the critics involved employees because much has been made by their boss of their independent contract statusnot a good excuse if they engaged in impropriety, but one that is used by the boss anyway to illustrate why his code of ethics and standards may not fully apply to them.
Until now, finding it rather gossipy and sometimes filled with vindictiveness, I didnt care to say much at all about this issue. Then, I read a couple of posts on the wine forum site that is operated by one of the critics.
The issue was first raised in a blog named Dr. Vino, and it concerned one critic. Then, it was brought directly to the Parker-centric wine forum that is controlled, and I dont use that word loosely in this case, by a fellow named Mark Squires. It was there that his name was brought into the mess that Robert Parker has on his hands.
In any case, from a posting on the Squires site, to postings on other wine forum sites the problem rolled. Finally, with all too common vitriol, Mr. Parker shot out not against the potential impropriety of his independent contractor/s but against wine bloggers instead. His was interesting pot-shots, as he accused wine bloggers of being nothing short of know-nothings with a keyboard, and worse. Its a particularly fitting comment, as Mr. Parker admitted only yesterday that he started out as a wine critic with a pen, a wine passion, and a Jones for Ralph Nader-like crusades. He said nothing about training his palate to evaluate wine.
Anyway, the story had legs and then it developed extra limbs when the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) ran a story about the issue. In that story, I believe the journalist claimed that he tried to get Mr. Parkers side of the story but the man would not speak to him. Thats also interesting, as in one of his earlier railings, Mr. Parker accused journalists of printing stories about him that they are told by others rather than asking him questions directly. Unfortunately, when the attempt was made to ask him directly, Mr. Parker responded to the WSJ in what has become an all too usual way for him to respond toGod forbidcriticism: he attacked.
As an aside, responses like that make me wonder about the training people receive before gaining a lofty law degree (before becoming a wine critic, Mr. Parker was a lawyer).
Speaking of law, I have a feeling that the reference to independent contractors is meant to legally separate the boss from the underlingsif they are not employees then there are no employee withholding taxes, and possibly no liability for what they do or say. But there may also be a moral component to the reference. The boss cannot control what these people do with themselves on or off assignment so he seemingly isnt able to apply the same ethical standards concerning how his critics should act. As Ive already said, that excuse is lame and I think Mr. Parker now realizes its lamenesshe has issued a new set of guidelines for the independent contractors.
More important, however, at least to me, is how some things that have little or no direct bearing on the issue, still manage to illuminate. Like the following:
In one of his rebuttal responses to the throngs screaming for an answer, Mr. Parker statedand not for the first timethat the ratings of a wine critic are merely the expression of subjective tastes. True enough, but sharing the same space with that insight was the claim that none of his minions show any bias.
Even a lawyer should know that subjective tastes are inherently biasedwhich is exactly why I have a less than god-like regard for wine criticism.
To bolster his point of subjectivity, and as example, Mr. Parker mentioned how he will never appreciate certain characteristics connected to certain wines. Fine. I hope he doesnt attempt to pass judgment on those kinds of wine. But whenever he issues such statements, and he has done so quite often online, they have in them an air of self-assuredness and righteousness that makes me cringe. The arrogance behind such comments is sure to attract a missile, and rightly so.
I didnt reach my ripe age without having learned at least something about this world. One thing I know: money and favors buy influence, even when the person being influenced has good intentions. That is neither a criticism nor a subjective observation. Its a fact, man; its a fact.
The best way for a businessperson to guard against establishing bias through influence is to maintain a code of ethics and standards and to ensure that everyone connected with the organization lives by the code. Making excuses for those who do not live by the code or for not imposing the code on them isquite simplyto have no code at all. Attacking those who call you out on the failing reflects a thin skin, and it’s lame. Am I repeating myself?
If you are reading this entry anywhere other than on the vinofictions blog, be aware that it has been lifted without my permission (and without recompense), and thats a copyright infringement, no matter that the copyright information appears with it.
Copyright Thomas Pellechia
May 2009. All rights reserved.