Lameness and Locked Out

Wine consumers who either haven’t been awake or don’t 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 Parker’s 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 don’t call the critics involved employees because much has been made by their boss of their independent contract status—not 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 didn’t 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 don’t 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. It’s 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. Parker’s side of the story but the man would not speak to him. That’s 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 to—God forbid—criticism: 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 underlings—if 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 isn’t able to apply the same ethical standards concerning how his critics should act. As I’ve already said, that excuse is lame and I think Mr. Parker now realizes its lameness—he 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 stated—and not for the first time—that 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 biased—which 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 doesn’t 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 didn’t 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. It’s a fact, man; it’s 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 is—quite simply—to 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?

Check this thread, but it’s now locked

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 that’s a copyright infringement, no matter that the copyright information appears with it.

Copyright Thomas Pellechia
May 2009. All rights reserved.

8 Responses to “Lameness and Locked Out”

  1. I still think with a big smile of the two old ladies, who was looking at wines in my former wineshop.
    The first lady ask to the other lady: “What does 97 points by Robert Parker means?”

    The other lady answered: I think thats point you collect to get discounts.!!

    For me it says everything. For most people doesn’t Robert Parker means nothing. For the sale to the nerds great scoring from RP is good, but most sale in to the big group who doesn’t care about RP.

  2. Thomas says:

    Henrik,

    In the U.S., I believe the Wine Spectator scores have more clout in retail shops. RP scores are for the geeks whose view of wine is more like an expensive hobby than it is about enjoyment, and hobbyists seem always more concerned with trophies–or must-have things.

  3. Keith L. says:

    Personally, I find the Wine Advocate’s fetish for impartiality and independence silly. A writer who discloses his biases is far more trustworthy than a writer who pretends he has none. And Parker is wealthy enough and powerful enough that it’s difficult to imagine any of the numerous perks of his position having any meaningful influence on his work. (I’m reminded of the rhyme: “You cannot hope to bribe or twist / (Thank God!) the British journalist / But seeing what the man will do / Unbribed, there’s no occasion to.”) There’s so much criticism to be made of Parker on substance that any criticism of him on process is bound to look pretextual, and probably is.

    That said, Parker brought it on himself by investing so much of his brand identity and his personal reputation into his newsletter’s standards for impartiality. I was almost starting to feel sorry for him that his friends were making him look so bad, but look how coldly he throws them under the bus when his reputation is at stake! http://dat.erobertparker.com/bboard/showthread.php?t=203068

  4. Thomas says:

    Keith,

    I understand your point about pretending not to be biased, but I’m sorry to say that has been the brand model for WA all along, and it has obviously slipped some.

    What is striking about this situation is the unbelievable stupidity and arrogance behind the way matters are handled, not to mention the blatant offense as defense approach.

    As for the Web site: we know that train was bound to one day go into a dark tunnel and not emerge at the other end, what with the way that thing has been ‘moderated.’

    But then, site moderation must bring out certain types of people. I’ve witnessed barring, banning, and post and thread deletions on a number of so-called public wine forum sites. They aren’t public and they don’t want to be–they are what we call in the wine business ‘cellar blind.’ You are either with them or against them–God forbid, you have your own thoughts, and even worse if you actually have some knowledge to back up those thoughts.

  5. Well said Thomas! I totally agree.

  6. Mitch says:

    Sure seems like several formerly pivotal facets in the future wine scene will be a far cry from what they were a mere year ago: eBob, Bdx pricing/availability, over-leveraged wineries during this economic meltdown, fake wines and auctions. Its been quite a ride these past 12 months.

  7. Mitch says:

    Apropos: “The market for wines over $50 a bottle has been virtually wiped out.”

    March 26, 2009
    Is there a Bubble in the Napa Valley?

    http://uncorkedfinance.wordpress.com/2009/03/26/is-there-a-bubble-in-the-napa-valley/