Tuesday, May 26, 2009

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.


  1. Thomas, I repeat myself all too often without appreciable results. Don't lose sleep over it. These people have been on the take since day one. If people think otherwise, then they deserve the 90+ pointers that are lame at best.

  2. Marco,

    Not day one, but somewhere along the continuum it happens.

    The thing that has always intrigued me is how easy it seems to be for wine critics to game wine geeks. It might prove a very old situation concerning human nature that con men (and women, too) use to their benefit--until they get caught.

  3. Yes, the con is on. The point-status-money aura blinds people to the basic enjoyment and appreciation of wine. Which is what it is all about, non?

  4. Marco,

    When Parker got started, there wasn't much in the way of a wine culture, but us baby-boomers were exploring the subject. That was the market, and a big one it proved to be.

    Unfortunately, the manner in which wine was treated then in the U.S. became the pattern that was set for the future, and so, as all good followers are wont to do, succeeding generations locked onto numerical ratings to evaluate wine. It became a combination report card and spectator sport--Wine Spectator got its name right; I often wonder about the name Wine Advocate, though, but it can also be a good pun, as we know the Latin root word for lawyer...

  5. Good point. Hasn't just about every damned thing been rated and given a score? As you say it was set up for the boomer consumer.

  6. Marco,

    My previous standard poodle rated a 95. This new one, I'm still thinking about it, but a 95--no way!

  7. Ha! Our French bull dog, Aldo, is priceless!

    Did you read Asimov's post and the idiotic comments on Spanish gran reservas?

  8. Marco,

    I caught Asimov's posts, but have stopped reading the stuff, so I didn't see the Spanish wine comments.

    Although the site has turned quite comedic, with all the deleted posts and banned posters, etc., it is a kind of funny that is no longer funny.

    The breadth of incompetence in dealing both with the issue and with the dynamics of the Internet is astounding.