Discussion: The Question of Credibility of Wine Evaluators’? Robert Parker at Large in WSJ


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The following is the discussion I started about the above topic on LinkedIn groups “Wines & Spirits” and “Wine 2.0.” The contributors’ names have been abbreviated and the comments from both groups printed together.
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The question of credibility of wine evaluators?
Robert Parker at large in WSJ

Dr Vino finally gets his wish. After many back-and-forth posts (on Dr Vino’s blog) between him and Parker, a major publication (WSJ) writes on this issue.
Here is my two-cents on Dr Vino’s victory posted to my wine blog (http://winebycush.wordpress.com/2009/05/26/wine-advocate-writers-spark-ethics-debate-wall-street-journal-dr-vinos-wine-blog/ ) What do you think? Remember, this is a fundamental issue that affects the entire US market and how wine is sold here if the US wine lobby keeps pushing it forward. Posted 21 days ago | Delete discussion

Todd S. 

Hi Kooshyar: 

I don’t understand the following comments in your blog: 

“If Parker is not around, Wine Spectator will dominate the rating for wines and US wines will get a boost overnight. What was that Parker wrote in his introduction in Wine Buyer’s Guide?? Fraud in wine business. Parker has very little to gain if his reporters are honestly going around on Trade expense accounts but the embattled US wine industry has so much to gain if Parker ratings (he loves French) are pushed back and they set the standard for what they sell. Dr Vino is a true advocate.” 

Why would the U.S. wine industry have so much to gain if Parker’s objectivity is discredited and Wine Spectator’s ratings become dominant? First, no one is a bigger supporter of American wines – when they’re worthy – than Parker. He has single-handedly made virtually all of the top American wineries, from Screaming Eagle to Harlan to Sloan to Marcassin to Kistler to Sine Qua Non to Alban to Saxum to . . . – of which no one ever would have heard (at least until later) but for Parker singing their praises. He has written time and time again that the best American wines, including wines from Washington State like Quilceda Creek, not only rival, but often surpass, the best wines from the rest of the world, including France. 

Second, the Wine Spectator’s circulation dwarf’s that of The Wine Advocate. Its reviews are what they are (ranging from good to atrocious depending on the individual reviewer or panel) and the wine public is already intimately familiar with them. I’d say Parker is much more bullish on deserving American wines than the Wine Spectator. 

I’m a private collector who collected more wine than I can drink in 3 lifetimes and 4 livers, so I started an Internet wine business in 2000 (great timing, eh? :-() in order to be involved with my passion on a more formal basis. I call ’em like I see ’em and am by no means a “Parker defender,” unless it’s warranted. The bottom line for me, though, is that even assuming the allegations are true and Parker is on the wrong side of what we lawyers call the “appearance of impropriety” issue, he has never steered me wrong on “big red” wines. But for Parker, I would not have discovered (at least not early enough to be able to purchase any) top American wines like Screaming Eagle, Harlan, Sloan, Sine Qua Non, etc., top Aussie wines like Grange, Hill of Grace, Astralis, Runrig, Standish, Greenock Creek, Fox Creek, Noon, etc., or top French wines (aside from well-known Bordeaux) like Zind-Humbrecht, Bonneau, Rayas, Chave, Chapoutier, Guigal’s La La’s, etc. Put another way, I can’t think of a red wine that Parker has rated 96-100 points where I haven’t agreed with his assessment. Even if Jay Miller, or even Parker himself, did accept some perks that are contrary to TWA’s stated policy, those things wouldn’t change.

Posted 20 days ago | Reply Privately

Marc A.

While I don’t agree with Parker on everything he rates, I do believe he is consistant within an area or category. While I largely agree with him in California and Bordeaux particularly and think he over rates wines from Austrailia as an example, So regardless of if Parker is getting some financial perks or not he is consistant and reliable. In my opinion the same can not be said for any other reviewer (especially The Wine Spectator) except Burghound.

Posted 19 days ago | Reply Privately

Steve H. 

I hope the truth does come out!

Posted 19 days ago | Reply Privately

Kooshyar D. 

Thank you Mr Serota for your very thoughtful comment. I could not agree more with the fine points you have made and since you are experienced in the field you know first-hand how the credibility of any rating system can affect what wine becomes prominent and vice versa. I do not disagree with you in any way but would like you to consider the wine market in the following perspective: 

The producers make huge quantities of wine every year in all wine producing countries. These wines have to reach the consumers to keep them in business and the traditional levels are most of this wine is sold to import/export and the distributors. In some countries wholesalers and distributors are the same but often a distinct level exists just for the wholesalers. This means the wholesalers buy the wine from import/export and distributors and sell it to retail and restaruants, etc. Each level obviously makes some money in this process of distribution. 

Now, imagine that you are a very large company such as Southern Wine and Spirits and have many facilities nationwide including one warehouse here (for the sake of an example) in city X with 500,000 cases of wine. This wine has to be sold and the pressure is daily because soon it will be next year and another 500,000 ( more or less) can arrive to also be sold. This wine has to go. 

The ultimate buyers in a market that traditionally does not need your product have a great deal of impact in how you sell things. US is not a wine drinking country (in the traditional sense) and that means only some of the population are your effective target market. The potential for American wine is the domestic population. This population does not have a tradition of buying wine and so can be persuaded. Also, you can sell them what typical wine drinkers would not buy at prices a typical wine drinker could not afford. This special situation makes this target market a very favorable niche. The majority of wine drinking countries who buy American wine cannot afford high-end California wine because it is very expensive. They buy jug wines in high quantities. 

Since the purchase of good wine can be a rather difficult process, the consumers have become dependent on rating systems by various authorities. Robert Parker is the foremost. His strength lies in not putting the interests of these huge entities (mentioned earlier) operating in the wine industry ahead of the inherent quality of the wine and the interests of the consumers. If Parker could be “persuaded” or “tricked” to state that say a large portion of what this specific company has in its warehouse is of such and such quality, that would create a great profitable situation for that company. In real life, Parker will not but other agencies will. 

Wine Spectator is not a philanthropic entity. It is owned by Shanken (of whom I won’t speak ill of but you may know about) and it agressively evaluates wines with a system similar to Parker. The wonderful thing about Wine Spectator is our friend who had huge warehouses full of wines and a problem can “persuade” Wine Spectator to go ahead and give enormous coverage to wines that happen to be in those warehouses. As a matter of fact they plan this ahead all year long. But as long as writers like Parker have great influence, it is hard for others to set trends. Trends are great and bring too much money. Everything you wrote is accurate but the argument is not over how many wines Parker evaluates from California or France but how much of the wines in the market are of what category. Wine Spectator can evaluate wines from any place cover-to-cover in entire issues for the whole year and is great for the big wine companies. But the coverage will not fool many wine buyers as long as people such as Parker are pointing in another direction at the same time. A weak Parker is great for big wine and its overstock warehouses. A strong Spectator is what this industry needs today.

Posted 19 days ago | Delete comment

Hal G.

I find this discussion fascinating from two perspectives, 1) it validates that sites like LinkedIn are finally generating substantive content and 2) that the “conversation cloud” can move the conversation forward (sometimes more effectively that the original argument/assertion). 

Naturally, I am wondering how to obtain the most objective possible wine evaluations for myself and my prospective customers. I do note Parker points when trying to introduce wine to my individual buyers here in Japan and I hope I am not to be castigated for doing so…… 

The reason is this: I do not have the wherewithal to fly over to Italy & France to do the research and quite honestly I like the French countryside so much that I would be easily swayed by anyone wearing a beret (do they still wear them :-)? 

What would really be cool is to have a rating system designed by someone like Orley Ashenfelter. You can see his work at <a href=”http://http.www.liquidassets.com“><a href=”http://http.www.liquidassets.com“>http.www.liquidassets.com

I don’t quite understand why it wouldn’t be possible in today’s internet networked world to produce a comprehensive wine database including all registered wines per country with a standardized grading system. 

This system would not be the final arbiter of taste but would provide sufficient background information to support price points. There is likely to be something like this already in existence for liquor shops but I would want to analyze the criteria and popularize it on the net so that the consumer would have a neutral referee starting point before purchase. 

Obviously, I am not trying to decimate the traditional approach, however I don’t see why it would not be possible other than human foibles and manipulation of results. 

Another thought would be a rating index table comparing rankings from people like Parker and Gary Vee + other wine luminaries. I like the idea of consensus in selection. After all most reasonable people agree that Porsche is a top car maker. 

Yesterday, one of the wines we carry from South Africa was ranked in the top 100. This is helpful because it is social proof. 

Thank you, 

HAL

Posted 19 days ago | Reply Privately

Kooshyar D.

Mr Glascock makes many excellent points. One answer to your questions maybe this: Why cannot we do the great things you said and reap the benefits? The answer is because of special interest and the wine lobby. 

Why is US still off the metric system? Is it really because it costs so much to convert and has to get done slowly over lifetimes? Or could it be the metric system opens doors to more products made by competition arriving in the US? Metric system means overnight expansion of the number of competitors who can export to US by mere act of being in the lines of business they are already. Whatever they make for their domestic market and export qualifies to arrive and sell in US because now can match US systems. 

On a similar note, a universal standard for wine closes doors to many thousands of wines that are not worth the bottle they are in. Do not forget consumers buy millions of these wines simply because they have no reference point to tell they can make better buying decisions. In other words, nobody evaluates them. The profit margin for the low quality but well-marketed wines is unbelievable. And that maybe one reason why we cannot have a universal database to judge all wines side by side. Your points are excellent however. Ever seen the movie Tucker? That is the potential you are seeing in the wine business but big wine sees otherwise. Thanks for your comment.

Posted 19 days ago | Delete comment

Joanne M.

I should say this does not sound like big news. One only needs to look up a few wine guide books/magazines in order to find, in some more obviously than in others, what direction the ‘objectivity’ of the critic/evaluator obstinately tends to take to…

Posted 18 days ago | Reply Privately

Karen P.

While I think this could tarnish Parker’s reputation, I disagree with your conclusion that the American wine industry will get a boost immediately. Both WS and WA have worked to become more global over the past few years and while there could still be a slight bias, I don’t think that it is as black and white as you state. WA will not lose all its stature nor will any loss mean that the US – specifically CA – will immediately benefit. After all WA has championed many CA cult wines, causing their prices to skyrocket. 

Furthermore, I think the Internet is giving consumers many more avenues to obtain wine information and ratings. While it is still probably not a tool for the mainstream wine drinker, the likes of Wine Library TV and Snooth are changing the way the American consumer gets information.

Posted 18 days ago | Reply Privately

Kooshyar D.

Sure. That is one way to look at the situation and probably is true. I don’t know the absolute truth and we are all searching. I would like to point out the points you have made are 100% valid but also do keep in mind that Parker made a big deal about the critic paying for EVERYTHING oneself to be free of bias. This is a very big deal. When Parker first started, he spent so much money on the wines I believe his wife’s pressure made him turn into a newsletter. WE and WS receive literally thousands of bottles of wines at their offices every year and evaluate them. They run massive advertisements and no print publication is free of some bias toward such huge contributors. And we are not talking about what is thrown at them in the field free of cost. Parker did have a very strong point and he is being attacked for his staff having possibly violated them. If his credibility is reduced, the alternative reviewers will have more weight. If they do, there is hypothetical potential for bias in their decisions. This is a possibility and not a fact. But if true, it pays so much it would be worth doing anything to bring Parker down. I do agree with your points.

Posted 18 days ago | Delete comment

Kooshyar D.

Thanks everyone for your comments

Posted 12 days ago | Delete comment

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