When Robert Parker can't get his facts (or his ethical guidelines) straight

I was appalled and incensed, Friday evening, when I read a post by Robert Parker himself on the eRobertParker forum. I don’t often agree with Mr Parker’s taste, but I do have respect for what he’s accomplished and for the energy he’s put into advocating wine.

I’ve lost a lot of that respect, now, after an attack he has made on wine bloggers and on the Wine Bloggers Conference and those who organized it. And it’s not a question of opinion. Even as he accuses wine bloggers of spreading falsehoods, Mr Parker has evidently not even bothered to check any facts on what he states in his forum post.

Let me quote him.

First, on the Wine Bloggers Conference:

looking at that Bloggers Conference, it does look like a big and free sloppy kiss and then some from the California wine industry…with much more than minimal hospitality offered…love to see some transparency from the bloggers(how many of them are paying for travel,car rental,hotels and meals?)…

And it doesn’t stop there:

that conference sounds like a California wine trade junket to further the interests of the vast California wine industry that feels slighted by coverage from the more established press….as always there is a simple solution for wineries feeling ignored….make better wine…it will get attention faster than you ever dreamed….fascinating list of sponsors under-writing all the costs for that event…not one of them pro-consumer….all of them pro wine-selling business….

Want more?

…hopefully the smarter consumers will recognize the game plan of both the California wine industry and the bloggers-they are certainly more in bed together than I ever imagined.

If that opinion was actually based on something tangible, this would be an argument, a question of point of view. However, the fact is that Mr Parker, here, is just spreading falsehoods (something he blames the bloggers for doing… but I’ll get to that in a minute).

Like just about everyone who attended the Wine Bloggers Conference, I paid for my plane ticket, hotel room, car rental and registration. Some meals were sponsored, as is regularly the case in conferences and industry gatherings. Free wine was poured, just like at any wine fair and expo around the world.

The fact that dozens of wine bloggers who, for the most part, are drawing no income (or hardly any) from their blogs took time from their day jobs and travelled to California on their own dime shows dedication and commitment to their subject, along with a real desire to share with other members of the wine blogging community. The idea that sponsors underwrite “all the costs” for the conference is, at best, a considerable exaggeration.

Also, the idea of wine blogger conferences was brought forward by bloggers for bloggers. Sponsors came in afterwards. There is no concerted effort from the California wine industry here, no conspiracy. Unless you consider the fact that wine producers from California would want to pour wines at a local event where dozens of wine writers are present a conspiracy.

Mr Parker’s focus on California is also a distortion of the facts. Should I point out that the first conference was actually in Spain? Or that there was a New Zealand wine tasting at the American conference? Or that many producers who were presenting their wines actually get reviewed by Robert Parker and Wine Spectator and the mainstream wine press – and actually get high scores from them? Or that other blogger meetings are set to take place in Long Island and Portugal? Or that – imagine that – bloggers don’t all come from California or focus on California? Even the most cursory search about the WBC or reading of wine blogs would have told him that.

As for the sponsors being pro wine-selling business rather than pro-consumer, I don’t get what he means. The Bordeaux Châteaux who spend a considerable amount of money on the En Primeurs campaigns are pro-consumer while the Dry Creek Valley producers are pro-business? From an ethical or business standpoint, I don’t see any difference between tasting barrel samples from Château Mouton-Rothschild in the cellar or new releases from Seghesio, Flowers and Quivira in a conference room. Every single wine producer in the world is out to sell wine, whether Mr Parker gives them 92 points or not. None of them are consumer advocacy groups.

(You can Read WBC organizer Joel Vincent’s reaction to the Robert Parker rant right here.)

Furthermore, Mr Parker is bashing the wine bloggers for accepting a free trip – which they did not – at a time when it is being revealed that some of his collaborators accepted free trips – which they did. 

That particular fact is interesting not so much because taking an expenses-paid trip is a terrible crime in itself, but because Mr Parker’s ethical guidelines, presented in his Wine Buyers’ Guide, clearly state that “it is imperative for a wine critic to pay his own way. Gratuitous hospitality in the form of airline tickets, hotel rooms, guest houses, etc., should never be accepted either abroad or in this country.” (See a more extensive quote of the guidelines on this interesting Joe Dressner post).

Why should Mr Parker’s high standards, which he has apparently applied diligently in his own case, apply differently for his collaborators? If it’s terrible that bloggers are getting anything free from the California Wine Industry, why is he being so forgiving to his collaborators Jay Miller and Mark Squires, who got all expenses paid trips to various countries? And if that’s not a problem, why wasn’t it stated clearly in The Wine Advocate? A lot of bloggers, by the way, have a clear policy about disclosure, whether for receiving samples or any other freebies. 

Statements from Robert Parker and his associates about the whole thing are extremely confusing. In this forum post, Robert Parker says that he has forbidden Jay Miller from taking any further trips, and that he had to clear up things with Miller. Yet at the same time, on the same forum thread, two days earlier, Mark Squires was saying that he had taken several expenses-paid trips and was planning to take more, all with Robert Parker’s explicit approval. What gives? Why can’t Mr Parker be clear about his policies? And is he holding the wine bloggers to higher standards than those applied to his own Wine Advocate collaborators?

Beyond the conference and the question of freebies, his statements about the wine bloggers in general are even worse:

…or should I say blobbers since they are the source of much of the misinformation,distortion,and egegious falsehoods spread with reckless abandon on the internet…something to remember

Notice he says “they”. Not “many”, “most”, or even “some”. So all of us spread egregious falsehoods and misinformation?

Mr Parker, I’ve been a professional journalist for nearly 20 years. Along the way, I have been responsible, as a production editor, for the front page of a newspaper, where printing inaccurate facts can have dire consequences. Throughout my career, I have made accuracy and truthfulness central tenants of my work. I know I made mistakes along the way, and regretted every one of them. Never have I voluntarily misrepresented the truth or willingly spread false information or rumors. I do my research. I check my facts as much as I can.

The same code of ethics and commitment to information and truth guides me as a wine blogger. I resent being called names by Mr Parker and being characterized, by assocation, as some kind of snake-oil salesman. I know he tried to catch himself a bit, later in that forum thread, by saying his position was “anti-blogging position… just anti irresponsible bloggers…”, and that there are blogs he enjoys, but even that statement leaves the impression that the great majority of bloggers are liars and propagandists of some sort. Mr Parker should know, as a lawyer, that such a statement is tantamount to defamation.

I know dozens of wine bloggers from the United States, Canada, France, Belgium, England, Switzerland, Germany, who do their work with dedication, ethics and due concern for the facts. Mr Parker’s violent condemnation of the whole wine blogging community is as unnecessary as it is unfair. 

It’s obvious that in the last few days, Mr Parker felt attacked by Dr Vino, who questioned the standards of his collaborators. Whatever Tyler Coleman’s motives for asking these questions may be, Mr Parker was hardly forthcoming about the facts in question, something that will do him no good. If he had taken the time to reply to these questions fairly and factually, instead of going on a rant, and accusing everyone in sight, maybe there would have been a lot less reaction (see here and here and here) and he would be getting a lot less flak. “for the life of me I cannot comprehend all the negativity…”, he writes in a forum post, after making these brutal statements. Well, me either.

Mr Parker, through an incredible amount of work and determination – and salesmanship – has brought himself to the top of the heap in the wine writing world. After starting out as the “little guy”, acting as an independent voice, much like many of the wine bloggers of today, he now holds a position of considerable influence. He has claimed the moral high ground of consumer advocacy and independence and rigorous ethical standards.  That requires him to hold himself to that higher standard, instead of allowing an apparent double standard. And that should make him refrain from spreading egregious falsehoods and attacking people’s reputation.

Sinking to the level of mudslinging he accuses others of doing to him will not help him at all. His reputation can only suffer from such exaggerations and calumnies. 

Clearly, he should apologize. But I’m not holding my breath.

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16 Comments

  1. Posted April 27, 2009 at 1:04 am | Permalink

    That’s a good analysis of the situation. As someone trained as a lawyer I find it pretty disturbing that another individual, no less someone with so much influence, who is trained as a lawyer would be so flippant and inaccurate with the facts. For shame.

  2. winecase
    Posted April 27, 2009 at 7:21 am | Permalink

    That’s what got me going. The fact that he would state an opinion strongly would be something else altogether. Here, there’s a combination of hubris and disregard for the truth that are, indeed, quite shameful, especially for someone in his position – and his legal training.

  3. wrtish
    Posted April 27, 2009 at 9:36 am | Permalink

    Excellent logic. I don’t know how I missed following you on twitter til now…

  4. winecase
    Posted April 27, 2009 at 10:10 am | Permalink

    Thanks for the compliment. I’ll certainly be reading your take on wine blogger ethics on your blog.

  5. Posted April 27, 2009 at 7:31 pm | Permalink

    “The Bordeaux Châteaux who spend a considerable amount of money on the En Primeurs campaigns are pro-consumer while the Dry Creek Valley producers are pro-business?”

    *GREAT* point made there – doesn’t feel like there is much of difference, does it? :)

  6. winecase
    Posted April 27, 2009 at 9:28 pm | Permalink

    I certainly don’t see it much. Winemakers with wine to sell meeting wine writers in all cases.

  7. Posted April 28, 2009 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

    Well-considered article, Rémy! Regarding expenses toward attending the Wine Bloggers Conference, I’ll take this moment right here and now to certify my own transparency: last year, I could afford to attend. This year, I can’t. For this to be a junket for me, I’ll have to sell some of my junk.

    See you on Twitter, Rémy.

  8. Posted April 30, 2009 at 10:30 am | Permalink

    I can certainly confirm that!

    I’m going on a junket to Germany in May. Requires that I show up at the airport, and basically all other expenses are covered.

    For TasteCamp and WBC, I am responsible for all expenses with the only exceptions being the dinners and wine tastings, which we pay for in part and some of those expenses are underwritten by the sponsors. That is NOT a junket – in fact, several of last year’s attendees to WBC can’t make the 2009 event due to expenses!

  9. Posted May 1, 2009 at 9:45 am | Permalink

    Fantastic summation, Remy. Parker clearly doesn’t read the blogs he’s criticizing, especially when he insinuates that WBC attendees are tools of the CA wine industry. I almost never write about CA wine personally. But that’s just one of the illogical and false statements that you pointed out so well.

  10. M. Smith
    Posted May 2, 2009 at 9:42 am | Permalink

    “Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Lord Acton

  11. Posted May 4, 2009 at 3:17 pm | Permalink

    And hear the dying lion roar…..
    The traditional wine writers seem rather defensive about their communication stranglehold being disrupted and fragmented.
    Seems like Parker wrote with anger , not facts.

  12. Posted May 4, 2009 at 10:32 pm | Permalink

    As mydailywine said, Parker is on the defensive.
    The growth of wine bloggers, from the pure amateur enthusiast, the wine journalist and the sommeliers must be affecting readership (thus, advertising) and he must be feeling his throne being pulled out from under him.

  13. winecase
    Posted May 4, 2009 at 10:49 pm | Permalink

    @mydailywine @joeshico
    Well, he certainly has noticed bloggers, by now, hasn’t he.

    Seems he even put his blame-the-blogger rant in print, in issue 182 of WA. If his readers weren’t aware of bloggers, they will be now.

    The post makes interesting points about Parker’s potential goals with this rant. Something to ponder.

  14. Posted May 5, 2009 at 3:32 am | Permalink

    Thanks for a great post! Thanks also for mentioning the European Bloggers Conference which was the first one (held in Rioja, Aug 08). As other have pointed out, looks like Parker is the lion in winter.

    And for the record, I paid for all my expenses last year at the WBC, from the flight, London – SF round trip, the hotel before, during and after the conference and all transportation as well as all expenses for the European Bloggers conference.

  15. Posted May 7, 2009 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

    Hi Remy,

    I’m with you on this.

    Check out my recent blog about winemakers who follow the wrong lead.

    http://wineportfolio.blogspot.com/

    Cheers,
    Leo

  16. winecase
    Posted April 28, 2009 at 4:34 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for adding to the case regarding expenses for the WBC. I’m sure more people could confirm that this was far from a junket.

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  1. By Liens en Vrac - 9 mai 2009 on May 9, 2009 at 12:13 pm

    [...] progression. Le rapport est disponible gratuitement en format pdf. Le timing est assez bon, puisque les réactions sont vives depuis la dernière sortie de Robert Parker sur les standards de qualité et [...]

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