May 29, 2009
For decades, wine critic Robert M. Parker Jr. has championed a rigid system of ethics, paying for all of his travels to wineries and shunning gifts from the trade. "It is imperative for a wine critic to pay his own way," Mr. Parker wrote in his latest book, published last fall.
But Mr. Parker, it recently has been discovered, hasn't held some fellow writers at his influential newsletter, Robert Parker's Wine Advocate, to the same standard.
Last September, when critic Jay Miller visited Australia to review various makers' wines, an industry group, Wine Australia, paid about $25,000 for his air travel, hotel accommodations and meals, says James Gosper, the group's director for North America.
The trip was one of more than a half-dozen instances of such paid-for travel by writers for the newsletter in recent years. The trips haven't been disclosed in the newsletter. Mr. Miller also has vacationed and enjoyed lavish social dinners in the company of wine importers whose wines he reviews, according to his own writings and interviews with industry executives.
News of such activities, reported last month on a wine blog called Dr. Vino, have captivated wine enthusiasts and triggered a fierce online debate about ethics at Mr. Parker's 31-year-old newsletter.
The issue carries wider significance beyond wine buffs. Impressive Parker ratings can help winemakers command higher prices and edge out competitors for shelf space.
The brouhaha, discussed on wine blogs from Spain to Chile, has led some to wonder if some Wine Advocate ratings are inflated. "The No. 1 wine critic in the world's brand is being tarnished," says Michael D. Opdahl, managing partner of Joshua Tree Imports, an importer of Australian wines in Arcadia, Calif.
Mr. Parker, 61 years old, largely has defended the two writers in question -- Mr. Miller and Mark Squires -- and apparently approved at least some of their trips. A half-dozen other writers contribute to the newsletter; allegations haven't been raised about their travel.
Posting in a forum on Mr. Parker's site last month, Mr. Squires said he has taken trips to Greece, Israel and Portugal financed by governments or industry groups. All, he said, were approved by Mr. Parker.
"I don't hold the independent contactors such as Jay and Mark to the same stingent standards as I adhere to (sic)," Mr. Parker wrote in an April 21 posting on the forum. "Yet I do have serious guidelines regarding conflicts of interest, and they are well aware of them."
Mr. Parker didn't respond to interview requests. Messrs. Miller and Squires declined to comment. Mr. Squires referred to comments on the Web forum he runs on Mr. Parker's site, eRobertParker.com, where he said his reviews are rarely based on tastings that take place at wineries.
Ethics were at the root of Mr. Parker's philosophy for reviewing wines when he began his newsletter in 1978. Then a practicing lawyer, he saw himself as a consumer advocate in the style of Ralph Nader. He has sought to maintain detachment from the industry and hasn't accepted ads.
Mr. Parker popularized the 100-point scoring system for wines. His newsletter, based in Parkton, Md., now has more than 50,000 subscribers in more than 37 countries, with U.S. subscribers paying $75 a year.
Mr. Parker has been controversial, but mostly because of his palate. Critics claim he favors a particular set of winemaking styles, and say many winemakers in disparate regions of the globe are making similar wines designed to appeal to him alone, "Parkerizing" wine. French media early this decade reported on alleged cronyism involving certain Bordeaux winemakers; Mr. Parker refuted the charges.
For years, he was the newsletter's only writer. But he expanded coverage as wine's popularity rose in the U.S. In September 2006, he announced the hiring of a longtime friend, Mr. Miller, a Baltimore wine retailer. Mr. Miller was assigned to cover regions such as Australia and South America. Mr. Parker also tapped Mr. Squires to write reviews.
In October 2007, Mr. Miller posted an article on eRobertParker.com describing how he had traveled down Australia's Murray River on a houseboat in the company of Dan Philips, a U.S. importer of Australian wines that Mr. Miller reviews, as well as two Australian winemakers. The houseboat had five bedrooms and a Jacuzzi, Mr. Miller wrote. Mr. Philips "supplied us with cocktails as we awaited dinner," crayfish on a bed of squid-ink linguini.
The houseboat trip was a vacation for Mr. Miller, Mr. Parker later said on his forum.
Mr. Miller and Mr. Philips are close friends, says Daniel Posner, a New York wine-store owner who says Mr. Philips told him so during a visit to his shop last year. Mr. Philips, owner of Grateful Palate Imports, didn't respond to interview requests.
Last September, Mr. Miller arranged to travel to Australia. Wine Australia, which represents about 40 wineries, pays for other wine writers to visit the country but was surprised when Mr. Miller said he would accept a tour financed by the group, says Mr. Gosper, the North America director. Mr. Parker had always paid for his travels in Australia, Mr. Gosper says.
"We had no problem paying for Jay because of his influence," Mr. Gosper says, adding that the trip was "truly worthwhile" because Mr. Miller became better acquainted with lesser-known wine regions.
"The wines of Australia are as good as they have ever been," Mr. Miller wrote in the newsletter in February. He added that Mr. Philips "has to get much of the credit" for the rise in popularity of Australian wines in the U.S. earlier this decade.
In a "tasting notes" section, he awarded some 90 wines imported by Mr. Philips an average score of 92. (In the Parker system, a score of 90 to 95 represents "an outstanding wine of exceptional complexity and character.")
Mr. Parker, addressing the relationship between Mr. Philips and Mr. Miller on his forum last month, wrote, "Asking me to control the friends he sees on his own time...strikes me as frightening and fascist." He said he scrutinizes his writers' reviews and has "never found any case of bias."
In March, Mr. Miller traveled to Chile on a trip paid for by a trade group, Wines of Chile, according to a spokeswoman for the group.
In April, Tyler Colman, a 37-year-old author of wine books, broke news on his Dr. Vino's wine blog that Wines of Argentina had paid for two trips by Mr. Miller to review wines there.
A spokeswoman for Wines of Argentina declined to comment on Mr. Colman's reports. In response to Mr. Colman's reporting, on April 22, Mr. Parker said on his forum that Mr. Miller would no longer be going on such tours to Argentina.
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