After years as a lapsed Wine Advocate junkie (Parker free since 1992) I recently re-upped my subscription when it became apparent that the online newsletter is committed to covering Swiss wine in a meaningful way. I’m encouraged that Stephen Reinhardt, their Swiss commentator, appears to be passionate about the subject and has a pretty good grasp of the more important dynamics at play. He’s obviously tuned into the nation’s best winemakers and he correctly reads the new energy emerging from the younger generation.
Why then his ad hominem attack against the producers of a new—perhaps unwelcome to some—style of wine in Switzerland: the international trophy wine. It’s a style the Wine Advocate has championed—and not so discreetly rewarded—over the years. Who among us is unfamiliar with the garagiste movement in Bordeaux, the trophy cabs of California and Australian shiraz on steroids. All of them invented on the Advocate’s watch. Even some of the more recent thickish IGT wines from Italy were let loose upon the world with the Wine Advocate’s stamp of approval.
Why then Reinhardt’s vicious, close to personal, attack on the producers of Electus, the Swiss wine in question? I get it on one level: yes, they make a big mistake for aggressively pricing a product still in beta testing. But there’s almost none of it around, so what public does the criticism serve? I also get trying to create a stir. Hell, that’s what I try to do as a blogger. But, in my opinion, it’s much ado about nothing and perhaps somewhat damaging in the old Wine Advocate empire-builder-cum-steamroller kind of way.
Anyway, it got me to thinking. Not always a good thing. What is going on at the Wine Advocate? Is there a de-Parkerization (deparkerizatsia) underway? A few events make me think so.
Mr. Reinhardt’s assessment of Electus as a “fake wine” and “an inky Swiss designer drug made by well-trained enologists for people with corruptible palates” could have been written by someone with an ax to grind. In a way, Electus is exactly the kind of wine the WA has championed for years and was better on this day than some of the more famous wines it was pitted against when tasted blind. Just sayin’.
Is this a re-calibration and a glimpse into what will be celebrated at the WA going forward? A repudiation of the Parker palate? It could be an attempt to align with a somewhat skeptical new generation of readers. Mr. Reinhardt’s dismissal of Electus may not be the best indication of a trend, but we’ll be watching.
A second and perhaps more telling event occurred recently in the Twittersphere. Parker himself retweeted an article written by Lisa Perrotti-Brown alleging that the rise of CO2 levels in the atmosphere was responsible for the rise in alcohol levels in wine. The article specifically absolves the Parker Palate from any responsibility for the phenomenon.
This can be seen in two ways. First, it may simply be an attempt by Parker to tidy up his legacy. Super-ripeness is a dirty word today and it’s inextricably tied to Parker himself. Second, it may be an attempt to position the new WA apart from its past transgressions. They still deny there ever was a Parker Palate. It’s not us, it’s global warming, so to speak.
Thankfully, several commentators, especially the estimable Jamie Goode, convincingly debunk these assertions and lay the blame squarely on the Parker Palate. I’m afraid they’re going to have to live with this one in Monkton and Hong Kong.
Particularly intriguing is the partial sale of the WA to Michelin. Who was the seller? Is the WA replacing one brand, Robert Parker, with another, Michelin? Clearly, a diversification of businesses is afoot. And can a monetization of the investment be far behind?
W. Blake Gray, publisher of the Gray Report, reported last year on a scandal that involved leaked information regarding highly rated sakes. A mysterious agent with vague ties to the WA was able to procure significant quantities of 90+ point sakes in advance of a major sake review. They appeared in an online offering immediately upon publication at significant mark-ups. When Gray approached the WA—a self-described bastion of ethical and transparent behavior—he was told that there would be a full investigation and that they would return to him with an answer. He recently published, a year later, that he’s still waiting.
Let’s speculate a bit here. I for one don’t see Parker sullying his legacy by profiting from the sale of wine his namesake newsletter recommends. I’m not so sure about big-money investors who may see the sale of wine as offering a return on investment that a stand alone newsletter can’t touch.
I for one can visualize a bi-furcated WA. On the one hand maintaining its transparency, objectivity and refusal to accept ads for as long as it can while continuing to service its current subscribers. And on the other hand, as an unseen business entity that takes full advantage of its position to sell or broker highly rated wines to an Asian clientele. For all intents and purposes out of sight from hapless, basic subscribers.
Could the sake fiasco be a proto-type testing of the concept gone wrong? Their refusal to come forth with a promised answer leads to speculation. Can two such business models even co-exist? I’m sure they’ve asked themselves these questions and the answers may be one reason Parker is receding into the background.