Big Establishment Acknowledges the Blog-O-Sphere

 bigbusiness

Blog Update #71, 2009: Big Establishment Acknowledges the Blog-O-Sphere

My first introduction to the concept of applying numerical value to a wine as a way of declaring its worth came in the Summer of 1984.  I was working as a bar back at one of the most prominent Continental restaurants of its time in Dallas, training under the watchful eye and palate of Franco Bertolasi.  Bertolasi was a passionate man of all things food and wine. He was also quite generous.  So it was not uncommon for even the youngest of his staff, including yours truly, to enjoy the final sips from bottles served at tastings that included such luminaries as the acclaimed 1982 Bordeaux, several vintages of DRC and verticals of Ramonet white Burgundy.

It was Bertolasi who introduced me to Parker’s Wine Advocate that Summer of 1984.  Bertolasi preferred Parker’s singular position; Parker was a sole voice, claimed Bertolasi, a man without blemish and Parker’s guide was the most serious of its kind.  I was told by my mentor at that time that the Wine Advocate had been founded on the principles that wine was to be evaluated with no consideration for its heritage nor its price.  Further, I had been instructed, wine was to be reported on honestly and with no punches pulled.  Bertolasi told me that Parker followed these rules and because of Parker’s principles, the Wine Advocate was the only guide to follow. 

By the Spring of 1989 I was a subscriber to the Wine Advocate, having fully immersed myself in the retail side of the wine business after a few years in the restaurant trade.  My first delivered issue, still a part of my library, was number 62, the annual Bordeaux Report, where Parker covered the vintages of 1986, 1987 and 1988.  That was 20 years ago, 120 issues back and a difference of 60 pages and hundreds of wines when compared to the issue that I received in yesterday’s mail.

Issue 62, from way back in 1989, as I re-read it this morning, takes me back to the good ol’ days.  Parker begins his report with the heading “(Optimism reigns supreme)” and offers the reader salient advice regarding the market, buying opportunities and the general nature of the world from the viewpoint of American wine buyers.  His words and reviews are uplifting, straight to the point and read as if they are coming from the world’s foremost authority on the subject.  I remember reading that first issue to be delivered to my tiny suburban apartment.  I recall how it inspired me to begin writing my own newsletter.  I simply remember how inspired I was – period.

I continued to subscribe to the Wine Advocate, as I do to this day, and Parker’s reviews were one of the driving forces behind my decision to enter the import business.  That career move eventually resulted in a face to face encounter with Parker.  I found myself representing several estates that were part of a particular broker’s portfolio from the Languedoc and Roussillon.  Parker and this broker were scheduled to meet and I was invited to participate.  That inaugural bird’s eye view from across a table covered with nearly 5 dozen bottles was my first exposure to the “real” Parker.  A personality much too large to allow for others to say too much, my broker was practically silent that day and I – a man with hundreds of ideas and histories to share – was instructed to please keep my thoughts to myself.  I wondered if perhaps Parker’s schedule was simply too busy that day to allow for a leisurely meeting and discussion of the wines.  Shrugging off the cool nature of the meeting, happy to have had the chance to at least present our products, I and my partner exited and hoped for the best.

I fast forward to today’s issue, this Wine Advocate #182.  Before I touch on the words Parker has elected to print, for his thousands upon thousands of paying subscribers around the globe to read, I have a few other personal thoughts to convey.  I once posted to the bulletin board owned by Parker.  It’s a free service and anyone in the world, supposedly, is allowed to post, comment and retort.  But after witnessing the dismissal from that board of folks I respect and consider colleagues, I decided to call my time over there quits.  Now I realize that Parker himself doesn’t handle the dismissal of people who post, and I also realize that Parker is not the man behind the delete button nor the censorship, but his name is on the welcome page; it is up to Parker to follow the premise he set down in the first published issue of the Wine Advocate.  Suffice to say, my experience at “The Board” left me with an even colder feeling on my skin than that first face to face encounter many years ago.

There is also my perception of the handling by Parker of someone I have come to hold a great amount of respect for in the wine business.  My wife gave to me as a Valentine’s Day present a book entitled “The Battle for Wine and Love”.  Those who know the book know it well.  Those who haven’t read it: GO GET IT!  In the book, Alice Feiring interviewed Parker.  Until reading that interview, in the context of reading the book, and with my own personal decades of experience adding credibility to that chapter, I continued holding hope for Parker’s return to grace.  After finishing the book, and after today’s reading of issue #182, things are looking ever increasingly gloomy on the horizon.

Or are they?

Robert Parker, the Robert Parker manning the wheel behind the Wine Advocate is an attorney.  He calculates his words, he finishes critical sentences with question marks: remember that scathing statement within a question regarding my old acquaintance Francois Faiveley?  He waited months before announcing to a Houston-based on-line social network site that they should cease and desist with the use of his photograph as an avatar.  Also in the social network scene, he seemingly chuckled at a completely fabricated site claiming to actually BE Robert Parker.  Notices at his bulletin board now state he has taken measures to handle that issue, but it took weeks and pages of comments before he acted.

Point?  Parker knows how to market, and how to cross promote.  He does nothing without great thought and consideration for the outcome.  Now I return to the comments publicly printed in today’s copy of the Wine Advocate #182.

Parker has once again taken to the task of covering the latest vintage of Bordeaux, this time it’s the 2008s in barrel.  The tone is decidedly more dismal than that Bordeaux issue from 20 years ago: “With the deepening global economic crisis, I wondered what was the point…”.  Yet it is not the tone regarding the economy that has me questioning Parker’s direction.  It is his extremely public back-handed swipes at bloggers that has my mind and heart at unrest.

Parker has been attacked, he would answer, in books, by movie producers, in the papers and, yes, by bloggers.  But Parker has always maintained his ability to keep his arguments with these critics where these retorts belong: either in the books they emanated from, or in interviews or on the web, or even in the papers.  In all my days as a subscriber, I have NEVER seen him initiate a fight in the pages of the Wine Advocate.  Today, he did.

Or, like I insinuated, did he?

Parker actually states, not infers, actually states, that many “notorious blogs” are authored by people who can’t “string a noun and verb together”.  Further, Parker goes on to attack bloggers again (before he ever once delves into his details on the vintage at hand), classifying them as “rumor-mongering” and “irresponsible”.  By that point, I needed a glass of wine.  The issue had arrived late yesterday, friends had invited me to join them, and Lageder was beckoning.  Had Parker truly dedicated the first nearly 1,000 words of issue 182 to bashing his “competitors”? 

Or had he just acknowledged us?

As I began to compose this article today, I mentally positioned myself on both sides of the table.  The wealthy, powerful, seemingly soon to retire, actually somewhat humorous Parker as he composes the results of yet another Bordeaux issue.  This is a part of the wine world we Americans who are considered the emerging wine buyers (the ones who drive the industry) are all but finished buying.  How can Parker, “Mr. Bordeaux”, assist this part of the wine world?  How can he draw attention to a vintage he now is touting as “dramatically better than I had expected”, a vintage including wines “that are close to, if not equal to the prodigious 2005 or 2000 vintages…”?  Every person I know simply doesn’t care.  How can Parker “save” Bordeaux? 

And on the opposing side of the table, we have the current uproar from the bloggers.  Forgetting the fact that they set themselves apart from the traditional critical media precisely because they felt ignored (or perhaps because they felt the wines they loved or their ideas were being ignored), bloggers are now fully engaging Parker by attacking him.  But guess what?  That’s working, too.  Readers of the blogs, readers who came to the blogs searching for answers and searching for discussions on wines never explored by the “big names” of critical wine reviewing are now cross referencing.  The bloggers are introducing their readers to a path to Parker.

As I made mention, I have never in my decades of reading the Advocate ever experienced Parker mentioning his competitors.  Never once has Parker, in my memory, mentioned an opposing viewpoint – by name – prior to publishing his own thoughts on a region’s latest offers.  Never has Parker, to my recollection, in a positive or negative way, talked about another method of wine reviewing in his own magazine.

Today, 20 years after my first paid issue of Parker’s Wine Advocate, the Big Establishment acknowledges “Us”.

All the best in wine and life,

Christopher Massie
Diplome D’Honneur de Sommelier

your thoughts are always welcome:

chambertin@sbcglobal.net