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The payola scandal at the Wine Advocate

I don't know if people who read this forum have been following the departure of Jay Miller as a critic at The Wine Advocate, Robert Parker's journal.
There's lots of unanswered questions, but Miller hired a man named Campo to be his guide/handler as he tasted wines in Spain, one of his regions. Campo sent emails to producers in wine making regions offering to let Jay Miller taste their wines and visit in exchange for 20,000 euros.

http://dinersjournal.blogs.nytimes.co...

http://www.drvino.com/2011/12/04/jay-...

http://gawker.com/5865476/professiona...

I guess it's not clear if Miller knew about the request for money for his services. This took another curious turn when it was revealed that Miller was supposed to retire at the end of this year. That raises the possibility that on his final lap through Spain he or maybe just his handler were trying to grab all the cash they could.
In discussions about this on Wine Berserkers wine board, a couple of people who said they have met Miller call him a decent guy.
I still think The Wine Advocate is the most reliable place for wine reviews. Just kind of sad to see this.

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  1. Yes, I hope Miller knew nothing of it. I would hope he would be smart enough to know that 20,000 euro's wouldn't get him a decent R.V. for his retirement......... sounds unlikely he knew about it to me.

    1 Reply
    1. re: sedimental

      $20,000 euro x 40 vineyards = (what is that) $800,000 Euro . . . . sounds like a nice RV to me for a few weeks work.

    2. OK just speculating here, but it seems to me that wine critics basically spend their lifetime building up their reputations through reviews, study, practice, and publishing. And it strikes me that their reputation is everything in this industry. Unlike producing a product per se, they produce informed opinions, and often it is the reputation that a wine critic has built up over years that sustains them.
      The assumption also here is that if retiring, Miller would be OUT of the industry completely, which most likely would not be the case. He is simply retiring from a job. There may be consulting/writing/contracts out there that he was planning to pursue, and these would be contingent on his CV and reputation.
      SO...just speculating here, but .... it seems to me to be extremely unlikely that a critic of this caliber would trade in his reputation and future earnings for a few Euros. I think he may have had poor judgement in hiring his handler but I absolutely don't believe that he sold his reputation down the river.
      I feel sorry for the guy. I'm sure though that the truth will come out, and if vindication is his, it'll be public and lasting. I hope.

      23 Replies
      1. re: freia

        I hope that is the case as well.

        Unfortunately your view of critics is far from the reality for many. Many, many, many reviews/stories/features/etc in newspapers, magazines, online, etc are PAID placements - sometimes flat out money, sometimes exchanges for advertising dollars, etc. Many publications have flat out bans on slamming sponsors even if you hate their products and likewise many publications require the inclusion of favorable reviews of major sponsors.

        It is a very slippery slope and unfortunately very common across a wide range of industries.

        It is a sad story though.

        1. re: thimes

          Well, the editorials might not be directly "for pay," but in the world of media advertising, what often happens is that Magazine A is doing a review, and the advertising department then calls up Advertiser B, telling them of the piece (might be fluff, or a good, even piece?), and asks them to buy an ad, with good placement near, or adjacent to the editorial.

          This happens in most magazines, that accept advertising, and not JUST in the food & wine rags. Let an architectural magazine run a feature on a home, and you will likely see several ads for contractors mentioned in the article - the pool designer, the kitchen designer, the tile provider, et al. Now, things can get tricky, if the magazine tells advertisers, or potential advertisers, that they will NOT get mention, UNLESS they buy an ad. I used to shoot a lot of high-end residential architectural photography, and got weekly calls to advertise in Magazine A, as they were featuring a lot of my work in their editorial in 3 mos.. Fortunately, I was never approached in a "pay to play" scheme, as that would have ripped me badly.

          Not sure how this might, or might not, play into the topic, but is a general comment on the state of advertising, and editorial.

          Hunt

          1. re: Bill Hunt

            Yeah it gets ugly when you dig in too deep.

            It can also happen where an advertiser wheels and deals with a company with multiple periodicals. They will buy big ad space is say magazine "A" (which maybe is the premier magazine for the company and expensive) with the understanding that the company will run a multipage review of their product in another magazine "B" from the same company.

            Sometimes this happens in reverse - I'll by ad space in "B" which needs ad revenue if you include me in your "top 10" in magazine "A".

            This can seem more "reputable" when it is more like - hey if you want to be considered in our (totally random example) olive oil tasting this year you have to have had advertising in our magazine this year. So buy up people. In this case you are paying to be part of the consideration set, not for a guaranteed review. Still grey, but not as directly incriminating.

            And as everyone says, this isn't just the food industry. That hotel you read the review of, or the travel agent you read about, or the camera you wanted to buy, or . . . . . .

            Some companies/sites/etc do have actual honest, trustworthy reviews but who is included in the consideration set can be skewed.

            1. re: thimes

              I do agree. Much of my concern is whether it's a "pull," or a "push" deal.

              In the former, the mag (or medium) tells the potential advertiser (winery here), "Hey, we're doing an editorial on Cal-Cabs, and have done this tasting of Cal-Cabs, and your wine came out in the top 5. Would you like to buy a well-placed ad in that edition?"

              For the latter, it would be the opposite, where the ad agency for the winery calls that same mag (or medium), and says, "I'll buy a four page, four-color spread, if you review our client's wine well."

              Totally different situations, at least in my mind.

              I would always hope that it is a "pull" situation, but sometimes, I wonder.

              Hunt

        2. re: freia

          "[I]t seems to me to be extremely unlikely that a critic of this caliber would trade in his reputation and future earnings for a few Euros."

          Really? Trading one's integrity for cheap profit is basically de rigueur today.

          1. re: MGZ

            And what a sad comment that is if one truly believes it. I guess I just don't automatically assume this of people.

            1. re: freia

              The global economy has been destroyed by greed and corruption. That's sad. We've been able to watch it happen across various industries for years now. That's sadder. It is so systemically ingrained that it is unlikely to cease at any foreseable time. That's saddest.

              1. re: MGZ

                So EVERYWHERE there's smoke there MUST be fire? You're not alone in your conclusion............. not sure which is more sad. There have always been bad people, and there have always been those who see the worst everywhere. Seems like the balance is changing.

                1. re: Midlife

                  Hi, midlife: "So EVERYWHERE there's smoke there MUST be fire?"

                  LOL. This variant of the proverb has always tickled me. Whenever I read or hear it, I envision a skeptical 911 operator speaking it to a caller reporting smoke pouring out of a neighbor's window.

                  I'd prefer more of a Zen spin: If no one can smell the smoke, can there *be* a fire?

                  Aloha,
                  Kaleo

                  1. re: kaleokahu

                    Or is the Zen spin thusly?

                    If there "is" a fire and no one can smell it, is it possilbe there could still be a fire?

                    1. re: Rella

                      I <think> that I just heard a tree falling in a forest, where I was not... [Grin]

                      Hunt

                    2. re: kaleokahu

                      Just sayin'! I think you get my point.

                      1. re: kaleokahu

                        I believe "smoke" by definition requires combustion. Cumbustion, on the other hand, can occur without producing smoke. Regardless, I appreciate Midlife's point - perhaps the balance is shifting because societally we have begun to define right and wrong by the legality of our actions as opposed to their morality. That shift seemed to occur about the time we started wondering what the meaning of the word "is" is?

                        1. re: MGZ

                          Can't argue the underlying truth in what you say. It just seems to me that people, hyped by the media, tend to reach 'firm' conclusions just a bit too easily these days. Somewhere in all this we're losing elements of the presumption of innocence that is central to our legal system if not our social system.

                          1. re: Midlife

                            Hi, again, midlife:

                            I agree with everything you just wrote in generality.

                            The problems I see with using that generality to the doubt-benefit of WA in this particular instance are: (a) it's been applied before in prior instances (see the 2008 scandal and Petrus counterfeiting issues documented below) and WA skated; (b) Campo is seemingly a co-conspirator caught red-handed in the act of influence peddling; and (c) the Godfather's stated policy is to avoid even the *appearance* of impropriety--a standard to which he, as a lawyer, is already bound.

                            Would I throw RP in prison on the basis of reasonable inferences to be drawn from this scandal and history? No. Would someone be justified in concluding from the same facts and circumstances that WA and Parker are not to be trusted? Much closer call.

                            Aloha,
                            Kaleo

                            1. re: kaleokahu

                              "Trust" can be a very tenuous thing. Normally, it is earned, with much hard work, and time, but can be lost in an instant.

                              Though not much of a R P, Jr. fan (I agree with some of his assertions), I would also not "throw him (or his minions) under the bus." At least not too soon.

                              At my advanced age, I have seen too many instances, where the headlines say one thing, and then a bit later, the retractions on page 30, say something totally different.

                              What do we have here? I am not sure, but when allegations are written in 30 pt. type, it is hard to look the other way. Still, let's check page 30, and then the 8 pt. type, to see what the reality is.

                              Hunt

                              1. re: Bill Hunt

                                Hunt:

                                OK, fair enough. Headlines sometimes outpace the true story.

                                How long shall we wait? There haven't been any real answers or retractions from the Miller scandal of '2008-9, either. Just the laughable unveiling that WA's stated ethics policy applied only to the Godfather himself. I think we can expect somesuch apologia and hairsplitting on this one, too, and he'll blandish again about doing anything being fascistic.

                                So tell me when we can unchock the wheels on the bus.

                                Aloha,
                                Kaleo

                                1. re: kaleokahu

                                  In this case, I know nothing about the underlying story. The headlines may well be correct, and the body copy might well tell the full story. My example was a hypothetical, but a fairly common one.

                                  As for the wheel chocks, I think we can remove them now... [Grin]

                                  Hunt

                                2. re: Bill Hunt

                                  Bill:
                                  You don't seem to mention that a major problem with getting the whole story here is the silence from the Parker side in general and Miller specifically. Miller wouldn't comment on The Associated Press original stories. Miller certainly has the right to remain silent, but he can't use his silence to hold the story hostage. If his response to this are the limited comments from Parker and from him, he deserves his fate.

                                  1. re: SteveTimko

                                    I do agree Steve. Were I involved (cannot image that I would be, but that is for another thread), I would be in the press daily, telling MY story. Were I a guilty party, then I would go to the press and bid farewell, with full disclosure.

                                    Hunt

                              2. re: Midlife

                                The concept of "tried, and found guilty, in the media," scares me greatly. It almost appears that whoever has the best PR arm, will always win, regardless of where the truth lies. When confronted by such a situation, I harken back to "The Overton Window."

                                Hunt

                              3. re: MGZ

                                Yes, that timing is possibly correct, though there were more, prior.

                                Now, not sure what happened, and certainly not sure what deals might have been made, if they were. Having worked, peripherally, in the advertising and PR world, I see many things, that go against my personal choices, but maybe that is just me. I am a tad more concerned with the moral aspect, and less so, with the legal aspects.

                                Will be interesting to see how things sort out.

                                Hunt

                    3. re: freia

                      Jay Miller was a long-time friend of Parker plucked from relative obscurity to be a critic. He has worked on the retail side of the wine business, which led to some other conflicts.
                      Miller was also at the center of this whole Sierra Carche debacle, where he rated a bottle 96 points and said it would age for another 15 years. Wine geeks who bought the wine consider it almost undrinkable.
                      http://www.drvino.com/2009/07/22/sier...

                    4. Hi, Steve:

                      I'm unsurprised. The money in play to have one's wines favorably reviewed (or neutrally, or reviewed at all) is huge. When Parker's cabal can make or break even large, established wineries--and DOES make or break obscure and new entrants--the temptation to buy and sell access, favor and influence is irresistable, corruption inevitable.

                      The Miller thing is remarkable only because it's one of the rare clear examples that is brazen and devoid of cutouts and plausible deniability. The way I see it, Miller is just the oenological visage of Rod Blagojevich; his ouster, like Blago's, is less about doing what's right than propping up a corrupt system. Just watch, he'll be made out to be the bad "berry", when there's a Macrobin full of them. IMO, Parker fired Miller not for what he did, but for doing it so ham-handedly.

                      IMO, most of the wine-review corruption will never see the light of day. Power and its overlord money guarantee that it works that way. The "consultants" friendly with the Godfather will continue to prosper, helping vintners make "better" wines that are more pleasing to him and his ilk.

                      Jonathan Nossiter gave us a good look at this problem in hid 2004 documentary Mondovino, and many of us didn't pay attention. Maybe now some will.

                      Aloha,
                      Kaleo

                      1 Reply
                      1. re: kaleokahu

                        I really enjoyed "Mondovino" and bought a copy of it to re-enjoy. Need to go back and dig deeper into it. I wonder how many people watched it.

                      2. I absolutely don't "get" the wine world. There were a few interesting threads here about the value of wine critics, what role does wine rating/awards play in your wine choice, and so on. We had really interesting input from professionals in the area. The general consensus from what I remember, and the majority of the posts were that wine critics were highly trained, their opinion was important, to find one that resonated with you and whose opinions seemed to reflect your experience and whose opinions were consistent. I started on this board with the thought that there really was no "value" to a critic opinion, that the wine "system" per se was flawed because of its assessment of the intangible. After reading all those threads, I rethought the role and value of wine critics.
                        Now I read this and after considering the other threads, gave the member in question the benefit of the doubt. It really is possible that one hires an intermediary who decides to trade in on your name/experience for personal profit.
                        Am I wrong in my understanding of the wine industry? Is it really peopled with corrupt individuals who are only out to make a buck? Are there any legitimate voices in this industry? Should I even bother trying to deepen my understanding of this industry? What then is the point?
                        Sigh....

                        6 Replies
                        1. re: freia

                          I've found just about every other critic for the Wine Advocate useful. I generally disagreed with Miller and I couldn't calibrate my palate to his.

                          1. re: SteveTimko

                            Miller and Steiman are weak links. Tanzer for me is the best as my palate is almost identical to their reviewers and they don't hand out 95 points often as I don't.

                          2. re: freia

                            I understand the frustration. The good news - there are a lot of good wines out there so sometimes a "paid placement" is just that - a placement.

                            For me the role of the critic is to help you explore and find wines that you like. You (like the critic) will never have the opportunity to try all the wines that are made. So if they are steering you to wines that you like, then "no harm, no foul".

                            Your job as the consumer is to start paying attention to the varieties, styles, and locations of wines that you like (even if the critic steered you to them). That way you can begin to explore smaller producers from the same area, or who grow the same variety, etc, etc, etc but who don't have the money or access to the big critics.

                            In the end you'll also help to save yourself some money since once a wine becomes know you can just sit back and watch the price increase - which in the end is where the corruption comes from. A critic making a small wage, who writes a revue that ends up earning a vineyard big returns can easily start to feel left out of the loop.

                            Its similar in small businesses (large ones too). If I have a client that needs a service that I don't perform to whom should I refer them? The person who I think does the best job or the guy who does a good job AND says they'll give me 10% of any job that I refer. . . . . It's hard to be the consumer.

                            1. re: thimes

                              :) Thanks...I'll stick with my new exploration of wine and its joys as you outline in your great response. It IS hard to be the consumer, and I learn something every day. :)

                            2. re: freia

                              Freia . . . so many questions; so little time . . . .

                              >>> The general consensus from what I remember, and the majority of the posts were that wine critics were highly trained, their opinion was important, to find one that resonated with you and whose opinions seemed to reflect your experience and whose opinions were consistent . . . <<<

                              1) Critics are generally self-appointed, and many have LOTS of experience/training; many have NO experience/training.

                              2) The opinion of the *leading* critics is important -- mostly to the people who have wine to sell, and to those who -- to be quite honest about it -- have yet to learn to trust their *own* palate.

                              3) It is CRUCIAL to find a critic who is CONSISTENT. (Many are not.) Regardless of whether you agree or disagree, a ***consistent*** critic can be invaluable in that you can calibrate your palate to his/hers. You begin to understand what he/she means when using specific terms. A critic who lacks this consistency is impossible to understand.

                              >>> Am I wrong in my understanding of the wine industry? Is it really peopled with corrupt individuals who are only out to make a buck? Are there any legitimate voices in this industry? Should I even bother trying to deepen my understanding of this industry? What then is the point? <<<

                              4) Yes, you're wrong.

                              5) Of course it is! Then again, it's also populated by honest people filled with passion and a love for what they do, and for wine in general. In EVERY endeavor, there are people who are corrupt and out for a buck, and people who genuinely care about what they are doing . . . even in politics! Why should the wine business be any different?

                              6) Define "legitimate voice." Seriously. I have no idea what you mean.

                              7) Of course you should . . . what a silly question.

                              8) The point, dear Freia, is to understand. With understanding comes an increase in knowledge AND in enjoyment.It becomes easier to find wines that YOU like, and easier to avoid wines that you don't. And wouldn't it be nice if life were that simple?

                              Cheers,
                              Jason

                              1. re: freia

                                The wines industry is not THAT different from most businesses in a Capitalist society. The underlying tenet is actually making money. However, like an artist, who sells their artwork, it is often populated by people, who both love what they do, and then try to do it, to the best of their abilities.

                                Does that mean that every winemaker, or winery owner, ONLY thinks about their "art?" No. Probably not even close. Still, many are driven by their "art," and profit is secondary. I have had the pleasure of meeting many such winemakers and winery owners. Profit is something that might come, and their true passion is their wine,and their grapes.

                                "The industry" is cloudy. Trying to follow it, is a very time-consuming task, and I am not sure to what reward. However, following "wine" is something different, and one should first trust their palate.

                                Good luck,

                                Hunt

                              2. Gee, I suppose next I'll be hearing that restaurant critics get preferential treatment when they dine out, or that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences gives Oscars to people who are long overdue to win one.

                                It's the nature of the beast for there to be some bias, whether or not it extends to corruption, when one's opinion or vote is highly sought.

                                4 Replies
                                1. re: Brad Ballinger

                                  Brad - is this the same Jay Miller that used to post on Robin Garr's Wine Lover's Discussion board? Just wondering....

                                  Thanks,
                                  Niki

                                    1. re: Niki in Dayton

                                      Steve is right. There is a Jay Miller on the Wine Berserkers board with the cursed name that is not thee Jay Miller.

                                      1. re: Niki in Dayton

                                        Piling on, the answer is no. My friend Jay Miller of whom you speak (we've drunk together on more than one occasion) has a better palate. :o)