How the Internet has democratized drinking.

Wine, beer, and other potent potables.
Sept. 25 2009 4:33 PM

We're All Wine Critics Now

How the Internet has democratized drinking.

Illustration by Rob Donnelly. Click image to expand.

Unless you spend a lot of time in wine chat rooms, you may have missed the recent controversies involving critic Robert Parker. The short version: Parker's publication, the Wine Advocate, was found to be violating its own strictures against freebies and fraternizing with wine importers, and a contributor he hired gave a high rating to a wine based on a sample that seemed to bear little resemblance to what was available on retail shelves. The back-to-back scandals, which have damaged Parker's reputation for probity (one of his biggest selling points as a critic), came to light via several wine Web sites, including Parker's own online discussion board. The Internet angle is actually the most significant aspect of this story, for it underscores how profoundly technology is changing the relationship between wine critics and consumers—the relationship between you and me.

True, the transformative power of the Internet is hardly a revelation at this point, and it isn't as if the wine world has been slow to join the digital age. Wine chat rooms have been around for years, the Web is crawling with wine blogs, and almost every major critic—Parker, the Wine Spectator, Jancis Robinson, Stephen Tanzer—has established a significant presence on the Internet. The Internet has also given rise to several important new critics, notably Allen Meadows, aka Burghound. But while the online world has clearly changed the way in which wine information is disseminated, the notion that it might fundamentally alter the critic-consumer dynamic was, until recently, mostly a matter of prognostication—everyone agreed it was bound to happen, but at some indeterminate point in the future. What the Parker imbroglio demonstrated is that the future has arrived.

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In early spring, Jay Miller—a close friend of Parker's who started writing for Wine Advocate a few years ago—went on a purely social trip with a group of importers whose wines he reviews. It subsequently came out that Miller had also taken all-expense-paid trips to Argentina, Chile, and Australia and that another Wine Advocate contributor, Mark Squires, who oversees Parker's discussion board, had likewise gone on multiple junkets. (All this emerged after I inquired about one of Miller's trips during a spirited e-mail exchange with Squires, which prompted Tyler Colman, a wine writer who blogs under the name Dr. Vino, to ask Parker and Miller about the latter's conduct.) The nature of these trips had not been disclosed to Wine Advocate readers, and they were glaring breaches of Parker's ethical guidelines. He has always said that he funds his own travels and eschews "gratuitous hospitality," and he has also stressed the importance of keeping one's distance from the wine trade. The enormous authority that he wields rested in no small measure on a perception among consumers that he was uncompromised and incorruptible.

Parker initially claimed that the allegations concerning his colleagues were "totally fictitious" and were being peddled by "extremists." But as more details poured out on Dr. Vino's blog, he grudgingly acknowledged that, yes, mistakes had been made. (To see Parker's comments, check out post Nos. 11, 40, 71, and 117 on this thread.) This Internet rumpus soon found its way into the mainstream media; in late May, the Wall Street Journal ran a piece about the Miller affair. Parker, in a letter to the editor that he posted on his Web site (it never ran in the paper), asserted that he had dealt with the matter in a "forthright, transparent, and public manner." This didn't exactly square with what the commenters on his board had observed, and when some of them had the temerity to say as much, they were treated to a whiff of grapeshot: Some of them had posts deleted, and at least one longtime participant had his posting privileges revoked entirely. (Another, recently established, discussion board, Wineberserkers.com, quickly became a meeting point for the purged and disaffected. If you want to read some of the dissident literature, click here and here and scroll down.) In response, a number of people threatened to cancel their subscriptions to the Wine Advocate (there is no way of knowing how many followed through).

Suffice it to say, the ethical lapses wouldn't have become public knowledge, and the fallout wouldn't have been nearly so spectacular, had it not been for the Internet. And while Dr. Vino unearthed the story and the Journal article pushed it along, it was pressure from his own readers that ultimately forced Parker to own up to the missteps and issue an updated code of conduct. (Parker says that he will continue to pay his own way but that his colleagues are held to "high but less stringent" standards and will be allowed to take free trips if they are "educational" in nature and are sponsored by governments rather than trade associations.)

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