Wine Critics : Influence of Writers Can Be Heady
Late in 1985, a customer walked into Wally’s Liquor in Westwood and bought a case of Chardonnay made by Chalone Vineyard, a prestigious, Central California winery. A few days later, the customer returned 11 of the 12 bottles in the case.
“He said he didn’t like it,” says Steve Wallace, owner of Wally’s.
Wallace gave him his money back.
Two weeks later, the customer returned and bought a case of the same wine.
Surprised--and baffled--Wallace asked him why he’d changed his mind. The customer hemmed and hawed and finally admitted, sheepishly, that he’d just read a rave review of the wine in the Wine Advocate, a wine newsletter published every two months in Monkton, Md.
“Imagine,” Wallace said over lunch recently, obviously still unsettled by the incident, “this guy tasted the wine himself and didn’t like it, but because someone else said it was good, he decided he liked it after all.”
Robert M. Parker Jr., who writes and publishes the Wine Advocate, isn’t just “someone else,” though. Parker is the most influential wine writer in the world today.
Unlike most wine writers--who seldom say anything negative about any bottle of wine and who base much of their writing on all-expense-paid junkets to the world’s best wine regions--Parker pays his own way everywhere, is as quick with criticism as he is with praise and is universally regarded as both incorruptible and indefatigable.
100 Wines a Day
Parker tastes as many as 100 different wines a day at times--7,500 to 10,000 a year--and although he, like most wine writers, receives some free wine samples, he says he prefers to pay for his wine; he estimates that he buys about 70% of the wines he tastes--at a cost of $60,000 a year. Parker evaluates wines in the tasting room of his Maryland home, and he also visits France at least two or three times a year to taste young wines, some still in the barrel, not yet bottled.
The Wine Advocate, which generally runs 28 to 40 pages an issue, has only 20,000 subscribers, but importers, distributors and retailers often order and advertise their wines based largely on Parker’s ratings (50 to 100 points per wine); major newspaper wine advertisements, as well as wine store sales displays, now routinely feature Parker’s ratings--"Parker--91,” “Parker--93,” “Parker--96" as their sole attempt to influence customers.
Thus, Parker’s visibility and impact have been magnified far beyond that of his newsletter readership. Several other wine newsletters and newspaper and magazine wine writers also trigger consumer demand when they write favorable reviews, but none approaches Parker’s extraordinary influence.
Eunice Fried, a New York wine writer, says she was researching a book in Burgundy three years ago when an importer from another country joined her in tasting several wines; he refused to even try one particular wine, though, simply because “Parker only gave it an 84.”
Abdallah Simon, chairman of Seagram Chateau and Estates Wine Co. in New York, says that when Parker gave a 97 to the 1982 Chateau Certan de May--one of many Bordeaux wines that Simon imports--Simon sold his entire allocation of about 12,000 bottles in 48 hours.
Virtually every wine merchant, importer and distributor interviewed for this story told of similar experiences, and Parker’s reviews almost inevitably trigger the basic mechanisms of the marketplace. His early paean to the 1982 Bordeaux wines (“a vintage of stunning quality . . . a monumental vintage”) is widely credited with creating a consumer stampede--and skyrocketing prices--for those wines (and for the vintages that followed).
Parker, now 40, began drinking wine 20 years ago, when he went to Europe as a college junior to visit his girlfriend; he found beer too bloating and Coke too expensive--$1 for a six-ounce bottle--so he drank cheap, local table wines instead. He was intrigued by the experience and began studying wine and spending his summers in Bordeaux. In 1978, with the help of borrowed money, he started the Wine Advocate.
In 1984, Parker quit his job as a corporate lawyer to work full time as a wine writer; the Wine Advocate showed its first profit the next year, and his first book, on the wines of Bordeaux, was published by Simon and Schuster last year.
Initially, Parker’s impact was primarily in the East and primarily with the wines of Bordeaux. But his influence has now spread across the country, and he has written knowledgeably (and influentially) about the wines of other regions of France and about the wines of Italy, Germany, Spain, Australia, California and Oregon as well.
Brought About Change
“Parker . . . stated in print . . . that we make outstanding white wines, why can’t (we) . . . make a decent red wine?” says William MacIver, co-owner of Matanzas Creek Winery in Sonoma County. “He was 100% right. We weren’t making good red wine and didn’t know it.”
The MacIvers changed their red wines in 1984.
Before Parker came along, Robert Finigan’s Private Guide to Wines, published in San Francisco since 1972, was the nation’s best-known wine newsletter. But Finigan discontinued regular publication of the newsletter in late 1984, and by the time he moved to New York and started publishing the Finigan Wine Letter last August, Parker thoroughly dominated the field.
Parker is the most influential wine writer on any publication, by such a wide margin that there really isn’t anyone in second place--although the biweekly Wine Spectator, a tabloid newspaper published in San Francisco, with a nationwide circulation of more than 65,000, has a similar 100-point scale and has been growing in influence the last two or three years.
The Wine Spectator can be a bit sensational at times; some in the industry refer to it as “The Wine Speculator” or “The National Enquirer of Wine.” But it covers the industry aggressively, it’s filled with wine news, commentary, tasting notes and buying recommendations every issue, and it’s widely read among wine buffs and people in the industry.
The Connoisseur’s Guide to California Wines is also respected, as are such magazine wine writers as Alex Bespaloff of New York magazine, Martin Gersh of Vogue and British-born Gerald Asher of Gourmet magazine (and the San Francisco Chronicle). Asher is widely regarded as the best prose stylist among all wine writers in this country today--even though he’s been in the wine business for 35 years and regards himself primarily as “an international wine merchant.”
Most wine columns are little more than laundry lists--a few paragraphs of introductory material followed by a list of 10 or 15 or 20 recommended Chardonnays or Cabernets or whatever, each described by comparing its taste and smell with various fruits, vegetables and herbs (“slightly candied flavors with hints of pear and apple cider” or “hints of chocolate, black pepper, ripe prunes”).
Given Human Qualities
Worse, many wine writers--groping for language that the reader might understand (and trying to find some way to distinguish among the thousands of wines they taste every year)--describe wines in jarringly anthropomorphic terms: Wines are “reticent,” “restrained,” “assertive,” “lissome;” one wine is “sort of a blowsy blonde,” another is “a rather seedy aristocrat,” a third “tried to summon a bit more seriousness, but its supple femininity gave way quickly to shimmering fruitiness.”
But Asher writes such passages as:
“We sipped our sherry under the shady arcade of the patio while actors with somber Byronic faces gestured melodramatically, and actresses, softly rustling silk dresses in clouds of perfume, arched their heads gracefully, a posture necessary, perhaps, to support the weight of their extravagant eyelashes.”
Asher has his critics--should a wine merchant be writing about wine for the general consumer?--but everyone in the wine-writing field has critics . . . even Parker.
Some complain that Parker doesn’t taste all wines “blind” (i.e., with the labels covered) to insure maximum objectivity, as most other respected wine writers do. (Parker says he tastes “wines of pedigree” blind but that tasting blind “has no pertinence with wines I know nothing about.”) Other critics say Parker is really authoritative only on the wines of Bordeaux and should limit himself to them. Still others call Parker’s 100-point scale a “gimmick” that inflates customers’ expectations, exploits the insecure consumer’s desire for a simple buying guide and, worse, reduces the subjective, sensual experience of drinking wine to an objective, numerical standard far more rigid than any palate, even Parker’s, can justify.
“I don’t see how you could go through the Louvre and say . . . ‘That’s a 77, that’s a 96 . . . ' " Finigan says.
Finigan also thinks Parker went overboard in his evaluation of the 1982 Bordeaux. But taste is subjective, and wine writers--like film critics, book critics and restaurant critics--often disagree. Wine may be the most subjective and ephemeral of all, in fact; many wine makers admit they often can’t even identify their own wines in blind tastings.
But the major criticism of Parker is that he has become too influential, too powerful a force in the industry. Indeed, many wine makers worry that his influence is so pervasive and his preferences so clear--he generally seems to like big, robust wines more than lighter, more elegant wines--that he is influencing wine makers as well as wine buyers.
“There are wine makers all over the world who are making their wines for Robert Parker’s palate,” says Michael Hill, who writes a weekly wine column for the Baltimore Evening Sun.
But the wine business has only itself to blame for Parker’s pervasive influence.
“Our industry is the major culprit,” says Agustin Huneeus, president of Franciscan Vineyards in the Napa Valley. “I get 95 points . . . and the speed at which I can get . . . promoting . . . you wouldn’t believe. . . . We spend fortunes amplifying . . . (Parker’s) voice.”
Not surprisingly, Parker’s name came up far more than any other wine writer in the country in the course of more than 140 interviews for this story. The name that came up the second most often was that of Nathan Chroman, the author of a weekly free-lance wine column for the Los Angeles Times since about 1968.
Wine makers and fellow wine writers alike generally agree that Chroman knows a great deal about wine, cares passionately about wine, has an excellent palate and has made significant contributions to the California wine industry and the wine-drinking public.
Chroman is also respected for his thorough, conscientious approach to wine tasting--tasting wines blind, often several times each, in comparative tastings, to be certain of his judgments.
None of this is why Chroman is so widely talked about, though.
Chroman is controversial because he is perceived by many in the wine industry as having abused the power conferred on him by his Times column. He is thought to be abrasive and imperious, and he is criticized for having involved himself in several situations where there is at least the appearance of a potential conflict of interest--having a financial involvement with at least three California wineries; accepting free meals and free trips abroad for himself and his wife; working as a paid wine consultant to a restaurant where he conducts many interviews with people in the wine industry; writing a book, one edition of which was partially subsidized by a wine maker.
“Nate is the quintessential non-journalist wine writer,” says Harvey Steiman, executive editor of the Wine Spectator--a man for whom Chroman says he has much respect. “He (is) . . . very knowledgeable about wine . . . (but) he doesn’t think like a journalist; he thinks like an aficionado and a lawyer.”
Chroman, an attorney, has a small partnership interest in one Napa Valley winery and has received finders’ fees from two other wineries. He says he has never done anything unethical, though, because he hasn’t written about the winery he has an interest in and has only written about the two he received fees from when their wines merited mention--judgments he says he has based exclusively on blind tastings.
But Chroman has written favorably about those two wineries--and about a winery that has had an integrated sales effort and common management partner with the winery he has a partnership interest in.
No one interviewed by The Times for this story suggested that Chroman has given these wineries any coverage they didn’t deserve. Nor did anyone cite any examples of Chroman actually using his column to reward those who have been good to him or to punish those who have not. Moreover, Chroman says, he has turned down many opportunities over the years to make money through endorsements and investments in the wine industry, and he thinks the time and energy he devotes to wine has probably cost him money in the time it has taken from his law practice.
Nevertheless, critics argue that to avoid even the appearance of a potential conflict of interest, no one writing about a given industry should have any financial involvement with or take any favors from that industry.
The Times, like most major papers, applies that standard to its staff members but not generally to its free-lance contributors--not even to longtime, regular contributors like Chroman (who is identified in each Times column as “a free-lance wine writer and author who also practices law in Beverly Hills”).
Why doesn’t The Times--the biggest and best paper in the biggest and best wine-producing state in the country--have a full-time, professional journalist writing about wine like the New York Times, Baltimore Sun and a few other papers do?
In fact, The Times is discontinuing Chroman’s column, and editors say they are seeking a full-time, professional journalist to write about wine.
But The Times began publishing a regular wine column long before most other papers--eight years before the New York Times, for example--using two wine lovers (first Robert Lawrence Balzer and, later, Chroman) as its columnists; as Balzer and Chroman developed a following and a standing in the industry, the paper never saw a reason to replace them.
Wanted a Change
Jean Sharley Taylor, associate editor of The Times, says she is “troubled by all regular columnists who are free-lance” at the paper because it’s difficult to “achieve the kind of control over a (free-lance) writer that we would like to have.” Taylor says she has long wanted a full-time staff wine writer but hadn’t received budgetary approval for the position. Meanwhile, Taylor says, Balzer and Chroman both “work hard and have large followings.”
Although the influence of both men has vastly diminished over the years, both were undeniably pioneers in the field--so much so that a number of California wine makers received their first serious exposure to wine from Balzer and/or Chroman, either through their Times columns or in the wine appreciation classes that both men have long taught.
Balzer, whose wine column now appears in the Los Angeles Times’ Sunday magazine, began writing a weekly wine column for a small, local paper in 1937. He’s been writing for The Times since 1964 and has written nine books on wine, the first in 1948.
Balzer is widely thought of as the dean of California wine writers, a man who has “done almost as much for the California wine industry, in his own way, as Robert Mondavi and Ernest and Julio Gallo,” in the words of Michael Weis, wine maker at Vichon Winery in the Napa Valley.
Harvey Posert, director of public relations at Mondavi, calls Balzer, affectionately, “a marvelous propagandist for wine.”
Balzer is often criticized for being too friendly with many wine makers, and he readily concedes that, having “grown up with the industry . . . it’s almost familial.”
Balzer is also criticized for writing invariably favorable reviews of wines.
“There are far more good wines that I want to write about (than I have space for),” he says. “Why should I bother to write about something I don’t like?”
Many wine writers share Balzer’s view.
“I’d rather get people enthused than turned off,” says Bob Thompson, who writes a wine column for the San Francisco Examiner and is the respected author of several books on California Wines.
But many other wine writers--especially those who are professional journalists--say they have an obligation to warn readers away from poor wines, particularly when those wines are produced by well-known vineyards that usually produce good wines. Moreover, they say, because of the symbiotic relationship between the wine industry and most wine writers, writing exclusively favorable reviews may make even the most honest wine writer vulnerable to speculation about his integrity.
Balzer insists that his record of “independence . . . personal integrity and . . . taste” speaks for itself, though, and his approach to his column is characteristic of his basic personality--"lovely, sweet, enthusiastic, knowledgeable,” in Posert’s words.
Most people in the wine industry seem genuinely fond of and grateful to Balzer; when he turned 75 last month, the Los Angeles chapter of the American Institute of Wine and Food honored him with a black-tie dinner.
Even some journalists and wine makers who are critical of the behavior of other wine writers (including Chroman) seem willing to forgive almost anything Balzer has done that seems contrary to today’s journalistic ethics--taking junkets paid for by wine industry interests, writing a book (in 1966) subsidized by wine maker Paul Masson, writing a column this year about a wine futures venture in which his closest friend of 27 years is involved.
Balzer should be exempt from ethical considerations, many say--"grandfathered in,” as it were, both because of his long years of service to the wine industry and because he started writing about wine at a time when ethical standards in journalism were far looser than they are today.
Written Code of Ethics
The Times did not even have a written code of ethics, for example, until 1982--long after both Balzer and Chroman began writing for the paper.
Some critics insist that contemporary ethical standards should be applied equally to all writers on a newspaper, regardless of their longevity. But most critics blame the newspapers, rather than the individual writers, for the questionable situations in which free-lance wine writers sometimes find themselves. Wine writers and people in the wine industry alike insist that as long as papers use free-lance writers, pay them small fees and little or no expense money and make little or no attempt to control their outside activities, the flood of free wine, free meals, free trips abroad and possible conflicts of interest over books, consultancies and other activities will continue unabated.
A few papers are particularly sensitive to such conflicts. The New York Times took its weekly wine column away from staff member Terry Robards in 1983, for example, after it was disclosed that he had written a book for Bantam that was sold as a promotional item for an importer of French wines. But the Los Angeles Times took no action against Chroman when his 1973 book “The Treasury of American Wines,” published by Crown Publishing Co., was reissued in 1976 and offered as part of a promotional gift package by Inglenook Vineyards.
The second edition of Chroman’s book was changed in several ways that made it more favorable to Inglenook than the original had been--including a near-doubling of the length of the text on Inglenook, the only winery so treated in the second edition.
Chroman says he made the changes because he was asked to re-taste the Inglenook wines for the second edition of the book, and when he did so--blind--"They were better.”
Paid by Publisher
Chroman received no money directly from Inglenook for the revisions; he was paid by the publisher (just as Robards was paid by his publisher). But Chroman’s publisher did receive money from Inglenook (just as Robards’ publisher received money from the wine importer).
Again, there is no suggestion that Chroman unfairly favored Inglenook in the second edition; the issue is one of appearances: Should someone who writes about wine for a major newspaper also lend his name to something used as a promotional product for a winery?
The Los Angeles Times has a written code of ethics that requires staff members to “avoid embarrassment or conflicts with your responsibilities to The Times"--just as it says staff members “should not accept free transportation . . . or free accommodations or meals” and “Staff members may not enter into a business relationship with their news sources.”
But whereas Robards was a full-time staffer at the New York Times in 1983, Chroman has never been a member of the L.A. Times staff; he was a free-lance contributor, and The Times--like most newspapers--does not generally apply these standards to free-lancers.
L.A. Times editors argue that since free-lance writers are paid so little--Balzer receives $350 a week, Chroman received $150--it would be unfair to insist that they live by the same standards that govern staff members, who draw full-time salaries and employee benefits. Editors at many other papers agree.
But the New York Times, Washington Post, Philadelphia Inquirer and a few other papers do apply their staff ethics policies to free-lancers as well; editors at those papers argue that the same standards should govern everyone who writes for their papers.
Moreover, says Gene Roberts, executive editor of the Inquirer, there is a significant difference, between a free-lance writer who submits occasional stories to a newspaper and “our regular wine writer . . . perceived by others as our wine writer. . . . He should be subject to our general standards.”
Chroman’s activities--most of which Times editors say they didn’t know about until a Times reporter questioned them for this story--have engendered industry-wide controversy.
People in the wine industry--especially those in California--were reluctant to criticize Chroman on the record in interviews for this story because of the influence of his columns. In addition, because Chroman has suffered from polio since he was 18 and uses a wheelchair and two canes to move around, many wine makers are sympathetic to him. They understand why he may sometimes behave as he does and why he wants his wife to accompany him on free trips. He cannot get around without her help, he says.
Chroman and his wife have traveled often to Europe--to France, Italy, Germany and Spain--with their expenses paid by wine growers or government trade and tourism agencies. Apart from a recent directive that he no longer permit vintners to pay his and his wife’s airplane fare and other expenses at the annual Napa Valley wine auction, Chroman says Times editors have never told him not to take free trips.
His editors told him only “be prudent,” he says, and he insists, “I have tried, as best I could, to conduct myself in a manner which approaches that of a (full-time) staffer.”
But Betsy Balsley, Times food editor, says she’s told Chroman “numerous times . . . over a period of years” that she doesn’t want him to write columns for The Times that are derived from free trips with “a commercial tie-in.”
Chroman has taken and written about such trips for The Times, though; like most other free-lance wine writers, he says, “I can’t afford to do it (take trips) otherwise.”
Also like other wine writers who take junkets, Chroman says he is not obligated to write anything favorable about the wines he tastes or the areas he visits.
The reality of the arrangement, however, is that--like most other wine writers who take such trips--he often does write something favorable.
Chroman and his wife had their expenses paid, for example, when they attended the grand opening of Banfi Vineyards in Montalcino, Italy, in 1984. Chroman then wrote two glowing accounts of the Banfi venture in The Times, the second of which began, “Vintners throughout the world are still in a state of astonishment over the unprecedented $100-million vineyard and winery investment at Montalcino. . . .” Much of that second column discussed the “amazing” success story of Banfi and its most popular wine, Riunite.
Again, there is no suggestion of a quid pro quo-- simply a question of appearances.
Wine makers, importers and distributors almost invariably initiate the courtship of wine writers, extending invitations to them for trips like these, as well as for free lunches and dinners; Chroman says he’s never demanded free meals, free trips or any other favors from anyone in the wine industry. Nor has The Times provided him with expense money for meals, entertainment, travel or--with rare exception--wines for tasting. Indeed, Chroman says he has entertained wine makers at his own expense, just as he has sometimes paid his and his wife’s expenses for travel in Europe.
Critics generally agree that those in the wine industry--like those who run newspapers--are more to blame than the writers for any abuses. But while free trips, free meals and a symbiotic relationship with the industry they cover is an accepted part of the system for most newspaper wine writers, it’s not accepted for wine writers at most of the nation’s most respected papers--the New York Times, Washington Post, Philadelphia Inquirer, Baltimore Sun and a few others. In that context, Chroman’s case is perceived as extraordinary.
Several people in the wine industry say Chroman is the only wine writer for a major paper who abuses their hospitality when they take him to lunch. Wine makers traditionally take wine writers to lunch to enable them to sample new vintages of their wine, with the appropriate food, and while a few of the more respected papers insist on paying for such lunches, most wine writers let the wine makers and others in the wine industry pay.
Lunch at Scandia
But some wine makers object that Chroman usually wants to taste their wines over lunch at Scandia restaurant--where he is a paid wine consultant--and that he sometimes invites others to these lunches and orders expensive wines from the restaurant wine list, all of which the wine maker pays for. (". . .to my knowledge,” Chroman says, “no expensive other bottles were ordered unless the vintners chose to do so on their own.”)
John Scharffenberger, owner of Scharffenberger Cellars in Mendocino County, and William and Sandra MacIver, co-owners of Matanzas Creek Winery in Sonoma County, say they’ve paid for expensive meals with Chroman. Others in the wine industry say they have done so, too.
Tom Pirko, a management consultant, says that when he represented a wine importer a few years ago, he asked Chroman to taste some of the company’s wines, and Chroman “gave me a virtual shopping list of the wines he wanted me to bring to lunch at Scandia.”
Pirko says he took more than 30 bottles, about $1,000 worth of French Burgundies, and Chroman refused to taste any of them at the lunch.
Chroman “ordered an expensive lunch, nudged us to buy some expensive wines from the (Scandia) wine list and then took all our wines home,” Pirko says. “He never wrote a word about the wines.”
“I don’t have an ax to grind with Nate,” he says. “I like him, even though he can be difficult. But I do think he abuses his position. . . .”
Chroman insists that he never asks anyone in the wine business to bring any specific wines--or large numbers of wines--to lunch, and he says he only writes about wines he considers worthy.
“The fact that I did not write about them confirms, to me, that I cannot be bought by bottle or bottles. I call them as I see them, as best I can . . .” he says.
Why do people in the wine industry pay for these meals with Chroman?
“One cannot buy advertising, one cannot spend . . . (money) better than that,” says Randall Graham, proprietor of Bonny Doon Vineyard in Santa Cruz.
Even though Chroman does not always write about wines he tastes at lunches paid for by wine industry interests, people in the wine industry are willing to pay for his expensive meals, hoping he will write about their products.
“Wine producers and importers have huge budgets, and the wine press in the U.S. is so powerful that we spend lavishly on them,” says David Courtenay-Clack, a British-based importer and exporter of wines.
Susanna Shuster and Tom Lutgen of The Times editorial library assisted with the research for this story.