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Striking The Wrong Note

The latest issue of one of our trade publications carried a lead story last week about retailers who quote reviews and scores on wines by the American wine writer Robert Parker being sent a $199 annual invoice for a “commercial subscription” to his publication The Wine Advocate.  Apparently this is something that many wine writers are touchy about.  The article also mentions one wine writer (who we had never heard of) who does not even allow his name to be used without his express permission (probably why we’ve never heard of him).  He apparently demands £15,000 for his words to be used in marketing material and has taken legal action against both Majestic and Direct Wines for using his quotes without permission. Contrastingly, neither Anthony Rose (The Independent) nor Victoria Moore (The Telegraph and BBC Olive Magazine) make any such song and dance about their words being quoted having tasted wines, reviewed them and placed their comments in the public domain as long as they are accurate and attributed to them.  This seems fair enough since they’d already been paid to write their reviews and place them in the public domain.

Independent merchants (like us) have long complained that almost all wine writers only ever feature wines stocked by the large national chains (supermarkets especially) in their various wine articles.  Their reasoning has always tended to be that as they are writing for national publications they must necessarily focus on wines which are available nationally in order to maintain relevance to their readership.  This always seemed to be something of a feeble excuse to us since there are hundreds of wines sold only through small local independents which both deserve coverage and which are available nationally, albeit from a network of unconnected independents rather than one big national name.  We’re starting to wonder though whether the opportunity to charge an annual fee for a few favourable words isn’t the driver here. 


As far as Mr Parker is concerned, you would have thought that the opportunity for his words and influence to be spread far and wide throughout the wine world (and potentially increase subscriptions to his magazine) would have far outweighed the potentially damaging desire to send out a few invoices to drag in a bit of extra cash.  Apparently not.  It would seem that having grown his influence throughout north America and extended it worldwide he has now decided that the time has come to cash in.  Economists call this “market saturation” and our guess is that subscription levels have flattened out and this is the next wheeze to keep incomes up!

Recently we wrote, at length, about Christophe Delorme and his illustrious Domaine de la Mordoree estate in the southern Rhone.  Christophe’s wines are regularly featured by Parker and the Mordoree website carries links to the various reviews throughout the press, Parker’s included.  Frankly, Christophe doesn’t really need promoting; his wines are quite rightly very highly regarded indeed.  We are allowed a modest allocation each year and he could easily sell twice the amount he makes.  We wonder if Christophe will also be expected to pay to use Mr Parker’s reviews?  If we were to quote He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named we apparently should expect not only a fee for doing so but also a commission invoice for 2% of our sales made as a result – sod that.
In response to this we have removed all mention of Robert Parker from our website and have simply concluded that, instead of paying self-important wine writers a fee for us to tell you what they think, we will simply continue to tell you what we think.  After all, we taste before we buy and consequently believe in the lines we offer.  We already charge you for the wines you see, we reckon telling you what they’re like comes as part of the deal. 
In this topsy-turvy world of copyright and litigation is seems all too easy to lose sight of the fact that we are in this business to help people to enjoy themselves by finding the right wines for the right occasion.  We had previously regarded all wine writers as an impartial aid to this; reviewing the wines they are enthusiastic about and being paid to do so by the publications that print their words.  We have no reason to believe that wine writers are not impartial in their wine reviews.  However, with some also expecting fees from retailers and possibly producers, they could leave themselves open to the accusation that they are providing paid-for promotional material.
Maybe some good will ultimately come from all of this though.  Robert Parker has been widely seen by many in the wine trade to have become too influential anyway with the American and Asian markets especially guilty of blindly chasing everything he mentions favourably. The removal of his comments by many small independents like us as a result of this invoicing nonsense should help redress the balance and encourage more people to make their own minds up.  By all means use comments (including ours) to help make an informed purchasing decision, but when you actually drink the stuff your opinion should be exactly that, yours. 


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