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04.26.2010

The World's Most Popular Wine Bulletin Board Goes Away

Over the past few years I've partaken occasionally in an entertaining spectator sport: watching wine bulletin boards implode under the weight of their own inhumanity.

The self-destruction of most topical online forums, I have come to believe, is only a matter of time. The physical remove of online messaging, coupled with our tendency towards knee jerk responses, mixed with the difficulty in reading emotions in plain text, doused with a liberal dose of pricks and know-it-alls spells disaster for most of forums over time.

I liked checking in on the Mark Squires Bulletin Board, hosted by Robert Parker, from time to time just to watch the display of hubris, petty tongue-lashing, immaturity and hyperbole, occasionally mixed with an interesting opinion or two. I think I made about 30 posts on the board over the course of the last 5 years, but I read my way through thousands of messages, most often with a shaking head, wondering how on earth people managed to continue taking part in such mayhem.

But the mayhem ends today. Visitors to the Mark Squires bulletin board today were greeted by a message that the forums will be closed until April 27th, and when they re-open, they will be available only to paid subscribers of eRobertParker.Com and the print version of the Wine Advocate.

In short: the party is over.

Of course, as is common with all such communities, several splinter groups had already broken off to found their own forum sites over the past four years, thanks in part to the irrational and draconian tactics of site administrator Mark Squires. Squires earned the nickname "Chairman Mao," along with the lifelong enmity of scores of members who found themselves banned from the site without explanation, and in the worst cases, to forever to have their names automatically replaced with asterisks whenever they were mentioned on the site after their departure.

In the past year or two, the site played host to an increasingly vocal opposition to Squires' tactics on the board, as well as to a growing base of both subscribers and guests who were using the forum to criticize Robert Parker and his cadre of contributors, most notably Jay Miller, whose tendency towards high scores made him a favorite punching bag. The last thread I read on the site, a few days ago, included about 12 pages of ankle biting about the fact that Parker had given a very low score recently to a wine that one of his contributors had rated very highly.

My own professional opinion (now wearing my hat as brand experience expert) is that Mark Squires and his actions on the bulletin board did untold damage to the reputation and brand of Robert Parker. He made countless enemies of those who would have otherwise spoken highly or at least favorably of Robert Parker, and created a culture that left a sour taste in the mouths of many more.

It's not clear exactly why the forums will now only be available to those who pay. The official explanation provided contends that the site has become "extremely costly" to supervise and maintain, but it's hard to imagine how that could be the case, or more specifically how kicking off half of the members would make it substantially cheaper to do so.

Did Parker and his contributors tire of criticism by members that were not loyal subscribers? Were they sick of blogs like this one linking to the excruciatingly long battles of ego and pride that characterized such simple discussions as whether context actually matters in the evaluation of a wine?. Was this an easy way of once and for all separating the forums from the brand and the presence of Mark Squires? Or is this move simply a decision to serve only "our loyal subscribers through a more focused effort on them."

We'll never know for sure, but this move at a time when the bulletin board seemed to be losing steam certainly raises many questions, including whether it will thrive, or whether even paying members will find other outlets for their discussions.

There were enough good discussions on the Parker forums to make me somewhat sad to see them go -- friends would send me a gem every once in a while. But even the very best discussions required sorting through so much bile, inside jokes, and machismo that it's hard not to feel a certain sense of "good riddance."

Those of you who have already fled elsewhere, where is your favorite place to engage in flame wars and civilized discussion about wine these days?

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The Oxford Companion to Wine by Jancis Robinson The Taste of Wine by Emile Peynaud Adventures on the Wine Route by Kermit Lynch Love By the Glass by Dorothy Gaiter & John Brecher Noble Rot by William Echikson The Science of Wine by Jamie Goode The Judgement of Paris by George Taber The Wine Bible by Karen MacNeil The Botanist and the Vintner by Christy Campbell The Emperor of Wine by Elin McCoy The World Atlas of Wine by Hugh Johnson The World's Greatest Wine Estates by Robert M. Parker, Jr.