A Firestorm of Speculation Over Robert Parker’s “Retirement”

Twitter and the Blogosphere erupted with chatter this morning as Lettie Teague’s article in the Wall Street Journal entitled “Big Shake-Up at Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate” hit the paper’s web site. Teague reported that Parker “intends to phase out the print version of the newsletter” and begin accepting advertising, as part of a series of changes that will correspond with “selling a ‘substantial interest’ in the Wine Advocate to a trio of Singapore-based investors who will take over its day-to-day financial operations.” Teague went on to suggest that the company’s headquarters would be moved to Singapore as a result.

But by far the biggest point of interest was the announcement that Parker “intends to step down as its editor in chief, turning over editorial oversight to his Singapore-based correspondent, Lisa Perrotti-Brown.”

Based largely on Teague’s article, tweets, blog posts, and articles erupted all over the web proclaiming that The Wine Advocate had been sold, Parker was retiring, and that this was the end of an era. Gasps were heard as people suggested that Antonio Galloni had been passed over as anointed heir-apparent in favor of Perotti-Brown, and that the rest of the writers were soon to be replaced with random contractors.

Many of the claims, speculation, and facts in these stories, including many of the facts reported in Teague’s article, didn’t seem to match the announcement that Parker made to his own subscribers on his bulletin board. Apparently in an effort to counter the spread of these assertions, Parker spend some time on Twitter earlier today to state the facts.

So let’s run them down as described by Parker on Twitter and in his announcement on his private bulletin board:

1. A portion of the Wine Advocate enterprise has been sold to three young “30-early 40ish” investors in Singapore.

2. Parker intends to open “an office” in Singapore, though the Wine Advocate will remain headquartered in Monkton, Maryland.

3. Lisa Perotti-Brown will be taking over as day-to-day editor of the publication, including all the copy-editing and other logistics of publishing.

4. Parker, while stepping down as Editor-in-Chief, will continue to review the wines of Bordeaux and the Rhone. In short, he is retiring as editor, but not as a wine critic or writer. He will remain CEO and Chairman of the Board.

5. The print version of the newsletter is not going away for the foreseeable future, and will “never” contain advertising. The company plans to begin accepting online advertising from non-wine producing companies, and plans to release a PDF version of the newsletter for subscribers.

6. The company plans to expand its activities surrounding events, tastings, and other educational opportunities, including “virtual tastings, icon wine program, wine education seminars…” No word on just what an “icon wine program” might mean.

While this is all certainly big news for the wine world, it is lesser news than some might think. My buddy Eric Asimov wrote a nice piece about the changes this morning, though before some of the facts of the announcement were clarified.

Eric, and certainly many others, see this step as one more step towards the dismantling of the hegemony that Parker (along with the Wine Spectator) have held over the critical assessment of wine in America. But looking at these moves from the point of view strictly of business, these announcements appear to signal the actions of a business that is growing, not singing a swan song.

Perhaps my sensibilities are colored by the environment of Silicon Valley in which I steep all day long. But to me, this looks like a CEO taking on more money to fund more ambitious growth plans, building his executive team, and beginning a global expansion to address new and opportune markets. The fact that Perotti-Brown is taking over as editor does not equate to a succession plan for the job of CEO, the control of the brand, or ownership of the company. Frankly, it’s ridiculous that Parker retained control of copy-editing and proofing this long, and the Wine Advocate should have been offered in Chinese starting about three years ago.

Sure we’re seeing the dilution of the cult of personality that was Bob Parker, and attempts to replace it with the brand of the Wine Advocate, but that began when he began to cede responsibility for certain geographies to other writers several years ago. I certainly remarked on the nature of the change when Parker decided to have Galloni replace him as critic for California wines.

Of course, as a business shifts, it exposes itself to more risk. Certainly one of the most risky things about this move may be what Teague reported as the plan to have “most of its wine correspondents… become full-time employees, instead of independent contractors.”

Getting folks like Antonio Galloni, Neal Martin, and David Schildknecht to convert from work-at-home contractors to full-time employees will take some financial incentives, to be sure. But with more investors on board, such things become possible.

I admit to being a fascinated spectator, like much of the wine industry, and sometimes wonder at the longevity of the Wine Advocate as an institution and as a dominant taste-maker in the world of wine. But on reflection, the news that emerged from today’s maelstrom doesn’t at all sound like an overweight soprano warming up for a performance.