Food & Wine Thursdays: Conflict of Interest

Jay Miller’s departure from The Wine Advocate was refreshing, not because it was in response to the scandal that preceded it but rather because of the almost complete lack of caring on the part of, well, anyone seriously involved in wine. It reflects the growing disconnect between mainstream wine journalism and the fast majority of professionals who are out there working in wine.

For those of you who don’t know (and really, there’s no reason you should) Jay Miller, besides being a giant fat man (which he still is), was one of the principal editors at The Wine Advocate and responsible for tasting and scoring wines from such major regions as Australia, Spain, Oregon and beyond. In fact, with Parker’s semi-retirement from the arduous business of tasting wine and re-writing the same three dozen adjectives in different orders, more often than not those “Parker Points” were coming not from the man himself, but rather from Miller. This week, Jay Miller officially resigned his duties at The Wine Advocate, ostensibly to pursue opportunities in consulting and wine retail, but his resignation does suspiciously fall right on the heels of what amounts to a pay-for-play scandal.

Jay Miller’s “agent” in Spain, a Mr. Pancho Campo, MW (should I sign all my correspondence David J. Duman, MFA?) had allegedly attempted to charge D.O. Madrid, a relatively small and new wine region that surrounds the Spanish capital, over 20,000 Euros for a two-day visit and tasting seminar from Miller. The evidence in support of the allegations include emails from Campo making that explicit request as well as veiled threats that, should this event not happen, Miller might not be able to make it back to visit the D.O. for quite a while. It should be noted that nowhere in the paper trail is there evidence that Miller would be receiving any part of that fee, but that absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence and having your Spanish handler attempt to extort money, however ineptly, while acting on your behalf is, at the very least, gross negligence (or incompetence) of the highest order.

I drink your milkshake!

And this isn’t the first time Miller faced pay-for-play charges. It was revealed in 2008 that Australian wineries had paid $25,000 for a two week visit by Miller, something which is expressly against The Wine Advocate’s editorial policy. Miller wasn’t fired for that flagrant and clearly documented violation and I would have assumed that an ethical journalist, after such a brush with journalistic misconduct, would have been more diligent in keeping away even the semblance of impropriety from his future dealings.

But he didn’t and nobody outside of a handful of wine bloggers and Garagiste in Seattle is surprised. The facade of impartiality in mainstream journalism in general and lifestyle journalism in particular has been eroded so thoroughly over the last thirty years that those like myself who have grown up in the era of media consolidation and journalism driven by corporate agenda, we pretty much assume (sometimes wrongly) that every journalist is on some kind of take, even if that take is just the egoistic need to see one’s name in print.
At least with writers who are involved in the business of selling wine, like myself, the reader knows what take I’m on and I make a point to disclose it. When clueless douches like Miller keep pretending to be impartial while accepting tens of thousands of dollars in meals and accommodations, they tear down the last shreds of ethics still left in wine journalism. And if a wine journalist doesn’t have his ethics, what does he have left? It’s not like he has any other skills.

What’s missing from the discussion is the fact that there isn’t a significant difference between what Miller’s Spanish agent was doing for him–asking for payment to facilitate a visit–and what Wine Spectator does, namely accept advertisements from wineries, importers, distributors and trade organizations. Even if there isn’t a direct tit for tat, like $10,000 for a 90 point rating, the fact that money changes hands between reviewer and reviewed taints the process. Which is why this “revelation” about Miller came as no surprise to me and those that I know. The entirety of mainstream wine journalism is built on conflict of interest, those conflicts just had never been flaunted as brazenly before the news of Campo’s alleged shakedown of DO Madrid came to light.

There are people who grow grapes, there are people who make wine, there are people who import wine, there are people who distribute wine, and there are people who sell wine to the end consumer. But there’s also this group on the periphery who do none of those things and need to keep finding new ways to reach into the pockets of those who do. And then they have the gall to attempt to convince those of us who work to bring these products to market that they’re doing us a favor. But in fact, mainstream wine journalism is largely a club of middle-aged white men gleefully passing around other peoples’ money because they successfully convinced just enough people twenty years ago that they were important.

Which is why I’m going to keep trusting those in the former category of producers. There are many wine makers and importers whose writing abilities eclipse the best wine journalists and, instead of relying upon deception of self or of others to create the pretense of objectivity, they’re forthright about their conflicts and create better writing despite, or even because, of them.

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About David D.

I'm a wine professional. Like a real one who makes most of his living in wine and have for most of my adult life. I also write, but you can see that.
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