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  • Alder Yarrow
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  • Alder Yarrow
20 Jul 2017

20 July 2017 As the new team at Robert Parker Wine Advocate solicit winery, wine retailer and restaurant partners for their RP Benefits app, we're republishing Alder's latest article free. 

17 July 2017 On 5 July, the tyre company (and restaurant guide publisher) Michelin announced their ownership of a 40% stake in wine critic Robert M Parker, Jr's The Wine Advocate for an undisclosed sum. The press release issued by Michelin concerning the purchase is remarkably short on strategic intent. Even the closest read of the announcement would have you believe that Michelin made this investment in order to continue holding high-priced wine dinners that pair Michelin-rated restaurants with wine producers who have earned top scores from The Wine Advocate. The two publications have been organising such dinners around the world, notably in Asia, since 2016. 

'The partnership between Michelin, the global reference in gourmet dining with the MICHELIN guide, and Robert Parker Wine Advocate [sic], the world leader in wine tasting and rating, will enable our customers who enjoy upscale restaurants and fine vintage wines to experience unique moments', says Alexandre Taisne, the CEO of Michelin's Food and Travel Business, in the course of the company's press release.

This investment has left some scratching their heads.

'To me, their strategy here isn't immediately obvious but I assume it has a significant international component', says Master Sommelier Geoff Kruth. 'I am as curious as anyone as to where they are going with this.'

When Parker launched the publication that has become known as The Wine Advocate in 1978, he did so with the logo of a corkscrew in the shape of a crusader's cross, a subtitle of 'The Independent Consumer's Bimonthly Guide to Fine Wine' and a manifesto that proclaimed his independence from any and all influence, especially in the form of advertising. In the early years of his career, Parker was often likened to the consumer-champion Ralph Nader, who was best known for his indefatigable, and ultimately successful, attempt to improve the safety of American automobiles. A deliberate outsider, Parker set himself against the establishment of the wine industry, and rose to become a powerful and fiercely independent voice in the wine world – the über critic.

In 2012 Parker sold a majority of The Wine Advocate to a Singapore-based investor, and stepped down as editor-in-chief. In addition to prompting comments about what some saw as the waning influence of Parker and his publication, this move ignited some controversy as the investor, Soo Hoo Khoon Peng, along with his wife, owns a controlling interest in Hermitage Wine, a major retailer of fine wine and Bordeaux futures. For the first time, the independence of The Wine Advocate was called into doubt.

Now, a little more than four years after that investment, another investor is in the mix.

'I can't imagine Michelin would have bought [a share of] The Wine Advocate unless they had some big plans', says writer Elin McCoy, author of The Emperor of Wine: The Rise of Robert M. Parker, Jr. and the Reign of American Taste.

McCoy has a unique perspective on this investment, thanks to her careful study of Parker's career. She goes on to say, 'This is yet another big step away from the power Parker once had as an individual taste arbiter. Ever since he began adding other reviewers more than a decade ago, he has weakened his power. Selling a big percent of the publication to the Singapore investors weakened it more; his withdrawal from reviewing Bordeaux en primeur and letting go of more and more reviewing duties made him less and less relevant. But though Parker's power has faded, his personal stamp on the publication sort of remains — the wine rating scale, personally picked reviewers inside his aura, his appearances as a big name at wine and food events in Asia, et cetera. Now it will be transformed even further -- from a personal brand to a global corporate one.'

McCoy suggests that the marriage of two influential ratings guides may, in fact, be a significant move, bringing more of Michelin's global clout to the wine world while significantly bolstering the wine content in Michelin's more food-focused publication. McCoy says she wouldn't be surprised to see a revamp of The Wine Advocate from a publishing perspective, entirely new spin-off publications, or even new sets of ratings, such as for winery experiences.

Sommelier Aldo Sohm of Le Bernardin, a Michelin three-star-rated restaurant in New York City, agrees that this is about growth and expansion. 'There's an obvious synergy effect from two very powerful media outlets joining forces', he says. 'It gives each a platform they haven't had before. The possibilities seem unlimited — wine dinners, travels, large-scale tastings, winemaker conventions, advertising money...'

'Remember that Michelin has scant direct-to-consumer presence', says sommelier Levi Dalton, host of the I'll Drink to That! wine podcast, and a long-time observer of the industry. 'But The Wine Advocate has subscribers who have opted in with dollars. That's a target audience for Michelin. I think Michelin realises that the San Pellegrino World's 50 Best list has generated a lot of momentum, and the ability to really crown restaurants, and I think Michelin risks ceding the high-end restaurant consumer if they don't do something to woo them. In getting involved with The Wine Advocate, they get a brand association that lines up with their own and which is associated with integrity behind its judgements, they get a mailing list of high-end consumers that they can court, and they get a large, searchable database of tasting notes.'

Dalton goes on to suggest that, ultimately, Michelin's stated emphasis on events may not be far from the truth. 'It is definitely the case that in terms of profit potential, there is more upside in wine events than in wine publishing, particularly if you can generate sponsorships from other luxury consumer brands.'

On the other hand, if wine dinners are so profitable, why was someone willing to part with a significant chunk of The Wine Advocate at this point? Has the investment not met Mr. Soo Hoo's expectations? Alternatively, has Parker, who will shortly celebrate his 70th birthday, sold some or all of his remaining stake in the business to better enjoy his retirement? Or has this whole transaction simply been an equity infusion into the business that has diluted the remaining shareholders? If so, why the capital raise so soon after the recent investment, and why from an outside source? With such private transactions, these kinds of questions rarely see answers unless details are leaked by insiders. So far, no such information has come to light.

I also reached out to Singapore-based wine writer and critic Ch'ng Poh Tiong for his thoughts on this news and received the following reply by e-mail:

'Instead of answering your questions, you can quote me on this. As a result of their partial nuptial, readers [of both publications] should ask themselves the following questions.

  1. Those restaurants selected to take part in the dinners, do they stand a better chance of being rated at the same level, or higher, in subsequent updates of the Michelin Guide?
  2. Those restaurants that do not wish to take part in such dinners, will their refusal to do so affect them in subsequent updates of the Michelin Guide?
  3. The wines selected to take part in the dinners, will they benefit from being rated at the same level, or higher, in subsequent tastings by the Wine Advocate?
  4. Those wines that do not take part in such dinners, will their refusal to do so affect their future ratings?'

Such concerns would be easy for The Wine Advocate and Michelin to brush aside, in the same way that many publications claim separation between their advertising business and their editorial coverage of the same companies who buy advertising. But the fact that such questions can now be asked represents fundamentally new territory for Parker and The Wine Advocate, who increasingly appear to be part of the industry, rather than the outsiders they once were.

The Writers Ethics' page on Robert Parker's website still reads, 'The Wine Advocate and robertparker.com are 100% subscriber funded and supported ...' Presumably that needs updating.

It remains to be seen whether the crusader's cross will be replaced with a tyre.