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Robert Parker and the end of an icon

Robert ParkerIt’s hard not to be cynical about the announcement yesterday that Robert Parker is making significant changes at his Wine Advocate newsletter – quitting as editor and selling a good part of it to Asian investors.

It’s also easy to feel just a little bit sorry for the critic, who used to be the most important person in the wine business — and not all that long ago. The sale, though, shows someone trying to remain important in a wine world that is far different than when he started three decades ago.

None of this is to downplay what Parker has done or how important he has been. The Wine Curmudgeon, after all, has insisted on those two things for years. But, the changes, as first reported by the Wall Street Journal, show someone not quite sure about what comes next:

• Three Singapore-based investors will buy a ”substantial” interest in the Advocate, and operate the financial side of the business from Singapore.

• Parker will continue to review Bordeaux and the Rhone and become chairman. The editor will be Singapore-based correspondent, Lisa Perrotti-Brown. She’s quoted as saying she wants more editorial control over wine reviews.

• The print version of the Advocate could end, perhaps as soon as next year. There has been some dispute about whether the Journal reported this correctly, including a later Parker statement that this will happen.

• The Advocate will accept advertising for the first time ever, though only for “luxury” brands and not wine or wine-related products. It will also sponsor Advocate-branded events and tastings, much as the Wine Spectator does.

The driving force behind all of this? That Parker, 65, needs to make a decision about what happens next. He is the Advocate, and businesses with a one-person identity don’t last long after the person is gone. Does anyone remember Arthur Treacher fish and chips?

It’s also important to note that the Advocate probably never made Parker rich, even though he was “The Emperor of Wine.” His company is private and doesn’t release financials, so these are all estimates based on available information. The newsletter grosses less than $4 million annually in subscriptions; a partner at a top law firm (Parker was an attorney before going into wine) can earn that much without having to worry if the postal service actually bothered to deliver the latest issue.

In this, the new investors have their eye firmly on the bottom line. Eliminating the print edition could save as much as one-third of expenses, and end pass-throughs, the practice where someone subscribes to the Advocate and shares it with a couple of other people. In a digital world, those couple of other people will have to pay $75 a year if they want the newsletter, potentially doubling or tripling subscription revenue.

And accepting advertising – well, we know what that means. It’s easy to say, as Perroti-Brown did, that the ads would come only “from sponsors where there is absolutely no conflict of interest,” but there’s no such thing. Once a publication takes ads, advertisers feel they have a legitimate right to ask for favors. And sometimes, it’s hard to say no.

Finally, the new Advocate will add reviews on wine made in China and southeast Asia. This is, as Parker admitted to the Journal, chasing after those 1.2 billion Chinese who are the next great wine market. That few Chinese wines are of Advocate quality doesn’t seem to matter – a potential conflict of interest as great as taking ads. What happens the first time an important Chinese winery gets a 79? Or if a reviewer, hesitant to give a wine a 79, hems and haws it up to 85?

And I would not be me if I didn’t note that Advocate still does very little with wines made in the 47 states in the U.S. that aren’t on the west coast. But, then, there aren’t 1.2 billion of us interested in regional wine.

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