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$15,000 for a Lecture?

Do you read Spanish? If so, take a look at this piece about Jay Miller, the Wine Advocate’s reporter on Spain. If not, you could take a look at this translation, although be warned – it has the usual mish-mashed sentences of online auto-translators.

The essence of the article is this; a trip to Navarra made by Jay Millar, arranged by Pancho Campo’s Wine Academy, cost €100,000. There was a time when this would have been hotly debated on Parker’s forum, but now that it sits behind a paywall for subscribers only, not only is that less likely to happen, if it does you can’t see it. Nevertheless, there are a few paying subscribers willing to take Parker to task on this, and the thread made it to 46 posts before being locked by Mark Squires, the board’s heavy-handed moderator.

Parker’s response was to indicate that it was a paid lecture, and it was $15,000, not €100,000, and “and where is there any conflict? He, as all of us do, are paid to give lectures“.

Holy crap! $15,000 for a lecture?! For a psychologist turned wine retailer turned Parker side-kick? There’s hope for me yet.

One of the defences that has been wheeled out in this situation is that payment for a lecture is a reasonable expectation, and that it happens in many professions, for example medicine. Yeah, sure, but as a member of several academic societies and UK medical colleges, including a role as webmaster for one, I have a ball park figure in my head (I’ve seen the accounts) for the honorarium typically paid out. And it isn’t $15,000. It’s closer to 1% of that, with some travel fees on top of course. It’s frequently a fairly nominal payment. Parker’s blind to the issue though, as he writes “I can’t possibly see any conflict with what Jay has done,but if you actually know anything, I am all ears“. If Jay commands $15,000 for a single lecture, I can’t help wonder what payment Parker receives for his Asian tours when he tastes, wines and dines over a course of many days.

Is there a conflict of interest here? It’s a close call in my opinion, as this was a regional body paying, through the independent Wine Academy, for a service. I myself have been in receipt of assistance from such regional bodies – for example, when attending the Salon des Vins de Loire, I find that InterLoire are usually willing to pay for 1 or 2 nights at my chosen hotel (as declared in my annual Winedoctor Disclosures). That doesn’t influence what I say about any one wine, or any collection of wines. What really stinks here is the sum involved; nominal honoraria and travel expenses from regional bodies (not individual producers) seems acceptable. $15,000, however, seems excessive. For example, if that sort of payment were made between a drug company and a prescriber, it would certainly lead to investigation; the recently introduced Bribery Act (links to audio file) would see to that (not that I am suggesting there has been any bribery here, not at all, but in my experience in the UK the threat of personal prosecution seems to have made those with a hospitality budget more cautious, and thus under the new legislation such a payment would perhaps never happen). The linked file gives some indication of how dinners and similar hospitality might be viewed under this act.

What is really surprising though is the invective directed towards his more critical subscribers by Parker. “Is it me or is the internet turning into a refuge for hate-mongers and ad-hominem attacks on others?“, he asks. Remember, these are Parker’s paying subscribers, who he seems to suggest are “hate-mongers”. And also liars, when he goes on to state “You have made accusations about Jay’s conduct and standing that are totally false“. The response from the author of the allegedly false statements is just bristling with lawsuits, and it was just seven posts later that the thread was locked.

12 Responses to “$15,000 for a Lecture?”

  1. Interesting. I’ve noted that since Jay Miller turned over tasting responsibility for Australia to someone else the scores have dropped significantly for wines traditionally given extremely high scores by Jay. There is an awful lot of controversy wherever he goes. Too much not to warrant some additional scrutiny. RP seems to have a blind spot there.

  2. Yes, “fees” paid to people who’s job it is to review your work is an inherent conflict of interest. I’d go even further and say “honorarium” fall into that category. Picking up expenses like hotel and meals is reasonable, otherwise it may not be possible for the wine writer to come and taste and then write about the wines. Being paid “double” for it makes the writer beholden to those paying him/her especially if getting paid more by those being written about…

  3. Chris, I’d be interested in your thoughts on blind vs non-blind tasting. You may have covered this at some time before. It seems to me that knowing what wine you are drinking brings a pre-conceived set of expectations. Drinking blind, possibly knowing varietal and regional information, forces you to consider each wine/vintage on it’s own merits. Your thoughts? Maybe subject of another blog?

  4. The whole thing is a FRAUD. From banking to government spending to wine “advocating”. It’s a sorry state of affairs and touted by the mouthbreathers on TV as the new normal. Sigh….

  5. Egads man! $15,000? But let’s be fair, Chris – if Parker wants to keep buying the wines he tastes (Bordeaux), he’ll have to be pulling in more than that…

    As always, very interesting.

  6. Thanks all for these comments, sorry to not be able to come back to the blog earlier than this.

    Charles, I think you are right about honoraria, provided of course we are looking at a tasting trip. In that case expenses seems reasonable, but payment does not. If an individual is travelling to deliver a lecture though some payment must surely be made; I don’t think we could expect anyone to prepare a lecture and then spend time travelling to deliver it without some payment. But it should be a reasonable payment. $15,000 is excessive.

  7. Hi Chris. Once more controversy involving Jay Miller and Pancho Campo MW. It would be interesting to know where and when the lecture was given, its subject and duration and the audience.

  8. Surely all wine writers should make a full and frank declaration of interests and possible conflicts of interest like you do?

    http://www.thewinedoctor.com/author/review20104.shtml

    Yes that includes First Class flights to Buenos Aires and Auckland costing close to £20,000.

    Well done and it is a shame that nobody seems to have followed your lead.

    Anyway, why does a wine writer as opposed to travel writer need to leave his or her desk anyway? Wines should be tasted in the same conditions (post travel) as readers.

  9. Hi Jim & Warren.

    Yes it would be interesting to know more about the lecture, wouldn’t it?

    Warren, on the issue of disclosure, I think it is a reasonable thing to do. I do wonder whether it might be difficult for some though, what with all the hospitality – trips to see football matches, rugby matches, tennis at Wimbledon and so on as well as all the travel – their lists might become rather long and embarassing.

    I take your point on never leaving the desk but that only works if you aim to be a critic solely of the liquid in the glass. I think communicating a deeper knowledge of the wine (rather than just a note and a score) involves understanding the region in question and that means travel.

    I don’t regard this as a luxury; I think that deeper understanding is essential for communicating intelligently about the wine in question. Walking in the vineyards, and meeting the winemakers, allows me to “get” the region and wines in question (and I wish I could do a lot more of it).

    For me a wine writer who says “I don’t do vineyards”, as Jay Miller once wrote in an erobertparker.com post (during one of his earlier controversies when it was revealed that the Wine Advocate critic for Spain had *never* actually visited Spain!!!), clearly didn’t (at that time) grasp the importance of travel to a wine region to facilitate knowledge and understanding of the wines. Clearly in more recent years he has found a new incentive to travel though.

  10. There’s a fine line between wine writing and travel and culture writing. I am not going to issue a fatwa on this. Each to their own.

    But do doctors visit pharmaceutical factories before issuing prescriptions? Do Computer reviewers visit factories in Taipei or Seoul?

    I really think in the interests of transparency a full and frank declaration of all possible conflicts of interests should be made. As uniquely you do.

    Then let the reader decide for herself if any article needs to be read in a particular light.

    Travel writers in newspapers and magazines routinely declare if the accommodation or travel has been paid for or subsidised. Wine writers should do the same.

    Sombrero, Chris. But I suggest you add a footnote to any article to any relevant possible conflict of interest declaration.

  11. Interesting post on this

    http://themwap.wordpress.com/2011/08/17/death-of-the-press-trip/

  12. Thanks Warren, interesting read. Thanks to all for the above comments.