Rattling Sabres: James Suckling, Robert Parker, Wine Writer Ethics and Bullying Evan Dawson April 24, 2012 Columns, Evan Dawson, Latest News, Wine Spotlight 51 Comments Thankfully, the Pew Research Center has more important things to do than to figure out what the public thinks about wine writers. I fear that if they undertook the task, they would find that many people view wine writing with some degree of scorn. And some of it would be deserved. Think of the stereotypes: We drink wine without paying for it. We travel to beautiful places and eat the finest meals, probably all on someone else’s dime. It’s an easy, wonderful life. And so it falls on all of us in the profession to make clear that ours is one of—yes, occasionally—perks, but also hard work. Some of us won’t take handouts or freebies. We value our objectivity. Our word is important, and we’re willing to be transparent with our readers. When there is a potential conflict of interest, we say so. Yet here we are, watching two of the most well read names in our business acting like—in my opinion, anyway—bullies. It’s a tough charge, I know, but consider that both Robert Parker and James Suckling have threatened to sue other writers simply because those writers took the time to uncover the apparent truth about their behavior. This is not just inside baseball; this affects all of us. It affects readers who lose faith in the top critics and writers. And it affects the entire field of wine writers, because some of those readers will extend their disapproval to all of our ilk, fairly or not. Start with Parker. By now you probably know about the problems uncovered by British journalist Jim Budd last year; Budd did tireless work to bring to light how Parker’s team conducted itself in Spain, and it wasn’t pretty. One might think that Parker, alerted to some possible breeches of his own publication’s standards, would appreciate Budd’s work. Instead, Parker initially scoffed, essentially clearing his associates before any investigation. But much worse, Parker also threatened litigation against “these bloggers” who were working to tell an accurate story. Parker was rattling a sabre, trying to shut Jim Budd up, along with anyone else who wanted to wade in on this matter. My Palate Press colleague Blake Gray pounced on Parker’s threat, noting the possible chilling effect. In fact, there is a legal term to what Parker appeared to be trying to do to Jim Budd. He was trying to slap Budd, or, more accurately, he was trying to SLAPP him. It’s an acronym that stands for Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation. Most commonly, SLAPP lawsuits center on claims of defamation. The plaintiff often does not even expect to win, should a case proceed. The goal in SLAPPing someone is to push them around, convince them to stop talking, or writing. The cost of defending oneself can be so exorbitant that some defendants give up before they run out of cash. But a SLAPP suit need not proceed very far to be effective. Often the simple threat of a lawsuit has the intended effect. Keep in mind that it is very difficult to prove defamation in a court of law. Truth is an absolute defense, of course, and opinion is protected. However, the United States gives incentive to wealthy parties to threaten to sue—or to actually sue. That’s because in several dozen states, a party can sue for libel, and even if they lose, they don’t have to cover the legal fees for the defendant. That’s not the case in England, for example, where you’ve got to be much more certain of your case before you fire off a lawsuit. Otherwise, you’re paying not only your lawyer, but the lawyer of the person you wrongly accused of defaming you. Twenty-six states in the U.S. are attempting to curb such legal bullying with anti-SLAPP laws, but it’s inconsistent, and plaintiffs can forum shop until they find a favorable venue for such an action. But let’s be realistic about this. Robert Parker was never going to sue Jim Budd. He was never going to sue anybody. After all, Budd did exhaustive journalistic work and laid it all out publicly. And now James Suckling. The Suckling story is rather bizarre, considering that he seems to have brought this mess on himself. If you’ve missed it, last year Suckling went to Montreal to taste wines and compose some notes for both his own website and the website of the SAQ, a state-owned wine entity in Quebec. SAQ claimed at the time that Suckling “was not compensated to do the tastings.” And writing on his website, Suckling—unprompted—declared, “There is no financial relationship. It’s a sharing of information and contacts.” You know where this is going. La Presse filed a Freedom of Information request and were told and reported that SAQ paid Suckling $18,000, while also purchasing 119 subscriptions to his website, totaling another $5,950. So Suckling had said there was no financial relationship while he was apparently being paid a total of nearly $24,000. Naturally, plenty of writers—and plenty of James Suckling’s readers—wanted to know what was going on. Starting with La Presse, then Dr. Vino and others, writers tried to contact Suckling for an explanation. Suckling’s twitter feed went dark for a while. He didn’t respond to emails. Finally, on a forum on his website, Suckling responded to a reader by saying, “I never denied anything … I am considering libel action.” Libel! James Suckling wants readers to believe he would sue a reporter simply because the reporter disclosed a financial relationship that Suckling denied existed. Again, does anyone realistically believe that Suckling is going to sue? Nearly a week after La Presse‘s initial story, Decanter published Suckling’s defense: He’s a filmmaker! Yes, he was paid, but it was to create videos, not to taste the wines and rate them. Suckling also clarified that when he claimed there was no financial relationship, it was true … at the time. He just happened to sign the financial deal later, and failed to mention it to readers. Already, some of his readers are coming to his defense. They say that a high-powered critic like Suckling would never visit lesser wine regions unless they were compensated in some way. I think that’s an awfully weak position to take, given the diversity of great wines out there, but let’s grant that point for a moment. Even if it’s reasonable for James Suckling to expect to get paid to visit lesser known regions, it’s also reasonable for his readers to know that. That way, a reader can decide whether to take Suckling’s reviews at face value, or to discount them based on the fact that he was paid for taking the time to review the wines. (Again, Suckling is now saying that he wasn’t paid to review the wines, only to make films.) Suckling should apologize for making the same kind of threat that Robert Parker made to Jim Budd. And he should explain not just his behavior in this episode, but he should also explain how often he gets paid to make videos about wines or wineries that he visits, and whose wines he reviews. Put it all on the table. No one expects critics to work for free, but neither should critics get the benefit of the doubt on these matters. They should have a clear policy. We directed inquiries to Mr. Suckling, but did not receive a response in time for publication. We invite him to post his response in the comments below, and in particular we asked him: In early 2011, you wrote that you had no financial relationship with SAQ, and I understand that it was accurate at the time. Why didn’t you amend that statement later in the year when you signed a deal and entered into a financial relationship with SAQ? What other wineries, government entities, or tourism groups have you charged for the production of videos? Budd told me that while he never expected Parker to follow through on his threat of litigation, he had to be careful and thorough. “I’m not blase about the prospect of being sued,” Budd explained. “Parker’s was not the first threat I have received, and I was confident that we had the evidence in the emails. Once I saw Parker’s threat to sue, I was very keen to respond as rapidly as possible on Jim’s Loire.” Budd added, “I would have been surprised if he had carried out his threat, and I think that Parker’s handling of the affair has been appallingly inept.” Parker has not apologized to Budd. How about this simple rule going forward: Don’t threaten to sue someone for libel. Either step up and file the suit and let the consequences fall where they may, or don’t. But trying to SLAPP people around because you don’t like the story is wrong, and if you SLAPP someone, you should expect to be punched back. Evan Dawson is a news anchor / reporter at the ABC News affiliate in Rochester, NY. He has reported on public policy and politics for more than 10 years. He is the Managing Editor of the New York Cork Report, as well as the author of the critically acclaimed Summer in a Glass: The Coming of Age of Winemaking in the Finger Lakes. http://vrazon.com ryan well said, thank you, again, for this great post about a very serious issue. I would like to know what this means for other writers. There are plenty of shady deals that happen in the wine world. None at the level of these, since most of those writers are too small, but pay for play is the norm in many places I have been. I wonder if these incidents will change any of that. http://www.newyorkcorkreport.com Lenn Thompson Evan: As always a well-written, logically constructed story about a topic that invites hyperbole. I’m actually not sure what I find more disturbing, the behavior of Parker/Suckling before or after being reported on. I’ve been SLAPP-ed before myself and will admit to caving quickly. Looking back maybe I shouldn’t have. The wine world drips with pay-to-play activities, much of which is never reported or shared with readers. How do you think that we, as writers of integrity, find a way to make our way of operating the norm? http://www.newyorkcorkreport.com Evan Dawson There’s a reason that 26 states have adopted anti-SLAPP measures. I wasn’t aware that you’ve been SLAPPed before, but I’m with you. The easy route is just to drop it, avoid the headache. Regarding what is “the norm” in wine writing, I don’t have a good answer. This is where the free market has to take over. When readers find out about writers’ behavior, they can decide to accept it, ignore it, or they can choose to stop reading that writer. Transparency is the most important thing here. I wish more readers demanded it. http://www.newyorkcorkreport.com Lenn Thompson Yeah. We can talk about the NYCR-related SLAPP sometime in person. The thing that worries me about “the norm” is that most readers won’t even notice that there has been impropriety. Many will still go into shops, see the scores from whomever and buy without every knowing. http://www.newyorkcorkreport.com Evan Dawson Ryan - I’d like to give James Suckling the benefit of the doubt and allow him to further explain his business relationships. He’s absolutely correct to say that he’s not a charity. But he also should know that in his work as a wine critic, his readers deserve to know about his financial relationships. By the way, Robert Parker in particular takes a lot of heat. Some of it is deserved, some of it is not. But this is not a pile-on-Bob piece. This is an attempt to highlight a real problem, which is the threatening of journalists who are simply trying to report accurate stories. Standing up for journalists is important. http://vrazon.com ryan I’m with you 100%. James is free 100% to do as he wants, just don’t expect us to approve of it if he keeps it hidden. That said, moving away from the SLAPP issue. The pay for play is a norm here in Europe. People deny it, but I have seen it, and had it offered to clients of mine. I can tell you, over here, the wine world assumes this. I’ve visited wineries when Catavino first started out and had them ask me, so how much do we owe you for your visit. I have never taken money for an article, but if a winery starts with this, you know we have issues! Lizzy Great!! perfectly agree with you both – veery interesting post, Evan! But you’re lucky to live in USA. In Italy this issue is (even) worse. A mess. A total mess. http://viniculture.pl Maciek Gontarz Very good article Evan. Well done poiting all important issues out! I just wanted to add one additional thought. In this situation, we can still hear screaming voices from ivory tower(s) that bloggers (fairly called “writers” on article) are not trustworthy, because they do not do research on required level, don’t have enough experience, their writing policies are not clear, and so on… Thank you for your text! http://www.newyorkcorkreport.com Evan Dawson Maciek - Thanks for the comments. I would say that some bloggers are worthy of scorn, but many bloggers work hard to be wine writers deserving of respect. The best approach bloggers can take is to be transparent about any compensation, perks, financial relationships, etc. http://www.viniculture.pl Maciek Gontarz Evan, You’re absolutely correct! I’m not saying all bloggers are OK, but this situation is a question mark in traditional critics argument about being professional. Cheers! Pingback: Terroirist: A Daily Wine Blog » Daily Wine News: Chatting with Grieco http://www.thewinehumanist.com jacqueline friedrich You’ll forgive me for not feeling too much sympathy for Jim Budd. He has been persecuting the Baumards, the owners of a moderate-sized family winery in the Coteaux du Layon for almost two years. You can follow some of the history on my website, http://www.thewinehumanist.com, under the heading “Jackiezine.” He is acting more like an inquisitor than a journalist and his research is not quite as admirable or thorough as you say it was in the Parker case. http://www.newyorkcorkreport.com Evan Dawson Jacqueline – Thanks for checking in. Can you clarify the ways in which you think Budd’s research is not “admirable” or “thorough” in the Parker case? http://www.thewinehumanist.com jacqueline friedrich Evan, thanks for asking.I wasn’t referring to the Parker case which I only vaguely followed — and not via Jim Budd. (Given his modus operandi in the Baumard situation I have serious doubts about his impartiality and professionalism.) Regarding the BAumard affair, it would be easier (for me) if you’d check out the various posts on my website (www.thewinehumanist) under “Jackiezine” and then ask me any questions. I’ll be more than happy to answer. Talk about acting like a bully! http://blog.wblakegray.com/ Blake Gray Great piece, Evan. What I haven’t understood about Suckling in this affair is why he lied in the first place. What’s the difference between Quebec paying him for tasting notes or Decanter or Wine Review Online — or Palate Press — paying me for tasting notes? He was doing a job for money; that’s what writers do. Denying it makes it seem shameful. And continuing to deny it, while threatening a SLAPP suit, makes him look like … well, I won’t say it, I don’t want him to sue me. http://www.newyorkcorkreport.com Evan Dawson Blake – Trying to be fair to James, he’s saying that he is not being paid by SAQ to review wines, but rather to “make films.” The “films” seem to be video of him reviewing wines, but I have not seen them all, and I might be missing something. Also, he’s stressed that he wasn’t lying when he said a year ago that there was no financial relationship; it’s just that the financial relationship developed LATER, and he didn’t amend his writings to that effect. http://winecase.ca Remy Charest Two things. Suckling tweeted to a fellow journalist in Montreal, last December, saying “C’est un joint promotion avec mon site et SAQ. Relax.” That was after the financial relationship developed, and the statement seems a little less than forward, considering recent revelations. Second, there is a difference, in my mind, between writing reviews for a magazine that is a consumer guide and providing those wine reviews directly to a merchant, with money involved somewhere in that process. In one case, there is a mediation between the review and sales (through a… media), in the second, you’re participating directly in a commercial operation. http://www.newyorkcorkreport.com Evan Dawson Remy – Great catch on the Suckling tweet last December. I’d missed that, and it appears to be relevant, certainly. http://wineharlots.com/ Wine Harlots Kudos! I concur with the need for transparency. Let the audience know your ethics policies and business dealings, and let them decide if the product has validity or is fraught with bias. All the best, Nannette Eaton http://jimsloire.blogspot.com Jim Budd Thanks Evan. A good piece. However, crdit should be given to Harold Heckle, who obtained copies of the critical emails. Jim Pingback: Het 365 dagen wijnnieuws - Wijnclub365blog SFJoe This is not the first time that Parker, or at least those associated with him, have sought to SLAPP their critics. Parker’s publisher threatened to sue Robert Callahan in the ’90s (although whether Parker encouraged this move I can’t say. At a minimum, it is hard to imagine the house taking the move without discussing it with him). At the time, I urged Robert to fight the suit, but the potential costs were too high and the SLAPP was successful. It’s an unmanly approach to criticism, in my view. SFJ http://jpvazquez.com jpvazquez I’ve always told people that the only way to seriously write about wine is being truly independent, specially financially… I really don’t care for Suckling. I always took Robert Parker far more seriously. To me Parker’s mistake was the lack of control over his staff… Nice article Evan! brian stpierre A critic is someone who evaluates or scores, and publishes the results. By definition, a critic is objective and independent, whose validity is earned by experience, good judgement, diligence, and disinterestedness (as in “unbiased by personal interest or advantage”). I think standing by your work, and your word, also enters in. Everything else, SLAPP shots or re-definitions of the “work,” chronological tinkering, whatever, is embroidery. http://www.newyorkcorkreport.com Evan Dawson I simply love the word “embroidery” in the context of this comment. http://www.1winedude.com 1winedude Three things: 1. Evan is awesome 2. Can we get these guys to write “transparency is good” 5000 times on a blackboard in a Catholic schoolroom somewhere? 3. While I sympathize with the view that this kind of behavior makes the wine writing world look like a bunch of douchebags, it hardly stands as evidence that pay-to-play is the norm throughout the biz. Now, I happen to have eye witness accounts of examples of it with advertising dollars happening at at least one U.S. wine publication, but would never come forward with the details because I’m convinced it would mean that friends of mine who work at those places would be fired and never get work again, and so we’ve agreed I won’t pursue investigating it to see if it is a legit claim The point is that unless I’ve got reliable evidence, and a lot of it, and investigated it, I’m not going to assume it’s rampant (or even rampant within that publication). http://vrazon.com ryan Joe, see my follow up to Evan. In Europe there is plenty of pay for play. I too am wary of exposing people who do it, but I can talk OTR about some anecdotes. Had lunch yesterday with a winemaker who I know well. Whenever we get together he tells me story after story all in confidence of wineries he consults for paying for press. Sad, but true. http://www.newyorkcorkreport.com Evan Dawson Joe – It would be great if readers demanded transparency as much as many writers do, eh? I mean, some readers certainly do. But I think many readers just assume that if there’s a conflict, they’ll know about it. Sigh. By the way, you have been a model of transparency. I mean that, no pander, no nonsense. You’ve let your readers know where you are in your career, and where you’d like to go, and you’re providing details on how you get there. As one of your readers, I dig that. Finally, I’m probably over-sensitive on how critics-behaving-badly incidents affect the rest of us. And you’re right to say that it’s not any kind of evidence that anyone else is behaving badly. On top of that, there’s plenty of evidence that many top writers are models of ethics: Asimov, Robinson, Molesworth, et al. And that’s just the start. http://www.1winedude.com 1winedude Thanks, guys. I suppose the follow-up question, then, is this: So what are we gonna do about it? Seriously – I’m not sure. We can continue to live by our own standards and be transparent and offer alternatives, but it’s worth asking… is that all that we can do to change it? http://www.onerichwineguy.com OneRichWineGuy Great Article Evan! As someone who has been in distribution, sales, and wine writing for a number of years I’m always shocked that people don’t think that scores and write ups aren’t at least in some way purchased. As a writer I know it’s impossible to pencil out the thousands of dollars in wine that needs to be consumed annually to produce a weekly piece that nets you pennies per word. Shame on Parker and Suckling for trying to cover up something as shameless as what they’ve done all these years. Honesty is always the best policy. Patrick Great article. Everyone should read it. And everyone should learn to taste wine for themselves, and stop relying on critics so much. Pingback: Wineshout http://yycwine.com AG Bryksa Great article Evan. Even in the twilight of their careers, with their already questionable reputations do these two keep the gloves on and come out of their respective corners swinging. Transparency now for them is an impossibility as it would expose the years that they steadfastly maintained to be impartiality and held their critics / contributors to a standard that we all secretly knew was an impossible joke. We all saw Mondovino and saw how they built and play the game. The difficult thing is that even today, restauranteurs and retailers are STILL using their assessments to sell wine! How many bottles of Jay Miller classically scored wine has been and continues to be sold under the auspice of the publication of said score? The industry is as much at fault in protecting these reputations as these hucksters themselves. brian stpierre The other thing no one seems to be talking about is those 119 subscriptions, to the tune of $5,950. I know they’re Canadian dollars, but still. . . sheesh! I’d have thought one sub and a password shared among the other SAQ staff wouldhave been sufficient for informational purposes, unless there was some other reason for such largesse. . . http://chilecopadevino.wordpress.com/ Lee Newby OK, Suckling lives in Hong Kong and took money in Quebec (which has a different legal system from the rest of Canada, much more codified) and was “libeled” in the internet and of course in print in La Presse which just documented their FOI findings. So, exactly where was he even thinking of launching his “libel” action, he is just Wine 1.0 in a Wine 3.4 World. Roy Nobles Fortunately those two guys are becoming less and less important in influencing consumers’ choices. More than a matter of ethics I think the problem is their bad taste and consumers are finally getting it. http://www.sahmmelier.wordpress.com SAHMmelier The theme through this piece, and the following comments, seems to be a simple one. Conduct yourself with integrity and you will likely avoid reproach, right? Be honest. Play well with others. And use discernment. Unfortunately, sensationalized reporting is so prevelant that you can’t read or watch anything without having to guess what kind of manipulation/slant is being put on every story. What qualifies as “news” on the morning shows is laughable. Grease my pockets, I’ll grease yours. Yuck. It is everywhere, not just the wine world. Pingback: A Brilliant Example of Why I Hate Wine Critics | Demystify Wine Melissa Thanks for writing about this and keeping the outcry going. Although the average wine consumer may not get wind of these two stories about questionable ethics, the more these two critics in particular are de-throned from their guru-god stature, the better for quality wineries that don’t tailor their winemaking to one palate. Too many times lazy retailers or government-run liquor control boards judge a wine by saying “What’s your Parker score?” Bob Won’t it be nice when we no longer have Parker and Suckling to kick around anymore. I’m surprised that Parker continues to act so defensively when he could just retire on his well-earned laurels. While I haven’t agreed much with him in years, he did work hard to get where he did, and his influence has been amazing. On the other hand, did anyone ever consider Suckling important? http://www.nwwineanthem.com Clive What shocks me is that no one is pointing out their moronic matching hair cuts. There’s more to this conspiracy people. OPEN YOUR EYES! For the love of god! Dave I agree. When it comes down to it – hair is the real issue here. What else are they hiding? Weaves? Plugs? Donna Thirkell Real men don’t SLAPP http://vignedeconfiance.over-blog.com Russ Raney Thanks Evan, for addressing this issue (again) – I followed Jim Budd’s blog on the Spain debacle, and the issue of wine critic objectivity (& the compromise thereof!) has always been at the top of my priority list in my 37 years in the wine trade. As a former winer/vineyard owner I often hosted wine writers for tastings – but quite honestly, I would have much preferred that they taste the wines blind at a neutral location, i.e. I would find it very difficult to remain objective about a producer’s wines while being on site – and often influenced/shmoozed by the winemaker or owner. This is not to say that wine critics shouldn’t occasionally visit wine estates, but that they should perhaps not base their conclusions regarding wine quality on wines tasted in this way vs. a comparative blind tasting with other wines in the same genre. 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