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Jefford on Monday: Brand for Sale?

As we tasted our way through the submissions for Decanter’s Asia Wine Awards the week before last, a persistent rumour swirled around Hong Kong island. It hinted that Robert Parker was in the process of selling his ‘brand’ to unspecified Asian investors. Maybe it’s true; maybe it isn’t (there were emphatic denials from at least one of his tasting collaborators). In either case, it poses interesting questions about succession in the new media world.

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Wine writers were once the sum of their written words; as success accrued, so did the royalty cheques. When the words stopped flowing, by contrast, the story came to an end.

Wine globalisation and the internet is changing that. The most successful wine commentators, notably Robert Parker and Jancis Robinson MW, now employ collaborators to work for them (like Old Masters and their ‘schools’). They are principally self-publishers, via subscription websites. There is nothing to stop a website of this sort becoming a paperless publishing house in its own right; it’s only a question of scale. The sums that figures of global critical renown can charge for personal appearances, tutored tastings and other reasonably ethical synergies are mouth-watering -- and the wine world will always need critical luminaries. Why shouldn’t a personal brand of this sort become a kind of perpetual college of critical excellence, even after the prime mover has retired from the scene?

Those who know the dauntingly energetic Jancis Robinson find it impossible to yoke her name to the word ‘retirement’ (though she is only three years adrift of Robert Parker). Parker himself, by contrast, has spoken of his intention to retire. It would make eminent financial sense, therefore, to sell his ‘brand’ prior to that point. No matter how high the quality of work produced by his collaborators, there would have to be a dip in value following his departure. Buy it with him on board, any sales prospectus is likely to urge, and you could manage the transition profitably.

Tasting notes and scores are the alpha and omega of Parker’s contribution to the wine world. They are also a very personal matter, in two senses. An individual’s judgement is unique, and the manner in which that judgement is expressed, too, cannot be duplicated. Not one of the three tasters who have occupied the Burgundy seat since Parker vacated it have tasted or described Burgundy in the same way as he did, or as their immediate predecessor did. Lisa Perrotti-Brown MW’s notes on Australian wines differ from those of Parker and Jay Miller; Neal Martin’s Bordeaux notes contrast with those of his employer, as anyone who has ever thought about buying a case of Cos d’Estournel 2009 ought to know.

(Given all this, the habit that some in the global wine trade have of using the name ‘Parker’ or the intials ‘RP’ when quoting reviews or scores given by his collaborators is gently disgraceful, though it underlines the power of the brand. The individual names, or Wine Advocate or ‘WA’, should always be preferred – but they don’t shift cases in the same way.)

The key question, of course, is whether there can be a transition at all. To answer it, you need to consider Bordeaux separately from the other reviewed regions.

For those other regions, Wine Advocate notes and scores will surely remain what they are already: widely respected judgements from fine palates, but judgements which are regarded as being on a par with those of other specialist commentators. Paradoxically, indeed, some of the ‘team Parker’ tasters are regarded as doing a better job in their area of expertise than RP himself ever did – yet because they are not the judgements of Big Bob, they have less effect on prices and sales. In that sense, the Parker brand may prove a wasting asset.

Bordeaux, though, remains the key area. It pumped rocket fuel into Parker’s personal ascent, and it also pumped rocket fuel into the value of fine Bordeaux as the global ‘wine collectable’ of choice, indirectly making Bordeaux an exotic investment vehicle, and adding millions of euros to vineyard real estate in Bordeaux’s highest quality zones.  Parker scores still set the market for fine Bordeaux. Is this ability transferable?

No. It can’t be; it is simply too personal, both in practice and in terms of market mythology. Whoever slides their bottom into the warm Bordeaux driving seat once Parker has departed (and most Europeans feel comfortable with Neal Martin’s assessments) will be listened to with great indulgence and respect, but they, too, will become a fine palate among other fine palates. The Old Master will have gone. No single palate will ever set the market in that way again. Brand Parker may be worth buying … but I wouldn’t pay top dollar.

Jefford on Monday

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Award-winning writer Andrew Jefford's Monday column on Decanter.com