Paid to sip? Wine scandal swirls around Baltimore critic

The accusations are swirling through the wine world faster than cabernet in a crystal goblet.

A London wine blogger alleges that a Spanish contact for the esteemed Maryland-based publication The Wine Advocate asked wineries for money in exchange for a visit from one of the publication's longtime reviewers.

That would be Jay Miller, a noted oenophile and former co-owner of Bin 604 in Harbor East. He stepped down this week from The Wine Advocate, which is run by Robert M. Parker Jr. from his home base in northern Baltimore County.

Miller, in his first extensive interview since his resignation, denied the bribery charges and said he'd been planning for a while to cut back on reviewing.

"I have a totally clear conscience," Miller told The Sun on Tuesday. "I haven't received one cent of remuneration from visiting either the region [of Spain] or the wineries. What I write is totally based on what's in the bottle."

The wine blog Jim's Loire, based in London, recently reported that Miller's representative in Spain, Pancho Campo, attempted to arrange a deal whereby struggling winemakers would pay 20,000 euros, about $26,800 by current exchange rates, for a two-day visit from Miller. The blog published a series of emails between Campo and a trio of Spanish wine executives sent in early June.

When the winemakers in the Madrid region, demurred, apparently put off by the cost, blogger Jim Budd alleges Campo, president of a Spanish wine organization, doubled back with more pressure and less subtlety.

"Private visits off the set agenda, as this would be, rarely take place, and not for a price below 40,000 euros," Campos allegedly wrote the winemaker in a note that Budd published. "The fact that Jay has agreed to stay 2 days more, and for half the usual price, is a miracle and an opportunity that Madrid will find it difficult to have again."

Before signing off with "a kiss from Tuscany," Campo allegedly added, "I hope they reconsider, especially considering how difficult the market is for Spain and that any little push like this can help a lot."

Miller says he went to the wineries in question and plans to write about them — without bias.

Budd has taken to calling the scandal "No pay — no Jay."

A mention in an influential wine publication such as The Wine Advocate can translate into thousands of dollars in sales for winery — just as notice from certain critics can persuade people to try a new restaurant or buy a certain book.

But before it can get a review, a winery has to catch the attention of someone like Jay Miller, Budd says.

"If you wanted access to Jay, you needed to pay Campo," Budd said, in a phone interview from his London home. "The winery's hope was by having their wines tasted, they'd not only get a good review, they'd get high points for their wine and that would help them in the U.S. market."

Budd is quick to say he's not necessarily accusing Miller of bribery — but that the bouquet of the situation is somehow, clearly, off.

"I'm not saying that Miller pocketed this money," the blogger explained. "I'm not saying these were prices Miller was demanding. It was much more Pancho Campo."

Miller, who lives in Upperco, is a former clinical psychologist who diverged into the wine world in 1977, becoming a part-time consultant at Wells Discount Liquors. He also worked for stints at Calvert Discount Liquors in Cockeysville, and The Wine Source in Columbia before partnering with restaurateur Tony Foreman to open Bin 604.

He started writing for the Monkton-based Wine Advocate in 1985.

The 66-year-old said he was romanced by the grape in graduate school. He started reading about wine and buying what he could afford. He met Parker not long after he started working at Wells.

He wants people to know that the timing of his resignation only coincidentally comes in the wake of the scandal. As he has aged, the travel has been hard, particularly with his arthritic knees. His plans include writing a primer on Spanish wine.

Miller said he doesn't know if Campo attempted to bribe any wineries. "That's the 64,000-dollar question," he says. "But in the end, only he knows."

Campo, reached by email in Spain, said neither he nor Miller ever took money for a wine tasting.

"We can [categorically] confirm that not a single winery has ever paid Jay Miller or the The Wine Academy for the privilege of visiting them or for tasting their wines," Campo told The Sun.

Robert Parker, meanwhile, is standing behind Miller, even as he launches an international investigation focusing in particular on Campo, whom he has worked with in the past and introduced to Miller. Campo is president and founder of The Wine Academy of Spain.

For many in the rarefied world of wine, good marks from Parker and his reviewers carry extra validity because unlike other publications, The Wine Advocate prides itself on editorial independence.

It doesn't accept advertising. The publication is entirely subscription-based. Critics foot their own travel bills.

"We're being damaged by these allegations," Parker says, "and were trying to get to the bottom of what the truth is."

Miller's reputation, locally, seems quite solid. Foreman, who with chef Cindy Wolf owns such high-end Baltimore restaurants as Charleston, Pazo and Petit Louis, calls him "about as pure a taster as you're going to come up with in that world."

He speculated that his friend and former business partner, whom he has known for nearly 40 years, is the victim of the cutthroat high stakes wine world.

"The world of the wine blogosphere is a very jealous one, given to over-analysis," Forman says. "There are a number of people known for their skill and an awful lot of people who spend their time knocking them down."

Ian Stalfort, a wine buyer for The Wine Source doesn't know Miller personally — only his good name and that of his publication. And as someone who has tasted many of the wines Miller has reviewed, Stalfort thinks his opinions are typically astute.

"I find it really hard to believe any of these guys would jeopardize their reputation for a free trip anywhere," he says. I can't imagine anything super-nefarious was going on."