A few weeks ago I posted An Open Letter to Marvin Shanken, in which I made a suggestion I won’t repeat here, because I said my piece.
Moreover, I now have a better idea, courtesy of a winery executive I won't name to protect him from Wine Spectator's wrath.
We dined together on the night Wine Spectator published its response to my post, a well-written Matt Kramer column that cleverly shifted the focus of my argument.
I expressed my admiration for Kramer’s piece the way a chess loser respects an opponents‘ brilliant move, and regretted that I had not more carefully made my point. But the exec pointed out that I had missed a greater opportunity.
I had, for a moment, the attention of Wine Spectator, and could have used it to make a greater point about its system of reviewing wines.
That point is this: Why does Wine Spectator rely on a single person’s palate for its reviews in the first place?
I understand why Robert Parker and his Wine Advocate do this. People come to the Wine Advocate seeking Parker’s personal decisions. Whether or not you agree with his preferences, Parker has one of the most consistent and accurate palates in the world. His whole business is built on the idea of the single taster.
Wine Spectator, on the other hand, is a much broader magazine, and I will restate that I think it is the finest of all American wine magazines. Unlike the Advocate, Wine Spectator covers wine news, has done groundbreaking investigative reporting (such as James Laube exposing TCA-infected cellars), and has published many articles explaining aspects of wine. It is, unlike the Advocate, not a place where people come to read one person’s opinion. People read it not for the Matt Kramer brand or the Thomas Matthews brand, but for the Wine Spectator brand.
And yet, Wine Spectator insists on having one taster responsible for its ratings: one man does California, another does Spain, etc.
Wine Spectator has a deep roster of fine tasters who would make a great panel. Why not do this?
Tasting panels are how practically every winery in the world works. I’ve had the honor of sitting with some of California’s greatest winemakers when they taste samples and prepare blends. And part of what makes them great is that they encourage their colleagues and subordinates to express their opinions.
As the exec pointed out, what if the winemaker is having a bad day? What if she has a cold? Or what if she just won the lottery and is in a superb mood? No matter how good a taster one person is, no large winery would ever put its money on the palate of a single taster. And no good small winery that I know of is run by a winemaker who doesn’t taste with others, if nothing else just to confirm his impressions.
Parker’s one-man, one-palate system is the outlier; it’s unnatural. And yet, Parker is such a great taster that he’s successful with it. In my original post, I suggested that the Advocate will have difficulty maintaining its prestige when he steps down, despite his steps to bring along successors.
Should Wine Spectator be basing its future success on the single-taster system?
The exec pointed out that in Europe, wineries deliberately put together multi-generational tasting panels for several reasons. Foremost is the inherent risk of a single taster being distracted or just having a bad day. But family wineries need to train the next generation of tasters. They need their 25-year-olds to taste with their 65-year-olds so that the latter can use their experience to inform their successors about how certain characteristics of a young wine might give it more long-term potential.
Why wouldn’t this apply to Wine Spectator as well? When its current first generation of tasters retires, wouldn’t the magazine be better off if their successors had been tasting with them for two decades?
Moreover, though Wine Spectator makes no secret of its reliance on the single-taster system, I suspect that if they took a reader poll, they would learn that most of their own readers think a Wine Spectator rating represents the magazine’s opinion, not one man’s.
In fact, that’s a potential marketable advantage for Wine Spectator that the magazine is not using. I can see the campaign now: “Who do you trust: One man, or our panel of the world’s most respected, experienced tasters?”
As I said in my previous post, it is because of my respect for Wine Spectator, and my belief in its importance, that I would like to see it make positive changes. I still think my initial suggestion was a good idea, but this is a better one. Going from a single-taster system to a tasting panel would be a great move. I hope Marvin Shanken will consider it.
However, somebody else is going to have to make the argument to him. I had my shot -- I had his attention. And I blew it.
It pains me to write this next part, but I think I must.
I did not believe anyone could interpret my original post as a job application. But apparently some did, and Matt Kramer referred to it as such.
I apologize for the extreme arrogance of the paragraph to come. Wine Spectator can have its choice of most of America’s finest wine writers, critics and reporters. There’s no reason for me to believe I would be one of the first 100 people they would consider for a job opening. Nor do I believe I’m the most qualified person for a job there; geez, I’m not that arrogant. But I want to set the record straight, so I will make the following statement as clear as possible:
I will not work for Wine Spectator. If offered a job, I will decline.
Sigh. Now what am I going to do with the rest of my life?