I'm a longtime reader of Wine Spectator. I respect your magazine, which is overall the best wine magazine in the USA.
I know you're making some lineup changes. I'm writing to suggest one more.
Earlier this summer, James Suckling resigned and you announced that tastings of European wines will be done in New York. You said you are fortunate to have significant depth in your editorial team.
It's time to take advantage of that depth and put somebody new in charge of tasting California wines.
James Laube, 58, has been writing for Wine Spectator for 30 years, and has been responsible for most of your reviews of California wine since 1983.
He is already beginning to lose his taste acuity. This is a fact of nature that no one can avoid, and the process will only accelerate once he hits age 60.
You're going to have to make a move in the next few years. I suggest that you make it sooner, for the following reasons.
1) Robert Parker recently turned 63. Despite your magazine's greater breadth of coverage, Parker has been more influential. But he's gradually reducing his tasting responsibilities for The Wine Advocate, as he should, and the Advocate's personnel depth isn't as great as yours. The position of "most influential" is up for grabs once he steps down. As you are an American magazine, you need to have a respected critic in place for America's largest and most important wine-producing state to take full advantage of the competitive opportunity.
2) Everyone is entitled to their own palate. Laube loves blockbuster red wines -- it doesn't matter what grape they're made from, as long as they're big -- and nobody can say that's he's wrong; it's just his opinion. But he has fallen out of touch with American wine aficionados, and increasingly with a more experienced general public. And while Laube's palate is similar to Parker's, there's a huge difference in respect. Parker has a legion of followers. As for your man?
The following is a strong statement, but I invite you to look into the truth of it:
Nobody who knows wine respects James Laube's ratings.I know you've been hearing sycophantic praise for years from PR people and wineries, but this is the reality. Don't take my word for it -- get one of your interns to make some anonymous phone calls to wine buyers, sommeliers and other gatekeepers.
This means that your ratings of California wines are only useful for beginners. Is that your intended audience? And what happens to those readers once they've learned a little more?
3) You are at the time in your career when you must be thinking about your legacy. You have done a great job of glamorizing wine while also making it more accessible to the public. You have also contributed a great deal to charity over the years.
But what is your legacy in the way wine is made? It's up in the air.
People blame Parker, not your magazine, for overblown wines, for several reasons. He has more influence, and he applies his palate to wine throughout the world. Laube is only one of your critics. Your other critics do not all share his palate.
You can make a legacy statement now for the future of wine. You can choose a new California wine critic who prefers balanced wines, and you can take the opportunity to state that this is Wine Spectator's mission. Such a move might be as influential on wine as anything you have yet done in your entire illustrious career.
I'm not suggesting that you hire an outsider. Nor am I suggesting that you hire a New World-bashing zealot. These writers belong in the relatively small role that they have now, not the powerful chair of Wine Spectator's California critic.
What you need is a critic who likes the taste of fruit in their wine, yet does not believe that more is always better. You need a critic who can tell the difference between a fruit-forward Cabernet Sauvignon that will taste good halfway through the bottle, and a low-acid parody that would weary the palate if he/she actually drank a glass, rather than sipped and spit.
This is a move you have to make anyway within, at most, 7 years. Why wait? Keep Laube's column and let him write features. He's still a good reporter, as evidenced by his interesting profile of Helen Turley.
But he is not a good enough taster to be the most important taster on your magazine -- not if you want your magazine to take over from the Wine Advocate and become the unquestioned opinion leader of the wine industry.
I know from personal experience that Wine Spectator is defensive in the face of outside criticism. But I believe your editors know I keep a balanced, respectful view of your magazine. This open letter is not meant as a rant. It is a serious suggestion, and I hope you will accept it as such.
W. Blake Gray