|Talia Baiocchi, from winespectator.com|
(Update: Cole emailed me to clarify that she has no specified relationship with Spectator, unlike Baiocchi, who will be blogging regularly.)
It's an interesting move for the Spectator, which has maintained a nearly constant staff of critics for the last two decades even as the wine world has changed immensely. Philosophically, it's a huge shift, as Baiocchi -- also the national wine editor for the Eater website -- is young and represents the new Brooklyn aesthetic, whereas the Spectator has calcified over the years into a gated retirement community aesthetic.
Let's not overstate its importance: Baiocchi will be writing blog posts, not replacing James Laube as California wine critic. That would be huge; this is tentative.
At least Wine Spectator has noticed that 20-somethings are drinking wine and they're not paying much attention to the magazine. It's a competitive move and more will be needed, but perhaps publisher Marvin Shanken, famously fierce about the sharp divide between insiders and outsiders, isn't ready to go further yet.
He'll have to, though. The Wine Advocate got younger in a more significant way last year with Antonio Galloni replacing Robert Parker as chief California critic. Galloni so far is actually a more generous grader than Parker, as well as more open to the press. The positive notices he has received by higher ratings for some terroir-driven wines has invigorated interest in Advocate scores from many cynical areas of the wine trade. And wineries are excited about opportunities to meet the new guy. Whether or not that matters to the public I can't say, but it does matter to the Advocate.
Wine Spectator, in contrast, has an air of same-old same-old among the trade. I spoke to a few people who went to its big Experience events recently and all described them as tired, an obligation they didn't enjoy. James Suckling stole a surprising amount of Spectator's thunder when he left to go independent. Many people laughed at his arrogance, but Suckling has a personality and without him, it's hard to say if Spectator does.
Wine Spectator has come to represent an old set of values: pro-oak, pro-blockbuster, pro- intervention; anti-idiosyncrasy, anti-acidity and anti-terroir. It's not a magazine you read to find out about the latest indigenous varieties from Greece or the Canary Islands. It's where you go to find out whose multi-region Cab-Merlot-Shiraz blend is smoothest and richest.
Cole, unlike Baiocchi, comes from writing regular newspaper columns so her first piece for Spectator, a Q&A, shows a familiar kind of neutrality, reminiscent of her interesting book on biodynamics. (Update: Cole is taking a sabbatical from the Oregonian to work on a book for World of Fine Wine. Gambatte!)
Is it significant that they're both young women? Maybe. Cole tweeted "Girl Power" earlier today. Spectator has had other female staffers and has MaryAnn Worobiec and Alison Napjus now (update: and Jennifer Fiedler, Cole's editor). The main critics have always been men, though. But a new main critic has to come from somewhere.
Again, let's not overstate the importance of these hires. Other writers have come and gone as secondary critics for Spectator over the years, frustrated that they never reached the inner circle, where their opinion (like Laube's, and previously Suckling's) would actually have tremendous power in the wine world.
Baiocchi may not have the power (yet) to give earthy, complex, non-blockbuster wines 92 points. But she might be able to get them on the Wine Spectator website without mockery, and that in itself is a significant change for the gated-retirement-community of wine magazines.