Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Who will be the world's most important wine critic?

For three decades, Robert Parker has been the world's most important wine critic. Now the position is open. Who's going to take it?

I was all set to declare the Robert Parker era over after the back-to-back announcements that he sold the Wine Advocate and the Advocate's most prolific critic, Antonio Galloni, has left the publication to go out on his own.

But Parker isn't willing to go quietly. He said on his bulletin board that he's thinking of making a comeback in California, after giving it over to Galloni for the Advocate.

So now we might see Galloni vs. Parker for the heavyweight title, with Wine Spectator circling around, looking for signs of weakness.

You might ask, will there necessarily be one most-powerful critic? Wouldn't a variety of voices be better?

No single critic will ever again be as powerful as Parker was 15 years ago. But because distributors and big chain stores like definitive 100-point ratings, they'll be looking for somebody to deliver them.

In other words, if no new Parker emerges naturally, the volume-based side of the business would work to create one. Parker and the trade have had a symbiotic relationship for 30 years: He gives the ratings, they don't have to work as hard to sell the wines. And don't think the trade wants a lot of voices: Costco, for example, wants only wines rated 90-points or higher from only three publications.

Galloni, who has an MBA from MIT, realizes the title is within his reach, and it sounds like he plans to go full-speed after it.

It's hard for me to imagine that a Singapore-based Advocate, especially one tied to wine futures sales, will have the same influence as when Parker ran it from Maryland. For one thing, Asian buyers of wine aren't stupid; it will only take one unusually high rating of a wine that the new owners of the Advocate are trying to sell to halve the publication's credibility overnight. Say what you want about Parker's palate; his ethics are as sound as anyone in the industry. It's hard to say if the Advocate keeps that reputation without Parker running the show.

Also, as fast-growing as the Asian wine market is, it's not the US market, which is the largest in the world and also growing at a healthy rate. The next world's most important critic will also be based here.

Parker is 65, unable to travel right now, and I wonder if he has the energy and the contractual ability to reinvent himself with a different business. The name Robert Parker will always have more credibility than the name Wine Advocate. But I'd bet against him sustaining competition against both the publication he founded and his energetic former acolyte.

Whither Wine Spectator? It was a clear No. 2 in influence before, and now could end up anywhere from No. 1 to No. 3. Spectator is arguably in better position than the Advocate, but it has personnel challenges of its own, as it really hasn't put a young go-getter in charge of any major regions. Spectator would be wise to find or cultivate a dynamic critic, like Galloni, for its most important region, California. But the insular nature of the publication makes me wonder if it's really open to new talent in key positions. Many good writers come in and do a little work for Spectator, but the key wine-ratings jobs change very rarely.

Wine Enthusiast is the third of Costco's three acceptable rating sources, but it's hard for me to see it passing Wine Spectator in influence. Its main business isn't ratings, but selling accessories. That's hardly Consumer Reports.

Steve Tanzer continues to deliver excellent tasting notes, but he's been around long enough that if the market was going to embrace him, it would have already. Tanzer's a little too honest and his scores are a little too low. The trade and the wealthiest of consumers, not the general public, will eventually award the heavyweight title, and both are looking for validation as much as evaluation.

Allen Meadows of Burghound is a dark horse who could expand his influence if that's what he wants to do. He's already the most influential critic on Burgundy, no small feat. Would he want to hire a staff and take on other regions? Being a publisher is a very different role from being a critic.

Jancis Robinson is very influential in the UK and has steadily been expanding her US operation. If being the new Parker was important to her, she is well positioned to do it. But she'd have to change some of her operating philosophies, starting with a switch to the 100-point scale. Moreover, she's 62, very successful already, and probably the least motivated of any major critic to go after the title.

Another interesting dark horse, Vinography's Alder Yarrow, writes a column for Robinson and rates wines as quickly as anyone in the biz. But Yarrow runs a real business as his day job and would take an immense pay cut even if he were immediately anointed by the trade. He probably could take the title if he wanted to. So far as I know, he doesn't want to, right now anyway.

The New York Times' Eric Asimov has gained a lot of influence in the last year with his well-received book, but he would shudder in horror at the idea of being the new Parker, and it's hard to see the Times embracing that role either.

The reason CellarTracker won't take the title is that by the time it gets a critical mass of reviews on a wine, the wine has been on the market for a while and shelf talkers are already printed. Moreover, I'm fascinated that CellarTracker's ratings are significantly lower than every major critic, which is probably more honest but not desirable to the trade. Perhaps somebody could figure out a way to get public composite reviews pre-release, and if so, that could be influential. But there are huge logistical obstacles.

Let's look to 2023, and put odds on who is the World's Most Influential Critic then. Considering Parker will be 75, I'll call it thus:

Antonio Galloni 4-1
Wine Spectator 5-1
Somebody not currently well-known 5-1
Nobody: a flatter marketplace with no lead voice 10-1
Alder Yarrow 12-1
Wine Advocate 25-1
Some social media composite rating site: 50-1

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21 comments:

rapopoda said...

You might find that there's more genuine demographic/psychographic spread of influential critics.
The internet/electronic publishing makes to much easier for individuals to touch an audience that they have the highest possibility of influencing.
This doesn't mean a free-for-all –– Certainly the crap will shake out-- but I do think you will find more towers (focused) of influence going forward.
Also, how did you arrive at those odds?

W. Blake Gray said...

I used a mathematical formula based on WAR, quarterback rating and blood alcohol level.

Jack Everitt said...

I wonder how influential Richard Jennings is? He's the most prolific/well-known Cellar Tracker TN writer.

I think Cellar Tracker has already replaced TN wine critics as the source to go to for wine reviews.

W. Blake Gray said...

CellarTracker is very influential on purchases of older wines, either from wine lists or auctions. I don't see much influence on new releases, which is the overwhelming majority of wine sales.

rapopoda said...

Richard Jennings? the guy who reviews at an improbable rate and volume at public wine events (e.g. ZAP and the like)?
Sorry, sip and spit reviews under controlled circumstances is marginal enough. Sip in spit reviewing in a room of thousands, is just absurd

Richard Jennings said...

Rapopoda,

Actually I think Jack meant the Richard Jennings who is a wine writer, who writes in detail about a lot of different kinds of wines, both for his own blog, RJonWine.com; on a weekly basis for Huffington Post; and periodically for Snooth and other publications.

Yes, since I have a day job like Alder (who's been at this blogging business a lot longer than I have), some of my TNs on CT are based on large scale tastings. Many are also based on samples I am sent for review by wineries, and much smaller scale comparative tastings, some of which I organize.

My TNs on CT, which I started doing in 2004, not as a professional reviewer, but to keep track of my own tastings and to get a sense as to how the same wine shows under different circumstances, have developed a following of sorts. They are, however, not the primary thing I do--for me they're just a useful database that helps with some of the pieces I write.

Perhaps you want to check out some of my wine writing before dismissing me as a "sip 'n spit" reviewer.

rapopoda said...

I have, and while I certainly respect pursuing passions in one's free time, I remain skeptical that anyone can effectively rate wines, at huge volumes in a single sitting (or standing) - controlled environment or not

Jack Everitt said...

Blake: Here's a random wine I entered into Google. Note the first result. How does this not influence purchases?

rap: A rare few can, with a lot of practice over time, taste large numbers of wines, keep their palate fresh, and be consistent with notes/scores. (Alder and Richard are two.)

W. Blake Gray said...

Jack: What random wine?

I wonder how many Costco shoppers check Google on their smartphones? I'm sure some do, but do they then trust CellarTracker?

Jack Everitt said...

Sorry:

https://www.google.com/search?q=2007+mondavi+cabernet+sauvignon+reserve

W. Blake Gray said...

Jack: But that's my point: 2007 is not the current release. Reviews have ceased to influence very many buying decisions.

William Hughes said...

Blake,

I'll take on the role as the world's most influential wine critic. Everyone needs a hobby!

jdjang said...

Has there been any viable move to modernize wine scores?...to aggregate ratings (a la Rotten Tomatoes) or crowd-source (a la Yelp)?

Dr. Christian G.E. Schiller said...

Here are my thoughts about it http://schiller-wine.blogspot.com/2010/04/chinas-wine-boom-is-jeannie-cho-lee-new.html I think it will be somebody from Asia

noblewines.com said...

Oh please please let it be a young version of Clive Coates. The industry needs someone so brutally honest, cantankerous, voluminous, and stunning palate. Here is one of my favorite quotes from his Côte d'Or book:

"The bad critics look at Pinot through Cabernet-tinted spectacles and so criticise it for being what it never set out to be. And generally they cause anger in the Côte d'Or and confusion at home."

To me 'confusion at home' is so important. When the consumer is told by Jay Miller that Pinot Noir is supposed to be massive, they dismiss elegance. Then comes someone like Schildknecht that understands nuance and the consumer is confused.

Patrick Frank said...

I think that if you care about this topic, then you need to get a life. Wine critics exist for people who don't know how to taste for themselves.

W. Blake Gray said...

Well Patrick, you cared enough to read this post AND make a comment. Judging from my current readership stats on this post, that means you care more than 99% of the people who read the post.

Rarig said...

Patrick, No one is pointing fingers. I wouldn't be so hasty in taking personal offense to this question. Let me edify your response, no one asked why critics exist. That would be like me asking why YOU exist, and that really doesn't matter.

-___-

jo6pac said...

Hopfully it's someone who likes wine and doen't try and get wine makers to change style just to make the so-called expert happy.

Josh Moser said...

I subscribe to 3 different wine publications. I have a true appreciation for wine reviewers (large and small). Now I don’t get caught up in the wine scores, but I value what they have to say about the overall quality of vintages. I think reviewers earn their money when they talk about an off-vintage more so than a great vintage. I also pay very close to attention to the drinking windows they provide. That being said, I believe the role of the wine critic / reviewer has changed dramatically.


In my opinion, the US is saturated with wine reviewers. All of these wine critics (WA, WS, WE, Suckling, Galloni, Tanzer) are making themselves obsolete, because they hand out so many 90 point scores. Also, the quality of wine that is going into the bottle is so good, that buying a wine based on a review is irrelevant. I don’t think most wine drinkers can tell the difference between a 89 point wine and a 93 point wine, but they can sure figure out the price difference.

Wine merchants (K&L & JJ Buckley to name a few) provide detailed vintage reports for free. These reports are quite good, and I feel that wine drinkers are going to opt for a free report from their wine retailer than pay subscription fees. It is a safe bet, that these retailers are going to produce more of these vintage reports (2010 Bordeaux, 2006 Brunello di Montalcino etc etc) in the future.

I assume that James Suckling and Robert Parker headed to Asia because they see a better opportunity to find paying subscribers in Asia than in the US. Even though the US is currently the largest market for wine consumption, James Suckling and Robert Parker know that if merchants are providing these detailed reports for free, then why would someone pay $100+ a year. As you know, some of these wine retailers have employees who have tasted thousands and thousands of the same wines, and have strong relationships with wine producers. These employees sound as good as Parker, Suckling and others.

The other key point is that the wine retailers can talk about wines that they are selling, and have recently tasted. I can’t tell you how many times I have read a review from some of these publications, and then I find out that only 800 cases are for sale in the US, and you can’t find the wine. Or the reviewer tasted the wine 7 years ago when it was released, and has not provided an updated review. Well that doesn’t do me any good. Most importantly, in this day and age it is all about finding the best values, and the top wine retailers have no problem finding plenty of great wines, and offering them at great prices.

Now let’s touch on the new generation of wine drinkers between the ages of 21 and 35. This group almost always looks to purchase a $15 Malbec compared to a $15 to $25 bottle of Bordeaux / California Cabernet for the following reasons:

This new generation of wine drinkers don’t really seem to value what wine critics have to say, and I don’t see them paying subscription fees, especially when a lot of information about wine can be found on the internet for free.

It is far easier for them to find a $15 Malbec. These wine drinkers want instant gratification. They can walk into nearly any wine store or grocery store and find a Malbec that is lively and full of character. Pop and pour. Can’t say the same for a bottle of Bordeaux / California Cabernet.

RedFilth said...

Is there a consensus that James Suckling is not in the running? I don't see his name mentioned.

I currently subscribe to WA, WS and Purple Pages but ultimately CT is the go to and I surf from there.

WA not auto feeding into CT is a pain and Purple Pages has a limited footprint on areas like Paso Robles which I but a lot of wine from.