Monday, September 27, 2010

An open letter about Wine Spectator

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?


King Krak, I Drink the Wine said...

Tasting panels suck.

Take a 3-person tasting panel. One guys scores the wine 95, another 90, and the last guy, 80. So, it gets an 88. An 88 is not what ANY of the three thought of the wine and Very Far Off from what two of three thought.

15 or so years ago, the WS did a French Burgs vs Cal Pinot. And had both guys review the same wines. And the results were exactly like above. One guy gives a wine a 92, the other an 78. Etc, etc.

The only somewhat meaningful scores out there are wines that have a lot of CellarTracker ratings... otherwise, just give me one guy. (And that guy is me.)

W. Blake Gray said...

King: The quality of the ratings from an individual taster depend not only on that person's palate preferences, but on his consistency. That's what makes Parker popular.

In your hypothetical example, an 89 seems reasonable to me. Doesn't that type of spread represent your actual experience of sharing a wine with two friends? You might have one very enthusiastic person and one who isn't.

But you're imagining a panel that gives out three separate scores and combines them by arithmetic. That's not what I'm suggesting. They can talk, and in your case I suspect the low scoring person would be convinced to sign off on a 90.

If it's one person, though, and that person gives it a 95, a lot of readers who taste the wine will wonder why. Which is where we are now.

Maryellen said...

An old sage once told me that other people will influence you only if you let them.

Robert Parker is but one person and he will not live forever. To decide on a wine purchase based solely on his opinion ignores the pleasure of searching for great wine on your own. Sure, you will drink some duds and spend some money in error, but you will be a better wine consumer for the experience.

Tasting different wines develops your palate, causing you to develop a sense for what you like and do not like. Robert Parker may rate a wine 90+ points and give it instant fame, but if you taste it and go "Eh", then Parker's comments are of no value.

Comments and ratings from supposed "experts", whether Parker ort anyone else, should serve as nothing more than one input into your buying ans tasting decisions.

If you buy the wines that only you enjoy, eventually you will have the perfect collection.

Anonymous said...

I am reposting a comment I made to the original Open Letter article regarding the statement:

"Nobody who knows wine respects James Laube's ratings".

Easy to say this, but look at all the advertising that touts a WS 90+ score ( the 4 page inside front cover ad in the Oct issue). How do you reconcile the statement with the reality of WS score focused advertising? What do the 'gatekeepers' (Somms, retail buyers etc) have to say?

Ask most winemakers-any score under 90 makes them want to go open a vein in a warm tub in a dark room (unless the wine is under $10.00), and people will snicker to see an ad touting a score of 88. Really not much of an upside to a <90 point review. Plus you get maybe 15-20 words on the wine-not really much info.

Seems to me like some of these celebrity pro reviewers simply like to inform their readers about the wonderful wines they tasted that their readers will never get the chance to taste.

When Mr Laube does retire, will we see winemakers change their winemaking style to appeal to the new palate of whomever replaces him?

I personally love the battles between critics (like the one between Jancis Robinson and Parker where one raved about a wine the other called undrinkable-THAT is a wine I want to try!)

Anonymous said...


Do you even read the Spectator regularly? For the past 3 or 4 years, California has been divided up between 3 tasters - Laube, Tim FIsh and Mary Ann Worobiec. Fish does ZInfandel and maybe Merlot and Worobiec does Sauvignon Blanc at least.

missinwine said...

Hi Blake,

Thank you for a great blog post. I totally agree that a highly respected and extremely influential magazine such as the Wine Spectator really should introduce tasting panels. Especially since wineries sales are hinged upon a 90 + score... In my eyes a tasting panel would be a fairer and more consistent option. Wish you would accept that job at the Spectator and introduce the winds of change:)

PaulG said...

Parker is no more an "outlier" than Tanzer, or the Burghound guy, or Jon Rimmerman for that matter. Individuals can cover specific regions with far more authority, knowledge and depth of experience than a panel that is just whooshing thru a pile of anonymous wines. Can an individual have an off day? Of course. But a panel rarely has on "on" day. As one poster has written, even the most experienced tasting group will disagree more often than not, so your score will gravitate toward the 87-point middle ground. And logistically, organizing tasting panels to cover 10 or 12,000 wines a year is completely out of the question.

W. Blake Gray said...

Paul: If a panel rarely has an "on" day, why does (almost?) every great winery in the world use one?

Robert Whitley organizes three fantastic wine competitions a year in San Diego, with thousands of wines and dozens of tasters. I'm sure he, or another good organizer, could handle the logistics. And in fact, Wine Spectator announced it was planning to taste European wines in its New York office after James Suckling left, so the logistics would be even easier.

Anonymous said...

Parker, Burghound, and TAnzer sell their own newsletter. You buy it if you want their personal take on wine. WS, Decanter, WE, etc. are magazines that cover wine broadly, and take advertising money. Big difference. I agree mostly with the horrid stuff that Blake said, a panel review in a magazine, or more division of labor, would make WS a better mag. But, never mind, I don't buy it anymore. And regarding the public vs. industry, Blake was specific in saying that many of us in the industry have little respect for Laube, he was not saying that Laube does not have wide public influence. Laube's influence is due to WS, not to having his own newsletter. If Laube were to decide to go solo in his own newsletter, he would probably have a hard time getting anywhere near the circulation of existing newsletters, not to mention WS cir. numbers.

Anonymous said...

Interesting discussion. I'm on vacation re-reading Elin McCoy's The Emperor of Wine. On page 150, she talks about the rivalry between WS and Parker that might be relevant to this thread:

"In terms of capturing American media attention, though, the WS had a fatal flaw; it was a collection of voices. American heroes rarely came in bunches. Parker's story was the kind Americans liked, the story of an individual -- one person, one palate"

Tai-Ran Niew said...

Very strong. Very clever. Very droll. Well done, Sir!