Wednesday, September 8, 2010

An open letter to Marvin Shanken

Dear Marvin:

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


  1. I got to give you credit, you like to take on topics with gusto! I like the writing of Mr. Laube as well. I'm about 50/50 on his rating as I am with several "critics". Not sure any of us will agree with all the critics so don't see Marvin taking this suggestion to heart.

  2. Let me start by saying,I think this took serious cojones to write and I do appreciate people who say it as they see it. That being said, in reference to losing taste, you say,"This is a fact of nature that no one can avoid, and the process will only accelerate once he hits age 60."

    Yet in the article YOU reference, this is what is stated:

    "The sensitivity to the four taste sensations does not seem to decrease until after age 60, if at all."

    The point here is, "if at all".

    I do not believe that anyone should be put out of a position purely on speculation as to what MAY occur in the future.You might have a point on other fronts, but I believe, this point on taste is irresponsible.

  3. This took major stones to put into print. I have had my go-rounds with Thomas Matthews in the past, as I agree with a great many things you say. All I am saying is that it took a lot of guts, and I applaud you resoundingly!

  4. As with the rest, I offer my congrats on writing a thought-provoking post. I will take issue, however, with your assumption that the Parker team does not have as much depth as Spectator team. A short visit to eBob shows the star-studded lineup of writers. So, no - Spectator is not poised to take over the top spot at all.

  5. We all senesce - albeit at different rates.
    Blake makes a very valid argument that extends to all wine reviewers: when a shift in preference or what one rewards occurs it's a flag for me that a taster/reviewer's acuity is diminished.

  6. I agree with most in your article, I do not follow or like any of RP recommendations so I use my own ones.
    I think, like everything else RP need competition and JL as fail at it, therefore WS needs a new face and a new direction if they want to get a piece of the pie.

  7. You paint with a wide brush. In your opinion, what are some of examples of the wines that James doesn't appreciate or understand?

  8. Who is James Laube?

  9. I'm not the biggest Jim Laube fan either, but this is a little over-the-top. Start your own magazine.

  10. Beyond fodder for shelf talkers, what purpose do either WS or WA serve. Much ado about nothing, if you ask me.

  11. Blake, I gotta say that your post seems just plain mean-spirited to me rather than insightful....and I would not normally characterize you as such at all.

  12. I find Laube to be one of the most consistent of critics and one whose opinion I trust nearly 100%. If he gives a wine high marks I generally look elsewhere. If he pans it I might be tempted to buy a case. Consistency has its merits.

  13. A note very subtle effort at self-promotion, Blake.

  14. I can't speak to the accuracy of Mr. Laube's ratings, but I don't find his tastings notes very helpful. I realize that it is a prominent characteristic, but does the word "currant" really need to appear in all of his cabernet sauvignon notes? In the latest issue, 14 of the 18 mini-reviews in the "cabernet sauvignon and other" category contained the word "currant" somewhere, and previous reviews show a similar ratio.

  15. The flaw is not with the person but with the system. In most every other field we're moving beyond the Grand Poobah approach to reviewing/criticism. Look at Yelp, Trip Advisor,Chowhound. Or Rotten Tomatoes which provides a composite of views by critics and consumers.

    With the increasing democratization of the Internet, we've moved on to "crowd sourcing" which explains why CellarTracker offers the best real evaluation--composites of various palates. Publications may be required to have their critic, but, increasingly, they are being marginalized. Yes, let them do articles on wine makers and regions. But why should that skill extend to assessing wines?

  16. Bravisimo!!!! You have accurately articulated what we in the wine industry have been saying in hushed tones, behind closed doors for years (decades)... not out of spite, but out of objective insight. One person's opinion, JL, RB or otherwise, shouldn't steer an entire industry. But no blame on an individual... the out of control power that wine "critics" have can be blamed on consumers as they (we) act like sheep and flock to recommended wines rather than discover them. We have not allowed other consumer driven media, such as consumer reports, make or break brands... but since wine seems to be "different" in this respect, we're all to blame. Forego scores and consume bravely!!!!

  17. @Heather: Actually, what occurs is a major sensory loss of smell. And this is why wine geeks and wine writers lose much of their interest in wine past the ages of 60-75.

    As I tell others, drink your best bottles in your cellar before the age of 65, or you'll regret it.

    @Blake: Follow up with a box of the finest cigars money can buy.

  18. In the industry Wine Spectator is commonly referred to as "Wine Speculator". Laube's variable palate and ratings seem to be strange enough that people no longer use the WS ratings as proof of quality amongst professionals-just for direct sales to consumers.

  19. I can think of no other industry that spends relatively little promoting its product and relies so heavily on mentions and reviews of Spectator, Parker, Wine & Spirits, Tanzer, and yet still whines about it. Wake up people and smell the big picture. Geez.

  20. Thanks for telling it like it is. It's a relief when someone finally says out loud what everyone else has been thinking.

  21. While I respect your opinion, and agree with others that it took some moxy to write the article, I object to the personal attack. I hasten to add that I am not a particular fan of James Laube, but you attack Mr. Laube personally but do not give any objective criteria of why he should no longer be the WS California critic. Subjectively you point out several reasons which seem fairly petty.

    And being an ageing baby boomer myself (not quite as elderly, decrepit, and over the hill as you imply Mr. Laube is), I resent your assumption about his senses and palate deteriorating! This is an attack on all of us ageing baby boomers who think we will last forever and that our palates are just as good as they've always been! Do you advocate simply euthanizing us ageing boomers when we hit age 60? I mean, your comments seem to indicate there is nothing left for us after 60... or is this just Mr. Laube in particular? And, another issue - at what age is the palate sufficiently developed to begin to appreciate wine? not the 30's certainly, too young, not the early 40's as it just getting to that certain je ne se quois - so, while I'm reading between the lines, this "perfect palated" critic must have to be between, oh, say 46 and 57?

    And, while I'm not a psychologist or a psychiatrist, and certainly this in no way should be considered advice, do I detect a bit of envy, jealousy, and downright hero worship from you directed toward Mr. Laube. While he may not be that well known, I bet if there were a poll of the wine reading world his name recognition would be higer than your name.

    Last, you did not suggest who should replace Mr. Laube? Steve Heimoff (or, wait, maybe he doesn't meet the age requirement?)? Mark Squires? Oh, wait, did you mean to imply it should be you! Oh, say it ain't so!

  22. Quite a provocative post, Blake. I'd like to add 3 points:

    1) the number of anonymous posts here suggests that more than a few industry types fear Marvin Shanken and James Laube, even if they do not repsect them.

    2)While I am inclined to agree with you w/ respect what most savvy wine types think of Laube's palate and ratings, the problem is not him, but rather the sheeplike retailers who still happily use WS ratings to make their job (seemingly) easier.

    What we all really need is prominent retailers (and sommeliers) to reject not only James Laube as relevant tastemaker, and to embrace (as alluded to by Tom Merle) a New Age in which peers make the best wine "critics" of all.

  23. In theory a "composite of views by critics and consumers" - as discussed by some here - has great value, but it in practice it tends to average most wines into a big group. Ironically, for years many in the industry have decried reviews by groups for that very reason - there's no great and not bad wine, just everything comfortably in the middle. Democratic, yes, but is it really helpful?

  24. Thanks for writing this, as this debate is needed. But the truth is Laube isn't going anywhere. That he rates wines based on his personal preference and what he thinks a wine of a certain varietal should taste like (vs. whether it is a good wine) just makes him like the other writers at Spectator.

    The same exact comments are almost universally made about Molesworth - a great wine made in a style he disagrees with will get a poor rating.

    This personal preference form of judging is exactly why Spectator doesn't have the influence it should as the biggest wine pub. People with experience know how they judge and give them little credence.

    Thanks for making the effort, but you're asking the leopard to change their spots and it isn't going to happen.

  25. I agree 100%. And the critique is not a personal attack on Mr. Laube. It is a critique of the value that he adds or does not add to the magazine and to the credibility of wine publishing. I am in the industry, for a mere 9 years. I grew up drinking both European and California wines. I learnt much at Napa Valley College. I don't make wine, I only sell it. Have worked wholesale and retail. I have little or no regard for Mr. Laube's wine reviews. And as Mr. Gray suggested, if you poll people who work in the industry, you get a very different picture than what you get from the general public.

  26. Maybe it is just me but it sounds like some of you are having trouble selling your wine. Shoot the messenger! Shoot the messenger! That will solve everything.

    This is no different than any industry. Do you think Paramount respects Roger Ebert? San Francisco restaurants just love Michael Bauer! In this business, you are only respected for your latest positive review.

  27. What trash...just Blake trying to jump on the "popular" bandwagon these days. Why don't you try writing something really new and controversial. What a waste of writing effort.

  28. I look at this from a slightly different angle. The audience of WS is mainly older men with money. The way to serve this audience is by having an old man taste expensive wines. The likely loss of some of his sense of smell is consistent with the sensory level of the readers. Same deal for Robert Parker. He is writing for rich, old, white men. He is the perfect man for the job, basically.

    For younger wine drinkers with fully intact olfactory sensitivity, peer reviews are more useful. Those in my age and socioeconomic bracket are more likely to perceive wines the same way.

    Perhaps this explain the extreme oak and ripeness in many wines made to please rich, old white men. They need strong flavors, otherwise they can't get anything from the wine. But these wines are generally overwhelming to younger consumers.

  29. Tish

    It's not so much "sheeplike retailers" that drive this system as much as consumers do.
    They are the ones with the money that pays for the wines that the stores stock and critics rate.
    But it's bad business to "bite the hand that feeds you".

  30. Regarding the anon. comment on having trouble sellig our wine: maybe the trouble is CAUSED BY the high alc. bent of Mr. Laube, which, to the ordinary customer, can mean, "ouch, does all wine hurt my mouth, and give me heartburn? Why should I bother? 94 points and I can't finish a glass, and I can't taste my food either, and for this, I spent $50???"

  31. I think it is funny how many anonymous comments there are on this--shows just how powerful the Wine Spectator continues to be...

  32. charmion

    The winery made the wine, not the critic. As someone commented earlier, you rely on mentions and reviews to sell wine and yet still bitch about it. It seems only fair that you should either stop bitching or promote the wines successfully on your own.

  33. Well said. I have always pondered the seemingly huge point difference in wines between Laube and Harvey Steiman. As a resident of Washington state, with a finger on the pulse of the Washington wine industry, I cannot begin to tell you the accounts of Steiman drunk at tastings. No wonder the scores from him trend so high!

  34. Hmmm...

    Well, I don't read WS and don't have plans to subscribe in the near future. Same holds true for just about 80% of my wine geek friends, I think.

    So... let 'em do whatever they want, it's got pretty much no impact on my life.

  35. Crowd-sourced wine opinions all gravitate to a mediocre center. This type of 'web 2.0' thinking overlooks the fact that people don't agree. Helpfulness in tastemaking does not emerge from averages. Especially about wine. Or about movies. Or about books. Or music.

    There is still room for critics and critics are best when they faithfully represent a large number of like-minded folks. Or if their powers of observation are specifically good. Or if they're just plain good writers. Or if they're funny. Or beautiful. Or already familiar.

    It sounds like 'ressentiment' when we try to tear down someone else who is a legitimate critic. Or people who run a more successful business than ours. Here's an idea, watch and learn from your betters and find things to praise in others. I'll leave you taking my own advice: I admire the courage you show in your convictions, however much I find them misdirected.

  36. They certainly should look at "LEAST" at dividing up his rating responsibilities by varietal. Like hiring a real west coast Pinot Noir person.

  37. I get it - you don't agree with Jim. And I'm sure you can find a lot of people who don't. But that could be said of any critic. It's always been like that.

    What's changed now is that the internet allows everyone who disagrees to broadcast to the world their opinion. And while it may seem like all you see is disagreement - that's just because people who do agree with the crtic don't feel the need to say anything.

    Comments like "Nobody who knows wine respects James Laube's ratings" are pretty silly. Tons of people respect and use Jim's opinions. Even uber wine geeks. I'm on the selling end of wine... and I see who responds to high scores from critics. Hell, even I do. And happily so.

    Jim and Wine Spectator wouldn't be on the top of the heap if the majority of wine drinkers didn't find value in their reviews.

  38. Regarding more comments about Gray having a grudge or animus against WS. Look at this the other way: Gray wants WS to be a better mag. I do too. We want to have the best possible mag. We like a lot of what WS does. We don't want to destroy or pillage it. We want it to reach more everyday, ordinary, wine drinkers, and we think that better reviewing of Calif. wines will accomplish that. If Gray really just wanted to tear em a new orifice, he would have been totally derogatory and would have done in years ago, I suspect.

  39. Yes, the emperor has no clothes, and thank you for having the boldness and backbone to say so.

  40. I like Blake Gray and I like Jim Laube and I have my own opinions. Jim has made an enormous contribution to Americans' appreciation of California wines, based on his journalistic and critical acumen. When I see items like Blake's, I think it's testimony to Jim contributions which led Americans to evolve their own opinions.

  41. I agree with everything you wrote Blake. Due to it's wide audience, the WS is a much more impactful on CA wine than any other influence, yet there is little accountability for review quality since the majority of subscribers are new to wine and not yet confident in their own tastes.
    Laube's tastes are extreme and do not accurately reflect the broader market. CA wine made in his preferred style has a very quick burnout factor and causes drinkers to move to other regions. More diversity in preference and an acknowledgment of CA best balanced (rather than extreme) wine styles is necessary for the overall health of CA wine.

  42. Since I don't have a winery anymore, all I can say is kick some ass Blake! JL loves all that oak and flabby wines and he can have it. Wines with real soul and place will win out in another 50 years.

  43. +1 Casey.
    Whether it happens now or in a few years, the reign of the alcohol spiked syrup loving critics is near its end.

  44. Geez, there's a big difference between the claim that Laube should be replaced because he's 58 and that he should be replaced because he prefers wine with exaggerated fruit and alcohol and little balance. I happen to be 58, and I came slowly over the course of years to have a personal preference for wines I consider more balanced. I like wine with dinner, and its ability to enhance the food is also important to me. My younger wife drinks wine as a cocktail, often well before or after a meal. She prefers rich fruit, silky texture, and relatively low acid and tannin. I have a close friend who drinks almost exclusively red wine, fairly big ones, and I am unable to bring him to love my rieslings. I could go on and on. People prefer different things and at different times in their lives and on different occasions.
    We need lots of critics, and it's helpful when they are consistent. You just learn how to read them. I am notorious with friends for preferring many wines scoring around 87 to wine scoring 92 or 93. They see it as quixotic and are not convinced. Should I ask for the critics to be fired? Do you read Roger Ebert? You can completely disagree with him about a film, but you have a pretty accurate idea after reading him about whether it is a film you would find worthwhile. But wait, he is getting old, isn't he. Dr. Kevorkian! Lead us into the future of these young people with their cruel wisdom.

  45. Blake, how old are you? You look like you are "of a certain age."
    I am no apologist of Laube, in fact, I do not follow him. Are you suggesting some twenty-something take his place? Or that you take his place?

  46. No wonder consumption of wine is going down around the World and youngsters are losing interest! Most wine blogs and critics are full of pompous, frustrated and ignorant people who just focus on critizing one another. Very little positive and encouraging comments are posted.....just "yellow press". I have been drinking and collecting wine for a long time. Only a few months ago I decided to start reading blogs and webs.........big mistake! I am totally dissapointed with the amount of rubbish I have found and I am losing interest.

  47. There may be numerous reasons for Wine Spectator to consider a different route. I'm a bit sanguine about the whole discussion as this seems no different than the Low Alcohol vs. High Alcohol debate.

    At the end of the day...everyone has an agenda, whether it's selling more wine or subscriptions or simply notoriety.

    Me? I make wine that i like and guess what? I like both! (one man's trash is another man's treasure ;-)

    As a free market guy, i'm inclined to think that the more constructive path is to compete. If the market really thinks that WS is missing the market then create a more attractive alternative. Competition will either make me better or kick my butt.

    If JL or WS don't reflect your tastes, find someone who does...if they don't exist...compete! If WS and their tasters didn't serve SOMEONE'S sensibilities then they wouldn't last.

    I don't have a strong opinion either way about Grey's comments about WS and JL...I subscribe to WS personally and I enjoy JL's writing...truthfully, i've never bought a wine simply based on his score. More often, the score is a reference point for my own thoughts and palate. (*for the record i personally have given up on 'scoring' wines in CellarTracker...instead, if i have something to say i just say it...i also don't submit my wines for scoring although I already have CT users who are into scoring)

    However...if we are going to talk about what takes guts, cojones or stones...then what really takes guts is matter if the competition is percieved as an industry goliath. If you want the game to change then challenge the incumbent through action...not words...just sayin'.

  48. I still like Laube's writing/tasting better than I did Suckling's.

  49. I have always enjoyed JL's writing. I appreciate someone who tells it like it is from their perspective. I particularly enjoyed his dumbing-down of stemware in an article last year. Who else would have taken on Riedel by claiming that a common burgundy style bowl-type vessel is a wonderful all-around glass - and can be had for FAR less than $40+/stem! JL seems to call "baloney" when needed.

    This little diatribe sounds to me like you're bucking for a job. Otherwise, if you don't appreciate the magazine or it's writers, don't buy it.

  50. I'm a novice who rely's on the advice of experts, they're the best with the most experience so I listen. This is very similar to movie reviews. Find a critic you like and read him. Does not mean you'll like all the same movies but it gives you some guidance.

  51. I can't help but wonder what the wine industry, or for that matter, the world, would be like if we focused on supporting and encouraging one another rather than attempting to tear one another down. Crazy, huh?

  52. Kudos, Blake. I've always believed Laube is in way over his head, not only as a taster, but also as a writer (bland, bland, bland). This is not his fault, as his St. Helena Star reporter talents were adequate for Wine Spectator when it was a start-up, but clearly inadequate once it became a large, sophisticated pub with global reach. Marvin will no doubt stick with the guy, both out of loyalty and the defensiveness you mention, but both he and Laube would be well-served by riding into the sunset with Bully Bob Parker.

  53. While I do think the discussion is helpful, and think that the ratings in most wine publications are worthless, I don't know why everyone is so quick to praise what they perceive as Mr. Gray's big balls?? He wrote an opinion piece about wine. Does that really take "cojones"? Are people really scared of nationally published wine magazines? Come on!

    Personally, I think the 100 point system sucks. At the store, when consumers see "92 points WS", it tells them very little about the wine, (except that it probably isn't very good). Alternatively, what has done with their wine wheel profile does more to educate people about the wine they may purchase by actually telling them about the actual characteristics found in the wine. The 100 point systems fails no matter who's using it.

  54. Thanks to everyone for reading and commenting. While I would like to respond and answer as I often do, in this case I have had my say, and believe it is not appropriate for me to augment it.

  55. We can all say something about critics, after we are able to say that the 100-point scoring is a great American contribution to wine in so far as it is used by consumers to fill an information void created by the wine industry. If ‘The Score” ‘was not something that was created in wine country it would be another story. But in wine country there is a culture of the cover up of quality, witness the wine industry’s American Viticultural Area system. I firmly believe that the California wine industry, by denying the consumers wine quality ratings to justify wine prices, has been the single primary cause of 100-point scores.

  56. I am curious as to how you reconcile the comment:

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

    with the 4 page inside-front-cover ad in the Oct issue of the Wine Spectator? Someone is spending a lot of ad $ based purely on Laube's ratings...

    John in Napa