Tuesday, December 11, 2012
What Robert Parker selling means for wine
Nobody on the planet has had a bigger influence on the style of so many wines. With Parker selling out and stepping down as editor, what happens now?
These are just guesses, but this is just a blog.
1) Ripe wines will get even more commonplace
Don't confuse Parker's palate with the advance of science. Major advances in viticulture have occurred in the last 25 years that make it possible for growers to fully ripen their grapes in areas where that wasn't assured before. At the same time, global warming is inexorably leading to riper wines in many parts of the world. Plus, ordinary people who don't know who Parker is have become accustomed to the taste of ripeness in wine. Most of them won't want anything else.
However, ripeness is not overripeness. Different issue. Herbaceous Cabernets are not coming back into vogue; black fruit flavors are the future. That's ripeness. But without the Wine Advocate to, er, advocate for them, the future for expensive, syrupy 15.5% alcohol Syrahs could be the BevMo nickel sale.
2) The prices of the very highest-rated wines in the Advocate will soar beyond what we imagine now
The Advocate is moving its base to Singapore to reach the Chinese-language world, where there's a tremendous amount of money to be spent on the "right" wines. The buyers of the Advocate foresee themselves as the authorities on what those "right" wines will be. I don't see any reason to doubt them for the near future. Eventually a Chinese-founded publication may emerge as competition, but for now, Chinese buyers look at wine as a foreign product for which the experts should also be foreign. With the Advocate openly shilling its brand to wealthy Chinese on the mainland and in the diaspora, expect wineries that get 98 points and up to be able to charge stratospheric prices. We might see some Napa Cabs at the $1000 level.
3) Wines rated in the low-to-mid 90s will see little change in prices
In Chinese culture, second-best is not the same as the best. People will pay outrageous amounts for the officially sanctioned pinnacle. But have you seen how many 96-point Advocate wines there are already?
4) Napa Valley cult wineries will focus more on China
Up to now, most of the Chinese wealth in wine has gone to Bordeaux. Napa wants a piece of that market, and now they have the great leveler of terroir, the Wine Advocate, to help them.
Other regions will also look to China, but with the possible exception of the Bordelais, nobody is as good at marketing as Napa. They'll master the Chinese market before the Italians agree on how to start trying.
5) Wine Spectator is poised to gain influence in the US
The Advocate always had two major marketing advantages over the Spectator that are now going away: the cult of Parker himself, and the stance of not accepting advertising. Now, while the Advocate's higher scores will continue to be a marketing advantage, there's going to be a patina of distrust in the US for a Chinese-owned ratings publication.
It doesn't matter that the Advocate's offices are actually in Singapore, not the mainland, because Singapore is the poster child for capitalism without freedom of the press. Speaking of which, who wants to bet me that within a decade, the Singapore government won't censor at least one Advocate review?
I can't say if the Spectator will seize the opportunity to become the indisputed No. 1 influencer of the US market, but it's there.
What will Wine Spectator's increased influence mean for styles of wine? It depends on who they choose to succeed James Laube, whose fondness for overripe wines exceeds Parker's. That decision may not come next year, but expect it by the end of the decade.
6) US wines that don't fit the Parker model will thrive, critically and financially
Until about five years ago, Parker's imagined hegemony played a silent influence on many US vintners, who thought his preferred style was the way they had to make wine to succeed. But Antonio Galloni is reviewing fewer US wines for the Advocate than Parker, and wineries have noticed. I can tell you from my experience that some wineries these days are desperate for reviews from anyone, as the Advocate is suddenly hard to reach. Very few critics today other than Parker and Laube like some of the overripe wines that have been rewarded. If wineries seek critical approval, they'll have to get it from people with different tastes.
Will that lead to financial success for non-Parker styles of US wine? Maybe not. Who knows if another great independent critic with the power to move markets will emerge to be the next Parker? But critics aren't behind the "balance backlash" in the US anyway. The power of sommeliers here is a growing force. Look at the number of Master Sommeliers now compared to just five years ago. As Americans continue to drink more wine, that's more sommelier jobs, more MSs, and more sommelier influence. And that will provide healthy soil for non-Parker-style wines to thrive.
7) The worldwide increase in diversity will continue
I'm amused when people complain about the sameness of international wines because there has never been an era when people in big cities had more diverse choices. Even distributor consolidation, which restricts choices in middle America, isn't the worry it was five years ago because smaller distributors are springing up to fill the gap.
In most areas, hundreds of wines that the Advocate didn't review or didn't like are available. That will only increase as smaller distributors find their niche as the wine market continues to grow.
If Parker had stepped down 10 years ago, it would have been an 8.0 earthquake that led to a revolution in the wine world. But he already gave up much of his power by handing over the California portfolio to Galloni, and in the last five years, sommeliers have emerged as a counterbalancing force. The sale of the Advocate is a big deal, especially for very high-end wineries. But it won't affect the wines most of us drink every day -- unless you're someone who drinks Colgin and Chateau Le Pin every day. In that case, what are you doing reading this? Go open a bottle, it needs decanting.