Tuesday, December 11, 2012

What Robert Parker selling means for wine

What will Robert Parker's sale of the Wine Advocate mean 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.

Follow me on Twitter: @wblakegray and like The Gray Report on Facebook.


rapopoda said...

I find it amusing that there's not a peep about this on the WS's website. Do Shanken et al despise RP that much or are they just incapable of posting news within a reasonable amount of time?

W. Blake Gray said...

Wine Spectator is as good as anyone at wine news reporting. But they didn't break this, and their position as competitor makes commentary uncomfortable. In today's media world I'm not sure any organization, even the New York Times, feels it necessary to cover every story. I understand why this is one Wine Spectator might want to sit out.

What I would expect is a column, as soon as they can get it in print, extolling Spectator as America's leading source of trusted third-party ratings.

Unknown said...

I was surprised in all the official communication pieces there was no mention of Galloni. Until very recently many believed Antonio was actually going to be the successor of RP, some speculated he acquiring equity of TWA. Is this the end of a power struggle where Minetti-Brown came in with the strongest bid? And with her becoming editor-in-chief and turning TWA into a corporation where all editors are "employees" so that she can control editorial content, is Galloning going to stik around?

ColoradoWinePress said...

All your points are currently happening (except #5) and yesterday's news will have little impact on your "predictions." Congratulations for writing a post that could have been written three years ago.

WS is already the #1 wine influencing publication. And as you have stated previously, with the increase in other wine voices, it's hold is loosen, albeit slowly.

The one thing yesterday's news means is WA is aiming to shift towards and dominate the Asian market. That is not mutually exclusive to its market influence in the U.S.

W. Blake Gray said...

CWP: Congratulations for reading and commenting on a post that could have been written three years ago! You're so hip.

W. Blake Gray said...

Alex: It`s interesting to speculate but unless somebody from a notoriously tight-lipped organization tells us, that's all we got. Personally I wonder if Galloni has come to realize the portfolio he's taken on is more than any two critics can do.

kschlach said...

We're both stating the obvious. Congrats to us both! I'd really be hip if I had red glasses. (do my blue sunglasses count?)

Alan H said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
W. Blake Gray said...

CWP: One thing you learn from writing for newspapers is that what's obvious to you may not be obvious to everyone.

Blue sunglasses: Depends on the shape. I used to have Ray-Bans with a blue strip across the top. I certainly thought I was hip. And this was the '80s, so if they hadn't been stolen from me in Guam in the '90s, they'd be hip again.

jim silver said...

I disagree with CWP - I think you make cogent points here, even the one about WS taking an undisputed position as top influencer on the US market. While they may occupy the top position, TWA has always sat just behind them in direct challenge to their authority.

That said, your points about the Chinese culture, and where the new ownership is aiming the TWA influence is exactly correct as well. But - Singapore isn't Chinese, rather an independent republic on the Malay Pennisula, albeit with similar censorship and 45% Chinese language spoken. Perhaps we're conflating Singapore with Hong Kong, which really is Chinese?

Russ said...

CWP. You have contributed nothing constructive to this blog. Note to self, waste no more time reading anything from CWP.

W. Blake Gray said...

Jim: Ethnic Chinese are the most powerful group in Singapore, and ethnic Malays aren't moving into wines that I know of. The fact that Malaysia is a Muslim nation is something of a deterrent, though there's no reason an ethnic Malay in Singapore needs to follow Islam.

Ethnic Indians are an interesting case for the future. There is some growth of the wine industry in India and the diaspora, including those in Singapore, have money.

But right now, very few ethnic Indians are spending big money for wine. If they are, it hasn't been reported. Ethnic Chinese, whether from the mainland, Hong Kong, Taiwan or Singapore, they are the biggest growing market for luxury wine. Go to Burgundy for Les Grands Jours next time and talk to sommeliers from those countries. In contrast, you rarely see anybody representing India or the diaspora in the wine buying world. That could be a longer blog post, but I'll give you a short reason: difficult food match.

ColoradoWinePress said...

Russ, what have you added to the discussion? I don't see how any of Blake's points relate to Parker's announcement. I don't see how disagreeing with Blake's points adds nothing to the discussion. Does this help?

#1: As Blake said, this has been happening for 25 years. Nothing suddenly changed with regards to the amount of ripe wines on the coming to the market on Monday.

#2: Wine prices of highly rated wines goes up. Regardless of if WA is focusing on the Asian market or the American market.

#3: Would low 90 wines change price much in the absence of Parker's announcement? No.

#4: Parker is shifting focus to Asia because this where the market is headed. Napa wines have already been doing this. They are not following Parker; both are following the dollar (or yuan).

#5: Yes, if WA reduces its presence in US, WS will benefit.

#6: This has already been happening. Parker doesn't review current release American wines any more.

#7: The market has been getting more diverse. With Chinese production hitting the global markets in the coming years this will continue even more so. WA is heading to Asia because of this and not causing this increase in diversity with yesterday's announcement.

Oh, and Blake, they are blue Ray-Ban's... so I'm hip? ;)

howard ting said...

I found this post very insightful and enjoyed it very much.

howard ting said...

I found this post very insightful and enjoyed it very much.