Wednesday, February 20, 2013
Who will be the world's most important wine critic?
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