Whatever the cost of the average bottle of wine on your dinner table, it’s a safe bet that it’s less than $360. And yet that total—$360—is the average cost of a bottle of the top wine made by the producers featured in wine critic James Suckling’s first promotional video for his new website.

The first video is a montage of the critic alongside many of the wine world’s biggest names. There is not a single previously undiscovered producer in the bunch and, with the exception of Ridge, there is not a single producer hailed for its value. The message is clear: James Suckling has access, and through his videos, he’ll get you in to the places you’d never otherwise see.

Strangely, the first version of the video carried this slogan: “How do you find the best wines in the world before everyone else?” Then, at its conclusion, the words reappeared on-screen: “James Suckling / Before everyone else.” Of course, none of these megawatt wineries were unknown, so we asked Mr. Suckling what the purpose of the slogan was.

“The ‘Before Everyone’ was about being innovative and cutting edge with the video, and not necessarily with tasting notes or anything else,” he said. “Anyway, I am happy the teaser generated a buzz.”

But after it generated that buzz, Mr. Suckling removed the video and later re-launched it without the slogan. He then released a second promotional video that offered an even more curious premise, given the content. The second video begins with the words, “Is perfection attainable? … probably not.” Then Mr. Suckling is seen directly contradicting that premise by handing out 100-point scores and declaring, “Perfect wine!”

The videos are produced by Canadian film director, producer, and writer James Orr, whose major film credits include Sister Act 2: Back In the Habit and Mr. Destiny. Mr. Suckling describes the director as a partner in his new website.

After announcing plans to launch JamesSuckling.com in mid-October, the former Wine Spectator employee has pushed back the launch. In fact, Mr. Suckling was not able to tell us how much a subscription to his site will cost, and explained, “It’s not all completely finalized.” He has previously stated that 80 percent of the content will be video, but he declined to say more. He has also declined to say whether he will link directly to CellarTracker, the wildly popular site that allows for online cellar management and shared tasting notes.

In these two promotional videos, Mr. Suckling mentions himself 31 times in just over two minutes. With the social media world buzzing over the value of brand building, perhaps it’s no wonder. Still, the viewer is left with the impression that the site’s content, rather than focusing on unique wine stories, will focus heavily on the critic himself and his high-powered friends.

Château Margaux, one of the estates featured in James Suckling's first teaser video

If the site follows the tease of the promotional videos and focuses exclusively on the highest of high-end wines only, there might be an untapped market for such an endeavor. After all, readers of People Magazine can rarely afford the featured jewelry and clothing, and they’ll never have a chance to hang with movie stars, but the magazine does massive business. In the same way that People Magazine capitalizes on the public’s most prurient interests, Mr. Suckling’s work might appeal to the consumers who have no plans to spend $360 on a bottle of wine, but are fascinated by the lifestyle of those who do.

The critic insists he has never worked so hard and is eager to launch the site. But on the popular wine discussion forum Wine Berserkers, a poll asks members to vote on whether Mr. Suckling’s videos are “real” or “self-parody.” At last check, 34% voted the latter, with one commenter claiming, “The video is obviously self-deprecating and in jest.”

Assuming Mr. Suckling is not attempting some Joaquin Phoenix-like long con, he’ll have to explain one troubling aspect of the video: He is seen regularly announcing scores in the presence of the winemakers or winery owners, right there on the vigneron’s property. While not unheard of amongst major critics, this opens the door to myriad potential problems, not the least of which is the inherent psychological desire to please an audience. His habit of bestowing such towering point scores on-site would never have been tolerated by his previous bosses at Wine Spectator.

I asked Mr. Suckling, “What standards have you set for yourself, now that you’re on your own? How do you make sure you’re not compromising journalistic integrity if, say, you’re opening thousands of dollars worth of wine with an important producer?” He offered this terse reply:

“I pay my way on vineyard and tasting trips if that is what you mean. I feel tasting old bottles to see how they are evolving is part of my job; so it’s good to taste the wines with collectors and winemakers alike. Being independent as a wine critic is important for me and JamesSuckling.com.”

But there is some evidence that Mr. Suckling does not thoroughly report on controversies involving producers he counts among his friends. Recently the new president of the Brunello Producers Association, Ezio Rivella, rocked the Italian wine scene when he declared that 80% of Brunello was not pure Sangiovese. This was a major admission following several years of investigation and debate about what was truly happening in Montalcino. Video of Mr. Rivella making the comments can be seen on Jeremy Parzen’s excellent Italian wine news website Do Bianchi, and Mr. Parzen says there is no reason to suspect that Mr. Rivella meant anything else. Wine writers Matt Kramer and Jancis Robinson have recently referred to the comments. In other words, there is no real doubt about what Mr. Rivella said.

Having lived for years in Tuscany, Mr. Suckling is perhaps the best suited to report on these comments and explain what they mean to his readers. However, he has largely ignored the controversy. I asked him this summer about Mr. Rivella’s comments, and Mr. Suckling shrugged them off by responding, “I don’t think much of it because he said he was misquoted.” If Mr. Rivella wanted to claim he was misquoted, that would be a major story, but it would require a thorough explanation for why the comments we see him make on video were somehow interpreted incorrectly. But Mr. Suckling remains incurious about it. He has written often about his friendships and close associations with winemakers in Tuscany, so his longtime readers might wonder why he has laid off such a volatile story.

In a separate exchange with Palate Press, Mr. Suckling again stressed his plan to taste and rate wines in the presence of producers. “My goal is to bring everyone closer to the fine wines of the world as well as great and diverse value wines through high definition video,” he explained. “They are short videos from two to six minutes long that feature some of the best places in the world and their winemakers and owners with whom I taste and rate their wines.”

And so now we wait for the launch of this new endeavor. Some of the most popular wine websites use video to drive content—see Gary Vaynerchuk and Wine Spectator for examples—and there is an opportunity for an experienced writer and taster like James Suckling to take it even further. Whether or not Mr. Suckling will manage to do that, however, remains an open…point.

•••

The $360 average price

Here are the prices for the flagship wines of the 18 estates named in the first promotional video for JamesSuckling.com. The prices are the current release prices.

Château Trotanoy 2007 $110
Vieux Château Certan 2007 $106
Château Lafleur 2007 $706
Shafer Cabernet Sauvignon Stags Leap Hillside Select 2006 $215
Colgin IX Estate 2007 $290
Château Le Pin 2007 $1,445
Chateau d’Yquem 2003 $290
Chateau Margaux 2006 $650
Ridge Chardonnay Santa Cruz Mountains Monte Bello 2006 $60
Harlan Estate 2007 $500
Château Angélus 2007 $182
Araujo Cabernet Sauvignon 2006 $275
Château Leoville Las Cases 2007 $166
Joseph Phelps Cabernet Sauvignon Oakville Backus 2007 $250
Masseto 2007 $460
Scarecrow 2007 $225
Chateau Montelena Cabernet Sauvignon The Estate 2004 $125
Château Latour 2007 $434

Total: $6,489 for 18 bottles or $360.50 per bottle.


Evan Dawson is the Finger Lakes Editor for the New York Cork Report and is completing a book about Finger Lakes winemakers. His paid job includes offering his best Ron Burgundy impersonation as a morning news anchor and political reporter for WHAM-TV in Rochester, NY.

About The Author

Evan Dawson
Staff Writer

Evan Dawson is the author of Summer in a Glass: The Coming of Age of Winemaking in the Finger Lakes. It won the 2012 Roederer International Wine Book of the Year. Outside of Palate Press, his wine writing has been published in Wine Spectator, Tasting Panel Magazine, and the New York Cork Report, for which he serves as Managing Editor. He hosts The Connection on WXXI radio, the NPR affiliate in western New York, where he focuses on community affairs. He is a middling but enthusiastic cook.

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  • http://ancientfirewineblog.blogspot.com/ Jason Phelps

    He has an audience, it just probably isn’t most of us. If he isn’t going to spend time reviewing wines we all want and can buy why should we care?

    I think he is taking a huge risk with the experience he does have. I expect he will become a footnote rather than more useful.

    Jason

  • http://www.pauljkiernan.wordpress.com Paul Kiernan

    The winemakers / owners must be inwardly rolling their eyes as they listen to Suckling brashly pronounce on their babies.

  • http://www.tairanniew.tumblr.com Tai-Ran Niew

    Any chance this is all done with a bit of tongue-in-cheek?

    Would be intrigued to see how deep is the market for this product. And demographics. His page-views will be public information.

    The more important questions for all the winemakers and wineries: if you get a call from James saying he wants to do a profile of you on his site, would you say no?

  • http://www.newyorkcorkreport.com Evan Dawson

    Paul – James has made a lot of friends and I have to think they’re happy to see him and support his new venture.

    Tai-Ran – James indicates he’s very serious about these videos and working hard to produce something of extraordinary quality and value to subscribers. But as we mentioned, there is a debate in more than one wine discussion forum as to whether the videos are parody or “real.” I take Mr. Suckling at his word and assume the videos are not parody.

    And I should stress that he claims he will offer some focus on value wines, but we haven’t seen it yet.

  • http://www.pauljkiernan.wordpress.com Paul Kiernan

    Hey Evan.

    I don’t doubt that he’s made friends on the way, I’m sure he’s a nice, engaging guy, and I enjoy watching his videos.

    But by “happy to see him and support his new venture” do you mean to say that these wineries “welcome high profile publicity”?

    If so, I don’t doubt it for a second. I just meant that, for winemakers / winery owners, it almost certainly doesn’t sit so easily with them to have some guy waltz in and reduce their wine down to a simple score. Others have made this point better than I in other forums.

    I’m sure the producers are pleased to get a score of ninety-whatever, for commercial purposes, but they have the good sense to realise that the score isn’t a summary label for their wine.

  • Keith L.

    Paul K.: A reasonable assumption in many places, but I would say that the chateau owners in Bordeaux are NOT the sort of winery owners for whom it wouldn’t “sit so easily . . . to have some guy waltz in and reduce their wine down to a simple score.” They are not in this for the love of wine. They are big egos doing big-money business and absolutely thrilled to have their wine reduced to a simple score so long as it lets them sell their wines for more euros than their neighbor’s. Indeed, they will hire expensive consultants and do whatever those consultants tell them to for the sole purpose of adding a few points to that score. If a major critic gave a banana smoothie 100 points, they would be ripping out their cabernet and merlot right now and planting bananas.

  • http://www.pauljkiernan.wordpress.com Paul Kiernan

    Ha! ;) Bananas in Bordeaux – what a shame they weren’t there for 2003.

    Fair point but (and I didn’t forensically examine the clips) there are more than Bordeaux wineries featured in the two videos? Although icon is icon, of course.

    I just wish he’d show a little more humility. But I guess that doesn’t make for as good TV.

  • http://www.newyorkcorkreport.com Evan Dawson

    Keith makes a valid point: Score chasing is not a secret and not uncommon. The difference is often the smaller producer that is owned by the winemaker. That was not the norm in Mr. Suckling’s videos.

    But I’m hoping James will show us new things about these high-end producers, if that’s what his focus is. I don’t care to watch him taste the ’82 vs. the ’89 and tell the camera that both are amazing, rich, youthful, bleh blah bloh. Rather, I’d like to see the property and the land and hear about what makes it so capable of greatness. What’s unique? How does the grower or winemaker feel about the land and the soils and the nuances from different sections of the property? What do they feel say about drinking these wines young versus aged? I’m hoping that’s more of the emphasis – story-telling, rather than tasting and bestowing nebulous point scores. James is a personable guy, often funny, and there’s a lot of potential here.

  • Keith L.

    That would make a great video series, Evan — but it’s definitely not Suckling’s M.O.

    Paul — you’re right, the first video also featured some Italy and Cali producers, but the points video was all Bordeaux.

  • http://www.1winedude.com 1winedude

    Hot damn, bro – when you are on a roll, you’re like a dog with a bone and I sure as sh*t wouldn’t want to get in your way when you’re focused on something! :)

    Thanks for giving me the most interesting wine read of the week!

  • Low

    Evan – if I had James Suckling’s ear for a minute, I would have told him EXACTLY what you said 3 posts ago in what you’d like to see in this video series. In fact, I wrote that down in my diary the moment I saw the first teaser. Did you mention this to Mr Suckling when you were interviewing him? Because the focus of the series would make all the difference to me: this project could either be a thrilling entree into a discussion about terroir and winemaking with some of the elite winemakers in the world … or a boring show about Mr Suckling tasting verticals in salons with the winemakers looking on… ugh.

  • http://www.newyorkcorkreport.com Evan Dawson

    Low – The teaser videos don’t look promising in that regard, but we’re only seeing bits and pieces. I’d love to find out they shot interviews on what makes Latour’s land produce wine that merits, say, $434 a bottle compared to property just a mile away that produces wine that sells for $400 less. I’ll be watching…

  • http://www.wineforall.com Tish

    I’m giving James the benefit of the doubt here, based on the fundamental difference between a promotional video and the proverbial real thing, once he gets his new venture up and running. Kudos to you, Evan, for reminding him that the real world of wine is feisty, skeptical and demanding of those who proclaim authority.

    James certainly has a large following from his WS days, where I always felt he stood out from his peers as less Ivory Tower and a true bon vivant. (One of the greatest laughs I ever had via Twitter came when Tom Matthews scolded JS in a tweet asserting that only blind-generated WS ratings were official.) Personally, I fear for the 100-point scale, if James continues to use it; for it seems we may soon be dealing with maybe a 7-point scale, as in only wines 94-100 will be worth discussing.

    That aside, I do wish James the best of luck in his new chapter, as it can only help enrich the online wine scene, which has left print mags so far in the dust it’s just moot. I trust he will take your advice about setting the buddy stuff aside and applying a journalistic eye to serious topics such as un-Brunello. At the same time, I am really looking forward to seeing what he likes in wines from beyond the Bordeaux and Italy coops he was forced to work in at WS. Nothing better than a free-range wine critic who has some persoanlity on top of a palate!

  • Bryan

    We’ll just have to wait and see how much interest there is in James Suckling without the backing of that big glossy self absorbed publication behind him. Without my latest vintage on the line waiting for someone at WS to tell the world how good it is I find James less than personable to the consumer and will likley care less what he thinks.

  • http://www.newyorkcorkreport.com Evan Dawson

    Tish – Regarding points, you might be interested to know that James Suckling told the Wine Berserkers forum recently that he does not buy wine that scores less than 90 points. I fear there’s a lot of wonderful stuff he’s missing…

  • http://www.thomaspellechia.com Thomas Pellechia

    I tried, but I just can’t care about this issue, especially since the man in question likely benefits from every keystroke that includes the correct spelling of his name.

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  • http://www.austinbeeman.com Austin Beeman

    I hope that Suckling used his incredible access to give us access to the great people and places behind these wines. The last thing we need is ratings for wines that we all know are some of the finest in the world. But I’d love to have a ‘virtual-visit’ with the winemaker.

    I’m pretty sure that Suckling will make this all about himself, though. Pity.

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  • Bruce Barker

    Well said.