How Wine Criticism Is Changing David White March 5, 2013 Terroirist 19 Comments Twice in the past three months, the wine world has been rocked by news from Robert Parker, the world’s most famous wine critic. In December, Parker announced that he’d sold a “substantial interest” in the Wine Advocate, the influential magazine he founded in 1978, to a trio of Singapore-based investors — and that he’d relinquished editorial control. In February, one of Parker’s top critics, Antonio Galloni, said that he’d left the publication to start an online enterprise. Parker, who popularized the 100-point scale for reviewing wine, is nearly 66. So he can’t be faulted for wanting to slow down. But thanks to this pair of stories, oenophiles finally seem ready to admit that wine criticism is changing. Consumers don’t need — or want — centralized gatekeepers telling them what they should or shouldn’t drink. Consumers still need advisors, of course, but when today’s consumers want information, they’re willing to look past professional critics and instead turn to friends and trusted networks. With travel, restaurants, movies, and so much else, this trend would hardly be worthy of commentary. TripAdvisor long ago supplanted paper-based guides like Frommer’s. Yelp is now the holy grail of restaurant reviews, and local blogs are increasingly influential. With movies, opening the local newspaper for commentary no longer makes sense when you can check out dozens of reviews on Rotten Tomatoes. With wine, however, this shift runs counter to so much of what’s sacred. Everything about wine — the bizarre tasting rituals, knowledge of obscure regions and varietals, and identifying good values — is supposed to be handed down from on high. Consumers are supposed to decide what to drink based on the advice of prominent wine critics — not mere amateurs. But it’s obvious that consumers are growing comfortable dismissing gatekeepers. Look at CellarTracker. Ten years ago, Eric LeVine, a Microsoft executive, built a data-management program for his wine cellar. When he showed the program to some friends, they begged him to share it. So he put the program online, where friends could track their personal inventories and share tasting notes. LeVine then decided to make his program available to everyone, for free. Today, about 800,000 people visit the site each month, and more than 2,200 wines are reviewed on the site each day. This means CellarTracker users review more wines in just six days than Robert Parker reviews in an entire year. The site isn’t just used by wine junkies — about 90 percent of its visitors aren’t registered. As wine writer Jeff Siegel once wrote, “this means people aren’t going to CellarTracker to mark off a wine after they drink it; they’re going to CellarTracker to read wine reviews written by amateurs.” Just as CellarTracker is becoming more popular, scores are becoming less important. Across the country, boutique wine shops are taking off. Many don’t post scores at all, as the owners see scores as an obstacle to consumer interaction. Once upon a time at high-end restaurants, it wasn’t unusual to see scores on a wine list. Today, such a concept is laughable — top restaurants employ sommeliers who are eager to educate their customers. The wine media is also changing. While consumers can still subscribe to publications like the Wine Advocate or Wine Spectator, they can also turn to blogs and message boards. And then there’s social media. Facebook has eclipsed 1 billion active users; Twitter has half as many. Earlier this year, Instagram announced that it has over 100 million users. People are utilizing these platforms to share everything — and one of those things is wine. There’s even an iPhone app — Delectable — that enables users to remember, share, discover, and even purchase wines, just by snapping a photo. It’s becoming extremely popular among wine enthusiasts. Today’s wine drinkers are an adventurous bunch, confident in their own palates and willing to trust the advice of their trusted networks. With Parker’s decline, this trend is only going to accelerate. David White, a wine writer, is the founder and editor of Terroirist.com. His columns are housed at Palate Press: The Online Wine Magazine. http://www.coloradowinepress.com Kyle Schlachter It is so hard to think that some people believe that wine criticism isn’t changing. If it isn’t happening, why are so many people talking about non-existent changes? If it isn’t happening, why is it so easy for David to list those examples of how it is changing? http://www.EssentialWineTastingGuide.com Glen Green I would also put it down to the increased education and knowledge of the wine consumer. Publications like my Essential Wine Tasting Guide which offers people the terminology to express their sensations and interact intelligently about wine, as well as the increase in wine interest worldwide, has resulted in an increase of education courses. The end result being that the consumer is confident to make their own decisions and conclusions, and to trust their instincts. http://www.blog.bayareawinesociety.org tom merle I think we have to acknowledge how useful some numerical system is, just not whem is imposed from on high and incorporating an unnatural precision inappropriate for a product like wine. No movie, restaurant, piece of art, tech gizmo would have an 88 or 95 slapped on it, so why should wine? My compromise is the 5 pt system with half points. i.e., a 10 pt. system where each point represents a three pt. spread using the 100 (i.e. 30 point) system. And the higher the score, the higher the appeal of the wine to the palate of the person sipping the vino, that is, the more delicious the wine is to the ‘reviewer’ who should be the person who buys the wine, not an ‘expert’ who gets samples. This runs completely counter to reviewers like WS. The following quotes are all wet (taken from Lettie Teague’s last column in the Wall Street Journal), and account for why younger drinkers are turning away from the gatekeepers. “It’s the job of a critic to make fine distinctions,” said Thomas Matthews, executive editor of the Wine Advocate’s chief competitor, the Wine Spectator. “A wine with some distinctiveness and concentration is very good, in the 85-89 range. And if it’s a little better than that—if it has personality and some ageability—it’s outstanding. That’s a 90-94 point wine.” And what earns 95 and above? “If tasting the wine gives you an emotion—surprises you and teaches you something—then it’s an A-plus, over 95 points,” Mr. Matthews said. Totally ridiculous. Again, scores should represent nothing more than the tastiness of the beverage to the individual drinker. Period. Not complexity or ageability or “personality” (I guess he means distinctiness), or reflection of terroir. These are markers for sommelier exams, nothing more. http://www.thepersistentobserver.com JP Bary Your comment did go through Tom, and I think you are quite right in taking on the issue of “fine distinctions” the way Lettie Teague (or more correctly) Thomas Mathews was talking about them. But the problem isn’t so much the reviewers making fine distinctions, but the idea that a single numerical scale can be all that useful for consumers, since individual tastes are so different. If there were really a consensus about what a particular type of wine should taste like, then perhaps one could score a wine on how closely it comes to that standard. But, there is a tendency for a particular critic to be recognized as the preeminent expert. For some, Parker was the preeminent expert on all wines. For others, there are experts on Burgundy or Italian wines. In either case, there is a metaphysical issue. Can we separate the consensus view of what a particular wine should taste like from the personal preferences of the individual the media considers the ultimate expert o that particular wine? Obviously there are many personal and external circumstances that will affect how much a person will enjoy a particular wine, such as the orientation of their own palate, what they are eating or drinking with the wine, how hot or cold it is, how well it’s been stored, etc., etc. I think David White’s point is that wine writer’s are beginning to feel comfortable that consumers will understand that. Instead of vying with each other to be the one source that all consumers look to, they are becoming more comfortable writing for an audience that is going to draw from many sources at once. In the past, it’s been the consumer, more than the reviewers who have been responsible for the outsized importance given to ratings. I personally would like to hear the fine distinctions that great wine reviewers make about wine. I don’t even mind if they try to score the wine on a 5,10, 20 or 100 point basis. It just seems much less relevant than what they write about the wine. For far too long, we’ve had reviewers who got away with simply doing a review that says the reviewer found what just about any knowledgeable wine drinker would expect to find in the wine, slap a numerical rating on it and leave it at that. 85% of the reviews out there don’t really tell us anything particularly interesting. Once consumers demand more from a review than a pretext for a high rating someone can use to market a wine, the number of players left on the field will be fairly small. http://www.blog.bayareawinesociety.org tom merle Did my comment go through? Pingback: NEWS FETCH – March 6, 2013 | Wine Industry Insight http://www.vinformative.com Mark Goldberger Ask a winemaker/winery owner if they don’t care about scores from the major critics. Scores have a measurable economic value. At the end of the day, no matter what anyone says, scores make it easier to sell some wines and harder to sell others. If you’re a wine producer, you care about THAT. Pingback: Interesting read | Wine Appreciation from a beginner's perspective Pingback: “How Wine Criticism is Changing” | Mission Fine Wines Pingback: 11 Things You Need to Know Now About Wine Criticism and the Wine Industry - Fermentation http://noblewines.com CSMiller This is great conversation and no one knows what the next evolution of wine reviews/criticism ~ I am a fascinated observer. As for ratings, I’m not a fan of numbers but use my own system when needed. I use a system based on grape and place and price. They all intermingle and should all be weighted. If using numbers, big ones are silly. For me I use a seven number relationship. For instance a $20 Sancerre that tastes as it should would be a 0, if it tastes like it should be less it gets a -1, tastes a bit better than it’s cost a +1. Highest possible is a +3, lowest a -3. So if you want to equate to 100 points a 0 = about an 88. +3 = 100. Tone Kelly I am always amazed at the comments on this topic. The crowd rules vs. the critic is king. We are where we are because prior to the 1970′s wine criticism was predominantly a British thing. One could never decipher a comment like “it is a heroic wine” or “the aroma floats across like a diaphanous beauty in a field of flowers”. We are now at a state where Parker/Spectator/etc. are predominant. I used to (20-30 years ago) hang on every word. Now I use them with a large grain of salt. I have developed my own palate and preferences and I follow reviewers that match those preferences. I would urge anyone starting out to find a critic(s) whose palate/preferences are similar to their own. Then that critic’s comments will mean something to them. Pingback: Terroirist: A Daily Wine Blog » BREAKING: Parker Reclaims California http://www.twitter.com/tairanniew Tai-Ran I am always intrigued by the industry’s fascination with “word of month” and “trusting the advice of friends and family”. Few, if any, have asked how information is first seeded into a network. If someone bought a wine using a score from Parker, then recommended it to a friend, who then spread it through social media without referencing Parker, the industry marks that purchasing cascade down as “friends and family”. But in essence that is not the key factor, it was the original score that mattered. It could have also been seeded by a visit to a winery, other forms of personal research, or a book, or a movie etc. In any chain and web of information flow, the idea did not originally come from “friends and family”. We often confuse idea generation and idea dissemination. It would be much more insightful to audit how ideas are initially seeded into networks, than to focus on how powerful networks can be. http://www.bestofeight.com Cyril It’s funny I just started http://www.bestofeight.com. BEST OF EIGHT: We taste similar wines, we rank them, we find the best one. Simple. http://www.isaacjamesbaker.blogspot.com Isaac James Baker Nice article, David. That’s all. Marc Unterburger I think the opinons stated in this article are not necessarily doing justice to wine either. I myself am highly experienced using critiques as one source of information to purchase wines. And I purchase lots of wines, from low value in bulk to very high value wines. Now perhaps some truth exists in the fact that the influence of RP is waning slightly. Then again, he is still very strong, and he still has a big say. Let alone, he is a brilliant writer, his comments are exhilarating. Man, this is wine journaism in its highest form! Then again, there are so many other extremely influential critics around, I can’t count on both hands how many I use, I certainly like a comination of critical opinions on one wine before I buy it, and trust different critics for different styles. Of course: nothing goes above yur own taste, what you like. But do we have the time or opportunity to have a tasting portion of each wine before we buy it? Seldom is that a luxury we have. I’m talking internationally here. Stop being so US centric there are so many markets out there important in the production and consumption of wine the US is just one example. The average wine consumer is getting slightly more savvy? Really? Perhaps, some are, but I can tell you the clear fact remains that the majority of wine drinkers possess very limited theoretical knowledge on the subject of wine, and even if they consume quantities, perhaps they don’t consume enough different wines. && opinions of friends and trusted networks? omg that is probably the worst of them all. Every friendship circle is very different depending on a circle’s interests and the amount of disposable income their members have, and the degree to which they are educated in wine. I have seen so many cases among some of my very wealthy friends who predominantly have aged top Boredeaux in their cellars and keep preaching to other friends that that is the best of the best. Don’t get me wrong, I am a lover of aged fine Bordeaux; but I preach diversity in wines, I preach the fact that most wine producing countries have fruit and winemakers capable of producing excellent wines worhty if trying. But there are sooooooo many! oh my god and plus vintages too!!! Dayum my friend just opened a bottle of grand-puy-lacoste 77, in 2010, damn amazing, old though, the merchants want them out of their cellars, great deal for what it is, my sources could have gotten it for EUR 60 a bottle, but not in quantities. Well I have to consider whether it is worth consolidating and importing. It’s a beauty at it’s peak. But ohh, is it really worth it? I only tried one bottle, what if I got lucky? Bottle variation from different merchants + I don’t quite trust the pedigree… well, better not. Anyone with a somewhat higher level of knowledge and process all this to make decisions, but your average drinker? really? man he’ll just be confused. Adventerous? So I should pluck one bottle each that my local wine merchant suggests? I’ve worked with so many, from my experience there are the “good ones”, they stick to your budget, do not upsell often, eventually get to know what you are looking for, and ALWAYS try to find you the best relative quality for that budget. But this is a guy not everyone has access to. And guys like that might take advantage of you if they are aware of your limited knowledge of guys. do you blame them? well, ther’re salesmen for christsake, every kind exists, good ones bad ones average ones, their tactics to captivate you also varying greatly. I do not hesitate ever to ask for an opinion, but so many times have I been disappointed. Man someone tell you “this is good, take it”, but the person may have a very different definition of good than yourself? so you end up at home taking the first sip, disappointed, with that bottle open, money spent, sucks. You either stick with the disappointment for the evening or you be tough and pour it down the drain. Man, talk about buying a case… even riskier… so though I am not a critic, I find down playing the usefullness and credibility of critics really quite appalling. Just like fad after fad. Facts remain: these guys do it for a living, they love wine, they’re good at writing about it, they have unmatched experience when it comes to quantities and qualities of wine tasted in their lifetimes… and a good critic tells you to drink ALL the wines he considers good. Why not? Opinion of an expert on paper. No one can help you decide what you feel like drinking tonight, that’s your choice. But the critic can be there to guide you.No shit, there are limitations, critics are human beings too. So, people should be educated on how to use a critique, or what additional information one should take into an account when reading a critique. Not necessarily shun a critique or drink a wine because of a critique. That’s not the point. The point is drinking wines which can give the most pleasure to you. And undoubtedly, the critiques of critics remain one helluva strong tool to identifying these wines. I mean all your cute little points in this article, I love them, I too, preach them. I love talking to sommeliers. But how often does your average guy go to a restaurant with a sommelier? There are a bunch of pretender restaurants out there with wine waiters who simply arnt credible either… Either way this whole argument is giving me this cringe feeling. cellartracker is perhaps a good last resort then again I have little interest in reading comments from 20 amateurs some more experienced than others who have collectively, with regard to content, spat out a full 7 different interpretations of the same wine… Who to trust? The more pessimistic one of them? come on… Critics already do that sometimes, but I Marc Unterburger think one can agree. if you read several of their comments, the incidence and frequency of overlapping is noentheless far greater and more precise than when a bunch of amateurs write about wine. I mean wtf… why even write about: drink it, leave writing to the pros. Marc Unterburger Civilisation is about pushing the limits. In every single field. Most of it is superfluous, it’s never a need, more a want, why can this be the case in say technology or education but not in wine? Why can’t we rate a wine? Just like we use star ratings for hotels, michelin stars for restaurants. Industry processing standards are present all around the world. Some simply arnt aware, or are not knwoledgeable enough in the area to comment on the quality, but in any domain, there will always be some people who know more than others, who possess so much knowledge in that area, and hence also have much more credibiity and ability to critique/judge. This “going back to basics” attitude… In my humble opinion, who is the loser? well, the ignorant consumer.