The Future of Wine Criticism Gets Clearer

by Tim Elliott on July 26, 2010

It’s been interesting watching the reaction to James Suckling’s retirement from the Wine Spectator announced a couple weeks ago (note: I wrote this post 11 days ago but only posting it now due to some issues with my blog software). I first found out about it on Twitter where the discussion was a mix of shock and congratulations to Mr. Suckling directly. And while other wine bloggers don’t see the importance of this event, I think it’s a big deal as it makes the future of wine criticism a bit clearer.

Longtime readers know where I stand about where wine writing and criticism is going. Without rehashing my previous post, let’s just say that the current print model is not a sustainable long-term model for any wine publication. But the rub is that it pays the bills now and makes the transition to the future of online delivery via mobile digital devices a bit of a timing problem for traditional wine pubs. I think the folks at Wine Spectator and Wine Advocate get this but will probably not pick the optimal point to pivot their business models since the point of optimal profits with their current model is difficult to predict. Therein lies opportunity for those without these existing concerns.

And James Suckling is one of just a few people in the wine industry who can take advantage of this transition. Internationally known and respected, he can plant a blog and wine review database in a short period of time and begin to make money through subscriptions. He has the connections and means to start building his non-Wine Spectator owned content immediately. And I’m sure if he just focused on Bordeaux he would probably make more money than being on the Wine Spectator staff.

But this path is open to a handful of professional wine critics who have an existing brand. What about the critics of the future?

Clearly there is opportunity for anyone with the ability and passion to build an online audience. But there is also the issue of access to a reasonable amount of wine to gain credibility and a critical mass of reviews. Although most wine bloggers get a fair amount of samples to review these days, it’s not even close to the amount professional wine critics have the opportunity to taste. Sure, we can attend trade tastings but these conditions are not optimal for serious reviews.

That said, I think there will be another Robert Parker-type story where someone will move from part-time wine reviewer to full-time critic. The only difference is this critic will not build their brand at places like the Wine Spectator. The future of wine criticism is a bit clearer after the events of two weeks ago; at least to me. I wish James Suckling the best of luck in his future endeavors and will no doubt return to this subject in future posts.

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