Robert Parker

What Happens After Robert Parker?

by Tim Elliott on February 6, 2011

Wine critic Robert Parker

Photo by winestem via Flickr

News that wine critic Robert Parker had handed over the reviewing of the wines of Burgundy and California to colleague Antonio Galloni barely made it out of the eRobertParker.com gated community last week. In fact, as I write this post only Alder at Vinography and Mike Steinberger has blogged this story. And it is a story that will be among the most debated in the wine world for the better part of the next decade as Mr. Parker slowly retires presumably one wine region at a time.

So what comes after Parker?

I’ve commended on the future of wine writing before. And this will most likely not be the last time I write about where we are going but one thing is clear to me. There will never be a single critic with as much power as Robert Parker.

Before Parker the wine writing world was dominated by British writers but there were noted American writers such as Robert Lawrence Balzer and Robert Finigan. What set Parker apart from others at the time he started was brilliance and luck. His brilliant adaptation of the American school grading system to rate wine on the 100 point scale is his most lasting achievement. And he was just plain lucky to call the monumental 1982 Bordeaux vintage which put him on the map and continues to bolster his reputation as a wine critic of vision and skill.

And that brings me back to the post-Parker period of wine criticism. First, I think Mr. Parker will remain a force in the wine world for a long time. His gradual lightening of his workload will continue with perhaps coverage of the Rhône going to someone else next. He will keep Bordeaux and older California wine coverage right until he hangs it up, which I would guess would be around the time he turns 70 in 2017. So we have a ways to go before his retirement which will provide time for a gradual transition to new voices.

Who will be those new wine writers?

This is where it gets hard to predict. Yes, one or more wine bloggers will emerge and take over some of the slots in the existing wine pubs as others retire or move on but I don’t think the future of wine writing is dominated by bloggers. But I do think the future is digital and always connected so wine blog content is a piece of it. And I also think there will be hundreds of influential wine writers in the future and not just a handful of professionals that we see today.

How all these voices are aggregated into something that reaches the wine buying consumer is another story. And one we shall see played out over the next six years.

Update: San Francisco Chronicle’s Jon Bonné weights in with a thoughtful post.

Update 2: Eric Asimov blogs a detailed and reasoned response to the story at the New York Times’ Diners Journal which concludes, “The time for one overwhelmingly dominant critical voice in wine is well past, and the weekend’s announcements simply reinforced that truth.”

I also noted that this story was broken over the weekend by Jeff Leve at the Wine Cellar Insider blog. I was not following this blog so I didn’t see his post as I composed this one Sunday evening.

Update 3: Jeff Lefevere at Good Grape presents a different point of view in his recent post. Money quote: “In my opinion, Parker’s announcement is less about “semi-retirement” and California and more about where he can wield the biggest influence – carry the biggest stick— in the latter stages of his career.”

Update 4: Joe Roberts at 1WineDude has the last word in his post: “…don’t look for deep meaning in Parker’s decision to reassign CA reviews at The Wine Advocate: it is what it is, and probably according to Parker would always have ended up this way no matter what he or anyone else did.”

Gary Vaynerchuk and Robert ParkerI’m about two-thirds of my way though Rex Pickett’s sequel to Sideways called Vertical (yes, a review is forthcoming). While the book is an apt successor to it’s wildly successful predecessor, I don’t think we will see as much of an impact on the wine industry, or Pinot Noir in particular, this time even if they manage to make a movie from it (original cast, please).

But I do think we might see a Sideways-style effect if Pickett’s TV project, “The Nose,” is ever produced. Loosely based on wine critic Robert Parker and podcaster and all around hustler Gary Vaynerchuk, the series is being developed for HBO. As Blake Gray points out in his post there is a long road ahead before this gets a green light but at least the concept sounds like it might work. My opinion is not shared by Blake’s commenters right now but I think they are wrong ;-)

via The Gray Market Report

The Why & What of Amateur Wine Writing

by Tim Elliott on June 1, 2009

Aerating 2005 Bordeaux
Image by nasv via Flickr

Josh Hermsmeyer, the guy behind the must read Pinotblogger site, has issued a challenge to all wine bloggers and will reward the winner with a prize of up to $1,000 depending upon how many respond to his call. In a nutshell, he is asking us to answer two questions:

  • Why are you passionate about wine/what motivates you to blog about it?
  • Is it appropriate for a wine reviewer to prescribe the ways in which a wine should be made or is their job chiefly to review what’s in the bottle?

Times being what they are, I will attempt to answer these somewhat provocative questions and perhaps give you some more insight into what makes amateur wine writers tick. Or at least how I come at this craft.

So the first question is pretty straightforward. I blog and podcast about wine because I can and like to do so. Like a lot of wine bloggers, I was the guy everyone asked for wine tips so I found it easier to just write them down and record reviews. Now I just point people here for my picks as opposed to trying to remember them at will. My podcasting got me into blogging due to the same software being used (WordPress). It was easy to blog so I did so soon after I started to podcast in late 2004. I got into podcasting after something clicked with me in September of 2004 when I first discovered the genre. At the time there was something like 25 podcasts but no one was doing anything about wine so Winecast was born. Over the years the podcast has ebbed and flowed but I still will be posting shows and continuing until I don’t find it enjoyable. So I guess I do this because I love wine and like sharing what little I know about it. I had much the same answer a couple years back but with a slightly different spin.

The second question is a bit more complicated. I think Josh is asking this in response to Robert Parker‘s recent statements about wine bloggers (or shall I say “blobbers”?). Mr. Parker has long been accused of influencing winemaking styles in order to garner higher scores which many times leads to more demand and higher prices. The biggest beneficiaries of his ratings has been the classified growths of Bordeaux but some Cali cult wines and Aussie Shiraz has benefited, too. And I don’t blame any producers for making such changes in order to get the scores. It helps sell their wine but is also something that I hope we will get away from in the next decade as Mr. Parker retires and drinks down his cellar.

Wine writers of any level should tell the story of the wine they are reviewing and not dictate what that story should be. Sometimes this is a terroir story, sometimes it’s not. For a review to communicate the essence of the wine, as much context as possible is required. I’ve not delivered on this ideal as much as I would have liked in the past but hope to help invent the new language of wine reviews going forward. We’ll see.

In the meantime, I’ll keep trying new things to communicate how a wine moves me. Wine is a living being that is in constant change. Those of us who write about it should respect this and attempt to bring all the nuances displayed in the glass into our writing.

Unless it’s plonk, of course ;-)

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The Future of Wine Writing

by Tim Elliott on May 31, 2009

The Wine Advocate
Image via Wikipedia

“There’s something happening here / What it is ain’t exactly clear…”  — Stephen Stills, “For What It’s Worth”

I’ve been away from the blog for much of this month but have been keeping up with my reading and, oh course, tweeting. A few weeks ago Tyler Colman, who blogs as Dr Vino, posted some legitimate questions about policies at The Wine Advocate. What transpired was a discussion of wine writer ethics that at one point featured Robert Parker labeling wine blogs, “…the source of much of the misinformation,distortion,and egegious falsehoods spread with reckless abandon…”

Needless to say, I was not pleased with this comment and wrote a 3,000 word response that concluded with some advice for Mr. Parker, open letter-style. But I never published that post because I thought it would not really do anything positive except, perhaps, make me feel a bit better. Fellow bloggers Joel Vincent and Joe Roberts covered this ground a bit more diplomatically than I did, but with much the same tone.

So I was somewhat surprised to see this issue rehashed this week in the Wall Street Journal. Another discussion broke out on the subject on eBob which was somewhat capped off by a mea culpa of sorts by Mr. Parker. In my book, case closed, but I’m sure there will be some additional chatter in the blogosphere because it creates more traffic and comments.

But I think all this raises a more fundimental question; what is the future of wine writing?

Jeff Lefevere over at Good Grape made a good point about bell curves the other day and it’s clear that dominance of The Wine Advocate and other wine review newsletters is on the downward slope of the curve. Local newspapers are cutting back on wine writers even in big metros such as Los Angeles and New York. As I’ve written here before, I don’t think there is a great future for wine glossies such as the Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast unless they transform their business models quickly and figure out how to make money online.

So the future is wine blogs, right? Perhaps, but there are some, such as Alice Feiring, who doubt it as she recently blogged:

And who knows if wine writing will exist in any form. If what only exists is the blog world, God help us. I’m not saying that some of my colleagues don’t give great blog, but finding the knowledgeble folk who don’t have something to ‘sell’ is tough. And then finding some voices who have done homework is even tougher.

Whatever the format, there will be a void in wine writing in the next decade that will be filled by new voices. With the rise of Millennials as major wine consumers, this format will no doubt be digital and presented online in several contexts (text, video, audio, mobile). The question at hand is if the serious wine consumer of the future will pay for this information or will expect this to be freely available and ad supported.

My gut tells me it will be a bit of both but I seriously doubt there will be a solo critic success story like Robert Parker. It’s not because the talent doesn’t exist but that the circumstances are vastly different than they were 30 years ago when Mr. Parker got his start. Back then you didn’t have to be independently wealthy in order to sample the top wines of the world. You could buy them and share them with friends at weekend tastings where everyone chipped in for the wines. This is how the wines for The Wine Advocate were financed along with Mr. Parker’s rather generous personal wine budget (how he talked his wife into this early on would make a great story, but I digress).

Today it is nearly impossible for the independent wine blogger to buy the sufficient amount of wine to provide the breadth of coverage required to attract enough readers to make a wine blog financially viable. Yes, we do receive samples but this alone doesn’t provide enough tasting opportunities; the reviewer still needs to travel and purchase more wines at retail. Both not easy given the current economic climate but even in better times one would have to spend at least $100,000 a year in order to review enough wines to make a serious go of it.

EngadgetBut I do think that several wine bloggers working together at a single blog is the future of wine writing. Each could cover a wine region or variety in depth and in aggregate this content would attract enough of an audience to sell sponsorships, drive affiliate programs and other monetization opportunities. Think Engadget but for wine.

I think we will see such a blog launch yet in 2009 and there will be several existing wine bloggers who will be convinced to write for this site as they continue to maintain their own blogs. The “Robert Parker of the future” will be a blogger but I doubt he or she will go it alone. But together, even a small team could create enough content and traffic to build the next wine publishing empire.

The time is now; the question is who will step up and try to do this first?

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