wine criticism

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.”

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.