When we started in this business, the impact of the media was much different. There wasn’t a ‘guiding light’ kind of reviewer. Mostly folks relied on scribes in the newspapers who wrote weekly columns, awards from various wine competitions, and there was a following among elite buyers in a small way for a couple of subscription writers. Does anyone remember Robert Finigan? Probably not anymore. He was arguably the first one to get national attention for wine reviews, but the field was still pretty new at the time.
Back when the 1982 vintage in Bordeaux was being reviewed, Finigan was in a position to make some waves as there was unusual consumer interest in the vintage. Finigan, a traditionalist, was pretty convinced that the very ripe, somewhat atypical 1982s were an anomaly and would not stand the test of time. By contrast, an emerging writer from Monkton, Maryland named Robert Parker went full gung ho on the 1982s and the market responded.
From that moment on Parker’s star rose dramatically among hardcore wine collectors and tastemakers. He achieved a status that perhaps no reviewer in any other field ever had and likely ever will. About the same time, a more lifestyle centric magazine called Wine Spectator, with reviews, articles, and pretty pictures, captured an even larger, if perhaps somewhat less zealous audience. Suddenly these publications, aided by an industry that was all too willing to cut and paste reviews rather than do original work, became the defining voices in the wine industry.
While Stephen Tanzer’s International Wine Cellar captured a modest audience, it was Advocate and Spectator that had the majority of the attention for a couple of decades. We always joked about what kind of panic would ensue if anything ever happened to Parker, and knowing that if all went well, he would eventually retire. In the early days, Wine Spectator had only a handful of regular critics and Advocate was just Bob. But as demand grew for wider coverage of more wines, both publications added reviewers to cover the workload.
But with many additional voices, there was perhaps a little bit of dilution in the power of the message. There were a few folks that came and went because they didn’t fit in with their Wine Advocate roles, a couple were even a little controversial. The turnover of writers had to affect some aspects of the readership loyalty, though the presence of Parker as the anchor kept a lot of that from becoming too problematic with Wine Advocate at the time.
As to Wine Spectator, things went pretty well for a long time. Then lead writer for European wines James Suckling parted company with the magazine. Their domestic specialist, known here as ‘Angry’ James Laube, started toughening up on scores. Dishing out 91 point scores to $200 Napa Cabernets definitely made him less ‘quotable’ in the broad market. It seems Spectator’s impact in the marketplace has abated a little.
That brings us to today. Spectator still has wide distribution, but we’d suggest less impact than the glory days. Their ex-patriot Suckling set up shop on his own. Parker isn’t doing much for Advocate these days, and former reviewers Antonio Galloni and Jeb Dunnuck left to set up their own programs. Galloni’s Vinous absorbed the Tanzer team and recently hired former Advocate Bordeaux and Burgundy reviewer Neal Martin. With such a dramatic reshuffling of the scribes, and the changing faces of the former ‘powers’, one has to wonder where it goes from here. That isn’t even taking into account the various other ‘wannabes’ that are vying for relevance.
Our point is that today’s field is crowded and it is hard to predict who, if anyone, will become the next ‘oracle’. There are a half dozen review platforms that have some amount of clout, and a number of others who could emerge down the road (though we have our doubts). The quirk of today’s market is that purveyors are trying to prolong the sell-by-reviews format that has been the widely practiced norm for at least the last quarter century.
Within that context, it is a proven fact that ’89s don’t sell wine’. These days the same can be said for a lot of scores relative to certain price points. A 91 might move a $12 wine, but won’t even register a blip for a $30 wine. Therein lies the problem. The purveyors know they need bigger ‘numbers’ to excite buyers and consumers, and have taken it upon themselves to present the best score possible without regard to the source. People present us the reviews of 2nd and 3rd tier critics all the time (and all-too-often not accurately).
We know the difference and who is who. But the average consumer seeing it on a sign in a store doesn’t necessarily have knowledge of the hierarchy (if you can call it that) and many take the number at face value. All too often wines are presented with floating reviews, which say a wine received a 95 point score but doesn’t cite where it came from.
Given all of this, the industry is concerned about how to reach the next generation of wine buyers. The ‘score’ thing has worked well for a lot of people for a long time. But will that continue? Are reviewers going to have the same impact with millennials they did with baby boomers? Our first guess is probably not. Who knows what kind of dynamic will be the basis for information moving forward. A hybrid of some current market trend-setter? Some self-proclaimed hipster critic? Yelp?
Then again, with hand held devices connected to world-wide internet 24/7, it would be easy to get information on a potential wine purchase from some review site in seconds. So it is difficult to fathom the possibility that all of the critics websites will disappear. These days, convenience matters, particularly for the most impatient of generations. But whose reviews are they going to follow? That is the question. Who best speaks to the market in the post-Parker era? What exactly is the wine market as defined today?
One might ask who we follow. In truth, we don’t really follow anyone. We’ll look into things based on reading articles because not everything comes to our door. Then we’ll use whatever reviews we think will get people to try a wine we already liked and bought, provided those reviews come from sources we feel are legit. It is important for us to associate with proven and reasonably well-followed review sources. We aren’t inclined to quote the ‘scribe of the week’ simply because he/she gave the highest, most quotable number. ‘Steve’s mom gave this 94 points’ isn’t going to resonate with anyone. There may be critics out there that will be widely quoted down the road, once they have established themselves. But for now we’ll focus on the half dozen or so that seem to be the most followed.
The working theory moving forward, as we have stated, is that the guys with the highest reviews will get quoted because the market responds to higher numbers, and therefore will receive more ‘reinforcement’ in the public eye. Though these all represent relatively new independent voices, James Suckling, Jeb Dunnuck, and some of the Vinous crew, have historic connections with top sources. So they have historic credibility as long as they don’t overdo it and give everything 100 points. They will typically run somewhat higher scores (a point or two, say) because they are still trying to expand their audience, or maybe they really are that much more excited. Enthusiasm sells. Just saying everything is ‘pretty good’ or ‘just OK’ won’t motivate anyone to act, or more importantly acquire.
For that reason we see the current Spectator ‘tough guy’ approach as being counter-productive in the broad sense with respect to wine reviews, though there will be an audience for their travel, food, and “People Magazine” portions of the publication. Page after page of middling scores (by today’s standards) will cause consumer’s eyes to glaze over.
The Advocate has been something of a revolving door having lost two top reviewers who created their own sites, and another that went to work for one of the competition. Will the new crew catch on? Hard to say at this point. It is probably still their game to lose, but we can’t see where a bunch of folks that the public doesn’t know as well, talking up mainly wines that no one can find or afford, as a recipe for long term success.
When we mine some positive prose from those publications, there is interest in the individual wines. But we used to know when a new edition of those publications came out because the phones rang off the hook. That has not been the case in recent years. The point is that, when we present a wine with a review from one of those sources we mentioned, there is usually some response. But we aren’t sure how many people are reading these publications on their own and reacting from that research any more.
There is more great wine out there now than at any time we can remember. With so many things to evaluate one has to wonder why folks aren’t flocking to critics’ sites and publications to sort it all out. Maybe they are. But the impact of the reviewer has certainly changed over the past dozen years. Is it because there are too many critics, reducing the impact of each one? Whose reviews will reign supreme? Is it because the industry has gone overboard in presenting reviews to sell wine so that most consumers feel they are getting all the info they need? Or is this format going the way of the VCR and experiencing a decline in popularity with the next generation? After all, how many of the younger crowd cares about 20-year drinking windows? Most of it gets consumed in a week.
This aspect of the wine business, which has driven the market over the last couple of decades, is in flux right now. Honestly, it could go any number of ways. Among critics, sadly, we feel the high scorers will win as long as the ‘number’ takes precedent over the meat of the write-up. The ‘number’ is the quick answer in a world where faster is better. We have lived largely in the world of review-driven sales. While the ‘players’ may change, we believe the role of the critic will remain significant at least until a better way comes along. We can’t envision what that would be. The 100-point system didn’t dominate wine marketing, until it did. Arguably the success can be tied loosely to the system of education most people grew up and are familiar with. But the fact remains that it is an easy, quick format for people to digest.
Possibly the industry could take charge of their own business and try to educate consumers through their own articles, tastings and one-on-one dialogue. Maybe there are unicorns, too. We have always presented our own ideas, sometimes without any reference to third party opinions. But the number system has created a life all its own for the time being. As to more of the industry taking the ‘bull by the horns’, we aren’t going to hold our breath. Telling someone they should buy a wine because ‘so-and-so gave it 95 points’ is still so… much… easier. We’ll wait and see whose ‘95’ moves the needle the most as time passes.