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Old and In The Way?: The Future of Wine Criticism

I just got through a ridiculously well-written article by Mike Steinberger, titled "Every one a critic: the future of wine writing" and available for download at CellarTracker.com (or in print in Issue 19 2008 of World of Fine Wine magazine). The man just has mad writing skills!

In the article, Steinberger discusses the factors that made Robert Parker such a force in the fine wine market, and how his retirement (Parker is now in his 60s) will leave a void in the world of wine criticism.

Steinberger offers the Internet voices of wine criticism as a potential for filling that void, since it is unlikely that anyone after Parker will have the clout, work ethic, and financial independence to take Parker's place (especially considering the outrageous prices that top-scoring First Growth Bordeaux and Grand Cru Burgundy can fetch nowadays - upwards of $1000 USD per bottle in some cases), and the Internet provides very low barriers to entry.

What was interesting for me was what Steinberger didn't touch on in his excellent article...

For starters, history has shown us that when you have a virtual dictator / enlightened despot (depending on your viewpoint) wielding such individual control and influence, as is the case with Parker, they hand-pick their successor in order to ensure the orderly hand-over of power, and to keep their vision alive. The followers, well, they follow. Think Putin in Russia, for example. So isn't it still possible that Parker may groom someone from within his own ranks at the Wine Advocate to take his place on the throne of Bordeaux wine critique?

I think we'd find that many Bordeaux, Rhone, and California wineries, and the Wine Advocate faithful, all of whom sometimes follow Parker's scores with almost religious fervor, would line up behind that pick with relatively little resistance.

The other thing that Steinberger didn't explore was the age range of the core Wine Advocate / Parker / Wine Spectator audience. I'd imagine (though I've no means to confirm this), that this group is aging right along with Parker. This isn't a dig on aging wine aficionados or critics (despite my arguably provocative post title); it's just an acknowledgment that there is currently a baby boomer generation driving the wine market, and that generation does things differently than the next one will when it comes to buying wine.

From Steinbergers article: "Certainly, the leading [wine] publications look to be in fairly ruddy health. Wine Spectator is a thriving franchise, and there is no reason to think this will change anytime soon."

Is this really true...? I wonder if the generation that comprises the Wine Spectator faithful isn't already being replaced in the marketplace by a new generation that expects to get their information from a broad range of expertise, validated by real-world experiences and real-time recommendations, and expects to get that information instantly via global social connections made over the Internet.

Call me crazy, but I don't see Wine Spectator, even with their on-line presence, fitting that bill...

One thing's for sure: Things are gonna get interesting from here!

(image: tralfaz-archives.com)


Douglas Trapasso said...

One question I haven't really seen discussed is what would happen to wine prices when/if Parker retired or the 99 + 1 point scale ever disappeared. It has been my take that the loss of influence by Parker and a couple of the Wine Porn mags would drastically lower prices on the most exquisite Bordeaux/Burgundy, but also almost instantly push up prices on the low end? Let's imagine an 84 pointer that Parker called "acceptable to quaff in all months containing a Q" that for some reason you really enjoy. If you're paying $12.00 for it now, with Parker and WS not around to diss it, that becomes a $25.00 bottle overnight.

Bloggers jump in! Agree or disagree?

Joe Roberts said...

Interesting thoughts, man!

I don't see it happening, because I think Wine Advocate would be nuts to stop their thing after Parker retires. And, there seem to be a plethora of wine mags. that encourage use of the 100 pt system and the various economic empires that it feeds...

Joe Roberts said...

Something interesting: I read a comment (posted on another blog... sigh... always the bridesmaid, you know what I'm sayin'?) by Ken Payton of reignofterroir.com, that I *think* is a review of my post above.

"...deep down, squirming under the mud and the muck, is the burning ambition of newbies to take down any and all. The downside of wine blogging is a newbies' bald celebration of their face in the mirror.

Flaming becomes an art.

I read a particularly ugly blog post today by one of the champions of the NEW way. It seems Parker is aging with his audience. Out with old, in with the new. No respect is due to the gentleman. Fathers and sons... Generational nonsense, as old as Oedipus. That newbies stand on the shoulders of giants is a matter of complete indifference. Wicked, ungrateful children."

Now, I'm not entirely sure that this was directed at my post, but the only other Parker-age-related ditty I've been able to locate on the web is from 2005 ( http://www.slate.com/id/2125025/ ). So, just in case anyone else has had the same misinterpretation:

Please don't forget that I meant what I wrote above: "This isn't a dig on aging wine aficionados or critics... it's just an acknowledgment that there is currently a baby boomer generation driving the wine market, and that generation does things differently than the next one will when it comes to buying wine."

The "critics" part was meant to include Mr. Parker, since he is, after all, a *critic*.

Between this, Steve Heimoff's total misinterpretation of my take on the 100 pt wine rating system, and the entire "Rockaway 7" affair, I'm beginning to think that quite a few people in the wine writing biz need to checkpoint their reading comprehension skills... :-P

Richard Auffrey said...

Hi Joe:
I agree with Steinberger that the 100 point system is probably here to stay, even when Parker retires. And that is not necessarily going to change just because of a younger generation entering the picture. One just has to consider Gary V. who appeals to the younger generation. Gary may criticize the 100 point system, but he still uses it, leading many of the younger generation to accept that rating system.

I also agree with Steinberger that there will still be a need for top experts in certain areas of wine, especially the very high end such as top Bordeaux. Few bloggers have sufficient experience, or can afford, to adequately cover such wines.

Finally, I also feel that wine writing should be more than mere wine reviews. And some of that journalism requires proper resources to research the articles, something beyond many bloggers. Thus, the print wine media, which has the necessary resources, will continue to be relevant.

I see bloggers as taking on a more important role in the wine community, yet I don't see them replacing the print media anytime soon. Bloggers largest role will come in wine reviews, though that will have its limits too. The younger generation will help in this regard, but they will still cling to the 100 point system.


Anonymous said...

Great reference to "Old and In the Way".

As long as his health is good, he is involved (to some extent) and his name remains at the top of the publication, most consumers are (and probably will still be) oblivious to whether it is Jay, Neal, Antonio, or RP reviewing. To most, a WA score is a Parker score.

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