The Waning Of The Wine Critic?

Vinted on November 20, 2012 binned in commentary

Earlier this month, I was a guest lecturer at a wine class for undergrads at Drexel University in downtown Philly. The class is taught by Jason Wilson (author of the very entertaining spirits book Boozehound and who somehow Id never met in Philly; it took a chance encounter at one of the Professional Wine Writers Symposium events in Napa for us to become friends)

Talk about flashbacks (but not those kinds of flashback!) – the impressive great court of Drexel’s Main Building and its serpentine staircases leading to the back classrooms reminded me in no small way of trying to find the Philosophy classroom at my alma matter’s (SJU) Barbelin Hall. I got the sense that a lot of 21-year-old students would’ve been very late trying to get to that Drexel class for the first time (and if you can make it back out after tasting ten-or-so wines without spitting… more power to you).

I was there to talk about the wine regions of Australia (which I’d recently visited), and taste the class through a sampling of wines from those locales, the theme of which, as I tried to summarize early in the likely eventuality that I’d completely lose control of the class later, was “in America we tend to treat French wine regions as if they’re continents apart when in reality you can drive between several of them in a couple of hours; but Australia we treat as one big dessert, when in reality their wine regions really are continents apart!”

Jason has published a fun and insightful take on the class – and on wine talk in general – over at Table Matters (a story in which I play the part of a Brett Nazi, though my reaction to the Bretty wine might have been a bit over-emphasized in that tale… or not, I was onto beer by then, so who knows…).

Scanning the faces of those kids (I can call them “kids” now that I’m 40, right?), sitting in two rows against the long side of the cramped rectangular classroom, I got a microcosm of the East Coast wine drinking future. Some stared pretty intently, offering quiet comments when a topic or wine really struck them. Others were yawning (hey, Wine Appreciation is a better elective than “Math Models In Chemistry,” right?). And others were clearly having revelations about their own tastes and the at lovable madness that is the diversity of wine just within Australia itself.

None of them had any fear whatsoever of trying a new region, grape, or blend. None of them had any concern more pressing than the price point of each bottle ($12 and under seemed to be the realistic cut off for future purchases).

And none of them – not a single one – has ever followed the advice of a wine critic…

Personally, even though I should probably be billing myself as a critic of sorts, I was thrilled about that (more on that in a minute).

I asked them directly, “so… do any of you follow any wine critics? For recommendations, or when you’re thinking about buying a bottle at a store?”

The response? Shaking of heads. Glancing at one another. Almost timid voices, practically in unison: “Not really, no.”

Why would I be thrilled about that? Because to me that means many of those kids have bright wine futures ahead of them, a lifetime of exploration of wine and themselves, one in which pleasure takes the front seat instead of blindly following recommendations issues from ivory towers. Following a critic is probably the worst thing that these kids could do before discovering what they themselves most love or loathe about certain wine grapes, styles and regions. In other words, it means they have a good shot at becoming knowledgeable, smart and informed wine consumers.

SO, how do these kids get their wine knowledge, then, if not from the critics?

From friends. From an adventurous and competitive spirit to want to be the cooler kid on the block who turns their friends onto some gem of a wine that nobody in their circle has tried yet. From smartphone wine searches on Google, in which the aggregate of CellarTracker wine reviews appear as 1-5 stars indicating what the crowd thought of that particular vino.

Note that in the search results on Google, you can see that CT aggregation without ever having to click through to proper. Witness, my friends, the potential future of wine criticism recommendations (in this case, from the Google search results for one of the wines we picked for the class to represent Clare Valley Riesling, the 2009 Pikes Traditionale Dry Riesling):

It’s not that I don’t see their approach to wine as somewhat limiting; I do, if only because eventually I think it does make sense to follow a critic after you already know that what you like and what that critic tends to rate highly seem to be closely aligned. But that comes a lot later in one’s personal development as a fan of vino. When the class asked me how to “taste” wine, I told them the only thing that they need to be worrying about right now is whether they really, really like a wine or really, really dislike it, and to write down why for each and every wine that they put into their mouths. In other words, worry about discovering yourself and your won tastes; discovering wine, per se, will follow.

For the record, the Margan Family See Saw White 2009 (a nice introduction to steely Hunter Valley Semillon, with a bit of Verdehlo tossed in, likely to soften it up) was a relative hit at about $11 / bottle. Same with the Barossa selection, the Jacob’s Creek Shiraz Reserve 2008.

The wine of the night for me, Leeuwin Estate’s 2006 Prelude Vineyards Chardonnay from Margaret River? Not so much for them. It’s very good, but it’s also $30, which at 21 years old is simply too rich for their blood. At least for now – I’ve got a feeling that some of those “kids” will be eying up more expensive bottles in the not-too-distant future.

But will they be bottles that they bought simply because prominent critics told them they were worth buying? Probably not-so-much. And by then, will today’s prominent critics find that they’re still prominent?

Probably not-so-much.






  • @suburbanwino

    Maybe I'm speaking from the old-guard, but my only issue with Cellar Tracker being one's guide is that- with a prominent critic- at least you can get a sense for what style of wine they get off on. Cellar Tracker is still influencing purchasing decisions, but based solely on star ratings from a million different palates. It's true democracy, but not necessarily any more illuminating to the potential buyer than a critic-in-the-pockets-of-producers. Oh, and I need more space to comment. I have a lot more to say, and I get long-winded.

    • 1WineDude

      @suburbanwino – Fire away with as many comments as you like, my man! I agree with you to some extent; I’d only add that if the move away from singular voices signals a bit of evolution in people in terms of how they approach wine (getting to know their own tastes and preferences first) then I say bring on the democracy, baby. Even if it means I myself end up being less influential overall, for example.

  • Jason

    Haha great post! Thanks for coming to our class, Joe! I'd like to mention my students do read a number of wine writers in class, including Lettie Teague, Eric Asimov, Michael Steinberger, Jancis Robinson, Jon Bonne, and (yes) Robert Parker. And even you! But the focus is less on recommendations and more about issues and ideas in the world of wine.

    • 1WineDude

      Thanks, Jason. But consider the poor reflection on you of assigning my stuff along with those heavyweights…! ;-)

  • doug wilder

    Joe, This must have been a lot of fun for you. It isn't uncommon that early wine experiences of those in their twenties center on some average stuff (unless they are lucky enough to intern/work for you, or me!) I cite my own experience buying wine in the late '70s. It started with Boones Farm and Strawberry Hill and gradually moved to three liter bottles of Almadan for $8.00 (They made great terrariums). It didn't take anyone else to tell me to search out wines that were drier, and more complex. It was just a natural curiosity.

    Even knowing what I liked, I realized there were people tasting a lot more wines and writing about them. Spectator was something I began reading by the time I was 30, and a while later Charlie Olken's Connoisseurs' Guide became my bible for domestic wines, and they both drove my growing appreciation.

    post continues…

    • 1WineDude

      Doug – It was! And I totally get what you're saying here: *you* went tot he critics, after you'd garnered some experience under your belt with wines and finding what suited your own tastes. I wish more people explored wine in that way!

  • doug wilder

    I'm glad that you mentioned CellerTracker! because I too think it is a great resource. I just got off the phone with a guy asking how long he should hold onto his last bottle of 2007 Zinfandel (one of fine pedigree) and I recommended Eric's website for the reason that he would likely come across someone who had opened a bottle within the last couple months. That is why it is so useful

    What needs to be stated about CellarTracker is (beyond Richard Jennings) is this: Unless users are tied in through a subscription to any of the independent critics who link their content there, peer to peer reviews for a wine only begin to show up after the wine is in the commercial marketplace. Wine critics, sommeliers and retailers are likely the first group of people to experience these wines and then that information will percolate through the filters of print and online magazines, websites like yours, rerstaurants, newspapers, blogs or retailers hand-selling to a customer. Then is when you begin to see the adoption of particular wines and the building of crowd-sourced opinion.

    Happy Thanksgiving!

    • 1WineDude

      Thanks, Doug! I think you're right about the wines having to have some commercial reach first, but in today's uber-connected world it can help consumers to have those peer reviews even if a wine has very limited distribution and critical spotlighting.

  • Todd - VT Wine Media

    This is clear and current anecdotal example of the directions things are headed in. A great follow-up to the discussion last month about "Fine Wine Reviews Can Never Be Crowd-Sourced!"
    (… )
    Even if these new consumers are not reading the traditional wine critics, they are still under indirect influence when they decode the string of WS 90, WA 91, RP 96, etc on shelf talkers and in the wine tracking platforms.
    It's just a matter of time before well designed peer review systems market themselves successfully to the younger crowd, and other demographic sub-cultures. When that happens there will be a new kind of competition for eyeballs in that list of initials and scores.

    • 1WineDude

      Thanks, Todd – great point, I don't think that the crowd-sourced / peer reviews are marketing as well as they could. But when they do… watch out!

  • Wine With Kat

    I work at a wine cellar in Geneva, Switzerland which is just over the border from France. Something I found interesting is that the Swiss and French clients I have pay very little attention to wine critics whereas the expatriates from the US, England, and assorted Asian countries are very interested in scores from places like Wine Spectator, etc. When I tell my boss that so-and-so wine received a 96 he says, yes but what do YOU think of it? I've never seen a wine shop here with 'shelf talkers' and points on their wine. Here, it seems that the opinion of a trusted person reaches further.

    • 1WineDude

      Kat – I think we’re getting there in the States. But we’re clearly not there yet.

      • Wine With Kat

        I don't think I'm there yet either…I still like getting the opinion of wine critics I trust, like you!

        • 1WineDude

          Well, thanks for that, Kat! It's never been my agenda to be a critic with followers, hopefully by following my ramblings, folks ultimately achieve more independence. Cheers!

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