Wine Criticism Faces a Shifting Future
By: Jon Bonné
(San Francisco, California) – It should have been Robert Parker’s crowning moment. At the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone earlier this month, he was inducted into the Vintners Hall of Fame.
Parker wasn’t there in person (some health concerns), but his video message thanked California for the recognition – although thanks might equally have gone the other way. California wine, at least an ambitious subset of it, owes him an awful lot.
There were just a couple of dents in this otherwise perfect moment of gratitude. About a week earlier, Parker got word that a top critic at his Wine Advocate newsletter, Antonio Galloni, was heading out the door to found his own online publication at antoniogalloni.com.
Other critics had departed from the Advocate in the past. But Galloni wasn’t just another critic for hire. In 2011, he drew shock waves when Parker tapped him to take on the pivotal role of California critic for the Advocate, in addition to Burgundy, Champagne and Italy. Soon his words were strong currency in Wine Country.
He was poised to be Parker’s successor – to continue what had become wine criticism’s most powerful post, even if there was a growing belief that there would never be another Parker.
But Galloni wanted something more – or at least something different.
“I realized the Wine Advocate readership is a great readership,” he said recently. “But it really is a fraction of the market.”
This latest tumult simply underscored the chatter in recent weeks that the Advocate was quickly fading from the spotlight.
Indeed, that was a widespread conclusion after Parker revealed in December that he was selling a significant portion of his publication to three Singapore investors, reportedly for around $15 million. The publication would move its editorial helm to Singapore, where another critic, Lisa Perrotti-Brown, would become its top editor.
Parker left several key questions about the sale unclear, and it was rumored that Galloni, with his own investors, had hoped to buy the Advocate himself.
The fine print
But the undoing was in the fine print. All the Advocate’s critics, who operated as independent contractors and retained the rights to their work, were expected to become full-time staff. As Galloni, who joined Parker after running his own publication, the Piedmont Report, put it: “I don’t want to be an employee.” Even Parker acknowledged he wasn’t surprised that Galloni didn’t want to stay.
Is this truly the end of the Parker era of criticism? Was the world’s most powerful wine critic perhaps conflicted about handing the reins to an heir apparent?
For his part, Parker told his readers it would be “business as usual.” But when Galloni took over Parker’s chair, he immediately became one of the most influential voices affecting California’s multibillion-dollar wine industry. What would Galloni’s scores mean when not delivered under Parker’s rubric? Right this moment, a huge question mark looms high above Highway 29.
This particular change really just scratched at a broader set of questions about wine criticism. Once, a handful of publications held sway, but the wine world has become more diverse and complicated.
There’s a rising generation of consumers, part of the Millennial surge, who are compelled by a wine’s story, not its score. Too many industry wonks think that can be tackled with a quick fix – hire a Twitter monkey – but they’re wrong. This generation of new drinkers is spending more money, and at a younger age. They want wines that are relevant and forthright.
Beyond blind tasting
All of which raises hard questions about the way we all write about wine. The belief in the level playing field, where all wineries were viewed with equal weight, was more sensible when there were fewer producers, and less corporate influence. But did it really negate prejudice? Did blind tasting? Publications like the Wine Spectator still taste blind, but for years, much of the Advocate’s tasting hasn’t been, with little complaint.
The old ways dictated criticism as a straightforward hunt for the delicious. The new reader is likely to have tougher questions. Are a winemaker’s ethical and technical decisions – about farming, about intervention in the cellar – up for critical scrutiny? That would be little different from the questions chefs face today about the sourcing of their meat, fish and produce.
Will critics have to consider broader benchmarks than delicious? Will the role of what Jancis Robinson called the wine grader turn into broader cultural commentary?
I suspect the answer to both questions is yes.
Galloni isn’t giving up on scores quite yet. But he sees a need for a different model. For one, he worries that new drinkers will opt for beer or cocktails over wine.
The new wine lovers
He sees the potential to lure an upwardly mobile set of wine lovers who have grown up in a world where Robert Parker was no longer wine’s emperor – people like the wine-loving graduate student from Columbia whom Galloni encountered not long ago. She routinely dined out at New York restaurants like Daniel and Del Posto – and had no clue who his boss was.
“I thought, this is the consumer I want to speak with,” Galloni says.
His new effort, tentatively set to launch next month, will have a more flexible business model. It is likely to include discounted rates for students, and incrementally higher prices as you add services – not just wine ratings, but personalized access to Galloni himself. This model varies from other solo critics, including James Suckling, who left the Wine Spectator and founded his own site, and critic Allen Meadows, whose Burghound site is a definitive voice on Burgundy.
What of Parker’s realm? He told readers that he and Perrotti-Brown were “in the process of making the most of the expertise of our existing team while also obtaining the services of new talented writers.” It seems unlikely that Parker, who has been dialing back his once-grueling schedule, will step back in for California. But for once there is no heir apparent.
Claiming the scale
And scores? One more possibility. If the 100-point scale is really that salient – although I suspect new wine lovers couldn’t care less – an emerging generation of critics can easily claim it as their own. Indeed, the Advocate itself opened that door when one of its critics, David Schildknecht, began handing out 90-plus ratings to wines like Muscadet and Beaujolais. Others can extend that to the Jura, or the Sierra Foothills.
Can Galloni make his business model work in this shifting world? That’s the tougher question – and not just for him. We’ll be sorting out for a while to come how wine criticism will survive and pay for itself. But Galloni has a particularly useful take on his own role going forward.
In his view, as one who sat well-placed inside the kingdom, the job of wine grader will be a modest skill set within a larger body of expertise. Critics will have to engage their audiences more broadly – less tasting notes from on high, and more an ongoing conversation.
“The king and his subjects,” he says, “is the Robert Parker era.”
The next chapter may be more complicated. But it can also be a lot more thrilling than wine’s age of empire.