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The War Over Wine

Robert Parker and his “100 points” are on the way out

There are some 400 million cases of wine, from plonk to Petrus, sloshing around on the wine market, and the competition to sell it—and rate it—is proportionately fierce. Never has there been so much good stuff available, never has the search for the best been so ardent and never have wine drinkers been subjected to so many voices telling them where they fit into the vast, shifting terrain of oenophilia. The result: a confused and rapidly evolving marketplace in which neither sellers nor consumers know exactly where they stand, with billions of dollars at stake.

To make sense of the current predicament of winemakers worldwide, we have to go back a few decades to the closed and often snooty genre of wine criticism. In the 1960s and ’70s, wine was idealized by the likes of Michael Broadbent, Hugh Johnson and other proselytizers of the well-tempered grape. Wine connoisseurs could expect to read over-the-top descriptions like “impertinent” and “big-shouldered,” or hear a wine described as having “an Episcopalian predictability.”

But all that changed in 1978, when a Baltimore-based government lawyer who had drunk Coca-Cola until his girlfriend introduced him to French wine launched a newsletter called the Wine Advocate . It contained a 100-point rating scale—really a 10-point one, since nothing under 90 was considered worthy—and it revolutionized wine criticism.

The lawyer’s name was Robert Parker, and in a handful of years he ascended almost vertically from bureaucrat at the Farm Credit Banks, which helps arrange loans to farmers, to grand poobah of what came to be called “rocket juice”—high octane cabernet sauvignon. Blessed with more olfactory gifts than writing talent, Parker had a Rabelaisian enthusiasm for the pleasures of the palate that helped make him a wine world star.

Parker’s great achievement was making wine seem both slam-dunk accessible to buyers who could afford it and as reliable as new cars and kitchen appliances. At the time of his ascent, Ronald Reagan was president, business was booming and consumers had money to spend—along with relatively little knowledge of wine. It was perfect timing for a new critic with a knack for branding.

Parker’s taste for lush, fruity reds, rooted perhaps in his fondness for Coke, struck a chord.

Parker accepted no advertising in the Wine Advocate and did most of the tasting and writing himself. His taste for lush, fruity reds, rooted perhaps in his fondness for Coke, struck a chord. The extent of his influence became clear in the early ’80s, when he declared the uncharacteristically soft, fruity 1982 harvest in Bordeaux “the vintage of the century.” Thanks to Parker, the Bordelais and later other French producers made a lot of money; so did California winemakers who saw no point in fighting the inevitable and cashed in on “the Parker style.” After all, Parker’s endorsements paid off. Today, prices still point resolutely toward $1,000 a bottle for wines early endorsed by Robert Parker.

The Advocate’s success brought other entrepreneurial beasts out of the jungle, the most successful being a go-go banker from the ‘70s named Marvin Shanken. Brash but savvy, Shanken shared Parker’s tastes, yet also saw “lifestyle” opportunities that had escaped the critic. Shanken bought the already existing Wine Spectator and appropriated Parker’s 100-point scale. He buttressed it with what the Advocate lacked: flattering profiles of vintners and collectors, articles about expensive destinations and lucrative (for the Spectator , anyway) restaurant contests.

The Spectator’s tasters—primarily James Laube—favored the Parkeresque MO of big, soft, forward fruit and high alcohol content. Though competitive and mutually exclusive, this formidable (and highly profitable) Advocate/Spectator bifecta hoisted many a French chateau and California winery, sometimes to undreamed-of heights: Think Harlan, Abreau, Screaming Eagle, Staglin, Colgin, Bryant Family and any number of expensive California cabs— and their winemakers, too.

Until last December, the Advocate and the Spectator sat cozily atop the wine world. But then, apparently ready for greener pastures, Parker announced that he had sold a “substantial interest” in the Advocate to a trio of Singapore investors for a reported $15 million. Perhaps more important, he stepped down from the editorship and was replaced by Singapore-based wine writer Lisa Perotti-Brown. At about the same time, one of Parker’s tasters was accused of accepting bribes in Spain, and Parker himself got involved in a nasty legal dispute with Antonio Galloni, an Advocate writer who had defected to start an online wine publication.

This tawdry sequence of events demoralized Parker’s followers and proved a huge boost to theSpectator , which is now proclaiming itself the non plus ultra of wine rankers. I asked a number of wine critics, marketers, publicists and sellers which critics are most capable of moving wine in volume. My informal poll did indeed put the Spectator first, with the Advocate coming in a somewhat distant second. But the truth, I think, is more complicated.

The American palate has evolved since Ronald Reagan was in the White House; it’s gotten younger. The many wine-drinkers still aboard the Spectator /Parker wagon, on the other hand, are mostly “legacy buyers”— baby boomers and the last of the original ’82 worshippers. Meanwhile something quite important has occurred that complicates life for the purveyors of the 100-point scale and the whole, fruity status quo. It’s called the internet.

“We’re moving from a past in which critics’ scores drove people to buy to a time when search results, like aggregate reviews, social mentions and blogs, along with in-store recommendations like shelf-talkers, help consumers make a final buying decision,” says Joe Roberts, the blogger behind popular site 1 Wine Dude.

Paul Mabray, founder of a social media analytics site for the wine industry called VinTank, looks closely at the industry and thinks that both Parker and the Spectator ’s James Laube “are diminishing in influence at a rate they, and their publications, fail to understand. Yes, for a certain tier of consumers they still move cases, but time, technology and consumer behavior are quickly degrading their value and influence.”

Established wineries and critics once dismissed bloggers as anarchic and too diverse to move wine on a large scale. Not any more. The growing number of wine bloggers and their readers has resulted in a broad reassessment of how wine is presented to the increasingly sophisticated American wine drinker, for whom gold medals and one-to-100 rankings seem simplistic. And many of the most influential of these new critics don’t think much of the Parker /Spectator duopoly. Neither Parker nor the Spectator looked kindly upon winemakers who didn’t cotton to their style; some winemakers feel they were punished for years for making subtler, more classically structured wines suitable with food. Now the tide seems to be turning in their favor. Many younger drinkers focus not on points but on “context,” the particularity of a wine that includes agricultural, environmental and even social factors.

Eric Asimov, wine critic for the New York Times , believes there’ll always be a place for numbers among “people who know little about wine and want to pick up a good bottle, and investors and collectors wanting vintages and individual bottles ranked.” He mentions a third category— countries new to wine, with lots of disposable income and a steep learning curve before them.

But Asimov thinks that many of his readers want more from a critic. “Huge numbers of American wine drinkers are exploring the unprecedented diversity of wines available today,” he says. “They’re more interested in writing that presents wine in thoughtful, even inspirational ways and includes such things as place, history and heritage.”

Another influential tier of criticism consists of traditional publications like the Wine Enthusiast, Wine & Spirits, Decanter, Food and Wine, The World of Fine Wine, Wines & Vines and other magazines. Some continue to assign points to wine in 20-point scales, but some critics doubt that the scales mean much. Younger consumers are turned off by “the open firehose of numbers,” says Jon Bonné, wine editor for the San Francisco Chronicle . “Fans of Parker and the Spectator tend to dismiss this ‘authenticity’ factor, but if younger wine drinkers insist on having real context in wine reviews, and standards beyond words like ‘delicious,’ those guys will have to evolve or be screwed.”

The internet hurts the Advocate and the Spectator in another way: The magazines’ numerical rankings are available only to subscribers, so if a wine shop hasn’t posted the rankings on its shelves, the huge numbers of consumers who now research wine on their smartphones immediately before buying won’t see them. The result, inevitably, is diminished influence.

“We see these same trends in many other markets, particularly with online sales,” says 1 Wine Dude. He cites 50 million online conversations annually about wine among 16 million social media-savvy wine consumers. “To think that wine will be immune from the trends that have impacted just about everything else is total folly.”

There are many bright lights in the firmament of online wine commentary: Stephen Tanzer (International Wine Cellar), Alder Yarrow (Vinography), Tom Wark (Fermentation), Dave McIntyre (WineLine) and others. Throw in critics here and in England loosely connected to wine journals, like maverick Alice Feiring and establishmentarian Jancis Robinson, and you have a mixed gallery ranging from serious writers to knowledgeable gadflies to self-promoting amorati of wine.

These online critics may seem Lilliputian in comparison to the old Parker/ Spectator bulk—but collectively, their influence is considerable. Tim McDonald, a Napa-based wine industry consultant, has been looking critically at the business for decades and says, “Now you have to depend on a lot of eyeballs. Blogging has definitely arrived.” And some of those writing today have axes to grind, blaming Parker for “training” the American palate to crave alcohol and frontal, fruity assaults. Others wonder how Parker, Laube and other veterans of the numbers game will adjust to the shifting critical landscape. And how will wineries and winemakers fare who were for so long their darlings?

“My generation’s a lot more skeptical of points handed down as if from the hand of God.”

“The vintners are still on autopilot,” says Bonné. “The playing field’s crowded with those who evolved in the era of big flavor dominated by Parker and the Spectator, and they’ve benefitted enormously from that critical landscape. They just keep doing the same thing over and over again for the score and money that automatically comes with it.”

The new connoisseurs “have more diverse tastes,” says Bonné. “Cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay were most popular when America was getting interested in wine, and both grapes are easy for a novice to understand. But the more mature wine culture is more exploratory, and demanding.”

That sentiment is shared by one member of generation Y (born after 1980), a successful lawyer so smitten with the grape that he apprenticed himself to a winery, bought land and plans to build his own winery. (Fearful that his comments could backfire, he asked that his name be withheld.) “My generation’s a lot more skeptical of points handed down as if from the hand of God,” this young vintner says. “Anybody who makes wine hates the point scale and knows it’s 85 percent bullshit. That the futures of young winemakers are still in the relatively few hands of these critics should change.”

There’s more at stake in all this than the super-sensitive palates (and egos) of a few contending critics, or the internet’s capture of print media’s erstwhile prerogatives. Wine matters in ways that rarely occur to most people raising a glass. For one thing, wine sales in the United States alone amounted to $35 billion last year, a lot of money by any standard. And it’s dwarfed by the value of other enterprises directly in its wake, like tourism and agriculture. In little Napa Valley alone, tourists spent $3.8 million a day in 2012, almost all of it associated in some way with wine. Those revenues help fund everything from schools to parks to medical services to land preservation.

More important is the role of agriculture, not just its enhancement of scenic views and forestalling of development, but its strengthening of community.

Every state in the union now produces wine. Its growth as both a homegrown and imported commodity, whether cheap or luxurious, affects quality of life as surely as it does the health of businesses and households in some way dependent upon it. Thomas Jefferson’s vision of wine as the chosen beverage of Americans creeps closer, and today the individual finds the vast universe of wine most easily engaged and comprehended in the ether of the internet.

Even at the high end, wine and those enterprises built around it shouldn’t be dependent upon a few critics or, for that matter, on a relatively few, potentially fickle buyers interested only in scores and attendant bragging rights. What many bottles need are many voices.

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