Once a comfortable monarchy, the landscape of professional wine critics is evolving at a pace that is nearly outpacing the market’s ability to record of those all-so-elusive points they doled out over the years. We’re witnessing a sea change in the industry, and every wine lover who buys on recommendation or appreciates an expert opinion should be plugged in to what’s going on. And no, this isn’t a crowdsourcing or social media driven uprising, but a slowly evolving changing-of-the-guard that is giving some of the industry’s great voices a new platform and supplanting a decades-long regime.
It was confirmed this week that Robert Parker will not review Napa this Fall. Not a new thing (he handed the reins to Antonio Galloni for a time) but this does mark the first time in the thirty-nine years of the Wine Advocate that he won’t contribute any major article to the entity that originated with his voice alone. It is a quiet announcement that adds to a snowball of chaos at the once great, reference-point publication. That doesn’t mean that the Wine Advocate is no longer relevant – voices like Luiz Gutierrez and Neal Martin are some of the most candid and insightful journalists you’ll find covering any topic. But the platform that supports them is a shadow of what it once was. Ads have invaded the website that once had ad-free independence as a cornerstone. Articles like “Perfect Wine and Cheese Pairings from Trader Joe’s” signaled the dumbing-down of a narrative that before had catered to only the most devoted and demanding collectors out there. You’re more likely to see tumbleweeds than new comments on the once-infamous bulletin board. And now, even long-time subscribers are hard pressed to know who is reviewing their wines and any semblance of what their palate is attracted to.
Recently, Jeb Dunnuck jumped ship to start his own eponymous website. Until his departure he was the leading voice for the Rhone, Languedoc, Central Coast, Washington State at the aforementioned Wine Advocate. Before that it was Antonio Galloni who went solo – once the industry’s under-the-radar expert on Piedmont, he now influences not only Nebbiolo but Bordeaux and Napa on his ever-growing site called Vinous. Both took a cadre of devout followers with them and have continued to grow since. And perhaps it was James Suckling who made the same jump nearly a decade ago that cleared a path for a name (his) over a publication (Wine Spectator). Say what you want about Suckling’s generous scores – he was a trailblazer for how we began to consider the individual over the brand and ushered in a new age of professional wine critics.
This is perhaps a good time to take a minute to consider an important question…why does any of this matter? There is nothing truer than one’s own taste buds and every wine collector should be empowered to have and trust their own opinion. But for those that collect wine, tasting everything they want to invest in is a luxury that few can afford. Not to mention a marketplace that often demands taking a position in wines – pre-arrivals, allocations, mailing lists – before there’s ever a chance to get to pop a cork. Expert opinions are massively valuable, and their guidance has led thousands of wine lovers to new discoveries. And sure, sometimes a wine review can oversimplify a wine or hyperbolize the potential that bottle actually has, but hits and misses are always going to be part of any wine journey. Reviews aren’t vital because they’re “right”, but instead they are essential for the ability to distill, communicate, and give perspective on a wine, and those who are good at it should be celebrated.
Now that we find ourselves in a post-Parker era, what are we left with? I would venture to say that the trend is very positive – the voices that are becoming the most prevalent in the industry are those that also provide a depth and insight that you won’t find anywhere else. They are accessible, real people that understand what the buyer wants to know. Parker was great at this in his prime. Galloni, Dunnuck, Martin, and Gutierrez are all of the same breed – they’ll call a spade a spade, write essay-length reviews on wines that truly move them, speak thoughtfully about the market and pricing for those who actually have to buy the wines, and speak at length about not only the wine itself, but the producer, context, and evolution of the brand. Whether or not you agree with the score, the depth of knowledge conveyed cannot be denied.
At the end of the day, professional wine critics get paid for their opinions and by no means do you have any imperative to agree with them. But when the best of them write with insight and depth beyond the points that they award, their voice is more and more vital to collecting and finding the most rewarding wines in an extremely crowded marketplace. Hopefully in a sea of publications new and old, essential individuals like the ones mentioned here are the cornerstone of a continually evolving, robust, and thoughtful critical landscape. We’ll all be drinking better for it.