Monday, August 23, 2010

Why Mainstream Wine Criticism Will Soon Be Obsolete

I'm continuing to ponder why it is I despise most mainstream wine journalism so much. The scores, ratings and articles loaded with misinformation and manufactured controversy do a disservice to, well, pretty much everybody.

When I say "mainstream wine writing," I refer to the major national magazines (Wine Spectator, Wine Advocate, Wine Enthusiast, Decanter and Wine & Spirits) and, to a lesser extent, the wine writing in major national newspapers like the New York Times and Wall Street Journal. I also get annoyed at the LA Times, but only because I have to read it regularly and it appears to be staffed by writers whose critical thinking skills are marginally better than a baby entranced by peekaboo but worse than a Tea Partier who knows Obama's a Muslim "just 'cause." I do not, however, consider the LA Times to be of particular national wine importance, not least because of their continued insistence on publishing writing by W. Blake Gray. I also group in major independent wine writers, however I view their influence as being largely insular (i.e. limited to professionals, collectors, and wine geeks) and even more on the wane than that of national media.

The San Francisco Chronicle does have the best food and wine section in the country and is, in my opinion, the only newspaper worth reading on that topic. They even stopped doing star ratings in their wine reviews. Progressive!

So why do I hate it? I like wine. I like reading. I like writing, but 90% of national wine writing is either duller than your mom in bed or so poorly conceived that it makes me want to gouge my eyes out with a Vinturi.

Most importantly, it fundamentally misunderstands the 21st century wine market.

I think it's because wine writing has remained largely unchanged for the last 30 years, back when Wine Advocate and Wine Spectator came on the scene and moved wine writing from the cerebral-abstract world of the British writers who dominated at the time toward the more visceral American style of criticism.

In 1980 the wine world was a very different place. Most American consumers of high-end (i.e. not jug) wine were a small, well-to-do elite. Wines on offer, both domestic and imported, were a fraction of what is available today and the sales of which were dependent almost entirely upon the reputation of the producer. The whole wine world was more easily navigable then and its audience largely homogeneous: upper middle class white professionals, drinking wine largely from California, France and Italy.

But in 2010 the wine world is an incredibly diverse place, with the number of wines and wine regions available in the United States having expanded exponentially. Premium wine is also consumed by a much more diverse cross-section of the population, including a sizable younger demographic that prefers to make its own decisions or make decisions based on personal recommendations rather than deferring to any institutional authority on matters of taste.

The idea that a national publication can attempt to effectively report on the real wine world is absurd. It reminds me of when my family first got AOL in 1996 and they actually sent an "internet yellow pages" with the software. It was a printed phone book listing several hundred URLs. I'm sure even at the time it was an absurdly quaint idea but now it looks absolutely ridiculous. A monolithic media entity for something as diverse as wine is equally ridiculous.

It's also incredibly limiting. An editor at one of the aforementioned magazines once told me that they generally don't write about wines if they aren't distributed in at least 30 states. The problem with that is that very few of the wines of true uniqueness or distinction are available in that many states. That's because unless it is one of a handful of ultra-rare expensive wines from wineries that only allocate a few dozen cases to each state, most wines, in order to be profitable in that big of a chunk of the country, needs to have a production run in the thousands of cases. There are many great wineries that produce fewer than 5,000 total cases, let alone of a single wine. They'll never make it onto the radar of the national wine media and therefore that wine will never be exposed to wine consumers who don't already know the winery locally. These magazines are akin to a food and restaurant magazine that only reviews restaurants with locations in multiple states. Those are the wines that these magazines review, the Morton's Steakhouses and Cheesecake Factories of wine.

(It's particularly troublesome given how easy it is to obtain wine now. Maybe twenty years ago it made sense to only review well-distributed wines because how else could the average reader get the wine if it wasn't reliably available in most of the country? But now, as long as the reader lives in one of the 35-odd states that allow for wine delivery, any wine that's written about can be obtained in a few mouse clicks.)

So what does that mean? It means the national wine media of 2010 is exactly the same as the national wine media of 1980 and it's still writing largely to that same audience: the casual, adventure-phobic wine connoisseur who wants to consume a score, not a wine. They want wines they can reliably find at their local big box wine shop and that they can open for their other wine-loving friends who will immediately know the brand, the reputation and the perceived quality: ironically the very behaviors in wine selection that the Wine Advocate originally helped dispel with its then-revolutionary 100-point rating scale.

Because this demographic, despite aging rapidly, still represents (for now) a significant chunk of the wine buying power they still have a massive economic effect on the wine industry. As the wine consumer has become more diverse, the wine critic remains largely middle-aged, male and white. Ipso facto, the mainstream wine media has ceased to be relevant to the vast majority of wine drinkers, while maintaining its relevance to the older minority who spend the most money. It makes perfect immediate economic sense but it's a recipe for obsolescence in a matter of, oh let's say five years or so.

I've grown up my entire wine-drinking life completely outside of the 100-point wine world. I worked at a wine shop that didn't give a flying fuck about scores (even if we did have a handful of perennial favorites on our shelves). When I worked as a wine shop clerk and as a waiter I never once had a guest who asked about wine scores. Did it help that I worked in Berkeley, perhaps the most progressive wine market in the country? Sure. But even in Los Angeles, with a few notable Westside exceptions, most reputable wine shops don't care about scores and don't use them to sell wine. These shops are quite successful. I mean sure they actually have to do their jobs and hand sell their wine to customers instead of relying on shelf-talkers and magazines to do their selling for them, but if you really love wine you wouldn't want it any other way. These are the places that will be in business for the next thirty years. The new consumer is adventurous, value-oriented and makes his purchasing decisions based upon personal recommendations, not from the authority of a distant group of stodgy white men--and yes, I consider Karen MacNeill a stodgy white man.

And so that's what it is: mainstream wine media is boring middle-aged white people writing for boring middle-aged white people and that's why it sucks. It's a holdover from an era when the WASP was the only American culture that mattered for selling high-end goods and they're still desperately clinging to that illusion.

As we move forward, the wine consumer who makes his decision based upon the recommendations of the wine media will continue to miss out on a majority of the world's unique wines and the wine shops that make the majority of their buying decisions based upon 90+ point scores will continue to lose market share and alienate the younger wine buyer.

Keep up the good work.


Zack said...


David J.D. said...


kdeezy said...

Very well said! Having just returned from the Czech Republic and having to listen to the Moravian wine makers at tastings espouse the EU's mandatory wine ratings system rank for each new wine we tried was ridiculous.

At one point I went off on a diatribe about how those ratings were meaningless but it probably was lost in the translation. I found most of their commercially produced wines to be borderline drinkable at best.

Some of the individually produced wines I tried at small cellars in Velké Bílovice were great though. Shrug..

David J.D. said...

It's funny, those government-regulated ratings systems were the norm in Europe for ages, which created a situation where bureaucracy and cronyism ruled over quality.

With the rise of American numerical scoring, it forced well-established European producers to pay attention to quality and style for the first time in ages.

However, with the subsequent institutionalization of the influential wine media, a different sort of cronyism took its place.

Drink what you like and seek out new experiences. And don't resist authority because that gives it power. Just ignore it.