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More Thoughts on Blind vs. Non-Blind Tasting

Another Reason for Tasting Blind

Girl with a glass of wineThere’s one reason I didn’t mention in my recent article that magazines taste blind: advertising. Wine newsletters, and most blogs, do not accept ads from wineries. Magazines depend on them. This creates considerable opportunity for conflict of interest. The same is true outside the wine industry too, be it music, consumer electronics or automobiles. [Newspapers reviewers don’t always taste blind, but winery ads are an infinitesimal portion of their revenue.]

Magazine publishers talk about “the separation of church and state,” essentially a firewall between the ad and edit sides of most magazines. By and large, this works. There are always advertisers here and there who complain to their ad reps about a bad review, lack of coverage, etc. The sales guys simply say that they don’t have any ability to sway coverage and that ends it. Sometimes a company will pull their ads, but that’s rare.

The potential for influence is there though. The practice of selling a winery ads in the same section in which a positive review or article about that winery appears leads to consumer and industry suspicion. Without blind tasting there would be even more concern about high scores being more likely for big advertisers.

That said, it seems wine reviewers are often held to a different standard than critics in other product segments. Reviews of CDs and concerts aren’t blind. The reviewer always knows who they’re listening too, who the publisher is and the music is received as a free sample, not purchased in a store. Likewise, restaurant reviewers know where they are going, who the chef is and who owns the restaurant. The same is true of reviews for movies, cars, etc.

Surprise Winners in Blind Tastings

Wine and restaurant reviewer Michael Cervin mentioned in a comment on my last article that, in judging situations, he’s sometimes seen people be surprised by the wines to which they’ve given good scores. I’ve noticed this as well. There’s no question that, sometimes, the engineered yumminess of an inexpensive wine wins people over in blind taste tests. Quality in high-volume wines gets better every year.

I’ve also noticed a certain amount of self-selection from wineries when it comes to contests vs. print/online reviews. Wineries which would never submit their product to a newsletter, or even a magazine, will enter into big blind-judging competitions. I can easily think of four different reasons for this.

  • Some producers are concerned their wine won’t make the first cut with reviewers.
  • It’s more cost effective to pay a small fee and send a few bottles to one contest than it is to ship dozens of individual bottles all over the country.
  • Contest results are non-points based. A gold medal is a gold medal, and even bronze sounds better than 84.
  • Medals and ribbons look impressive hanging from bottles in a tasting room.

The Difficulty of Judging Typicity in Fully Blind Tastings

I think knowing the variety while tasting is important. Otherwise, blind tastings can occasionally result in inappropriate ratings due to lack of information. If the goal is just to find tasty beverages or the best among unconventional blends, that’s one thing. But, if the wine is varietally labeled, it should be varietally correct to merit a high score. Varietal labels set expectations for consumers. It’s a reviewer’s job to determine whether or not the wine meets those expectations.

This may seem like an edge case, but non-varietally correct wines appear more frequently than you might imagine. Just the other day I was at a group tasting, blind, of Chardonnay from very reputable producers. One of the wines was enjoyable but did not smell at all like Chardonnay. It smelled and tasted of apricot and botrytis. There was a little residual sugar and fairly high acidity. Had we not known what it was supposed to be, we would have all thought it to be a good-quality Riesling.

 

Follow NorCalWine on Twitter for wine news, information on events and more, or friend me on Facebook. This article is original to NorCalWine.com. Copyright 2014. All rights reserved.

A Great Tasting on Balance

IPOBred3-e1390765050425I spent Monday afternoon in Pursuit of Balance. Mission accomplished. I didn’t fall down once! Neither did the wines.

I arrived at the tasting nearly an hour late, but still managed to taste 40+ wines and have a number of interesting conversations. [Trivia: Bluxome is Cockney slang for “zero parking.”] Having dedicated last year’s tasting to Chardonnay, my focus this time was solely Pinot Noir. Despite this, there were so many wines on offer that I missed out on a great many, including about half of those on Jamie Goode’s good list.

The pouring is a little slower at IPOB than at most tastings too. As one winemaker told me, “There are so many people here that I only see twice a year and that I really need to catch up with.” Wine descriptions are also longer than those at most tastings: vineyard designation, precise location, harvest date, fermentation methodology, aging regime and various philosophical discussions are nearly mandatory. Tasters respond with multi-part questions. Wine geeks pouring for wine geeks.

Speaking of which, while I was not able to attend, I heard good things about the seminars (which you can now view online). Ehren Jordan of Failla told me “the side by side tasting of 2013 Calera Mills Vineyard Pinot Noir picked at two different ripeness levels was worth the price of admission by itself.” The resulting differences in alcohol level led to two very different wines.

The wine with higher alcohol was richer, easier to drink now and had the more generous palate. A show of hands indicated it was the favorite of most in attendance. Ehren, however, was captivated by the lighter wine’s exquisite nose, with “laser focus,” and preferred it. He was convinced that, with a couple of years bottle age, it would be just as accessible as the big brother but more interesting.

The Tasting

One of my fellow tasters told me that he found the wine’s this year to be more consistent than last year’s. I agree. I believe the primary reason for this is vintage. There were a lot of 2012s this time and it was a more uniform and less challenging year in the vineyard. That is not to say that the 2011s tasted this year or last were not good. It’s just that vineyard conditions were much more variable.

There was no wine I tasted at In Pursuit of Balance 2014 that I did not rank at least “Highly Recommended.” The wines I list below are those I rated Highly Recommended+ or Very Highly Recommended.

Anthill Farms Winery Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast, 2012
Wild flowers, mixed berries and spice on the nose and palate. Medium+ body gently restrained by acidity and fine-grained tannins.

Anthill Farms Winery “Campbell Ranch Vineyard” Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast 2012
Pretty and feminine with a touch of melancholy: tea, drying rose petals, delicate red fruit and subtle vanilla. Fresh.

Calera “Jensen Vineyard” Pinot Noir, Mt. Harlan 1997
If only I could go back in time and buy a couple of cases upon release. Tea, dried flowers, cedar, stewed cherry and a hint of prune. Expressive, sleek and still energetic.

Ceritas “Costalina” Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast 2012
Sweet red berries, spice and cream. Fresh and long.

Domaine de la Cote “La Cote” Pinot Noir, Sta Rita Hills 2011
Intense, stemmy perfume and tart purple fruit on the nose. The palate is medium+ in body with chalk and very good length. Designed for development, give it three years.

Drew “Valenti Vineyard” Pinot Noir, Mendocino Ridge 2012
A beautiful, intense nose with dark berries and exotic spice. Built to last.

Drew “Balo Vineyards” Pinot Noir, Anderson Valley 2012
A little restrained on the nose of berries and spice. More power on the palate with great acidity and fine-grained grip. Best in a year or more.

Failla “Savoy Vineyard” Pinot Noir, Anderson Valley 2012
A gentle nose of earthy red cherry, spice and forest floor leads into a palate of intensity and finesse with plenty of very fine tannins and excellent length.

Hirsch “Reserve” Estate Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast 2011
This best barrels selection from their San Andreas Fault Vineyard wine shows excellent concentration and length.

Kutch Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast 2012
Just the right amount of stem led to rich and spicy nose, grippy palate. Give it a couple of years in bottle.

Mount Eden Vineyards “Estate Bottled” Pinot Noir, Santa Cruz Mountains 2011
Amazing nose of dark flowers, spice and zesty berries. Captivating.

Mount Eden Vineyards “Estate Bottled” Pinot Noir, Santa Cruz Mountains 2008
Super-intense nose of ripe, lightly sappy red cherries and spice. Great balance, all at the plus end of the spectrum. Lengthy.

Native9 “Rancho Ontiveros” Pinot Noir, Santa Maria Valley 2011
A stunning wine. Super complex and savory aromas and flavors, including forest floor, tea, cedar, incense and more. Very long palate with medium+ body and fine-grained grip.

Red Car “Estate Vineyard” Pinot Noir, Fort Ross-Seaview 2012
Wild flowers, forest spice and burnt caramel on the nose, but the palate is about concentrated, tangy red fruit.

Red Car “Platt Vineyard” Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast 2012
Juicy fruit on the palate but fascinating forest spice and dried wild flowers on the nose.

Red Car “Zephyr Farms Vineyard,” Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast 2011
A fruity wine with dark red cherry, raspberry and spice. Very fresh.

Tyler “Bien Nacido Old Vines” Pinot Noir, Santa Maria Valley 2011
Intensely floral with light, sweet cherry and berry fruit. Very long. Neely “Hidden Block” Pinot Noir, Santa Cruz Mountains 2011
Gorgeous with pretty dark flowers and spice. Fine, grippy tannins.

Neely “Picnic Block” Pinot Noir, Santa Cruz Mountains 2011
What a difference a few yards makes. Shallower soil means the Picnic Block vines struggle more and develop more slowly. The result is more somber and masculine wine than the Hidden Block. Earth, dark spice and dark red fruit with medium+ body.

Wind Gap “Woodruff Vineyard” Pinot Noir, Santa Cruz Mountains 2012
100% whole cluster Pinot, foot-stomped, fermented open-top and then aged in concrete yields an unique, attractive nose of white and black pepper with ripe berry fruit.

Follow NorCalWine on Twitter for wine news, information on events and more, or friend me on Facebook. This article is original to NorCalWine.com. Copyright 2014. All rights reserved.

How Critics Taste Wines - On Blind Tasting

You’ve read thousands of wine reviews. But what do you know about the way wine critics perform their evaluations? Frankly, even wine writers don’t always know how their fellow reviewers conduct tastings.

This is the first in what will be a short series of articles revealing how several respected wine critics go about their business. My inspiration was a panel discussion at the 2014 Symposium for Professional Wine Writers held last week in Napa Valley. Moderated by Alder Yarrow of Vinography, Ray Isle of Food and Wine magazine and Lisa Perotti-Brown of The Wine Advocate described their processes in substantial detail. Other writers chimed in. I’ve interviewed still others.

Wine Reviewing Makes You Go Blind. Or Not.

320px-Blindfold hatThere is ongoing debate between wine reviewers on the pros and cons of tasting wines blind. Newsletter reviewers, such as Antonio Galloni, Doug Wilder, and those at the Wine Advocate, do not taste blind. Critics for top wine magazines—Wine Spectator, Wine & Spirits, and Wine Enthusiast—do.

In a note to Jameson Fink, Harvey Steiman, who reviews the wines of Australia, Oregon and Washington for Wine Spectator, said, “At Wine Spectator every review in New Releases is the result of a blind tasting. We believe that blind tasting insulates our judgments from any bias that might result from knowing producer or price. It’s the fairest and most objective way to allow every wine to show its true character”

In a recent blog of his own, Steiman suggests that even knowing the stated alcohol level of a wine prior to evaluation can color one’s opinion. “Some high-profile wine writers are suggesting that that they shouldn’t have to taste blind, that it’s unnecessary unless you have an agenda. I would submit that a preference for low-alcohol wines is an agenda. Just how much alcohol is present is not so obvious when you can’t see the label.”

Alcohol isn’t the only bit of information that might sway an opinion. Reviewers could potentially be biased with regard to price point, producer or certain varieties in a particular region. Even bottle weight and label design could sway perception.

Joe Czerwinski, managing editor at Wine Enthusiast where he also reviews wines of Australia, New Zealand and the Rhone, tells me that he knows what countries might be involved in his review tastings due to his beat. When tasting for a particular feature article, he may also know the specific region and varieties. He never knows the price or producer though.

At Wine & Spirits, reviewers have three pieces of information. They know the region, the variety and whether or not the wine costs less than $15. The latter helps them earmark wines for “best buy” designations. Knowing the region and variety lets them judge typicity, eg. does a particular Dry Creek Zinfandel meet expectations as such.

Some reviewers, myself included, often taste blind but don’t do so exclusively. In an email to me, Jon Bonné of the San Francisco Chronicle said, “I’m increasingly of the opinion that blind tasting isn’t really that useful when tasting critically.” The Chronicle’s panel tastings are typically conducted blind but, when tasting on his own, Bonné usually sees what he’s pouring. This is common with solo reviewers. The logistics of managing the blind tasting of a multitude of wines by one’s self makes it highly impractical.

Bonné also poses the question, “Why shouldn’t a critic evaluate a wine the way his or her readers do?” I’m sympathetic to that view and try in other respects, such as selection of glassware, to taste wines the way I think enthusiasts might. Perhaps more importantly, Christophe Hedges of Hedges Family Estate suggested (in that same article by Jameson Fink) that he believes blind tasting removes important context from the evaluation process.

What context matters? Knowing the vintage can help you judge whether a wine is an excellent 2011 or a lean 2009. Region, even vineyard, and variety can indicate typicity. Knowing the producer, and their track record, provides important clues as to the likely aging profile.

Context is, along with practicality, the primary reason given by critics for not tasting blind. At the Symposium, Lisa Perotti-Brown said she tries to ensure her tastings at wineries are under controlled conditions, but she always tastes non-blind and with the winemaker. She asks a lot of questions as she tastes. One of her main goals is to get as much information as possible for her vintage reports.

In a past interview, Antonio Galloni told me, “I generally prefer not to taste blind because the questions readers ask of me require some context.” Reader questions he fields include comparisons of different vintages of a particular wine, wines made by different producers from the same vineyard, differences between vineyard blocks, etc. Therefore, he likes to taste three successive vintages of each wine: the one being reviewed, the preceding vintage and a barrel sample of that upcoming. He, and other reviewers at wineries, will also taste a variety of vineyard designates side-by-side.

As important as context is, the issue of reviewer bias always arises when discussing non-blind tasting. Can critics completely divorce themselves from prejudices of any sort? The mind is a sneaky thing. Objectivity can be easily, and stealthily, clouded. There’s a reason why doctors aren’t (officially) allowed to treat their family and why judges recuse themselves from cases.

Even if one can be totally objective, non-blind tasting creates doubt in the mind of consumers, wineries, etc. For example, going back to that Jameson Fink article one more time, Hedges assumed Wine Spectator didn’t taste blind and that Steiman’s reviews might somehow be biased against them. Neither was true, but the doubt and perception affected Hedges’ own behavior.

On the other hand, blind tasting tempts one to make guesses which may also be a distraction. Unless the tasting is not just blind but double-blind—when the reviewer has no idea whatsoever which wines are in the tasting—there’s a natural tendency to look for hallmarks of the known regions or producers in various bottles. That can lead to false assumptions that skew results more than non-blind tasting would have.

That’s why magazines’ office-based tastings are generally double-blind. They also have enough staff to be able to receive, catalog and pour bottles without involvement from the reviewers. Home-based reviewers can’t do that unless they have a part-time helper. [Reviewers may taste 50 wines per day, six days per week. Setting all that up is very time-consuming and even the most gracious spouse or friend won’t want to spend 20 hours a week doing that over the long term.]

Jon Bonné adds this on blind vs. non-blind, “One significant thing: When I looked at how Robert Parker and the Advocate was tasting, it was clear that they increasingly opted for non-blind tasting, often with the producers themselves. Context seemed to be more important. Over and over again, my conclusion was that non-blind tasting led to better criticism.” Bonné and Wine Advocate are famously at odds with each other. His praise for their methodology therefore speaks well of that system and Bonné’s own objectivity.

In reality, neither tasting method is perfect. What we see is that the method used depends on the practicality of tasting blind, the intended use of the evaluation and the intended audience.

If the critiques will be going into a large compendium of capsule reviews without much context, such as those found at the back of magazines, then blind tasting makes sense. It evens the playing field, creates the perception of fairness and most readers are simply looking for a list of solid wines from which to select a few bottles for purchase anyway.

The newsletters address a different type of buyer. These subscribers may be purchasing in case volumes or higher. They are looking at more expensive wines on average and have more concerns about aging potential, resale value, etc. Such readers are also more likely to be using their wines for formal tastings, perhaps verticals or horizontals. Then, the added context provided by a Galloni or Perotti-Brown educates and provides creates discussion points.

Wine evaluations for inclusion within a regional or producer profile are different still. This is the type of writing Ray Isle typically does for Food & Wine. In this case, readers are primarily interested in the story or learning about the overall topic. Notes on the wines are used almost adjectivally, adding color or supporting a broader point. Tasting non-blind does no harm and is often essential.

The good news is that, regardless of their tasting methodology, the vast majority of professional critics are just that—professional. They do very the best they can in every circumstance to be objective. Personal taste, be it for intense, mouth-filling wines or lithe, high-acid ones, plays a much larger role in the scores than does knowledge of producer, price point or region.

Follow NorCalWine on Twitter for wine news, information on events and more, or friend me on Facebook. This article is original to NorCalWine.com. Copyright 2014. Photo of blindfolded woman by Isarra. All rights reserved.

On "Unexpected Napa Valley Wines"

In 1968, the value of Napa County’s beef production was virtually identical to that of its grapes[1]. There were 1,336 productive acres of Cabernet Sauvignon, but 1,492 acres of Petite Sirah. Chardonnay grew on 364 acres while French Colombard and Chenin Blanc each covered twice as much land. Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay combined accounted for just 14% of Napa’s wine grape plantings.

Today the picture is far different. Total vine acreage is four times greater. In 2013, Chardonnay represented 58% of Napa Valley’s white grape crush and Cabernet Sauvignon 55% of the red[2]. Petite Sirah was a mere 2%. Not a single ton of French Colombard was harvested.

Now, one might naturally assume Napa Valley wines made from obscure varieties, such as Grignolino and Tocai Friuliano, are a new fad. But, while their winemakers may enjoy offering non-standard wines, no Cabernet or Chardonnay vines were grubbed up to do so. Despite the valley’s massive transition, some “heritage” vines still exist in Napa Valley. Jon Bonné and Eric Asimov took wine writers on a largely historical tour with new wines made from old grapes in a seminar called Unexpected Napa Valley Wines at The Symposium for Professional Wine Writers late last month.

Their Unexpected Napa Valley Wines and my thoughts on them

2012 AbrenteAbrente 2012 Albariño, Napa Valley
Some comments on the Mark Squires message board take the position that, since there’s good Albariño in Spain, making it in Napa Valley is stupid. I agree. And since there’s good Cabernet Sauvignon in Bordeaux, we should rip out all the Cabernet in Napa too. But, in the meantime, Michael Havens and Morgan Twain-Peterson are making this full-bodied, Carneros Albariño with long-lasting flavors of tropical fruit, tangy peach and white flowers. The palate weight is balanced by prominent acidity and grippy texture. It’s very nice. Try it with Chicken Koorma. Highly Recommended. About $23.

I should point out here that Albariño is not a blast from Napa's past. It was introduced to Napa Valley by Michael Havens himself in the late 1990's[3]. He also led the effort to get it offically approved by the TTB as a legal varietal in the U.S. His 2000 release was this country's first commercial Albariño wine. Now the grape grows in a variety of California AVAs.

Chappellet Vineyards & Winery 2012 Chenin Blanc, Napa Valley
There are just 22 acres of Chenin Blanc left in Napa Valley, a mere 2% of 1982’s sum. Good riddance, say some, since Chenin in California has mostly been associated with high-volume, nondescript whites from the Central Valley. But that’s got nothing to do with varietal releases from serious wineries in Napa Valley.

There was Chenin in the vineyard when the Chappellets purchased their property back in the 1960’s. The vineyard was replanted a decade ago, but a combination of French oak, stainless barrels and concrete egg add complexity to the wine. It’s off-dry, mouth-filling and minerally with a core of juicy, yet under-ripe stone fruit.It won't make you forget top-quality Vouvray but it’s a good wine. Served chilled with hot, crispy arancini. Recommended. $32

Massican 2012 White Blend, Annia, Napa Valley
If you want to start throwing “hipster” around, I guess this would be the time. Massican’s Dan Petroski went to Columbia, has lived in Brooklyn and worked in publishing before chucking it all to to study winemaking in Italy. Now in Napa Valley, he’s making wines to suit his Friuli-loving palate. On the other hand, “hipster” doesn’t describe wine (or anything) very well. So let’s scrap that and talk about the wine.

The blend is 46% Ribolla Gialla from Oak Knoll and Russian River Valley, 36% Tocai Friuliano from Chiles Valley and 18% Chardonnay from Carneros. The nose and palate are mineral-laden and delicately fruity with taut apple and stone fruit. Medium-bodied with juicy acid and just 12.7%, I’d enjoy this wine with linguine alle vongole, a white pizza or all by itself on a warm day. Highly Recommended. About $28.

Matthiasson 2011 White Wine Blend, Napa Valley Steve Matthiasson’s NapItal white also features Ribolla Gialla and Tocai Friuliano but pairs them with Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon instead of Chardonnay. The nose offers subtle jasmine perfume along with mineral notes and a mix of slightly tart tropical fruits that carry through in the mouth. The palate is fresh, medium+ in body and smooth, yet grippy. This wine would be perfect with the grilled octopus burrito from La Taquiza (next to the Starbucks on Redwood Rd. in Napa). Highly Recommended+. $40.

Heitz Wine Cellars 2012 Grignolino, Napa Valley
This unassuming wine has been a focal point for the scorn of Wine Advocate writers and their supporters this week. Lisa Perotti-Brown complained that the wine looked more like a rosé than a red, but then that’s the varietally correct appearance for Grignolino. One person dismissed the wine with an irrelevance, quoting Oz Clarke’s views on the variety in Italy. Others have totally missed the point that this is not a new grape to Napa.

Grignolino was already resident in “The One and Only Vineyard” when Joe Heitz bought it in 1961. It won’t be confused with Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon and that’s just fine in my book. It’s a $19, medium-bodied red wine with light, yet grippy, tannins, generous acidity and just 12.5% alcohol. The nose is fresh and lively, reminiscent of rose petals, purple flowers and huckleberry pie. Tart berry flavors and juiciness are long-lasting in the mouth. Lisa Perotti-Brown likened it to an average Gamay. If “average” equates to 88 points or so, I agree. It’s a versatile lunch wine, right for everything from steak tartare, or a turkey sandwich with cranberry sauce, to a bowl of cioppino. Recommended.

Lagier-Meredith 2011 Syrah, Mount Veeder
Syrah might be considered unexpected in Napa not because it’s still left from the old days but because someone was crazy enough to plant some recently. There was none at all in 1968’s Napa Valley. The other unexpected thing about this wine is that, owing to the Mount Veeder growing location, it’s got a disciplined, cool-climate personality.

I found aromas and flavors of thick-skinned black plums, mountain blackberries, licorice, earth and white pepper. Body is medium+ with firm, lightly chalky tannins and acidity that peeks through. This is a very enjoyable wine now—decant it or braise a lamb shank—but will soften and gain delicious complexity for at least a decade in the cellar. Very Highly Recommended. $48

Turley Wine Cellars 2011 Petite Sirah Library Vineyard, Napa Valley
Despite it’s drop to 2% of red crush, Petite Sirah isn’t exactly unexpected in Napa Valley. Several of the other grapes in this complicated, mixed black (and white) blend are though. They include Mission, Peloursin, Grand Noir (huh?), Cinsault, Muscat of Alexandria, Muscadelle, Burger and Green Hungarian. That’s seriously old school.

I found this wine’s nose almost as opaque as its color during the tasting, but dense purple fruit and a hint of spice showed through. The body is medium+ with fine, very grippy tannins and plenty of acidity offsetting zesty dark berries and spice. This is your grandfather’s Petite Sirah and will reward cellaring. Highly Recommended+. $70

Corison 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley
Okay. There’s nothing unexpected about a Corison Cabernet Sauvignon at tasting presented by Jon Bonné. (Welcome, yes. Unexpected, no.) It would, however, have surprised any writers who expect all wines of that variety from Napa Valley to be voluptuous studies in ripe cherry, black currant and mocha. Visitors from Bordeaux might also wonder when Napa started bottling St. Julien juice.

The nose is complex but dignified. Dry black currant is surrounded by an elegant range of spice, mineral and wood aromas which are indivdually distinct but also combine to smell something like the center drawer of an antique wooden desk. The palate is nearly full-bodied with firm tannins of light chalk but balancing acidity. Flavors include chewy blackberry, violets, pencil lead and crushed gravel. Very Highly Recommended. $80

Follow NorCalWine on Twitter for wine news, information on events and more, or friend me on Facebook. This article is original to NorCalWine.com. Copyright 2014. All rights reserved.


  1. Annual Crop Report Gross Values 1969, Napa County  ↩

  2. Preliminary Grape Crush 2013, NASS-USDA  ↩

  3. Napa Valley Wine Library Report, Summer 2005  ↩

Robert Parker's Advice to Wine Writers

Wine-critic-Robert-Parker-010Given the quantity of articles last week on Robert Parker’s appearance at The Symposium for Professional Wine Writers, and the length of this one as it stands, I’m not doing the compleat review I’d intended here. Instead, I’m focusing on his advice to wine writers, which was intended to be one of the primary benefits to us of his talk.

Though some disagree, I believe Parker thought the issue through and was genuinely trying to be helpful. Wine writer Elin McCoy, who wrote the 2005 biography of Parker, The Emperor of Wine: The Rise of Robert M. Parker, Jr. and the Reign of American Taste, also attended the conference and saw his appearance similarly, “What struck me first was his clear desire to reach out to this group of wine writers, certainly generous given his current health issues. – i.e. back surgery, and he has bad knees, too.”

In his opening remarks last week, Parker said, “In the time that I have here today, I’d like to share as much information as I have because I want to see all of you succeed. I came out of basically nowhere… and never dreamed of the kind of success I would have…. I have some ideas how I got there and I want other people to succeed.”

But then he added, “When I retire, I don’t want to see the wine writing profession just sort of dwindle away.” That led to open-mouthed gapes. Does he fear that, without him as shepherd, the huge flock of contemporary wine writers will lose focus and drift off into oblivion? To some writers, Robert Parker seems like one of those fathers who dispenses encouragement and sage advice, urges you to work hard and then pauses to remind you (again) that you’ll never be as good as he is. It can be maddening. But, perhaps, we are hearing what we expect, not what’s said.

Let’s look at his words again. He did not say “wine writing.” He said “the wine writing profession.” He’s not saying that we aren’t good writers. He said the opposite, “There’s a lot of good talent here. I think there are infinite possibilities to do something very, very special.”

He’s worried about the profession. “When I started in 1978, and looking around the room I think this makes me the premier geezer in the room [he and the room laugh], in 1978 when I started most magazines that dealt with any kind of lifestyle involving food had wine writers. I’ve seen a lot of those publications reduce their staffs. They’re under strict budgets and that’s unfortunate.” We have seen most all newspapers cut their paid wine columns too, and trim their culture sections overall.

How many professional wine writers today make a living based solely on that vocation? A survey at last year’s Symposium revealed that most of the attendees made less than $20,000 per year writing about wine. How many wine scribes make the kind of money through wine writing that Parker has? Probably none. Other areas of journalism are little better. This is what causes him trepidation, not our talent. He’s not demeaning our capabilities. He’s realistically appraising the state of paid journalism today. It’s abysmal.

Later, Parker hit on that topic in a different way. “The idea of giving content away makes no sense at all. People will always be willing to pay for independent expertise. In the overall blog world I see content that is derived from other sources, it may be good reading and attract a lot of hits but we’re talking about people willing to pay you for content.” I’ve heard wine writer and educator Karen MacNeil give this advice more bluntly, “Never do anything for free.”

Parker is not criticizing us as writers. He’s cautioning us, bloggers in particular, as business people and he’s correct to do so. Very few writers have the financial wherewithal and stubbornness to continue writing quality articles day after day, year after year, without compensation. And nobody has meaningfully monetized a personal wine blog. Meanwhile, the internet’s demand for new content every day almost guarantees a great many blog articles will be superficial, derivative or navel-gazing—not the kind of thing people will pay for.

Creating enough valuable, unique content to drive a profitable level of paid subscriptions, let alone ads, is hard. The niche isn’t big enough to support everyone that might want to do it either. But the market has already proved free wine content with an ad- or affinity sales-based model won’t support anyone at all. There is a good number of subscription-based content providers who have achieved at least modest success though. Some have done much better.

Parker suggests teaming up may be a way forward. “If you have a website, and there are some really good websites… there’s got to be real content, original content not derivative stuff… We’re talking about making money. People willing to pay you, $9.95, $20 or whatever for that content. You may have to do it with a group of people [to get enough content].”

The already successful sites and newsletters also reinforce something else Parker said. Despite complaints from many writers about the banality of wine reviews, people still want to read them. The majority of consumer-focused, subscription-based wine newsletters have wine reviews at their core. Even so, the market for paid wine newsletters in the United States is small and more likely to decline than improve.

There will never be another figure such as Parker in wine for the western world. “Today,” he said, “the internet sort of neutralizes things. It’s a reservoir almost.” The great ease with which wine writing can now be published and the broad access to it for consumers precludes that. Parker’s empire is being divided among many hundreds of writers and thousands of citizen reviewers.

This leads into Parker’s next point. "“The real growth market, and this is why I sold the majority of the Wine Advocate to guys in Singapore, is in Asia. There is no question about it, even though the economy in China has slowed a bit; it’s still booming.” There is virtually no credible, Chinese-language writing on wine, but many of the wealthy in Asia who can afford fine wine are comfortable with English.

“I really think the opportunity today,” Parker continued “is live-streamed video, high-quality video content… I think the future is in an educational wine video program that streams through all of the different Asian countries. If you do it as professionally as possible, and don’t charge too much for it, you’ll have success because the volume of people in these countries dying for education is enormous.”

I know this to be true. The number of applicants to the Wine & Spirits Education Trust for authorization and training to teach WSET curriculum throughout Asia is startling, as is attendance in the resulting classes. Some well-established western wine writers, such as Australia’s Jeremy Oliver, are spending more and more of their time in China serving this thirst for wine education. And Robert Parker, with his reconstructed back and aching knees, wouldn’t be embarking on a month-long trip to China were it not important.

We can laugh at stories about people in Asia mixing expensive Bordeaux with Coca-Cola, as I heard some writers do. Or we can let those folks pay us to help them enjoy the nuances of great wine, straight-up, no chaser. We can titter at the idea of doing videos from home while we write our pajama-clad, freelancing-butts off for fifty cents per word, or we can give Parker’s suggestions a shot.

Nobody in Parker’s audience at the symposium was a serious videographer but video, even mediocre video, will be more compelling to this audience, and many others, than the same content in writing. Jancis Robinson spoke to this when addressing bloggers in Virginia two years ago. She urged them to integrate video into their repertoire. She said it didn’t have to be sleek, if the information was solid and unique. Antonio Galloni has made videos a big component of his Vinous Media site.

In a post-symposium discussion, David White of the excellent Terroirist.com told me, “I think writers are still hoping for Parker to become the elder statesman he pretends he wants to be… We still revere him. Yet over and over again, he’s divisive and dismissive.” There were definitely moments of that in Parker’s session and they’ve been well-documented. However, his advice to us as professional writers was solid and well-intentioned.

Follow NorCalWine on Twitter for wine news, information on events and more, or friend me on Facebook. This article is original to NorCalWine.com. Copyright 2014. Robert Parker photo by Shahrar Azran/WireImage. All rights reserved.