Sunday, March 3, 2013

The Wine World is Changing and Some Wine Writers ARE Losing It (Influence, that is...)

One of the favorite discussion items in the wine industry of late revolves around changes in wine criticism. Some recognize changes and others hold on to the belief that wine writing is a static enterprise. In the past few years, the rise of wine bloggers has caused traditional writers to get a bit defensive. This rise in the democratization of information is upsetting the critical dictators. Those in the ivory towers continue to say that wine criticism and the traditional media in which it has been conveyed is stronger than ever. Those that say otherwise are attacked as losing their minds. Regardless of the ridiculous amount of navel gazing going on, the short and skinny of it is simple: yes, the wine industry is changing and the role of wine criticism is a big part of that change. To say otherwise is to proclaim your stubbornness (or ignorance).

I can't personally speak to how different the world of wine is now from 40 years ago. It is easy to say that there used to no globally known critic. There used to be fewer wineries producing a more variable quality of product. In those 40 years, the wine industry, and wine criticism, went through a revolution. It saw the rise of one dominant critic, Robert M. Parker, Jr., lead to the emergence of a handful of influential critics. Social media is disrupting that staus quo ante. The wind of change is blowing through this field again. Whether we like it or not, this growth of consumer consciousness is a social fact.

The rise of the Millennial as an important wine consumer is reason for this wind. Millennials' values and habits are different than their parents' and their grandparents'. Though perhaps not by much, they are different. One difference is due to their familiarity of digital communication and media technologies. Millennials expect to talk with and not be spoken at. They want to feel like they are an active part of the wine discovery process and not passively being told what to drink or told they can't have a voice. This involves having a much broader base of influencers. This is not to say Millennials have zero trust in experts, but they want to have a choice in where they get their information. This generation grew up on Google. They don't take the first answer as the only answer. This means that critics that are used to being the sole authority on a subject (or want to be the sole authority) are less important. The hardest thing the mid-level influencers are dealing with is the decrease in their influence. Now there are thousands of people discussing wine from places the major publications never before gave the time of day.

And Millennials want to hear what they have to say. They also have the confidence to make up their own mind. Again this is not to say that Baby Boomers don't, but because of Millennials' more cosmopolitan view of the world and strong sense of community, both local and global, they want to explore the world of wine and make up their mind on what they like on their own terms. To use Jon Bonné's idea, they want wines that are relevant. But then again everyone wants wines that are relevant. To me, relevant means wines that are interesting to their own social circumstances. That relevancy is different for every individual Millennial.

Where the term relevant becomes more important is where and how Millennials gather information. Parker et al are seen by many Millennials to be irrelevant. Critics that don't change with the times are irrelevant. Millennials want to interact with dynamic wine personalities. Scores are not dynamic. Scores freeze a wine in time and place. Millennials want to interact with dynamic wines. Dynamic wines can be trousseau gris from Sonoma, ribolla gialla from Napa, traminette from New York or even vignoles from Iowa. Dynamic means interesting grapes or interesting places. Yes, cabernet sauvignon from Napa can be fantastic and Millennials will drink it. But right now Millennials want to blaze their own trail. And that means changes in how people and which people write about wine.

But that change is not just limited to Millennials. People of all ages are enthusiastic about wines from Virginia, Idaho, Michigan and even Colorado. Slovenia, Macedonia, Uruguay, and China are ready to burst on to the world wine scene. People are already writing about those wines. Millennials are eager to not just listen to those people, but to engage with them. The two major publications, Wine Advocate and Wine Spectator, at least for the American market will remain influential but they will also share the pie with many more competitors. Granted that pie is getting bigger, but the legacy publications' pieces will still get smaller. And no one likes a glutton any way...


  1. I pay no attention to wine critics or those point scores that are issued by Wine Spectator, or any of those shelf talkers that scream out a wine score. You can find a fantastic wine with a score of 85%, so why bother spending so much more for something in the 95 point range? Wine critics impose points, per THEIR perception and opinion of that particular wine. You may have your own opinion. And what's worse is these critics coming out with bizarre flavor and note profiles of wines, to heighten their own self importance. If a Cab has strong currant notes, just SAY that! Don't go off and write "racing notes of sous-bois and stewed Moroccan huckleberries...." NOBODY knows what either is, and writing gradiose descriptors only turns off consumers.

  2. "To me, relevant means wines that are interesting to their own social circumstances."

    What on earth does that MEAN?

  3. Sediment, it was intentional vague. Those social circumstances include income, location and wine knowledge. To some people, only Franzia is relevant. To others, only RP 95+ is relevant. And still to others it is lesser-known varieties. Only each consumer (and maybe their close friends/family) can say what is relevant to them. Relevancy can, and does, change with time.