Robert Parker and Digging a Wine Critic’s Grave
In the wake of the sale of a stake in Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate to Singapore investors, the word on the street is that Robert Parker Jr.’s and The Wine Advocate’s influence (and usefulness) has declined considerably.
What I’m reading from a variety of sources, many of them quite practiced and astute sources, is that Robert Parker’s decline is due to the fact that he and his Wine Advocate have outlived their usefulness; that American wine drinkers have matured to the point that they don’t need his brand of advice; that his 100-point rating system is passe; that multiple, new sources of wine advocacy and information have bit into his influence.
Pia Mara Finkell, over at Buzz Bin makes this point in a post entitled “Massive Shift in Wine Industry’s Most Powerful Voice”:
“Much like the then-immature U.S. market when Parker launched his publication over thirty years ago, Asian markets are hungry for rigorous and focused information and status symbol wines.”
Eric Asimov of the New York Times, who does the best job of fleshing out this tale of decline and Hasbeen-ness puts it this way in an article entitled, “Change at the Wine Advocate Signals a Change in the Market”:
“In one sense, Mr. Parker and other like-minded critics planted the seeds of their own obsolescence. The 100-point scale and the vocabulary of tasting notes — those brief wine descriptions that break down what’s in the glass to a series of aromas and flavors — are meaningful only until people start to develop a sense of their own taste. Wine-lovers discovered that these were merely intermediate tools, and that with confidence and ease comes a curiosity that goes beyond what’s in the glass.”
Meanwhile, Jon Bonne at the San Francisco Chronicle also explains that Robert Parker has out-lived his usefulness:
“But times have changed. As wine has grown in popularity, its drinkers have become more sophisticated and less reliant on Parker, even as the market has become clogged with imitators, borrowing Parker’s once-unique 100-point rating system and broadcasting their opinions on blogs, discussion boards and social media sites.”
Finally, Tallia Baiocchi, a new columnist at the Wine Spectator and Blogger at Eater, goes a bit further in explaining Parker’s decline by explaining why a younger generation of wine drinkers have no need for the likes of a Robert Parker in a blog post pointedly entitled, “Robert Parker’s Waning Influence On The Current Generation of Wine Drinkers:
Wine is far less foreign to Americans than it was then, and we have Robert Parker to thank for much of that. But the question is: What now? Wine is not only a part of the everyday American experience, but it’s become more important to us. And while I am not about to go all “wine is art” on anyone, I do think an increasing number of consumers want to know about what makes wine not just delicious, but culturally valuable. We’ve arrived to this point as a wine culture. And I think the more wine dialogue seeks to reveal its value beyond the aesthetic and easily quantifiable, the more relevant it will become to my generation.
There’s all the evidence here of a pile-on, driven by some sort of consensus of a paradigm shift in the world of wine.
WHERE IS THE EVIDENCE FOR PARKER’S DECLINE?
My question is this: If in fact Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate has lost its game, lost of its influence and is in its last days, what would be the evidence of this? Simply the sale of a stake in the Wine Advocate to Singapore investors? Wouldn’t Robert Parker’s demise have other tell-tale signs?
What about a decline in subscriptions to the Wine Advocate. The word is that the Wine Advocate has upwards of more than 50,000 subscribers who pay between of $75-$99 a year for access to the thousands of reviews it publishes in print and online. In the world of wine newsletters 50,000 is and always has been substantial. That’s hefty for a number of wine magazines. The revenue from these subscribers alone more than justify the $15,000,000 paid for a stake in the Wine Advocate assuming it’s a substantial stake.
What about the impact of the Wine Advocate’s reviews and ratings. Do people still care? I can tell you this without any qualification: When a wine receives a mid to high 90s score from Robert Parker or another Wine Advocate critic, that wine sells out…and quickly. Additionally, the wine scoring 98 points will increase in price in retail establishments and restaurants and the winery obtaining the 98 point score can easily increase the price of that wine next vintage…all on the weight of the great Wine Advocate review. You know why? Because the wine trade including wholesalers and retailers and restaurants believe the Wine Advocate has juice and because the reviews and ratings are respected. Furthermore, America’s high-end wine buyers and collectors also are willing to trust Robert Parker’s palate and the palates he has chosen to represent The Wine Advocate.
As some have pointed out, the past decade has seen the emergence of far more sources of wine information aimed at consumers and the wine trade. It’s true. Consider what you are reading now. However, where the realm of professional criticism is concerned, be it wine, film, restaurant, art or music criticism, the source of the critique is everything. The authority of the sources is critical.
THE WINE ADVOCATE AND THE ISSUE OF AUTHORITY
Measuring the authority of a critic in any category is tricky business. Furthermore, I think in assessing the authority of a critic one must apply different criteria depending on what field of criticism we are talking about. The authority of the art critic is assessed differently than the film critic. The authority of the film critic is measured differently than that of the media critic. And the wine critic’s authority too is assessed differently. I’d argue that key to measuring the authority of the wine critic is the question of the number of readers, use of the critic’s output and the number of wine reviews a critic produces.
A wine critic that produces 20 reviews in a year is of little use to and is invested with little authority by those most concerned with wine: the trade and the frequent buyer of fine wine. A wine critic who produces reviews that are not utilized by more than a relative few to help buy and sell wine are also likely to be invested with little authority. Finally, the wine critic that possesses a regular audience relatively small in size is also one that possesses little authority.
Very few wine critics possess important levels of authority today by this standard. In fact, very few ever have. Robert Parker has possessed great authority as a wine critic for more than two decades and, again, by this set of criteria, still does.
Yet, we have lately read that Robert Parker and the Wine Advocate have seen their authority undermined by the profusion of new outlets for wine information and this has led to the demise of Robert Parker’s and the Wine Advocate’s authority and importance.
The number of new, online wine critics that have emerged in the past 10 years that sport significant authority can be counted on one hand. Among them are probably Vinography, 1winedude, and CellarTracker. Among these, only Cellar Tracker boast a critical components of the authoritative professional wine reviewer that matters to the wine trade and serious wine consumer: comprehensive coverage of the world of wine (or at least the publishing of a profound number of reviews annually).
Additionally, while those new sources of review mentioned above have good-sized audiences, none of them have accumulated their audience under the burden of charging a subscription fee. For example, I may have thousands of readers of FERMENTATION and building that audience is something of an accomplishment. But whatever that accomplishment amounts to, it’s not the same as building it while charging reader to access this site.
Finally, are there any wine critics that have emerged in the past 20 years who see their reviews frequently used by the trade, importers and wineries to help sell their wines? For that matter, are there any who have an audience that waits for their next set of reviews before committing their precious wine budget to the purchase of the wines recommended by the critic? I don’t know of any.
But Robert Parker and his Wine Advocate does inspire this kind of commitment…and has for a very long time.
So, despite the proliferation of new wine information sources over the past decade, none of them, for all their value and quality, maintain the reputation and authority of the Wine Advocate and its critics.
DON’T MEASURE INFLUENCE BY WHAT YOUNGSTERS READ AND DRINK
I honestly don’t see this waning authority that has been reported upon in the wake of the news of the sale of the Wine Advocate. But if I did see it, I’m told, I would recognize that part of the reason for this waning authority is the maturation of the American wine consumer who no longer needs the Wine Advocate’s brand of criticism and the emergence of a younger crowd of wine drinkers (Talia Baiocchi’s “Current Generation”) that never had need for the Wine Advocate’s wisdom.
Ms. Baiocchi goes on in her post at Eater to explain, “as my generation continues to become more vocal in the wine world, the comparatively small impact that Parker has had on us will continue to reveal itself.”
By “vocal” I presume Talia means to say more important as a buying group. And when she writes “my generation” I assume she means the older Millennial set and perhaps the younger Gen X set. What’s important to recognize about the Millennial wine buyers is that when it comes to fine wine and wines over $25 a bottle, they buy relatively little compared to Baby Boomers and older Gen Xers. This isn’t to say that Millennials won’t impact the wine world. Based on their buying patterns they will sustain the wine industry for years to come—particularly once they get older, find their peak earning years and, like the Baby Boomers, find themselves with the kind of disposable income that allows them to play in the higher priced wine category….which they do not do now.
Yet this is the category of buyer that has always put food on Mr. Parker’s table. The older buyer of high-end wine willing and able to explore prestige wines are those that read the Wine Advocate. Even when you do have disposable income to drop on more expensive wine, you look to authorities to help determine how you will spend those dollars. It should be no surprise that Talia’s cohort isn’t or hasn’t been reading Robert Parker: They aren’t yet ready or able to spend serious money on wine. But they will be.
HAVE AMERICAN WINE LOVERS REALLY MATURED PAST PARKER?
Finally, I see Mr. Parker’s assumed waning influence explained by the maturation of the American wine drinker. This is an interesting claim. Anyone who is claiming that Mr. Parker and his Wine Advocate’s influence is in severe decline will also have to admit that in the year 2000, his influence was probably near or at its height. Has so much about the American wine drinker and wine buyer changed in a mere decade?
In a decade have American wine drinkers, as Eric Asimov put it, started “to develop a sense of their own taste” and no longer need critical reviews of wine as they did only a decade ago? Have American wine lovers, in this short ten years since Parker was at his peak, “discovered that these [wine reviews of the type showing up in The Wine Advocate] were merely intermediate tools” that are no longer needed because they suddenly obtained a “confidence and ease” with wine that results in “a curiosity that goes beyond what’s in the glass”?
What is the evidence for this change that has apparently overcome the American wine drinker in a short decade that all of a sudden makes Robert Parker unimportant and placed his brand in decline?
The evidence isn’t in the Wine Advocate’s subscription base. It isn’t in his influence with the trade? And certainly the $15 million paid for a stake in the Wine Advocate doesn’t suggest the evidence is all around us.
“I MAY RESPECT YOU, BUT I DON’T HAVE TO LIKE WHAT YOU DO”
I think that this view that the Wine Advocate is a dying brand we have seen of late is a result of something else. In the first place, I don’t think people like know-it-alls. And Mr. Parker has been the most important and most significant wine Know-it-all for a very long time. That’s a point against him. Also, while there appears to be no waning in the use of the 100-point rating system, there does seem to be a backlash against it among a small core of industry insiders and the Wine Advocate is the purest and most prominent example of its use. Further, the proliferation of user and enthusiast-generated wine content has provided evidence that the expert opinion may not be the most important opinion and this has created a psychic-backlash against professional wine criticism. Robert Parker and the Wine Advocate is the most prominent example of professional wine criticism.
It looks to me to be true that Robert Parker’s influence on the wine world is waning. But not for the reasons we’ve read. The reason is simply that he is doing less of it. He wants to work less. He wants to make use of the fruits of his labor. But, the brand he built, The Wine Advocate, lives, doesn’t it. Its audience is not in decline. It’s influence is still clearly on display among the trade and high-end buyers, as it always was. The fact is, The Wine Advocate’s influence and authority may be so much deeper than anyone ever realized because while running the shop, Robert Parker never capitalized on it to the extend that he could.
Depending on what the new owners of the Wine Advocate do with this brand, we may discover that the reports of the Wine Advocate’s death (or chronic disease) were overstated. At the very least, I think we will find that the evidence arrayed in support of the claim that the Wine Advocate is in decline is supplanted with evidence that we really never realized just how influential it was.
Good piece… Robert Parker is much more of a brand than a person these days… Doesn’t matter how many times I explain to the Jura and Savoie world (outside those producers who export to the US) and indeed any French person that David Schildknecht wrote the recent in-depth reports on these regions, they just refer to Parker. This brand won’t go away soon, on a world-scale anyway, it will change and develop as all brands have to. I say to all those who predict the demise – in the spirit of the start of a silly season – “Sauternes in Your Graves”.
Tom, this is perhaps the most persuasive article from you that I have read to date. You offer powerful arguments, and add solid perspective. While I personally agree that a lot of power remains from the group you name – the older buyers of high end wine – I am not sure if I follow your argument that the younger wine generation will choose the same path. They have a different affinity for wine, and grow up with a very different value system. They go out of their way to explore the new, and might simply never end up exploring “prestige” wines as we know them today. They might even change the perception of what the prestige wine of tomorrow might be. Although this tomorrow might be quite a few years away.
The younger generation will chose the same path (look for authoritative voices for wine recommendations) when they get older and have much more disposable income for the same reason that today’s primary buyers of high end wines do: they want good advice on where to spend their disposable income when so many choices confront them. No one really troubles themselves all that much over the purchase of a $20 or $30 bottle of wine. but when you start spending $50+ on a bottle of wine, you want some assurance than you are getting that special bottle you seek. Where do you turn? Maybe social media. But I contend that you a real authority to offer a recommendation. Millennials will do the same. I doubt their value system will prevent them from seeking wisdom when it comes to larger purchases.