The Old School Wine Critic Is As Important as Ever

PoeticsThe last few years has seen a great deal of talk about the demise of the traditional or “Old School” wine critics, their power and their relevance. Those offering this view mean the Wine Spectator, Robert Parker, The Wine Enthusiast Magazine, etc. The observation is usually coupled with reference to the power of peer reviews, blogs and social media.

I have a story to tell.

Friends of mine have been making Cabernet from Napa Valley grapes for about six or so years now. The wine is very well made. It’s Napan in style: Fruit forward. Rich. Velvety tannins. 14.5 or so alcohol You know the style.

They don’t make very much. Under 1,000 cases. And they don’t have a tasting room. But, they have a place to taste curious wine lovers who seek them out. And they have a smallish allocation list.

It hasn’t been easy. Their wines have been priced around $70 a bottle. Not out of line for small batch, single vineyard, well made, stylish Napa Valley Cab. But on occasion they have had to discount here and their. They’ve had to work hard to sell it. They travel to markets. They do in-home tastings and dinners where they hope to sell ten or so cases. Still, it’s been hard. They sell through. but it’s a hell of an effort.

They’ve gotten good reviews from bloggers and found their wine hyped on social media here and their. Some very nice reviews have shown up on Cellar Tracker and Delectable from people who matter. And these reviews have helped them sell wine.

Recently, Robert Parker reviewed their wines. They received ratings in the upper 90s and the reviews were glowing.

Since then, the buyers have been coming out of the woodwork. People want their wine. The $70 is not a obsticle. They now have more options than they’ve ever had before due to new and faster revenue, requests by many more retailers and restaurants and a much longer allocation list.

This kind of response never happened with the reviews they received in social media formats.

What to make of this?

1. The Old School Wine Critic is clearly not dead. And their demise is over stated.

2. The Old School Wine Critic clearly has relevance with some people

3. The reviews of the Old School Wine Critic moves far more wine than much of social media put together.

4. While wineries can live and die by reviews and ratings, the living is pretty good.

Here’s what I think and here’s why I tell my clients: The value of social media endorsements can be significant under the right circumstances and if the right content creators using social media endorse a wine. However, the value of a great review by a widely respected wine critic is unlikely to wane because the power and prevalence of social media grows and grows.

Critics have existed ever since Aristotle laid down the law on literary forms and people looking to understand the nature of quality in all its forms have looked to educated, well spoken, experienced critics to help them understand the nature of quality. A retreat from the experienced and educated critic in favor of the mob is no advancement.

And this goes for wine and wine critics. No one has to explain to me the value of crowd sourced reviews, nor their power. But wine is not power adapter, nor is it a 50 inch HD TV. It’s savored for its meaning and parts and origin. A crowd can take a stab at those things, but it can’t say anything definitive about them. No one argues with a crowd sourced review. They do argue with the views and ideas of an individual, particularly the individual critic and this is how you can tell they are relevant.

Artists, writers, designers and, yes, wines have been “made” by critics. Some have been undone. But the power to undue a creation or creator has to be weighed against the power a critic has to  discover and present a great piece of art. All criticism strives to find this new item of relevance. And those that do so regularly, despite their occasional tearing down, are followed.

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15 Responses

  1. Steve Lay - January 19, 2015

    Numbers are the scorecard of business; profit, loss, 97 pts., 1099 or a balance sheet. Yes, you have made a valid point in a very succinct presentation. Hard to argue with you logic. I am one of those that hold critics is some disdain because of their sometimes displayed arrogance, a thumb on the scale, self annointed judgements, and sometimes an unwarranted review due to biases and vindictiveness.
    I guess, every consumer centric endeavor has reviewers. Even the internet has Angie’s List, Yelp, etc. and even they are demonized for reviews they allow.
    Give me a humble, educated, not self-centered, honest wine critic. Guess this is called an oxymoron.

    • Tom Wark - January 20, 2015

      Steve, I think arrogance is part of the territory where criticism of wine, food, art, film, etc is concerned. And while I’ve heard tell of wine critics that bring vindictiveness into their job, I’ve never actually witnessed it.

  2. Sean Piper - January 20, 2015

    Love ya, Tom, but I think you might be a Scoreaholic. Let’s not confuse the role of a valid wine critic and the magic of numbers. Scores are just as anti-consumer as the Three-Tier System.

    • Tom Wark - January 20, 2015


      People shouldn’t confuse ratings with reviews, nor reviews with ratings. They are only understood properly together. This is why all the Old School Wine Critics always combine the two. That said, I’ve been sitting here for a little while trying to figure out how a rating amended to a review is anti-consumer. I’ll admit it’s early in the morning, but I still can’t wrap my mind around that.

  3. Bill Haydon - January 20, 2015

    Nobody has said that Parker is irrelevant, at least yet. That his influence is waning is a valid observation. Is it waning everywhere? No, as clearly demonstrated by your friends. That being said, I bet that RMP score won’t result in one sale to a Michelin starred restaurant or trendy wine bar in SF, Chicago or NYC…….a steakhouse perhaps.

    In my corner of the world, the Parker shelf tag at independent merchants has all but disappeared. It’s still there at the “barns” such as Binny’s, but the true fine wine merchants are neither buying nor selling on scores. And what happens in NYC and Chicago eventually finds its way to Buffalo and Milwaukee.

  4. Alan Goldfarb - January 20, 2015

    Until we hear otherwise — but don’t hold your breath — the “old school” (read: most important) critics will dominate and hold sway. Don’t be fooled or lulled into a sense that new wine media (read: bloggers) have taken over the world. Old School still holds the lead in number of impressions/readership and generates the most building of your brand and selling your wine, gadzillion-times more than do the accumulation of online reviews, mentions and accolades. That all said, the online wineosphere is on the come as the handful of of those will begin making inroads soon; and so they are not to be dismissed.

    • Steve Lay - January 20, 2015

      Mr. Goldfarb, old school to me are the folks who are in the pockets (read: work for) publishers or membership organizations who have commercial values in sponsoring wine critics. (BevMo tried an in-house critic and it seemed to fizzle.) In accounting terms they (todays accepted critics) were the first in the game and will be last out. They got in the wine critics genre game when publishing and their marketing groups needed a justification for readership and/or a memberhsip base to exist.
      I also agree relative to on-line critics/bloggers securing their niche in the future. It will take some time to gain acceptance, credibility, fame and a business model that is ethical and yet supports them in an effort to gain the above points.
      The question remains: What do the vast majority (50% +1) want by way of meaningfull information about a wine? Everybody has different palate, budget, and opinions. I have never met anyone who expresses their view of a wine exactly like I think of it. Go figure!

  5. Jason Wilson - January 21, 2015

    Tom, I can see your valid point, but there’s a great difference between an Old School Critic giving a $70 Napa Cab a 90+ rating, and a “new school” (or whatever one might call them) critic writing a piece advocating or imploring readers to consider/reconsider wines from, say, less prestigious grapes or regions. One is simply a scorecard marked on a playing field that’s long been established (likely by the same Old School Critic). The latter is actually closer to the true ideal of criticism that you talk about. It’s about rethinking and reconsidering tastes and ideas that have become commonplace.

    The art critic Morgan Meis talks about a sort of Romantic criticism, a criticism that doesn’t rely as much on Final Judgement, and one he believes is becoming important in our media saturated world:

    “The idea is that criticism does not stand outside the work of art, but stands alongside, maybe even inside, the work of art, participating in the work in order to further express and tease out what the artist already put there. In this theory of criticism, we don’t need the critic to tell us what is good or bad, to tell us what to like and dislike. We need the critic, instead, to help us experience. We need the critic in the way that we need a friend or a lover. We need the critic as a companion on a journey that is a love affair with the things of the world.”

    In short, there’s room — and a need — for both approaches. And I think what we’ve been hearing from certain Old School Critics is, there’s not. Tastes are changing. A younger generation isn’t as interested (at least right now) in your friends’ small-batch Napa Cab. They may need different critics.

    • Tom Wark - January 21, 2015

      Hi Jason,

      Thanks for your comment…and reading.

      I’d only point you to a couple of “Old School” wine writers that do exactly what you suggest. Eric Asimov at the NY Times and Dave McIntyre at the Washington Post both regularly dedicate themselves to “other” varietals and “other” regions. And that’s just off the top of my head.


  6. Crowdsourcing and the Decline of the Critic | Edible Arts - January 21, 2015

    […] Wark recently made some important points about traditional criticism that are worth […]

  7. Alison Crowe - January 21, 2015

    In the hard-slogging, fast-paced world of gatekeepers and buyers, it’s a lot easier for a sales rep to whip out a quick list of scores then expound upon a glowing, wordy review. A harried buyer with only five minutes to spare can scan a bulleted list of numbers with recognizable names faster than she can read excerpts from so-and-so wine bloggers (who?). Try to talk a roomful of distributor veterans about the number of twitter followers your winemaker has and will their eyes glaze over. I’d like to believe that buyers exist who take the time to dig deeper, but scores from known critics are shorthand writ large and as long as they remain so in a crowded, busy selling space, they will always have power.

  8. Jason S. - January 26, 2015

    Good read. I do agree with your sentiments, Tom. One thing though – “here and their” should read “here and there”.


  9. Vincenzo - January 28, 2015

    This is a well-thought, cogent argument. Truthfully, I have mixed feelings about the role of critics, past and present. Critics, whether they be critical of wine or literature, have been known to destroy or make careers. And yet, there are plenty of examples of people and businesses succeeding despite poor critical reception and succeeding despite positive critical reception.

    So, is the era of the critic over? I think the era of the critic dominating the space is over. Critics have every opportunity to be influential voices in the wine world. However, there are bloggers who, by their own efforts, have also carved out influence as well.

    A critic’s opinion can matter. The key difference is that other people’s opinions can also matter in a way that wasn’t true in a pre-internet world.

    • Steve Lay - January 28, 2015

      I would agree with every point made in this post.
      As in most things, change is a constant. We like a wine then the vintage forces change, winemakers change, our taste changes, where/when/place we try a wine changes, etc…and the beat goes on. Many years ago I did a study of critic reviews of a Cab. Interestingly, virtually all word descriptors of the wines were the same. So, go to a lot of sources for comments, including bloggers, it is always a fun read.

  10. Nick Katin - February 14, 2015

    I agree with Vicenzo. The old school wine critic plays an important role in the wine industry. However, it’s not hard to see that there is a changing landscape for the consumer. From my phone I can take an picture of a wine menu and get instant “reviews” from other consumers of the wines listed before I choose what wine to have. (not that I’ve done that) and it’s free. A lot of the ‘old school critics’ reviews are only available to subscribers and not so accessible. So they will need to adapt to keep their relevance. Just like the ubers and airBnB’s have given their respective industries something to think about, it’s only a matter of time before their wine industry equivalents will do the same.

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