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My say on Suckling

25 comments

Okay, fasten your seatbelts. This is gonna be a bumpy ride.

Read this first from Decanter. Then return here.

First, I’m wishing James Suckling great success in his new venture. I met him from time to time when I worked at Wine Spectator, and he was a nice enough guy. Now, to the point. This post is about snobbism in the wine world. It’s not really about James Suckling. It’s just that his story brings up so many dreary things about the wine world, things I’ve fought all my professional life, that I have to get it off my chest.

That Hollywood producer, James Orr, referred to in the article? Biggest snob I ever met. We were both at a Wine Experience dinner one night when I was at the Spectator. Some groveling came over and kneeled down beside me at my table.

“There’s someone who’d like to meet you.”

“Who?”

He indicated a handsome guy sitting at another table. “James Orr. He’s a Hollywood producer.”

Never mind that I wondered why Mr. Hollywood producer couldn’t come over and introduce himself. I folded my napkin on my chair and went over to meet James Orr.

He was a bigtime wine collector. He gave me his private number. “Call anytime,” he said. I was writing The Collecting Page in every issue. All the collectors in America wanted to be quoted there. It was an ego thing — to have your name on The Collecting Page of Wine Spectator! Even better if your picture was also there.

He always answered my calls. “James Orr’s office. Who may I say is calling?”

“Steve Heimoff.”

“Oh! I’ll put you right through.”

Then I left Spectator and went to Wine Enthusiast. I called Orr soon after. Left a message or two. You can guess the rest. Silencio. (Although I would hope that nowadays, with Wine Enthusiast having such a top reputation, he would.)

I hate when that happens! So rude, so unnecessary. It’s everything people hate about Hollywood elitism, about naked ambition, about ingratitude. And unfortunately, that attitude permeates our wine culture in certain places, at certain levels. It’s the poison that continues to make so many Americans wary of wine. They can sense it, like a “Don’t come in here, you don’t belong” exclusionary velvet rope that keeps the trash out. It’s also the environment in which James Suckling apparently has chosen to base his new career, “shooting A listers in California and Bordeaux.”

Before some of you write in and say, “Jealousy, jealousy!” let me point out that I’ve been railing against snobbism all my professional life. Anybody who reads this blog knows that. Yes, I love great wine as much as anybody. I feel privileged to drink it. I wouldn’t want the A listers to do anything but produce great wine so I can taste it. But personally, I’d suffocate if that was the only little corner of the wine industry I hung out in or covered.  And while I hope that James Suckling won’t disappear entirely into the snobby ivory tower, it sure sounds like he will — like he’s going to be writing for collectors instead of for everybody.

By the way, James reached out to me over the summer, promising to tell me the exciting news about his new venture in September. I told him, Fine, and that I’d be happy to put it in Wine Enthusiast, or on my blog, whichever seemed more appropriate. But he failed to honor his promise. Instead, it looks like he decided to share his plans with Decanter.

I personally think James is making the wrong decision. The Western world is moving away from elitism toward diversity, transparency and openness. (China is moving toward a new kind of nouveau-riche snobbery, and perhaps James will traffic in that.) It’s too bad, really, because with his obvious talents and fame, James could perform a real service, of opening up the world of wine to a greater range of people — and that does not mean eliminating collectors, it just means expanding the perimeter of who’s allowed in. Instead, it sounds like James will be circulating in the same airless, self-conscious, isolated gated community in which he did when he was at Spectator. Well, at least he’ll have James Orr by his side, shooting every sad moment.

  1. Very interesting read. I can’t comment on Suckling or Orr, as I absolutely don’t know them, but if I may comment on the last line of the article in Decanter, Gary V. is unstoppable – he has an amazing “crush it” attitude and and amazing charisma, and also he embraces exact same principles as you pointed out – diversity, transparency and openness…

  2. “It’s the poison that continues to make so many Americans wary of wine. They can sense it, like a “Don’t come in here, you don’t belong” exclusionary velvet rope that keeps the trash out.”

    Hopefully every small winery, wine store, and blogger in the country is trying to change these perceptions. We (as an industry) can not afford to keep customers at bay because of snobbish behavior.

    For gods sakes, I own a money pit of a winery, I am the wine maker, and the janitor. And the one thing that gets me excited everyday as I sit in my cubicle ‘day’ job is thinking about how we can educate our future customers. That education MUST be without the snobbish attitude. The anti-snob wine world found at Leah Hennessy blog and in some wine stores like the Urban Grape (in Boston). The urban grape doesn’t even rate wine or organize it the way most stores do, they use a weighting system 1-10 and it does help take the snobbish-niss out of being intimidated by the wine store. If you like wine in the 5-6 range, you don’t need to feel like you don’t belong because NO-ONE currently belongs to that community. It’s something entirely new.

    Hopefully producers (like me), bloggers, and most importantly wine stores pick up on any approach that makes wine more acceptable and helps it loose the stigma of the ultimate snob product.

    One day a customer might actually feel excited about visiting a new wine store rather than intimidated by the snobbish ‘keep the trash out attitude.’

  3. Good post. Snobbery is a attitude, which varies from person to person–and time to time. Personally, I slip in and out of snobbery from time to time. And while you are right that the world is flattening, there will always be a place of elitism in every cultural domain. And yes snobs can be annoying to non-snobs (just as meglomaniacs can be to non-meglomaniacs) but I don’t think that snobs are necessarily rude.

  4. Follow the money. I think that’s all there is to it. Something like 5% of Americans have 95% of the wealth in the US, though I don’t recall the exact numbers. If you are an A list winery, it’s better economically to sell cases at $1000 each to the top 5% than single bottles at $20 per bottle to the other 95%. And if you are Suckling, it’s better economically to kiss the butts of those with wealth. He wants to get paid. So he follows the money.

    As long as that’s how the money flows–there’s every indication that the separation between the upper several percentiles and the rest is growing, not shrinking–wine critics will be successful by serving the big money. Consider Bdx pricing, which continues to climb. By all indications, the world recession has decreased overall wealth. Yet collectors can still afford it. What does this say about the flow of wealth in the world?

    Yes, someone will come along and attack you as jealous. But that’s a rather tiresome excuse for conspicuous consumption. Jealously entails desiring what you don’t have. Few people actually desire sitting around and congratulating himself on the acuity of his palate based on the wine he brought (or even on merit for that matter). It’s a matter of the perceptions and habits of the wealthy being embarrassingly out of touch with reality.

  5. “It’s the poison that continues to make so many Americans wary of wine. They can sense it, like a “Don’t come in here, you don’t belong” exclusionary velvet rope that keeps the trash out.”

    EXACTLY. And if they only knew how easy it actually is to approach wine, and the immense joy awaiting them!

    The snobbish / elitism attitudes don’t benefit the industry, they only benefit the snobs, who, come to think of it, we should expect to be selfish :).

  6. “writing for collectors instead of for everybody” ???

    Steve, I’d respectfully point out that many who call ourselves collectors don’t have to possess every first growth, silly little Pomerol or Napa boutique-du-jour. I happily collect Rhones, some of which will (hopefully) last for decades and most of which still arrive with two digit price tags.

    Suckling aside, those who write for “collectors” like me don’t qualify as elitist snobs, unless the price floor of the category comes in around $20 or $30.

  7. Dude, it’s a whole new world out there, and you’re helping to change it.

  8. Snob? Suckling always lived that rock star lifestyle. I was really envious. I mean, he drank wine with Maynard james Keenan from Tool, and even appeared in his movie. Suckling is simply cooler than cool….I just about worship the ground he walks on……. Oh wait…weren’t you in that movie too :)

  9. There are people suckling at the teat of this industry who have been, and will continue to be, completely irrelevant to our brand marketing – which is all about establishing 1 to 1 relationships with people who love wine for its own sake, in the same way they love the other great hedonic transients in life: food, music and sex.

  10. Rich Tanguay says:

    Great post Steve, as always.

    Inherently wine judging and ranking by a point system — in itself — elevates snobbery, IMHO. Putting points on what turns out to be personal preferences does nothing but to perpetuate the whole damn thing.

  11. I’m just glad that someone of Mr. Suckling’s stature is shinny a light on Mexican wine and the Mexican Wine Master himself, Hugo d”acosta.

  12. Andy I was in Blood into Wine but they filmed me here in Oakland instead of flying me to the vineyard, and I never got to meet Maynard. Although I would have liked to!

  13. Bummer…so now I am back to only having Suckling to worship ….
    In all seriosuness, I always liked to read his blogs and articles and I find his new turn of life interesting (not sure yet if I would use the word snobby)and I wonder what really happened at WS–must have been something interesting. I also always found his scores on the “optimistic” side for my palate at least. He gave out 100pt scores by the dozens– I’ve tried 3 — the 94 Dow, the 2000 Gaja and 2000 Latour — don’t get me wrong, they were really good but perfect?? Maybe, if you scored like that, you’d get to meet Maynard too!!

  14. UnmitigatedGaul says:

    If you follow Sucklings tweets he seems to be trying to prove your point! One from just a few hours ago portends to prove the superiority ofvwine drinkers over beer drinkers. He may need an intervention as he seems to be morphing into Robert Parker.

  15. Andy– 100 is so yesterday. What the world needs is a new scale, a new brand of excitment–possibly three stars.

  16. Folks could even call them three puffs if that made them happy.

  17. 1) Man promises exclusive
    2) Man fails to give exclusive
    3) Man get ripped in Blog

    Sour Grapes?

  18. Steve,

    Yours is one of the few wine blogs I enjoy following – I admire your candid frankness. I’m not a big fan of Suckling especially since when he came across as a pompass ass in Mondovino – but then again so did M. Roland and everyone else in the movie.

  19. Vincent, I agree that Mondovino was a low point in James’ career. His advisors, if he had any, gave him terrible advice.

  20. TonyG, I anticipated your remark. When someone promises me something and then renegs, of course I’m pissed off. However my interpretation of James’ new career isn’t based on sour grapes, but on true disagreement of where wine writing should be going in the 21st century.

  21. Is it me or does James look like Ben Stiller in ‘Something About Mary’ (the younger version before the prom)! Talk about elitism, I’ve never heard so many names dropped in a 5 minute video, I thought he was going to say he was good friends with the Pope too. I wonder where his next wines will come from; maybe a rose from Texas, Hungary, and Japan? Either way I know I won’t be able to find it! Good luck Ben, I mean James….

  22. At first glance I thought “Wow. What a d-bag!” And that just confirmed everything I have heard or read about the guy. But then two things occurred to me: 1) Suckling clearly needs to reinvent himself after the end of his tenure as self-crowned King of Italian Wines. No more knighting Gaja with 98’s or “off with their head” 76’s in the Speculator. He needs a big splashy jump into a new market, just like Madonna or Terrell Owens, to make people forget about his less than ceremonious departure from the last.

    And 2) Suckling has spent the last 20 years being coddled to by the rich and famous, both in the wine world and the collecting world. I am sure he has dined with billionaires, had Piero Antinori wipe his feet for him in hopes of a good score, and basically been treated as an equal in the super upper crust as opposed to a lowly wine writer just trying to scratch out a decent living and drink some tasty juice along the way. So now he thinks he is one of them- part of the aristocracy. He has become in his own mind that which he has surrounded himself with. I kinda feel bad for him.

    As for the One Wine, One World thing- great idea. I really hope it is for real and not for show, because what does Paris Hilton do when she needs good pub? Charity events, baby! There is always an orphan out there that needs a gentle kiss from a beautiful celebutante.

  23. Ian Johnson says:

    Just the idea of his “One world One wine” makes me feel a little sick.
    How can you spend this amount of time steeping in the world of wine and come up with a ridiculous wine like this?

  24. Great post! i wine tends to be complex and I think wine-snobbery is just an awkward way to appear to be part of an old fashioned elite. Thank you GaryVee to bring a well needed breath of fresh air!

  25. Greg Brumley says:

    Nice post, Steve.

    It is best to just let the Sucklings and Parkers go their way. The influence of each diminishes by the day. The youngest — and most sophisticated to date — generation of wine drinkers doesn’t even know who they are.

    Life, for an ex-king, is one indignity after another as one searches for that dang lost crown.

    TO GREG: What, on earth, are you trying to say? Look, the richest 5% of of wine drinkers certainly aren’t drinking 95% of the wine. To imply that people buying $100 bottles of wine dominate the business in absurd.

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