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I guess it was only a matter of time before I blogged about James Suckling’s new online shtick. I really tried not to. I figured enough people were going to be putting him through the crapper, so why add to the pile? Besides, James seems like a nice enough guy (I met him once or twice back in the day), and he had the cojones to leave a well-paying job and go out on his own. (Somebody at Spectator told me how much he made there–yes, I have spies everywhere–and I won’t repeat it here because it’s hearsay, but let’s just say, it was a lot. No, make that A LOT!)

But I’ve now changed my mind and decided to write about him. What brought about this change? Simple.

I CAN’T STAND WHAT HE’S DOING. IT MAKES ME HURL.

In the millions of words I’ve written on this blog, I’ve never shouted in CAPS, and now look what Suckling has made me do. I’ve shouted TWICE. No, FOUR TIMES! Wait…take a deep breath, Heimoff. Center yourself. Ommmmmm….where’s my Valium?

O.K. I’m back. So we were talking about James. As we all know, he left Spectator last summer after, what? decades as their Italian guy and European editor. He started dropping hints immediately that he was gonna followup with something big. I fell for it. We Facebooked each other back around July. I figured it would be cool to write about what he was going to do. He told me he’d get back to me in September. He never did–a broken promise–but never mind. By then, James’ “teasers” were the talk of the town, or, rather, the laugh of the town. They were so absurd, so self-important and snobby, nobody could be sure if James either didn’t know he was making a fool of himself, was parodying himself, or if he did know and just didn’t care.

For starters, there was those “I’m here with” teasers, where he asked “How do you find the best wines in the world before anyone else?” and then, there he was, hobnobbing with such undiscovered nobodies as Christian Moueix (Petrus, Trotanoy), Paul Pontallier (Margaux) and Jacques Thienpont (Le Pin).  That caused some WTF? moments and raised eyebrows. (Palate Press estimated the average cost per bottle of James’ “I’m here with” teaser videos at $360.) The same person who told me how much James made at Spectator told me his ex-colleagues there were “appalled” by what they’d seen of James’ antics. James got huge, negative blowback for those videos (for instance, here and here). There were average-person remarks such as “am I the only one here who found the video just a bit OTT?” and “It is all very macho and testosterone driven.” In one Tweet, James is said to have fatuously wondered, “Why do people get so angry about my videos?” Umm, James, do you really need to ask?

But wait, there’s more. Then came even more infamous teasers of James pronouncing on scores. “I give this wine 94 points!” “I give this wine 92 points,” he intoned, as if he were Moses, down from the mountain with the Ten Commandments, lifting the flaming tablets above his leonine head; or perhaps God Himself, naming the animals. That was appalling moment #2. Now, just the other day, there came into my email inbox appalling moment #3, an evite inviting me (well, not me personally, but I’m one of the gazillion people who must be on the email blast list) to a so-called “Vintage Cult Dinner” in L.A. “Imagine 20 CULT wine hero’s -pre poured for our sit down tasting – hosted by America’s top wine personality,” this cheesy commercial bleats, ungrammatically (no apostrophe needed in “heroes” which, by the way, the brilliant framers of this press release misspelled; and they also lacuna’ed the necessary hyphen in “pre-poured”). And capitalizing the word “cult” is like leaving leftover pizza on the kitchen counter for New York cockroaches–all those Brentwood producers and their anorexic trophy wives swarming zomby-like to the restaurant, festooned with diamonds and gold and more money than they know what to do with, courtesy of the Bush tax cuts. “Taste over $7500 worth of CULT heros!” it again hypes (and misspells). All for a modest $659, not bad when you consider that’s all it takes to get you some pretty good wine, chew some meat at an L.A. steakhouse, and, even better, meet The Man Himself, “America’s top wine personality” (wait a minute, I thought that was Andy Blue or maybe Gary V.). But I suppose the “America’s top wine personality” absurdity was dreamed up by James’ talent agency, IMG, which puts him in some pretty classy company: the agency also represents Jeffrey Tambor, who played Gary Shandling’s smarmy sidekick on The Larry Sanders Show,

and why am I thinking that James Suckling has become the Hank Kingsley of wine personalities?

James’ producer, by the by, is the Hollywood legend James Orr, whom I have previously described as The Biggest Wine Snob I Ever Met. But I won’t go into that again.

The reason James Suckling is a laughingstock is because everybody sees through what he’s doing. He has decided to out-snob even Wine Spectator. James is selling his services, not to the great and deserving masses of people who love wine and want to learn more about it, but to über-rich vulgar showoffs who believe–because people like James assure them it is so–that Petrus etc. are the greatest things to which they can aspire–the kind of people who know nothing but think they know everything because they can afford anything: Shanghai businessmen, Abu Dhabi oligarchs, hedge fund hustlers and L.A. deal makers who put new meaning into the term excess.

Like I said earlier, James either doesn’t know how this makes him look, or he doesn’t care. His blog costs $15 a month, more expensive than some of the other for-profit wine blogs out there (Tanzer’s is $95 a year and Parker’s costs $99 a year), but if he gets, oh, say, 2,500 American snobs of Orr’s ilk, 5,000 ambitious Indian technocrats, 5,000 score queens from China and Singapore, 1,000 ne’er-do-wells from the oil sheikhdoms, and let’s throw in another 3,000 rich Germans, Japanese and Argentinians who want to know what other rich people are drinking and eating and smoking so they can out-Jones them, that’s almost $3 million a year, and that’s without gigs like the L.A. steakhouse deal, for which James must get a pretty penny.

You know, I think people would have respected James if he’d said something like “Now that I’m leaving the Spectator, I’m going to get out of the snob game and instead focus on interesting wines I can recommend for average people in this devastating worldwide economic meltdown.” But no. Instead, James looks like Gordon “greed is good” Gekko, or maybe Nero fiddling while Rome is burning, a person unaware of and unconcerned with the colossal difficulties normal people are enduring because he’s simply spent too much time being cossetted in the marbled palaces of declassé Eurotrash, smoking Cohibas, flying to L.A. to pal around with Maynard James Keenan, and giving a high score to the wine of his then-landlord, Salvatore Ferragamo (see also here, via Vinography), while living in pastoral splendor in one Ferragamo’s properties, a “villa” described by Ferragamo’s daughter, Amanda, as “three floors [with] a courtyard with a high wall, giving seclusion and privacy…”. I’m here with Heimoff, in his little downtown Oakland condo which does not afford seclusion or privacy, and I give James’ conflict of interest 98 points.

Maybe James knows that all this negative P.R. makes him look like the most morally bankrupt and cynically egotistical wine critic in the world. And maybe he doesn’t care, because he’s laughing all the way to the bank. Ka-ching.

  1. “He has decided to out-snob even Wine Spectator” – and yet, when he comes to London, he goes to watch Crystal Place play soccer. Crystal Palace!! http://www.jamessuckling.com/my-blog-how-long-can-hk-auction-frenzy-last.html Which of course means nothing to Americans, but let’s put it like this: Palace are in a separate division, 42 places below, Manchester United – the team a real snob would follow.

    Is he a better judge of wine than he is of soccer? That’s the question to us over here…

  2. In my interview with James (which deliberately took a middle-of-the-road track to presenting his new venture), I came away kind of torn. I mean, he’s going out on his own (which I can respect) & is trying to make a buck & seems to genuinely want to help consumers navigate the world of wine (which I can also respect).

    BUT…

    As you rightfully point out, some of the vids and comments in the early days of the new venture have been cringe-inducing and my impression, having spoken to him, is that Suckling doesn’t yet realize that he’s coming off that way; I’m hoping he gets the message through blog posts like this, and the comments on my interview post, though I suspect it will take more than that.

    Also – and MOST importantly – I met Jeffrey Tambor in Toronto at a hotel once by chance, in the elevator since I guess we were staying at the same place. Something happened that was kind of odd, I think a laundry cart came on the elevator and we got stuck trying to fit it in, then I started cracking jokes about it and so did Tambor, and it was like a contest to see if we could get each other to laugh. And I got this awesome comedic actor to crack-up, which I think proves that I am really f–king funny (a proof that my wife still disputes even after the above incident! :-).

    Cheers!

  3. Joe, with all due respect, if anybody knows if you’re f-king funny, it would be your wife.

    Steve, about Suckling’s new “venture,” all I can say is, “yup.”

  4. First of all, props to Joe for defending Jeffrey Tambor — and for making him laugh. I had a brief exchange via Twitter with Suckling in which another “Tweeter” and I politely pointed out some er, issues, with his video — technical concerns rather than content ones. He was surprisingly receptive and open, and I think he appreciated the feedback. The guy’s obviously getting bad advice. His Web site, and in fact everything about this venture, practically scream “I’m a print person who knows nothing about online.” I also think it’s a bit silly of him not to court Asian markets more directly. He seems like a decent person and I kind of feel sorry for him, actually. Seems like a waste of talent.

  5. Great to see you’re feeling better Steve. Your blog remains firmly ensconced at the top of my favorites list.

    It must be liberating for James, having to no longer suck incessantly at the breast of the corporate big dogs. The video of Jimmy on the beach in Mexico with the scarf on, non chalantly swirling his wine glass without even bothering to take in the aroma of the wine is awesome. A true man of the people.

  6. James should hire someone that really knows how to shoot and light a video. For a start.

  7. Dude, well you may have a career in standup. Remember, I did it for a while in SF. So if you need some coaching, let me know. I’ll give you 10% discount off my usual fee.

  8. Cartparth Bacchus says:

    The linked article about Suckling’s shameless Ferragamo suck-up in the Mondovino movie doesn’t do true justice to how ridiculous he has been for a long time. The actual footage shows how his current quintessentially embarrassing “I give this wine….points” videos are really his natural state of being/thought and not the result of bad advice (except perhaps on technical production issues). It would appear that Sucking is too big a tool for even Wine Spectator and that’s saying something.

  9. Steve,
    Having become a regular visitor of your blog in recent months, I must take the time to finally chime in and commend you on this post. As someone who has been actively involved in the wine and spirits profession for the past 16 years, I must say it’s long overdue to have someone voice their disdain for the over bloated huffers(Suckling, Parker, and Wine Spectator specifically). What we have been witness to over the past two decades is the stoking of these gentlemen’s egos to the point of meglomania, while they blow smoke up everyone’s ass about the next great wine that hardly anybody can afford or even be fortunate enough to find a bottle of. There’s certainly a direct correlation between the advertising dollars spent by certain wine producers and the Wine Spectator awards being given in return. I know I’m not the only person who sees this. And don’t even get me started about the Spectator’s overly fradulent, you send us $250 and we give you a meaningless, not fact-checked “Award of Excellence”. What a crock! Bravo for the Spectator and James Suckling in particular for showing us what true DB’s they really are. The journalistic “integrity” posessed by these “professionals”, and the correlating scores being given out in return amounts to nothing more, to me, than being pointless drivel bordering on fraud.
    I applaud you on your comments, and want to let you know you’ve made my Monday a better day. Thank you. Keep up the great work!
    Happy Holidays.

  10. i almost wrecked my bulldozer reading this.

  11. OK Steve, but how do you really feel about this!

    (remember to breathe properly when using OM)

  12. Raley Roger says:

    I wonder if TMZ will be waiting outside of that LA steakhouse, after the Suckling dinner. By the looks of whomever he’s employing to do his PR, this is their next big move.

  13. Two Words: Joaquin Pheonix

    For the production help I recommend Casey Affleck. I can see the LA event coming off something like this”

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k3GyM0ss-TY

    Alan

  14. Perhaps Suckling and the Cork people have a bet to see who can produce the most absurd videos!

  15. Steve,
    Great piece. Its not worth getting upset over. Remember your blood pressure!

    I have to give James credit for striking out on his own. The one thing I will say, and I believe this to be true for all eponymous brands: the brand and image must reflect the person. If your brand is not true to who you are, it will fail. PERIOD! If this is who James is (and I do not know him personally), I do believe he’s got a chance of great success. Many people like that boisterous attitude. I personally find that approach repulsing, but not everyone does.

    At any rate, I harbor no ill will towards him and wish him the best; still I will not be watching.

    -Chris Donatiello

  16. Lucius, I once had a client that spent $35,000 a year in advertising with WS, to only receive a 68 score for one of its wines. I wish that perception of pay to play would just go away… It’s not how Spectator operates; not from my experience, and that was six years of $35,000 ($210,000). You can’t buy them that way, but wouldn’t it be lovely to think you could, because that’s much more fun to believe. ;^)

    Meanwhile, all I know is I wasn’t good enough for Mr. Suckling to be one of his Twitter pals, so I eventually unfriended him. My relationships must go both ways.

    Steve, you’re one of the funniest men I know.

  17. Zombie – not zomby!

  18. Steve: Great post.

    Steve and commenters:

    I’m interviewing the person behind http://jamessucklingisadouche.blogspot.com/ later tonight for my blog (www.Terroirist.com).

    The interview will be conducted over google chat, and posted online this week. Does anyone have any questions for him/her?

    Thanks!

  19. David, I would ask James if he’s learned anything from all the negative blowback. Does he now see that his elitist approach was not in synch with the times?

  20. Paul, oops. I had this gooey stuff running out of the slash in my forehead, so I couldn’t see the keyboard very good.

  21. Steve: I’m not interviewing James (1WineDude has that covered!), but rather, the anonymous person behind “James Suckling is a Douche” (http://jamessucklingisadouche.blogspot.com). Funny, but definitely OTT and mean.

  22. David, maybe you could get an interview with JS and ask him those questions.

  23. Raley Roger says:

    David,
    My question for the “James Suckling is a Douche” blogger is “Aren’t you concered that Suckling will come after you—ala Charles Smith and the anonymous commentator–for defamation of character? Sounds like your blog is a personal vendetta against him. Don’t you worry about legal fall out there?”

  24. Whether Suckling realizes it or not I think perhaps he has pulled the pin on a grenade that could do real damage to the overly pretentious, precious, snobby, elitist element in the Western wine culture.

    The question is, does he have the sense to lob the grenade, or is he just going to hold on to it?

    Or perhaps every one of his coming “hero’s” dinners be in China or India?

  25. Steve

    you and I may not always agree, but I have to say I’m right with you on this one. All this new Suckling stuff does is introduces him as the wine worlds leader in snobbery with subtle notes of douchebagery.

  26. A fool and his money are soon parted. And if Jim Suckling, who played a mean left field on the Bay Area wine writers travelling team before he departed in search of fame and fortune, has figured out how to separate those with more money than brains from their cash, more power to him.

    I have been trying for three decades and am still down here in the trenches, stuck in the slow lane. Jim is trying to get out there in the fast lane. He is either going to find the pace or get run over.

  27. Ah, now I don’t have to write (whatever my version would be of) this article. Thank you Steve.

  28. …well done, Steve. I have always admired your work.

    Suckling is a pompous ass and always has been. I do not know how a fine editor and good person like Tom Matthews at Spectator tolerated him for so long.

    In the interests of preserving what remains of the English language, please tell winedude there is no such phrase as “most importantly,” no matter how many ill informed people use it. Usage does not make it so. and Chris Donatiello has really coined a new word: “I personally find that approach repulsing.” I suspect he means repulsive.

  29. Alder, good to hear from you. Thank you.

  30. Mort, nice to hear from you. It’s been too long. As for Tom, he’s a hired hand. They all do what Marvin says. I’m sure 1WineDude and Chris D. will take your advice seriously. I cannot refudiate anything you said!

  31. James is doing a series of videos on his site where he visits retail stores and asks them to pick out five bottles that are $30 or less and 90 points or more, then he tastes them and scores them. I wouldn’t say this is catering to the rich and snobby. http://www.facebook.com/video/video.php?v=10150345693765164

  32. Ron Saikowski says:

    In today’s society, it is always fun to unocver a pompous ass for what he is worth. Steve is like the “little boy” who told the KING in his very expensive clothing that he really had nothing on and was exposed for what he really was. Great rock throwing with some accurate hits, Steve! Let’s now look beyond the Great Oz and see who is really behind the curtain!

  33. Ron, thanks. Now let’s try to change your royalist thinking in some other areas.

  34. Trixie is missing the point by a country mile – $30 *is” rich and snobby money for a bottle of wine by, probably, 90% or so of all Americans. Step back and look at the bigger picture, please. Your personal reality isn’t by any means reality.

  35. Andrew Wiese says:

    Re the under-$30 video Trixie posted a link to: Personally, I winced when he said outside the store at the beginning that he was going to taste the wines to see if the staff were ‘right’ about the wines’ quality. Had he said, “I’m going to taste them to see if I agree”, I would have no problem, but this just reinforces what’s wrong with his attitude, IMHO, and perhaps the 100-point system generally, but that’s a debate for another time.

  36. Trixie – It’s easy to see those videos as a quick way to placate the detractors. I can’t be the only one who is concerned about James’ scoring, which seems to consist of roughly 12 seconds with a wine and a carved-in-granite point score. Bizarre. It’s no way to understand a wine, its origins, its quality. But by doing those videos that ostensibly focus on value, he can say he has balanced coverage. We just don’t have to believe it, because we can see the rest of the videos that seem to show a parade of wealth obsession and hageography.

  37. Trixie: James isn’t simply asking stores to pick out “five bottles that are $30 or less and 90 points or more” — he’s tasting the bottles to declare — like the Moses of wine palates — if these wine stores are right with their analyses. In “roughly 12 seconds,” and in an obnoxious fashion, he’s telling store owners “you’re wrong.”

  38. My interview with the anonymous blogger behind “James Suckling is a Douche” is up now: http://blog.terroirist.com/?p=870#more-870

    Check out, and chime in. Spot-on and deserved? Hateful and childish?

  39. I just saw Suckling in Blood Into Wine, and combining that with his work in his own videos and Mondovino, I’m pretty certain the guy is an utterly pretentious egomaniac. It almost looks like Maynard James Keenan is grinding his teeth angrily as Suckling reduces his work to a number. Meanwhile, Suckling leaves extolling how great his friendship with Keenan is. I didn’t get the impression Keenan has a reciprocal view of Suckling’s reality.

    Steve, you come off way better in the film, though you don’t get as much screen time. In fact, it seems like they didn’t follow up on the tasting of the four wines they poured for you.

  40. Gotta say that there seems to be absolutely NOTHING in his teaser videos to suggest that he’s anything but a pretentious egomaniac. I mean nothing at all. At every turn he acts and talks like a, well, what the guy with the blog is calling him. His hosts appear to think so as well, based on their mannerisms and facial expressions. I’d sure love to be a fly on the wall of the wineries after he has left the room.

  41. your best post to date.

  42. Ron Saikowski says:

    While you are at it, smack Gary V. on the side of the head. Is he talking about the Jets or wine? Let’s get focused on the wine, Gary. I don’t want to hear about your overpaid Jets. Do you really have to spit and dump into a Jets helmet, Gary? Please get back on track and focus on the wines, Gary!

    Steve, I am certainly not a Royalist. Love value wines and believe that people should have the Right to add sugar, pepper, and other stuff to make the wines taste the way we like them! I normally do not add anything to my wine. If I don’t like it, I contribute it to the local wastewater system directly! Otherwise, it goes indirectly! Check out the Texas wines…the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly!

  43. Ron, I can’t smack Gary V. on the side of his head because he never turns that way. He’s always looking at you talking about himself.

  44. I think it is quite apparent that most of the frustration with James Suckling is his propensity for handing out points (to his friends) like treats on Halloween. With the current system actually being a 10-point system (does anything under 90 points really matter?), the problem may actually be more with score inflation. Are all of these 90+ point wines really that exceptional? Most wines are actually average, and there is nothing wrong with that. Just as no one liked the strict, bell curve adhering professor, if a critic is not disposed to give high scores neither consumers nor producers will be fond of said critic.

  45. Not sure where you get the idea that people are offended by the guy because of the fact that he hands out points. It seems pretty obvious that people are put off by his haughty, snobbish persona. You’re reading waaaaaay too much into this. Based on the appearance that he gives in his teasers he is just an obnoxious, narcissistic cretin. The fact the he gives out points if strictly incidental.

  46. Jacques, perhaps you are correct, but I do think that “His haughty, snobbish persona” is a product of the current incarntation of the 100-point system. If he were actually evaluating and publishing all scores and not just 90+ he might (stress on might) come across less Moses-like. Also, the wineries may be less accommodating to him and his “style.” To me, he seems to be selling himself and he does that by selling wines by lavishing them with unreasonably (perhaps) inflated scores. If he were not proclaiming an arbitrary numerical value on a wine in 12 seconds but actually discussing his experiences with said wine/winery at length, I think people could more easily overlook his elitist persona.

  47. He sure doesn’t come across as the type of guy who engages in discussions unless they’re about how unbelievably cool he is. Name-dropping doesn’t qualify as discussion and that seems like what he does most of the time. His reputation in the industry supports that.

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