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Warning! Do not read this while operating heavy machinery

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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. Steve, you are right, I can only afford wine 18 bucks or less so I don’t ever want to see or read about anything over that price. Anyone who does is either a snob or pretentious. You are somewhat famous in your own right, why do you feel the need to rip everyone else. It seems to me that if the person is your personal friend then they are great wine writers. If they slight you in any way, real or perceived, you want your pound of flesh. I know your adoring masses love your quick wit but I don’ get the joke.

  2. TonyG, I disagree with your premise. I am an equal opportunity stinger. I admired James Suckling for leaving Wine Spectator, and would have been glad to praise him had he elected to go in a different direction. But instead, he chose the most elite route possible. In my view, that made him a prime candidate for criticism, since I don’t like elitism and never have. I think the comments on this post — 52 as I write — indicate that most people agree with my take. As for my personal friends, I invite you to identify any instances in which you feel I have given somebody support based on my personal feelings. I don’t believe you can. Instead, I would put it the other way around: instead of thinking that I only identify my friends as great wine writers, I feel that I first identify people who are great wine writers, and then I try to befriend them. Anyway, I’m probably in your price bracket, so rest assured, you have a defender of inexpensive wines, and I trust my reviews reflect that. That doesn’t mean, obviously, that I shouldn’t write about all wines regardless of price. That’s my job.

  3. Great post. I found this site through Alice Feiring’s blog and am glad I did. I thought those videos were so pretentious it made me gag. Thanks for having the “cahones” to post this!

  4. Humberto Falcon says:

    Steve. I am shocked.
    I find so biased this article that I dont know how to start. You are pre-judging so badly that you are the one looking like Moses… or God himself.
    1. Why should people interested in CULT tastings have to be snobs? What’s wrong in spending 700us in a great tasting conducted by someone who knows the business?
    2. You are saying that anyone who loves great wines and can afford them, regardless of their country of origin or occupation is a vulgar showoff wine snob that will follow James just to feel good about how to spend their own “excess”? Man, in this industry generalization is the mother of every single F*** Up!
    3. Why is it so wrong that James is giving points to wines, when he has been doing it for so many years. Yes, we have to be humble and accept that it is very likely that he has tasted more wines than us, and he can give a score. Is Parker, Spectator and everyone else wrong by doing so?
    I am really dissapointed by reading this article. I only can read envy and anger. We should have more Sucklings breaking the mold and daring to dive in the freezing waters of economical uncertainty, just to make the wine world a more diverse and rich place to enjoy and live.
    As a frequent reader, I think you should focus on your own stuff and share with us all the postive and interesting things you have to write… not negative personal feelings. I think a big part of your readers will appreciate it.
    Cheers.

  5. It’s remarkable how people can makes things so complicated. This is all very simple: Suckling comes off as a name-dropping, pretentious snob. That’s all.

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