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How will the 22nd century view “wine critics”?


Sunday: I’m up here in West Seattle meeting Janel’s (niece’s) neighbors, some of whom still had half empty glasses of red wine on their tables next to empty bottles, the leftovers from the previous night’s dinner waiting to be cleaned up. But who’s in a hurry to clean when the weather’s a rare 82 degrees, the big boat is anchored just a launch away on glistening Puget Sound and the salmon are biting? Cleanup can wait.

Folks up here are serious about wine. Coffee, too (obviously), and fresh fish, and tofu, and herbal remedies for what ails you, and stopping at stop signs. West Seattle is one of the politest, most liberal areas of the country, with a live-and-let-live attitude towards life that I like. And they’re really into their wine.

I thought about the place of wine in people’s lives who love it but don’t necessarily know (or care) that much about it. They don’t work in the industry, don’t subscribe to wine periodicals or (gasp) read wine blogs (the heathens), and never heard of Robert Parker or me for that matter. For them, wine is just something they like and love and feel the need to have with their dinner, maybe not 7 nights a week, but certainly on the weekend.

My niece’s own husband is a surgeon, and he’s on call a lot, so he doesn’t drink much, but their friends do. Whenever I’m introduced to one of their friends and the subject of what everybody does for a living, I always struggle with exactly how to say what I do. Sometimes I say “I write about wine.” Sometimes I say “I’m a wine critic” or “a wine journalist.” Sometimes I’ll say “I’m an editor for a wine magazine.” No matter how I say it, it seems incomplete. I can see puzzlement on people’s faces. Sometimes their reply is, “Really,” but it’s not a question that’s asking for more information because they don’t want any more information, it’s just an interjection to end the conversation. Their body language and the lack of followup tell me that they neither want nor need any additional facts about me being a wine critic, so fine, end of story. I don’t have to talk about my career if someone doesn’t want to hear about it, and the truth is, I don’t want to hear about most other people’s jobs, either.

But sometimes they’ll be really interested. “A wine critic!” they’ll say, with real inflection in their voice. “Wow.” And that’s where I feel like, okay, they want to know more, and so I’ll tell them, carefully reading the situation until I see their interest start to wane, and then I’ll say, “But enough about me, how about you?”

I also haven’t quite mastered the tone of voice and facial expression to accompany my “I’m a wine critic” remark. By that, I mean that most people think that being a “wine critic” is a very esoteric, weird thing to be, so most of the time I’ll adopt something of a sheepish, semi-embarrassed look. I mean, if I were a pharmacist or an insurance salesman I’d just say so with a straight face because there’s not much of a back story associated with being a pharmacist or insurance salesman. Nobody’s going to hear that and think, “Wow! A pharmacist! How weird and interesting!” But they do often think that when I say “wine critic,” and I guess my sheepish, semi-embarrassed look, with a little shrug of the shoulders, is partly to put them at ease, so that they won’t feel like they’d be insulting me by letting me know that they think being a wine critic is a little weird, because frankly, so do I.

I honestly believe that someday the notion of “wine critic” will be obsolete, like “gas lamp lighter” or “town crier” or “telephone operator.” In 2112, some little girl will hear that her great-great grandfather was a “wine critic,” and she’ll have to look it up on whatever device she uses to look stuff up (which will probably be a chip in her own cerebral cortex). The conversation will then go like this. “Hey, mom, did you know great-great grandpa was a wine critic?” Mom: “Sure, honey, didn’t we ever tell you.” Little girl: “No! What does that mean?” Mom: “Well, I’m not really sure, to tell you the truth, but it was something some people did about the turn of the last century, and whatever it was, I’m sure it was a very respectable job.” I can see the little girl going to school and telling her little friends, “My great-great grandpa was a wine critic!” Maybe, when she’s old enough to go to college, she’ll write a term paper on “wine critics in the late 20th and early 21st centuries” and I’ll be in there. I’d like to be around to read that term paper but I guess I won’t be.

  1. Steve, when writers are history, so shall “the notion of “wine critic” . . . be obsolete,” for here your writing reminds me of a good-gentle BEAUJOLAIS, though light, a pleasure to read, (light reading is good too), nicely done!

  2. carlos toledo says:

    Cool topic. Once more.

    I believe the more people know about wine the less they need someone to tell them what to consume, what to buy, where to buy, when to buy.

    I don’t need a critic to tell me that small winery in Alba makes great barolo. I can gather the information myself. I know the year was great for the grapes and they will make outstanding barolo.

    I don’t need anyone to tell me that premier cru chablis from that particular vintage is great wine. i know that.

    And vice-versa: I know what to expect from a mass-produced australian wine. I don’t need anyone to tell me a rat’s ass about that wine. please don’t tell me it’s a good wine for $ 2.00. I know what to expect from it.

    Likewise i don’t need a film critic to tell me Sean Connery is superb on a given film. I know that. But i know Keanu Reeves is going to suck. Until a reliable source or friend tells me otherwise. Maybe he’ll learn some day how to act. Lucky rich guy.

    I know i need wine critics who tease my lazy brain and teach me how to think over such a wornout and boring subject. We’ll always be in need of people who manage to differenciate them from the crowd. I know i won’t buy a wine because of the 3 biccheri, 90 points, 17 points critics.

    What have i ever learnt from Parker (or insert name here) that i wouldn’t have learnt sooner or later?

    I know we’ll need people to tell me about the climate changes in california…or in england, or in russia and what they will mean for us. We will need people who will keep us informed of sound and interesting topics (interests and desires may be huge here, though). That’s a job a wine critic can do as well, right?

    Keep on doing what you do, Steve. At least my attention and respect you ought to get.

  3. Steve, very cool post that even though Dennis thinks is light reading, brings up some interesting avenues for discussion. First, do you think that you “blow peoples mind” when they see a hip guy with a beautifully-tatooed sleeve tell them he is a wine critic? Unless you live in wine country or work in something wine related, people equate high-end wine with a more “conservative” attitude. Second, one hundred years from now, it looks like the Carneros region may be under water ( so maybe there will still be stuff to write about…

  4. Well, we still have theatre critics, music critics, literary critics etc.

    As long as the opportunity exists for someone to try and sell chaff along with the wheat, we’ll need someone who separates the two.

  5. Oded, well I don’t have the slightest idea what people think when they see an aging Boomer tell them he’s a wine critic! I do agree with you that people equate high end wine with a more conservative attitude, though. I think that’s because when people hit the high income bracket they tend to get more conservative.

  6. Thank you Carlos.

  7. Dennis, that’s me, a nice Beaujolais Nouveau, bubbly and fruity!

  8. Steve,

    You are probably right about the income bracket thing. One of my favorite wine stories (from a previous life) is being sent to do a winemaker dinner in a prestigous golf club (in a Peachy state…). From the moment I stepped in I felt the management was VERY uncomfortable with my earring (even though I was in a suit and tie). As we sat for dinner, the GM proceeded to brag about how they now allow women in the club house, and before I could stop myself I heard “So, when will African American Folk be allowed in”? come out of my mouth…

  9. doug wilder says:


    If you are talking about 2112, the title should be “How will the twenty-second century view wine critics”? Since Civil War reenaactments, and Elvis impersonators don’t seem to be going away anytime soon it isn’t far-fetched that in a hundred years there isn’t a Madden-like virtual reality version of ‘The Paris Tasting’ where you and five friends could select from an infinite menu of all sixty five vintages of the Chinese First Growths and taste them against Domestic Cabernet Sauvignon from the recently approved Prudhoe Bay AVA. 🙂

  10. Oded: Oi. That is a problem.

  11. Steve–

    How about telling people you are a writer? That is your profession.

    What do you write about? Wine.

    I have never had anything but very favorable and often envious reactions.

    As for thinking there will someday not be wine critics, especially one hundred years from now, well, that is a long time and you and I won’t be around to see it.

    But, for now, I am a writer whose topic is wine.

    Oh, and if the conversation gets far enough for me to say that I publish a monthly wine magazine, they usually ask if I am Marvin Shanken. ;-}

  12. Charlie: Has anyone ever seen you and Marvin in the same place at the same time? So there is no actual proof that you are NOT Marvin Shanken!

  13. Doug Wilder, I have seen the future and there are exactly 5 Chinese First Growths, just as there are in Bordeaux.

  14. doug wilder says:

    Steve, thanks for changing the title 🙂 A couple thoughts beyond that, 1. Recognizing the difference between Marv Shanken and Charlie Olken: Marv is a Publisher where Charlie is a Critic and Publisher. That reminds me of a funny Marv story from a decade ago. 2. When people ask what I do I try to downplay my wine background simply because often times the whole conversation shifts to wines otherwise. I can always use the equally valid but vague ‘Sales and Social Media Director in Sonoma County’ to keep the conversation enjoyable and less like work.

  15. Steve,

    There is absolute proof that I am not Marvin Shanken. If I were, I and my millions would be living in the south of France–and I would be neither a publisher nor a critic. I might even buy a second house in Tuscany and write a book about remodeling it.

  16. Charlie, well at least you didn’t say “me and my millions.” Cheers!

  17. Doug Wilder, I credit you for pointing out my error. Thanks. Would love to hear your funny Marv story. I have a few of my own.

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