Goodbye to the era of the Big Critic
We entered it as stealthily as we seem to be exiting it: the era of the Big Critic, which began, roughly speaking, around 1980 with the rise of Wine Spectator and its cadre of writers, and then really burst into prominence with the emergence of The Wine Advocate and its owner, Robert M. Parker.
That was 34 years ago—three and a half decades in which America gradually got used to the idea of a handful of (mostly white male) wine critics who were the Promethean equivalent of the faces on Mount Rushmore:
Stupendous, larger-than-life names, known to everybody who cared about wine, legends in their own time, whose opinions could elevate a winery to heavenly heights, or crush it mercilessly.
For thirty-four years this lopsided culture presided. It changed the face of the wine industry, especially in California but even in France, and its influence shaped the evolution of everything from winemaking style to marketing and even the kinds of foods we eat. That this handful of Big Critics was anointed to almost holy status was not their own fault, or their plan, and perhaps not even their desire: uneasy lies the head that wears the crown, which is why the description you heard most often of the personality of the Big Critics was “humble,” as if people were surprised they weren’t the height of arrogance. The Big Critics were aware of the incongruity of themselves being accorded all this power, and seemed almost embarrassed by it.
So, it was not their own fault. Whose, then? Maybe “fault” is the wrong word; there was nothing wrong with this crazy new system, it just happened. Like Athena springing full-blown from the head of Zeus,
the Big Critic was forged into being by the Zeitgeist of a Boomer nation suddenly all grown up and responsible for itself. America found herself in thrall to this handful of super-beings, half-man, half-deity–big fish in a small pond, perhaps, but no less awesome for that.
And yet there always seemed something “faulty” about it, didn’t there? One heard, from the recesses of the wine community, sounds of concern that “it’s come to this,” that such a handful of men could cause entire segments of the business to sway or topple. It was heard in whispers, over drinks at the bar: “I can’t believe the influence he has,” although nobody seemed truly to mind too much because, after all, almost everyone stood to gain from the phenomenon: producers, for whom a high score would be a bonanza; merchants, who needed no longer to form their own judgments but could simply shelf-talk someone else’s; other critics, who could gaze up at Rushmore and fantasize “There might be I, someday…”…
We will look back at these 34 years someday as a sort of fever-haze we went through, a national delirium. Someday, someone will ask her grandfather, “Is it really true your generation wouldn’t buy a wine unless a Big Critic told you to?” and Grandpa will smile ruefully and admit that, Yes, that’s the way it was, but you have to understand the times, the context…We were a young wine-drinking country, we needed help and guidance, we didn’t realize at the time how slavish the whole thing was, and besides, everybody else was doing it, we were all in it together, how could we have known it was only a fever-dream?
Why do I say the 34 years is over? Well, maybe it’s not. It could turn out to be 36 years, or 41 years, but by 2025 I can’t see the Big Critic thing remaining in any form, except memory, or perhaps in the mind of someone who fancies himself a Big Critic but isn’t really. The death knell came, of course, with the rise of the Internet and social media, which formed the basis for what is called “citizen journalism,” a lofty-sounding phrase that means, simply, that anybody can write anything and launch it into the universe, forever, with a keystroke. This is “publishing,” of a sort; it is words on a page (or screen), read by people who are interested in such things. And, occasionally, it does rise to the rigorous standards according to which modern journalism has been practiced for 100 years.
But the very universality of the Internet has proven to be the undoing of the era of the Big Critic. It’s not an either-or situation—I mean, we can have 1,000 citizen journalist wine bloggers co-existing with an aging cadre of Big Critics for a certain amount of time. But it’s an unwieldy tension; it can’t go on for much longer, because it’s inherently unbalanced: 5 or 6 Big Critics on one side of the seesaw, 1,000 and counting citizen journalists on the other side, there is no longer equilibrium, the center cannot hold. Somebody wins in such an unequal contest. The Big Critics lose, or fall off the seesaw; the citizen journalists are the victors.
And that changes everything. America changed when the populace that was not originally given the right to vote by the Founders—women, slaves, non-landowners, 18 year olds—eventually obtained that right. That tectonic shift in the weight of the voting population radically impacted the course of our country’s history: we became more “democratic” (with a small “d”), a nation in which—in theory—everyone’s voice was counted as equal. (Whether it really worked that way or not is another story…)
I for one will not regret the passing of the torch. The era of the Big Critic was fun, it was interesting, I personally benefited from it, but everything must pass. Life marches on and stops for nothing. “Eras” happen more frequently these days than they used to, and they last for a shorter time, too. The Paleozoic Era lasted for hundreds of millions of years; the Victorian Era for 64 years; we now measure eras in months (the current time has been referred to as the Era of the Selfie). It may be that future eras will be measured in microseconds.
If the Big Critic is gone (or going) then of course we are now entering the era of the Small Critic. When anyone can be a critic then everyone can be a critic: the ultimate democratization of wine criticism results in claims like this:
From clueless to connoisseur in an instant. Welcome to the Internet! Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing, I don’t know. But it does seem to be related to everything else in the world that’s falling apart.