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Goodbye to the era of the Big Critic

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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:

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,

 

Athena

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:

New app can turn even the most clueless of wine drinkers into an instant connoisseur.

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.

  1. I like the premise of your post, but I disagree that the tension between blogger and “Big” wine critic must net out the way you say. At the end of the day, do consumers really trust Bill from Iowa or Steve from St. Louis more than the national wine publications or their local wine merchant? I find it hard to believe the answer is yes. Credibility is key. And so is the ability to calibrate one’s palate against that of the critic. Do consumers really want to put in that effort? I have my doubts. Wine is expensive enough without the trial and error of trusting critics without credibility.

    But like all things, time will tell…

  2. Tom Scott says:

    Great piece and the best part for me is I get to quote my favorite line from Gilbert & Sullivan… but that comes later. I agree that this so called era of the “big critic” is over, much in the same way that traditional media in general is losing its grip on exclusivity. The internet has opened the door to “the many” and they have come rushing through. Reminds me a little of graphic design. In the early 90’s you needed to be able to draw, sketch, paint, probably have an art degree and oh yes… have some actual talent. Then the Mac came along, and suddenly everyone was a graphic designer. It took some time but in the end there was the inevitable shake out as “the cream (or talent) rose back up to the top. The internet has opened up a forum for the many but the many have ambitions and they are… to be the few. In the end talent will win out and the cream will once again rise to the top. Oh and now for my quote, “if everyone is somebody then no one’s anybody”. And let’s face it, if this piece was written by one of those “small critics” would we even have read it?

  3. The issue right now is the channel for information to make it to the wine buyer. For instance, WineGlass creates a direct channel between CellarTracker reviews and the buyer at the point of purchase. So if the buyer is given the choice between CT info in their face or having to scrounge around the internet and pay $50-$100+ for critic reviews, we know who’s going to win… even if the value of critic reviews is vastly higher than Bill from Iowa (in fairness, CT data is better than any non-professional content and with some culling is probably good enough for most. How successful it would be without the “guiding light” of critics is TBD).

    But there remains a fundamental problem that normal people whom we trust to vote or even rate restaurants effectively are useless when it comes to describing and rating wines. And simply having a million crappy reviews doesn’t elevate it to utility. People have been burnt over and over again assuming that wine acts like most other consumer products – empirically it doesn’t. Could a thousand semi-pro influencers replace the critic? Perhaps, but this would require significant coordination given the ~ 200K+ new SKUs entering the market every year.

    So it’s still the critics’ to lose. But it will require new channels to connect their expertise to wine buyers at the point where buyers need it (existing critic apps are non-existent or weak). The most troubling part is that it will also require new revenue models as wine buyers don’t want to pay for this information. If critics see themselves as journalists, then they’re doomed. But if they see themselves as guides for wine consumers in a roughly $250B global market, then there’s plenty of money in there and enough time for them to establish a leadership role even in the age of the internet.

  4. I see an interesting parallel to the time I spent in high tech PR, particularly 1980 to 1992. We (publicists collectively) anointed a few “experts” (some of whom were) to comment on products, companies and trends that would benefit our clients. The strategy worked well, and some of them became very successful, moving from being experts to venture capitalists.

    Of course, this strategy turned around to bite us when some of these experts began to exert too much Independence and consider themselves more than human :)

    Glad those days are over for me.

  5. And maybe none of this matters anyway. Replace humans with data and algorithms.

    http://nextglass.co/

    “John Henry was a steel-driving man.”

  6. Dear Paul, nice to hear from you.

  7. Dear Tom Scott: Great example you cite of graphic design. I worked in the late 80s at an art college when the Macs were coming in, and I saw exactly what you describe.

  8. It’s time for wineries to step up in some organized form (appellation, regional or national based), anoint a critic or critics they support and pay the critic(s) substantially to provide this valuable service to the public. There would be no conflict of interest, as the wineries en mass would be behind the critic(s) who would work with their blessing. Something like this is long overdue since wineries receive considerable revenue from critics’ recommendations and have never had to pay a penny for this essentially free service. A qualified critic of repute will always capture the public’s interest and will not become obsolete, at least in the near future as I see it, and will continue to trump Cellar Tracker, wine blogs and other independent reviewers as a reliable critique of wine.

  9. Thank God! Now we might get some decent food wines – dry and under 14% alcohol.

  10. Steve:

    Always find your comments interesting and insightful. How’s it on the dark side :) I went back and forth from journalism to PR a few times but writing about wine, food and travel sure beats flogging technology!

    Paul

  11. doug wilder says:

    Rusty, I think your idea sounds like “The Hunger Games”.

  12. Bill Haydon says:

    Rusty,

    Not to belabor the obvious, but at that point your “critic” stops becoming a critic and becomes a p.r. flak……..or The Wine Spectator.

  13. Patrick says:

    “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”: Based on seeing Charlie Rose interview Robert Parker, I have to disagree with your statement, at least for Parker’s case.

  14. Steve, I’m not sure big critic is going away any time soon – WS, WA, WE and others will continue to exist as industry needs them. All of us, “citizen journalists” as you said can cover only a very little fraction of what the actual dedicated publication can do. Each one of us, wine bloggers, has our own small following, a group of people who is curious in our opinion, so our influence on the wine sales is at the level of couple of bottles a month for the most, may be to the 10 cases for the very best of us.
    I think the main value of the “citizen journalists” is in education and spreading the love, passion and appreciation of the wine among all – I think this is our biggest contribution to the industry as a whole.
    And lastly, talking about the direct wine criticism and scores, outside of the narrow segment of wine and narrow group of the wine consumers, we overestimate the importance of all those scores for the majority of the wine sales – this is where the labels rule (and the recommendations of the passionate wine store employees…)

  15. doug wilder says:

    “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.”

    Emancipation got the slaves freed
    Suffrage got women the vote
    Wine Blogging gets clicks

  16. The old guard will fade soon enough.

    But the value of expertise and good writing will remain, and WA, WS, WE, W & S will remain as platforms for respected criticism. A thousand little unknown voices will rise. Indeed, already have, but they cannot be heard and thus there will always be voices that have more “bigness”.

  17. Patrick, I’ve never met Parker, but based on intimate conversations with people who know him, I’ve formed the impression that he is humble. He may well have dreamed of his success in the early 1980s, but that doesn’t seem to have made him insufferable.

  18. Bob Henry says:

    Mark,

    You and Vinformative are new to me, so I perused your website.

    Finding a wine and winery I am familiar with, I read the text:

    2012 Buehler (California) Cabernet Sauvignon

    Description: “The wine is brimming with fruit aromas and flavors biased to the black fruit end of the Cabernet spectrum: plums, blackberry, black currant. Rich and full-bodied on the palate, our Cabernet drinks well on release but will soften and develop with additional age. For those who seek youthful fresh Cabernet fruit aromas and a more structured wine, drink now.”

    And this word stood out for me: “. . . OUR Cabernet drinks well on release . . .”

    Are these wine descriptions “penned” by the wineries, or by “judges”/”critics” engaged by Vinformative?

    ~~ Bob

  19. Bob Henry says:

    The regard that the public has for national critics is an outgrowth of World War II.

    Prior to WW II, print media consumed in the “average” American household was largely the local newspaper. The national print media comprised a small mix of magazines such as “Reader’s Digest” and “Life” and “Time.”

    Post-WW II G.I.s flooded into colleges in search of federal government-subsidized educations – the portal to middle class jobs, incomes and a suburban lifestyle.

    Business schools responded by implementing greater academic rigor, akin to that of “professional” schools like law and engineering and medicine.

    Society had a new-found respect for academic “credentials.” The role of the “technical expert” was born, whose reporting populated the emerging national print and electronic media.

    I would submit that during this era there have been other, more powerful “voices” in consumer media criticism than Robert Parker.

    (1) “Consumer Reports”

    (Does anyone in the middle class seriously consider purchasing a new car, or a “cream puff” used car, without consulting CR’s testing lab?)

    (2) “Siskel and Ebert At the Movies.”

    (Spawned on public television and later migrated to ad-supported broadcast television, was there anyone who didn’t consult these sparing digit-extenders before heading to the local multiplex on a Friday or Saturday night?

    Movie ticket sales revenue then and now handily eclipses the market for fine wine sales in the United States. Siskel and Ebert could literally “make or break” a movie. Parker doesn’t have that clout over wine brands or individual bottlings.)

    Today in our short attention span “post-literate society,” print media news is waning. Newspaper and magazine subscriptions are down. (Some have gone bust.) And newspapers and magazine have responded by going digital to survive.

    The only consumer print media editorial that continues to have a healthy following is hobbyist news.

    Enthusiasts consult recognized “experts” before expending their hard-earned dollars.

    Wine writers and wine critics have to “add value” to consumers to retain their readership levels and subscriber revenue business model. Advertising revenue alone won’t pay the bills.

  20. Bob,

    A great point and one that I was going to mention (but IPNC got in the way). The time of the “big critic” existed in many areas other than wine (I’d look at Frank Prial in restaurants, for example). I think in virtually every field that type of over-sized influence is waning. I actually think wine is somewhat late to this trend, perhaps because wine is still somewhat intimidating to so many people.

    I do think this provides us a unique opportunity to perhaps look into the future. Movie attendance declined as Siskel & Ebert went away. Of course, there are a number of potential reasons for that (rise of videos, etc.) so it is difficult to find a direct correlation. But I do think it can be questioned whether a decline in “big critics” is overall good for a field. It may well be detrimental.

    BTW, I’d probably take issue with whether Parker (or Wine Spectator) can make or break a brand….I think there are plenty of examples where they have made them (and a few where they have broken them).

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

  21. For restaurants I now look to Yelp, for movies I tend to rely on user reviews on IMDB, software and electronics I look to CNET. Cellartracker and other wine review sites don’t have the same level of UGC. Perhaps it is the subjective nature of wine that makes it more difficult to rely on user generated reviews? Wine can be intimidating and despite its subjective nature (or perhaps because of this) we crave the perceived greater certainty and validation that comes with a review from one of the annointed.

  22. Bob Henry says:

    Adam,

    Quoting an excerpt from the late David Shaw’s (Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist) two-part profile of American wine critics for the Los Angeles Times (August 24, 1987 — yes, 1987!):

    Link: http://articles.latimes.com/print/1987-08-24/news/mn-1965_1_wine-advocate

    “But the major criticism of Parker is that he has become too influential, TOO POWERFUL a force in the industry. Indeed, many wine makers worry that his influence is so pervasive and his preferences so clear — he generally seems to like big, robust wines more than lighter, more elegant wines — that he is influencing wine makers as well as wine buyers.”

    Quoting an excerpt from the late David Shaw’s (Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist) subsequent two-part profile of Robert Parker for the Los Angeles Times (February 232, 1999):

    Links: http://articles.latimes.com/print/1999/feb/23/news/mn-10770

    — and —

    http://articles.latimes.com/print/1999/feb/24/news/mn-11202

    “Robert Parker tasted 30 wines this morning — a small number by his standards. But it’s only early afternoon. He’s in the California wine country, gathering information for the 20th anniversary issue of the Wine Advocate, the bimonthly newsletter that has made him THE MOST POWERFUL WINE CRITIC IN THE WORLD — THE MOST POWERFUL CRITIC OF ANY KIND, ANYWHERE, a man whose writings and ratings have enormous impact in virtually every country where wine is made, bought or sold.”

    In his time, New York Times chief theatre critic Frank Rich could “make or break” a stage play.

    ~~ Bob

  23. Bob Henry says:

    A postscript to my comment about the post-World War II rise of the “academic credentials arms-race.”

    See today’s Wall Street Journal book review of “Excellent Sheep,” which examines the unintended consequences of elite college applications and admissions.

    http://online.wsj.com/articles/book-review-excellent-sheep-the-miseducation-of-the-american-elite-by-william-deresiewicz-1408576444

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