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The history of wine reviewing

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Did my annual wine class last night for the U.C. Berkeley Haas School of Business’s Wine Club. It’s always so cool to go there, with the big banners celebrating their Nobel Prize winners, and those super-smart students who, one imagines, might be running the show someday.

One of the things they wanted to know about was the history of wine reviewing. Here’s what I told them.

Describing wine has a long and honorable history in humankind. People have always understood that wines differ greatly in quality and this seems to have been fascinating to even the earliest peoples we have record of. The Old Testament, Numbers 18:12 (1400 B.C.). refers to drinking “all the best of the wine.” From the New Testament, John 2:10: “every man serves the good wine first.” So these notions of “the best” wine and “the good” wine date to the earliest times.

The ancient Greeks divided wine into quality hierarchies. Socrates’ and Plato’s “symposia” were actually wine-drinking parties at which matters of intellectual interest were discussed. Aristotle praised the aroma of Limnio, a red wine still produced on the island of Lemnos. Later, in Rome, Pliny the Elder (first century A.D.) created one of the earliest rankings of wine, noting that the vineyard is the most important influence on the wine’s quality. In this he anticipates, by nearly 2,000 years, the French system of Grand Crus and Classified Growths, which also are based on vineyards. The greatest, or most famous, of the ancient Roman wines was Falernian, which was often mentioned by ancient writers: On the walls of Pompei, destroyed by Mt. Vesuvius in 79 A.D., is a price list [this must have been the equivalent of a Roman wine bar!]: For one denarius, you could buy an “as”–the house wine. For two, “the best.” For four, “Falernian.” Scholars think Falernian might have been a sweet white wine–rather like an ice wine. According to Pliny the Elder, in 60 B.C., Julius Caesar was served Falernian from the 121 B.C. vintage–the first vintage in recorded history that was celebrated for wine quality. However, as the physician Galen noted around 180 A.D., not all so-called “Falernian” wine could be genuine. There was simply too much being drunk and too little produced! Yes, even then, they had fake wines–a situation we’ve seen here in the states, with the recent Rudi Kurniawan scandal. Counterfeit wine also is notoriously frequent in China with Burgundy and Bordeaux.

Here in America, knowledge of wine all but disappeared due to 14 years of Prohibition. Following Repeal (1933), a plethora of wine books appeared to explain wine to Americans, and implicit in them all was this notion of a hierarchy of quality. It’s very easy for Americans to accept that some things are better than others: people understand that Cadillacs are better than Chevrolets. So they absorbed this notion of wine hierarchies, and it’s still hard to persuade them that a common, everyday wine can be better than a rare, expensive one, depending on the circumstances.

When the Baby Boomers—my generation–came of age with all their disposable income, the number of wineries was exploding exponentially. Consumers needed help deciding what to buy—and they wanted that help to be neutral and objective–so a new generation of “critics” arose in the 1970s. Newspapers in the major cities hired wine critics. Books and newsletters flourished. This was the genesis of where we find ourselves today. Two publications of note arose during the late 1970s: Wine Spectator magazine and Robert Parker’s newsletter, The Wine Advocate. My own former magazine, Wine Enthusiast, launched about ten years later.

With all of these came the advent and triumph of the American wine critic.

  1. From my perspective, looking back into the rear view mirror, I would ascribe far greater importance, in terms of its impact on my buying and learning of wine, to the founding of Connoisseur’sGuide. There were dozens of wineries that I owe Charlie & Earl a big huzzah for steering me to.
    Tom

  2. TomHill, yes, thank you for mentioning CGCW, an important publication that paved the way.

  3. doug wilder says:

    Steve, So what happened after the 1980s? Is that part 2, tomorrow? I agree with Tom about CGCW. Charlie’s book was a resource I devoured when learning more about California producers after entering the wine business in 1990. Years later I was periodically invited to sit as a guest taster with Charlie, Earl and Steve, developing deeper appreciation of the process that influenced my own decision to review wine.

  4. Maybe I’ll bring it into the 1980s and 1990s but not tomorrow!

  5. Hey Steve and readers/commenters: Kind of on this subject, I remember reading or being told at some point that the word “taste” or translations thereof is used universally as the term for one’s evaluation of the aesthetic quality of anything, whether art or fashion or music. This apparently originates in the tasting or appreciation/evaluation of wine, and then expanded to apply to the aesthetic evaluation of all other things. Any body heard this before?

  6. “When the Baby Boomers — my generation — came of age with all their disposable income, the number of wineries was exploding exponentially. Consumers needed help deciding what to buy — and they wanted that help to be neutral and objective — so a new generation of ‘critics’ arose in the 1970s. NEWSPAPERS IN THE MAJOR CITIES HIRED WINE CRITICS. Books and newsletters flourished. This was the genesis of where we find ourselves today.”

    And today we find ourselves with an ever declining number of printed newspapers. And an ever declining number that publish weekly wine editorial.

    (Here in my hometown, the Los Angeles Times has reduced its weekly editorial to a single wine bottle review. Gone are the days of long-form wine articles.)

    The top 25 (out of 593 total audited) daily circulation U.S. newspapers

    WALL STREET JOURNAL
    NEW YORK TIMES
    USA TODAY
    LOS ANGELES TIMES
    NEW YORK DAILY NEWS
    NEW YORK POST
    WASHINGTON POST
    CHICAGO SUN-TIMES
    DENVER POST
    CHICAGO TRIBUNE
    DALLAS MORNING NEWS
    NEWSDAY
    HOUSTON CHRONICLE
    ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER
    NEWARK STAR-LEDGER
    TAMPA BAY TIMES
    CLEVELAND PLAIN DEALER
    PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER
    MINNEAPOLIS STAR TRIBUNE
    ARIZONA REPUBLIC
    HONOLULU STAR-ADVERTISER
    LAS VEGAS REVIEW-JOURNAL
    SAN DIEGO UNION-TRIBUNE
    BOSTON GLOBE
    ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

    Source: http://auditedmedia.com/news/blog/top-25-us-newspapers-for-march-2013.aspx

  7. There is always this problem of age. I appreciate the kind words about Connoisseurs’ Guide, but all Earl Singer and I did was to build on the wine criticism of the time and give it a California focus. It was purely a function of the age in which we lived. We were Californians with developing cellars and saw first hand that our wines were becoming world-class with the emergence of wineries like Heitz, Freemark Abbey, Ridge, Chalone, Joseph Swan, Spring Mountain, Robert Mondavi, Fetzer, Hanzell, Stony Hill, Souverain all coming into existence by 1970 or earlier.

    For us, the pioneers of the day were Hank Rubin (SF Chronicle and Bon Appetit), Robert Lawrence Balzer and Nate Chroman (LA Times), Bob Finegan, Leon Adams, Philip Sheldon (Vintage Magazine), Dick Sherwin (Wine World). Without them, there probably would have been no “us”.

    But, of course, there were probably others whose names are now all but gone. Joel Peterson’s mother, Frances, and her husband, David Garbellano, had a well-respected newsletter at the time. Who were those others? Someone might know, but I am not old enough to remember even though I am old enough to have been reviewing wine for over forty years.

    I never knew Pliny the Elder, but I can tell you that he makes one hell of a beer these days.

  8. And what about the last ten years of wine writing? How the key influencers have shifted and the Grand Gurus are losing not gaining ground. The rise of online wine reviewers, social networks, and apps like Delectable have been game changers as the democratization of commentary and curatorship changes. The new connoisseur is likely to say – “Oh Parker liked it; therefore I’ll hate it.” The old lions haven’t disappeared but their influence is part of a larger conversation. In reality distribution now limits the buying choices ever so much more. With the increase in supermarket wines, the wine shop has lost ground as well. Which leads us to the Internet, and sites like cellartracker.com, where everyone’s a wine critic.

  9. norm roby says:

    In the 1970s, East Coast writers were fairly influential, as in
    Bespaloff, Pursglove, and Robards or whoever wrote for the NYT.

    Bob Thompson and Balzer deserve a mention as the center of influence shifts West where Finigan reigned for a few years.

    I cant believe Charlie cited Seldon with Vintage Magazine. But I too
    have fond memories of “Charlie’s book,” so I’ll overlook that.

  10. Norman, while it is true that Mr. Seldon eventually left a bad taste in the mouths of almost everyone who dealt with him, it is true that his mag was the most widely read wine publication back in the early ’70s.

    He had a stable of writers and editors that was truly a dream team. No need to regurgiate all the evil that he did or how he destroyed the goose that was laying the golden eggs.

    And as for “Charlie’s book”, it must be said out loud that the original collaborators on that book, equal partners in that book that eventually stayed in print for twenty years, through eleven revisions and rewrites and sold over 400,000 copies, were myself, Earl Singer and none other than Mr. Roby himself whose yeoman work made the book possible.

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