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Wine critics vs. sommeliers, Round 428. Ding!



With all due respect to Robert Sinskey, whose wines I always admired, I think he struck the wrong tone in his recent opinion piece, which was published in Eater.

His basic premise—that the era of the mega-critic is over, along with the 100-point rating system—is widely held, and certainly worth a conversation. And we have been talking about it, for many years, without any particular resolution or consensus, I might add. So there’s nothing wrong with Robert having an opinion on that matter. About a year ago, I wrote a post I called “Goodbye to the era of the Big Critic,”  after having been one myself. I said, I for one will not regret the passing of the torch,” although I added this caveat: 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.

And, of course, if you’ve been following my blog for any amount of time, you know that I have some concerns about everybody going From clueless to connoisseur in an instant.”

Be that as it may, Robert is, as I wrote, perfectly entitled to his views. But here’s where his article turned me off: It’s too angry.

For one thing, Robert starts with the premise that wine critics are “arrogant”—his word. Why would he think that? The wine critics I’ve known are no more arrogant than the average person. Yes, a few have been real jerks—but they were widely perceived as such by winemakers and other writers, and were never welcomed into the wine community. But by far the majority of wine critics, including those who use the 100-point system, are fine, decent people. Robert’s assault on Robert Parker, in particular, sounds personal: he calls him “an ex-attorney” who had the nerve to “anoint himself the palate of America.” Well, Parker never anointed himself to any such thing. He was a creative, wine-loving entrepreneur who created a service that people valued, and he thrived accordingly. It wasn’t his fault he achieved so much power. So why the venom?

There’s more. When Robert writes of sommeliers that most “take their craft seriously,” that seems to imply that critics don’t. I can personally attest that they do! Then Robert unfavorably contrasts the critics who talk in “a singular voice” to sommeliers who “talk amongst each other…”. Well, as a wine consumer who can always use a little advice, I see no reason why I would trust, or gravitate towards, the recommendations of somms who “talk amongst themselves” over those of a wine critic, who presumably just mumbles to himself. I mean, what difference does it make who talks to whom? In the end, everybody’s recommendation—whether it’s a wine critic’s or a working sommelier’s—is just that person’s personal opinion.

As for Robert’s contention that sommeliers “challenge preconceived notions [and] kill sacred cows,” well, I never met a somm whose favorite red wine wasn’t Burgundy, and who didn’t rave about German Riesling. Talk about sacred cows!

Now, Robert is right on when he points out the positive aspects of the sommelier’s job, such as “ask[ing] questions to figure out what the customer likes and to suggest wines based on the food served.” That is indeed a very important role. But it is not the role of the wine critic. Apples and oranges. So it’s not fair to blame wine critics for not doing a job they’re not supposed to do anyway.

Anyway, having said all that, I love Robert’s use of the word “lumbersexual” to describe today’s “rock star” somms–although I do think mixologists are more lumbery lumbersexuals than somms.

  1. Bob Henry says:

    Don’t tacitly give Robert Sinksey credit for coining/popularizing the term Lumbersexual.

    It dates back to 2008.

    “Lumbersexual | Know Your Meme”


    Not found in Sinskey’s cross-hairs: wine merchants.

    How well are they performing their historical role as wine educators and taste-makers?

    (Or are they simply selling off of “Big Critic” 100-point scale scores?)

  2. Bill Haydon says:

    I think he’s spot on about Parker and how he became a negative and stultifying influence on the wine world and California in particular. It was a period of insecure consumers and lazy producers and retailers. As the training wheels have come off, RMP’s influence has increasingly waned and he’s moved onto prey upon the great mass of insecure wine consumers in China. Good riddance.

    Sinskey’s fault lies in his pandering to the somms, and I sense a little bit of dirty commerce lurking behind the schoolgirl crush as he desperately wants to be accepted by the cool wine crowd. Honestly, and despite tending to do very well among them, I find about half of them to be utterly tedious. A complete lack of basic business etiquette and professionalism is only the beginnning. You haven’t really lived until you’ve had to sit in front of a barely educated somm whose mind-numbing pretentiousness has led him to believe that he’s the equivalent of an Oxford Don. One interesting observation that I’ve had (and I don’t subscribe to the notion that the prestige of one’s alma mater is the be all and end all of a person’s ability, professionalism and intelligence) is that those somms who are graduates of very good to elite colleges tend to be much more down to earth than those from say UNLV or no college whatsoever. The latter just seem to operate in a constant mode of intellectual insecurity and overcompensation.

  3. Bill Haydon says:


    Steve, you are absolutely correct about this. For all their pretension, many are incredibly insecure and gravitate to those wines, regions and importers who they feel are “acceptable” among the group. A very astute observation that I recently heard went thusly: If (current somm icons) Kermit Lynch, Neal Rosenthal or Joe Dressner were unknowns just getting started today, most somms wouldn’t give them an appointment. There’s almost a disdain for the guy just getting started even if he has a catalog of their favorite regions. Many somms are truly too insecure and scared to taste and evaluate producers of whom they’ve never heard despite coming from the so-called favored regions.

  4. Bill Haydon says:

    Did something wrong with the formatting. This is the passage that I was referencing above:

    As for Robert’s contention that sommeliers “challenge preconceived notions [and] kill sacred cows,” well, I never met a somm whose favorite red wine wasn’t Burgundy, and who didn’t rave about German Riesling. Talk about sacred cows!

  5. I’ve been reading about the end of Parker’s influence for at least five or six years now. The guy is harder to kill than Rasputin. Or Vlad Putin. Sinskey’s piece is simple hogwash. Though biodynamic hogwash, which is cool.

    A sommelier influences the small number of people who patronize the restaurant. That’s not much reach. When I walk into a Costco and there’s a sign above a stack of wine that says, “Raj Parr Recommends this Wine!” I may begin to believe sommeliers are winning the war. Funny that Sinskey neglected to excoriate the ex-sportswriter at Wine Spectator, too.

    Sommeliers matter more than wine scores only to a certain segment of the wine business, and that’s a tiny segment. Sommeliers are NOT wine critics, by the way, they’re wine salespeople. They don’t taste blind (well, I’m not sure all wine critics do either), and they see wine in one context only–what works for their menu and budget. Saying they will replace Parker is a bit like thinking used car salesmen will replace Consumer Reports.

  6. Christopher O'Gorman says:

    Hoseman nailed it, particularly on wines >$100

  7. I read the piece and chuckled a bit as well. Our world has changed drastically in the past 5 years and will continue to The question really is – who are the ‘gatekeepers’ that help determine which wines are either recommended or purchased?

    Yes, it used to be – and continues to be, for many – that if a wine receives a high score from RMP or WS or whomever you want to say, it will sell better – and retailers and even restaurants will use that to their advantage. They’ll post the score – which they are hoping will ‘imply’ the wine is ‘better’ than wines that have lower scores.

    Said wine may or may not, but it is getting ‘exposed’ to the consumer, whereas other wines will not. So scores are still allowing wines to get the exposure that they would not otherwise.

    In many cases, somms are running the other way and trying to expose their customers to wines that are NOT getting high scores or any scores at all. In many cases, this is a good thing . . . but not always. Some somms seem to have their own ‘agendas’ and are just as ‘arrogant’ as a reviewer – pushing what they choose to rather than offering what the consumer may want . . .

    No absolutes in life here, and to say as an absolute that somms are ‘more important’ than reviewers doesn’t make sense. On many individual levels, it may – there are some really good sommms out there who get it – and aren’t just trying to push esoteric Georgian or Greek wines . . . but many others seem to have forgotten this.


  8. We could easily say Parker’s palate is Parker’s palate and leave it at that. However, is there a vintner alive who is unaware of the economic impact of Parker’s palate and scores? Fortunes have been made (or not).

    I would say it’s the point system that has most impacted perceptions of wine value. And without the point system, where would any of the wine magazines be? For most, it’s their major intellectual property.

    Why do people think wines should in fact be rated? Do restaurant critics rate restaurants? Yes and with only 1-4 stars generally speaking, the same as most movie reviewers. Asimov only uses a four star system, too. Basically, there’s “I like it” or “I really, really like it” or “let’s not buy this again.”

    And then there’s the tasting note. Certainly Gerald Asher and a whole generation of wine writers did not dream of describing wine in these terms. Most people don’t realize they are a relatively recent phenomenon.

    Given the wide variety of palates of wine drinkers, it’s always curious to me why scores and tasting notes persist. Since we know that people taste with such biologically diverse capabilities (with or without wine education), what is the big deal on tasting notes?

    One can find dozens of tasting notes from major critics who have not a single adjective in common when describing the same wine/vintage/etc.

    But the basic point is: Wine is not a fruit pie set of descriptors or a numerical score.

    Alas, though, the scoring system gives most consumers the only tool they have to evaluate wine quality with, in the absence of other ways of communicating value. The real value is that of a good wine merchant, but even they are intimidating to many consumers. (And most are in fact not that knowledgeable or attentive).

    Add the anxiety over food pairing, and it’s a wonder that anyone without a lot of wine knowledge buys any wine!

    The whole business of buying wine should be couched as personal exploration and experience.

  9. Bill Haydon says:

    One other thing to add to Pam’s insightful comment is that the backlash against Parker would be much less vitriolic had Parker himself said that, Parker’s palate is just Parker’s palate. He, however, most certainly did not. In fact, it was quite clear that, in his mind, a wine not appealing to Parker’s palate was flawed, unworthy, undrinkable and most likely the object of some shady winemaker’s attempts at defrauding the consumer and only he–Robert M. Parker–in all his 400 pounds of hedonistic glory, comically overblown prose and Ayn Randian certainty stood between the naive consumer and these charlatans.

    As I mentioned above, good riddance.

  10. This poor horse is almost as dead as Robert Parker but just to add my half a cent as a retailer, one that has worked with the end customer, in the same spot for 18 years now, I hate to break it to the older guard but the voice of the critic is not as powerful as it was say 15 years ago.

    Our shop has never been a score shop. We don’t post them and for the most part never have. I say that to make clear that the people that shop with us have been used to shopping scoreless for a long time. In fact the only people I talk to daily that read wine publications anymore are sales reps and winery owners, using the press and numbers they receive as sales tools, which I fully get. That said, 10 years ago we would sit across from a sales rep that would simply tell us, “This got a 98 from Lord Fan C. Pants” or whatever, that stopped happening about 5 years ago and now they lead with, “I’m not sure if you care about scores?” before moving on, and now, the younger reps we see, they never mention scores or critics at all. Is that because we are known as a shop that doesn’t care about or use scores? Maybe, but we have been open 20 years and 10 years ago the reps were still doing it so I sort of see it as shift, a big one.

    So that comes from the angle of the wine shop and as Ron rightly pointed out above, there are stacks of wine being sold at Costco and other retailers that just cut open a stack and throw a score card, (as it were) on the top, and people buy the wine. My question is though, do they even know who Robert Parker is? If you tossed up the same stack of wine, with the same rating but say, Time Magazine as the accredited source would you sell just as much, even if Time has no wine specialist or critic on staff? Is it the critic or simply the number? What if the score card were signed by one of those Housewife or Kargashian asshats? Bet that could move some units too…

    Had a woman in the shop not long ago, had never seen her before and she charged through the door, clearly in a rush, “I need a wine that has a 95 point rating or higher!” she barked, at no one in particular, “Okay, well 95 points by who?” I said approaching her, not sure what my next move was to be seeing as I don’t have a fucking clue what in my shop is rated, “Oh I don’t know! Anybody I guess” she responded…..grabbed a bottle of Stella Rosa and said, “Here you go, Willy Wonky gave this a 98” we then talked civilly to one another and I spoke to her about why we don’t use ratings and sent her on her way with a wine in her price point that had been selling brilliantly in our shop for over 10 years, “I think 10 cases every two weeks is at least a 95% approval rating don’t you?” she is now a weekly visitor.

    Like I said, just my half a cent.

  11. Bob Henry says:

    Last year I consulted on opening a wine store/wine bar/beer store/beer bar in a city adjacent to where Samantha works.

    I “curated” the selections through the prism of my attending wine industry trade tastings on an almost weekly basis here in La-La-Land over an arc of a decade-plus.

    (I met Steve at one such event: “A Taste of Sand & Fog” showcasing Pinot Noirs from the Santa Maria Valley.)

    I wrote up each and every shelf talker for the store’s racks.

    And not one mention of wine critic reviews and scores.

    The text focused on the history of the winery, the reputation of the vintage, and the smells and flavors of the dominate wine grape variety in the bottle.

    Backed by having a wine bar on premises that allowed ANY WINE for sale to be opened and sampled (preserved by an argon gas system).

    Need I say more?

  12. Bob Henry says:

    Okay, my one self-aggrandizing comment. The template of those shelf talkers . . and a “valentine” to a great vineyard owner and winemaking team:

    2010 Hyde de Villaine

    Mr. Hyde is one of the great wine grape growers in Sonoma. His brother-in-law Mr. de Villaine turns out the world’s most expensive Chardonnay: Domaine de la Romanee Conti Montrachet. (The 2010 bottling currently sells for $4,300 – if you can find it.) And de Villaine makes the world’s most expensive Pinot Noirs likewise from DRC. (Price? Twelve bottles of a 1978 Domaine de la Romanee Conti red Burgundy recently sold at auction for almost $500,000. Really!) So the pedigree of winemaking at H d V is first-rate. Nuance and balance define great wines. The H d V Chardonnay exhibits subtle apple and pear aromas, a hint of butter and new oak barrel vanillin bouquet, matching flavors, a creamy mouth feel, and a persistence on the finish. You could pay more – significantly more – for a “New World” or “Old World” Chardonnay . . . but why? Your discernment will be rewarded.

  13. Bob Henry says:

    “THEN” AND “NOW” . . .

    Excerpt from Wine Times (September/October 1989) interview
    with Robert Parker, publisher of The Wine Advocate:

    WINE TIMES: How do you determine merit versus value in a wine? Are there wines that will never get an 85? How do you compare the Chenin Blancs of the world with the . . . [ question interrupted ]

    PARKER: I had the two best Chenin Blancs I ever tasted out of California last year, and one [1987 vintage Preston] got 87, I think, and the other [1987 vintage Pine Ridge] 86, and they were both $6 bottles of wine. Most people are looking for good values, and I have a responsibility to these readers. The scores are given based upon quality not price. To me, the best values are under $10. Double digit prices are the point where consumers pause. Wine prices are rather high right now across the board. That’s where tasting notes come in. A wine that gets an 85 and costs $4 is obviously a very good value.

    WINE TIMES: You are arguing price versus quality. Take a $30 bottle [of] wine. To get an 87 does it have to show much better than a $7 bottle?

    PARKER: No. It’s one man’s opinion, but I think that 87-point [1987 vintage Preston] Chenin Blanc can go right on the table next to a Leflaive white Burgundy rated 87. They will give you different sets of flavors, but are every bit as good as each other. That’s the way the system was meant to work.


  14. Another theme I’m picking up from the Sinskey article is that of the changing face of the winery in-house sales staff and their methods of distribution around the United States.

    Sinskey and other brands have been hiring internal sales staff to cover regional and super-regional geographic markets for more one-on-one coverage of restaurants and bottle shops, so called Brand Ambassadors. Well known brands like Sinskey and Duckhorn are relying upon internal sales people for promotion, distribution and penetration into large metropolitan markets, rather than only the classic 3-tier distribution strategy.

    The 3-tier system into grocery stores and bigger box shops rely heavily upon point scores and shelf talkers rather than qualified staff to sell wine. The average Vons or Save Mart (in California) doesn’t have dedicated wine staff and never will. Shelf talkers, product placement and easy to read point scores with yellow discounts are what sells wine in the big 3-tier system.

    Perhaps Sinskey’s tone isn’t what I’m reading, but rather his message of where the market(ing) is moving to for greater DIRECT sales coverage by the wineries.

    The passing of the torch of some critics may be more about the wineries weaning themselves off of scores alone and having a direct winery representative interacting with key restaurant somms and bottle shop owners. Sinskey is acting as the herald for this movement. Establishing a one-on-one relationship that doesn’t rely on Points but rather Brand Relationship is the key to the Sinskey brand and its long-term sales objective.

    There is a risk that Sinskey upsets critics with this type of rant and gets 89 point scores for eternity, but that is unlikely to happen if the critic isn’t a “scumbag” and actually does their job well.

    Taking the side of RP or WS is easy when your wine was just rated 96 points and your brand has been around for 30 years. Maybe there is ratings inflation, who cares.

    However, imagine starting a wine brand in the last 5 or 10 years with no critic following you. Who do you have to build a relationship with to sell wine…your local and regional sommelier and restaurateur.

    Maybe Sinskey is noticing the prevailing winds shifting from macro-critic to micro-critic and taking the side of the local somm and restaurateur

  15. Bob Henry says:


    Some of the larger Vons grocery stores in Southern California (“Pavilions”) have “Beverage Stewards.” But not many.

    So a wine on a grocery store shelf has to sell itself: through its existing name brand recognition; its eye-catching packaging that induces a shopper to pick up the bottle and read the label (including the “neck hanger” because grocery stores reject the aesthetic clutter of shelf talkers); and its price point.


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