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Reflecting on the Golden Age of Wine Critics

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Michael Mondavi, whom I’ve known for a long time, invited me to lunch the other day. Over a leisurely meal of sushi at Ozumo in Oakland, our chat naturally ranged all over the board, wine-wise, but it certainly included a good deal of reminiscing.

Hey, that’s what you do when you reach a certain age!

Michael, who’s a few years older than I, told me many charming anecdotes about his Dad I’d never before heard. Surely Robert Mondavi’s legend will only continue to grow as his place in wine history—iconic and inimitable—becomes ever more heroic. Tinged throughout our conversation was a certain wistfulness that bordered on nostalgia. The “good old days” seemed just fine to us, although one does always have to keep in mind Proust’s epigram: “Remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were.”

Be that as it may, Michael prompted me to reflect on my time as a wine writer and critic, and it immediately became clear to me that I had lived through, and thoroughly enjoyed, being a part of the Golden Age of Wine Critics. One must be careful, too, of promiscuously applying the term “golden age” to things. There was a golden age of Greece, for sure, but the phrase contains a pejorative in its implication that the high point is over; never again will Greece be as spectacular as she was in 500-300 B.C.

We were long told that television’s golden age was in the 1950s: I Love Lucy, Milton Berle, Jackie Gleason, Alfred Hitchcock, Gunsmoke, The Twilight Zone, and some of the greatest live drama ever on such series as Kraft Television Theatre and Playhouse 90. But some critics also celebrate the television of our current era as the golden age, with Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Homeland, Game of Thrones, House of Cards, The Sopranos and others too numerous to mention. So when was T.V.’s golden age–in the past, or is it all around us right now? One might paraphrase Zhou Enlai, the former Chinese foreign minister (under Chairman Mao), who, in reply to a query concerning his opinion of the French Revolution, said, “It’s too early to say.”

Still, I don’t think it’s too early to say that the years (roughly) from 1978 to 2008 were the Golden Age of Wine Critics. I date the start at 1978 because that is the year some of the major guidebooks to California wine first appeared; also the year Wine Spectator began gaining traction, and was in fact the year Robert Parker launched The Wine Advocate.

As for my end date, 2008, that was the year the Great Recession struck in all its force, with still unquantifiable repercussions in the wine industry; but more importantly 2008 marked the emergence of social media onto the American and world stage, as cultural pattern-shifters of major import. The important critics remained vital, but you could feel their importance fading among a younger generation that preferred the crowd-sharing intimacy of twitter, Facebook, YouTube and blogs to the sage counsel of older white Baby Boomer males pronouncing verdicts from lofty ivory towers.

Thus we had a span of thirty years, which is just about right for a cultural era, before it expends its energies and is replaced by some other paradigm. And it was my privilege to have been a successful part of that brief, shimmering illusion.

What a time it was! To have been at or near the center of vitality in the industry, especially here in California, which in many ways established itself as the center of the wine world. Not only in production, but in media, in the emergence of “celebrity winemakers,” in a wine-and-food culture especially along the coast, in wine getting interwoven into popular movies (Disclosure, Sideways), in wine becoming a huge public interest, when consumers needed all the help they could get figuring out what to buy, and we wine critics were more than happy to help them.

Never again, I suspect, will wine critics be treated with the reverence by producers as we were during those thirty years. We were courted and flirted with, wined and dined, as proprietors both wealthy and famous, and not-so-rich and obscure, sought the imprimatur of our good scores. We were interviewed by radio, television and magazine journalists seeking insight into our glamorous and esoteric lifestyles. We were asked to write books by major publishers, and trotted out as celebrities on the tasting and dining circuits. We were aware of that fact that a good review could deplete a particular wine overnight, while a bad one could jeopardize the owner’s ability to make payroll. We even, some of us, ended up in the movies.* We were part of an exclusive elite, and we knew it, although we tried to keep our fame in perspective. I did, anyhow: fame is fleeting, too soon gone, and containing nothing of value in itself, so that humility has much to recommend it.

I wonder how historical writers of the future will record this era of wine critics. Will they say the country went temporarily insane, giving so much power to such a motley crew? Will they view it as a necessary transition—sort of a set of training wheels–during which Baby Boomers went from near-total ignorance of wine to a near-obsession with it? Will there be a new golden age of wine critics that will be even more splendid than the old one? One thing’s for sure: no single wine critic will ever again enjoy the power that a handful of us did.

It was fun. Yet when I quit my job, on Sept. 2, 2016, I put the wine industry behind me forever. I think I left at exactly the right time: the torch was being passed, the times had changed, the practice of wine criticism was getting (for me) a little too baroque and stylized. And the playing field had definitely become mobbed. I personally like some elbow room. I have plenty of it, now. Goodbye, golden age of wine critics! It was a blast.

 

__________________________________________________________

 

* My brief appearance in Blood Into Wine

 

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1394383/fullcredits?ref_=tt_ov_st_sm

 

was the high point of my film career!

  1. I might choose different dates, say a decade earlier with the emergence of Robert Finegan and the quick follow ons of Connoisseurs’ Guide, The California Grapevine and the so-called “White Book”.

    But why quibble? The wine world turned a corner with the emergence in the 1960s of a burgeoning middle class. It was that demographic change that also brought us gourmet restaurants like Chez Panisse and The Four Seasons, soccer, and the car culture.

    It was certainly the Golden Age for the “singular voice” critics with recognizable names from Finegan to Parker to Laube to to Heimoff to Olken to Steiman to Broadbent–all of whom are already or will soon pass from the wine scene.

    Even if Galloni and others take their place, they will not ever have the same cachet. The Internet, the rise of the sommelier as hero class, MWs, have all already seen to that.

    I don’t see wine criticism going away. It has matured and so have the wine markets and the people who make them up. I still get plenty of mail asking for more and different information, and it matters not that our rag and every other publication now comes with broad data bases that cut our info in a thousand directions.

    People remain curious. People remain boggled by tens of thousands of labels and a new vintage every circuit of the earth. We live in the information age, and critics, in the larger sense of the word, whether paid to publish wine evaluations or doing them for wine lists, as bloggers or as wine merchants will always be with us in one form or another.

    So, congratulations to us all for being at the right place in the right time. I, for one, am not ready to leave the field. These are the Golden Years of the Golden Age and I intend to make them last as long as possible.

  2. redmond barry says:

    A similar age of movies and movie critics, both high points now gone, probably forever, replaced by a jumble of same same mediocrities in both pictures and critics. Gresham’s Law?

  3. Can you say more about wine criticism now bring more baroque and stylized? What is different from the of days?

  4. With someone like Steve, you could get to know their preferences and interpret the review to predict how it will match your own preferences.

    Now, professional and amateur reviews abound. With so many reviewers it’s harder to understand where they are coming from. On the other hand, with so many reviews you do get the crowd’s feel for a product.

  5. Dear Pam: When Spectator, Parker etc. first came out, wine reviews were very fresh and innovative. It was a new genre and American writers were stretching it in different, interesting ways. Now, decades later, there’s a certain style that’s become widespread and generic. Every review basically sounds like every other review, regardless of the reviewer or the magazine. That’s what I meant.

  6. I have a quibble with what may be simply “poetic license” on your part.

    This statement:

    “… Baby Boomers went from near-total ignorance of wine to a near-obsession with it?”

    I am reminded of Michael Mondavi’s former Folio Fine Wine Partners colleague David Francke’s address to the Fine Wine 2010 Conference in Ribera del Duero (Spain).

    The salient statistics (capitalized for emphasis):

    “According to the data presented by Francke, US wine drinking is compressed into a small segment of the population.

    “SIXTEEN PERCENT OF CORE WINE DRINKERS consume wine once a week or more frequently, which ACCOUNTS FOR AROUND 96 PERCENT OF CONSUMPTION. Thirty-five million adults drink virtually all of the wine sold in America, Francke said.”

    Article: “The Market for Fine Wine in the United States”

    Link: http://www.winebusiness.com/news/?go=getArticle&dataid=73903

    (Corresponds with the “80-20 Rule of Marketing” — 80% of your sales revenue comes from 20% of your customer base. For those more interested in this observed phenomenon, Google these keywords: “Pareto principle” and “Joseph Juran.”)

    We who drink fine wine are the minority (16%).

    We who comment about fine wine on blogs like this are a distinct minority: the “One Percenters” of enthusiasts.

    Wine is not a mainstream lifestyle product if only one-in-six (16%) adult Americans account for nearly all of its consumption.

    As the Baby Boomers head off into retirement and curtail their consumption of fine wine, how many of those 16 percentage points representing the core wine drinkers will be replaced by Millennials?

  7. And from that same article, see the observations of Bloomberg wine critic Elin McCoy on “the way American consumers receive information about wine . . . since the days when writers like Robert Parker enjoyed a virtual monopoly.”

  8. The fuller quote from Francke:

    “SIXTEEN PERCENT OF CORE WINE DRINKERS consume wine once a week or more frequently, which ACCOUNTS FOR AROUND 96 PERCENT OF CONSUMPTION. Thirty-five million adults drink virtually all of the wine sold in America, Francke said.”

    — and —

    “‘We still sell to a very small segment of the US population,’ he said. ‘Forty-three per cent of the population drink no beers, wines or spirits.'”

    16% of adult Americans consume 96% of the wines.
    43% of adult Americans consume 0% of the wines.
    Therefore: 41% of adult Americans consume 4% of the wines.

    There’s your consumption pie chart.

  9. doug wilder says:

    On this subject, it leads one to wonder about what comes next.

    Alder Yarrow wrote at Vinography 10 years ago about why crowd sourced wine reviews would fail. His point was that there would need to an enormous database of depth and breadth, supported by a diverse community developed over a period of time and it couldn’t be sustained by a handful of super users contributing the bulk of the content. Out of the five entities he cited, 80% of them no longer function for their intended purpose.

    Then there is the talent drain of established viewpoints. Over the last several years the community of what I classify as independent wine critics has gotten smaller. Jeb Dunnuck and Stephen Tanzer had their private work absorbed into larger international publications and with the recent loss of Greg Walter there are now only a mere handful of independent wine critics who are subscriber supported and a couple of those have been around for over 40 years. There are some talented freelance wine writers who I enjoy reading but the strength of their work is the gift of their writing which is an entirely different discipline than reviewing wines. The next decade should be interesting.

  10. “Seconding” Doug’s comment, there are wine reviewers and then there are wine columnists (storytellers).

    In the former camp, we know the usual suspects.

    In the latter camp, Gerald Asher and Michael Steinberger come to mind.

    Asher’s near monthly column in Gourmet ended when the magazine was shuttered. (If he is writing for anyone else, I am unaware of it.)

    He has authored five books:

    1982: “One Wine”

    1996: “Vineyard Tales-Reflections on Wine”

    2002: “The Pleasures of Wine”

    2011: “A Vineyard in My Glass ”

    2012: “A Carafe of Red”

    Steinberger is no longer a columnist for Slate. His “Wine Diarist” blog hasn’t been updated since December 20, 2013.

    Last month Bloomberg published his article on the Premier Cru wine store fraud titled “The Disastrous $45 Million Fall of a High-End Wine Scammer.” (If he is writing for anyone else, I am unaware of it.)

    He has authored two books:

    2009: “Au Revoir to All That”

    2013: “The Wine Savant”

  11. I asked rhetorically:

    “As the Baby Boomers head off into retirement and curtail their consumption of fine wine, how many of those 16 percentage points representing the core wine drinkers will be replaced by Millennials?”

    An early glimmer of optimism based on “wine industry leaders surveyed by UC Davis”?

    “Vintners See Millennials Opt for Premium Wines”

    http://www.dailydemocrat.com/business/20160927/vintners-see-millennials-opt-for-premium-wines

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