Friday, July 23, 2010

Death of the Wine Critic

A column that appears in the July 2010 edition of Meininger's wine Business International

“The incessant whining of… critics as they find themselves jobless and journalistically homeless... sacrificial offerings to the bottom line. There has been a drastic kill-off… during the Great Recession, which has proven to be not a typical cyclical downturn, but a profound reordering of the media universe – the cannibalizing of traditional print by digital”.

Reports of the apparently terminal decline in the prospects of wine criticism will come as no surprise to anyone with an interest in the way our industry communicates with its customers. But the quote with which I opened this column actually had nothing to do with wine. Written by James Wolcott in the July 2010 edition of Vanity Fair, it is concerned with a species I’d have imagined to be far less endangered: the film critic. According to Salt Lake Tribune blogger Sean P. Means, no fewer than 65 critics have lost jobs from publications such as Newsweek, USA Today and The New Republic.

The wine world is very good at examining its own navel and ignoring changes in the landscape beyond its cellar and tasting room doors. But the shrinkage in the role of the traditional critic, almost across the board, is a phenomenon that needs to be taken very, very seriously. For the simple reason that the wine world has an almost ludicrous reliance on people who have historically helped to fill the pages of newspapers and magazines. Setting aside the totemic influence of Robert Parker and the Wine Spectator, a few hundred pen-wielders across the globe constitute many wineries’ only real means of communication. Wineries justify spending tens of thousands of dollars at exhibitions on the basis of the journalists they’ve met. Entire forests are felled to produce glossy brochures and press-packs that, even in journalistically happier times, mostly went straight into the recycling bag.

The movie industry in its US homeland is painfully aware of the power of the pen. Traditionally, the reviews that appear in the Friday print media before a weekend opening can make or break a movie. Which is why producers sometimes decide not to hold screenings for critics, or to open their films midweek, relying on word-of-mouth to build ticket sales. The trouble is that today, word-of-mouth is increasingly driven by “word-of-Social-Media”. Last year, when Bruno, the successor to the highly successful Borat opened, it did so to big audiences, but was hugely criticised on Twitter by people who used their mobile phones to express their disapproval within minutes of leaving the cinema – or even while watching the film. Ticket sales plummeted by 40% on the second day.

But the shift in the balance of power from critics to consumers that social media like Twitter has created is only part of the story. There’s also the crucial question of the all-too visible gulf that separates the two groups. Some of the films and wines that are most hated by critics are among the most successful in delighting audiences. And vice versa. The critics respond to this kind of
criticism by saying that it isn’t their job to reflect consumer taste, but to use their knowledge and experienced to form that taste. It is a totally reasonable view, and one that would probably be echoed by serious writers on art and music. But, what if the publishers’ accountants have discovered that the number of readers who want their tastes to be formed simply fail to add up to a commercially viable group? What if the column has become an irrelevance? In a recent Financial Times interview, Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, explains his reason for giving up a job as a television critic. “I realised people who read didn’t watch TV and people who watched TV didn’t read.”

The film industry has a huge advantage over the world of wine. It doesn’t actually need critics to promote its wares. Profiles of the stars – and possibly even the director – can, like those of musicians, be written by journalists with no specialist knowledge. And most importantly, these profiles can appear in a wide variety of places.

Professional wine writers naturally hate being pushed off the perch by unqualified colleagues, but to be brutally frank, the discomfiture of these writers is not the concern of wine producers and distributors. Their challenge lies in finding ways to make their product, the place they make it, and even themselves and their employees sufficiently interesting to warrent writing about for an audience with no intrinsic interest in wine.