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.


  1. in hong kong, i am finding that there is such a thirst for knowledge that, i think, the relevance of so-called wine experts will depend on whether they actively empower consumers by giving them the tools to make their own choices and become increasingly confident of their own taste.

    not to "form taste", but to open minds to new tastes and other vinous adventures.

    not experts as "dictator of taste" but experts as "evangelists" confidently and passionately teaching to convert "an audience with no intrinsic interest" into one that is increasingly involved in the purchase decision because understanding leads to increased pleasure and brings the enjoyment of the product at another level altogether.

    an hedonist pleasure with an intellectual component...

    maybe i am too naive but i passionately believe everyone in the industry would gain as a result...

  2. I like your thinking. But I'd make the point that attitudes in young markets differ from those in mature ones. China is not a bad place to be a wine guru today; Britain wasn't a bad place to be one 20 years ago - before consumers developed sufficient confidence to do with out us... Swimmers casting off their water wings.

  3. Hi Robert. The reality is that wine writers, critics or experts,have masters. Everybody has masters. The masters of the writers/critics are those that pay them to write. The punters know this and so cannot conceive impartiality but rather the opposite. I have been shipping wines into the UK for close to 20 years (a survivor you could say), and from what I have seen -with a few honourable exceptions in the early nineties- writers have only followed their own agenda with the usual commercial bias. I sell wines and people know that I will be biased. When it comes to supposedly objective critics recommending wines, the question that arises is whether they are really independent, otherwise why are they doing it and who is paying them. Assuming there is no independent sponsor, which does never exist as they need to live too..So Robert, the reason for decline is I think scepticism. Robbie Ryder (

  4. Kate/Robbie. You make a partially valid point, but you fall into the trap of focusing on wine. What I was trying to say in my column was that critics in various fields are suffering the same fate. I'm not sure that anyone ever believed that movie critics were often in the pockets of particular studios or critics, but they have still lost readership and ultimately jobs. I disagree with you about scepticism. If that were the case, the brief recommendation boxes would all have gone too. No, I honestly believe that interest in various subjects is limited nowadays and that we are all ready to take advice from a broader range of sources, including friends and critics.

  5. Yes. I was never an avid cinema-goer, but thinking back to the music criticism scene, there used to be a tight bottleneck at the opinion/comment/analysis stage. Unless one had a group of friends with similar interests and tastes, one was totally dependent upon print media. As a teenager, I was helplessly in the thrall of NME, Melody Maker &c -- the UK music press -- even though I mistrusted and disliked most of them. But there was simply no other barometer.

    You're absolutely right about the shift of power from journalist to consumer. In many ways, the shift is so momentous because there was a pent-up thirst for a shift before it became possible. Certainly in the music press (and also, I suspect, the cinema press), widespread cynicism about journalists/critics actually *predated* the explosion of online commentary via social media, blogosphere etc. I clearly remember the ardent wish, in the 90s, that other sources could be found. Now that they can, the backlash is all the more vicious against those who previously monopolised discussion.

  6. Meanwhile, you raise a very, very good point -- that 'the number of readers who want their tastes to be formed [may] simply fail to add up to a commercially viable group'. Bang on.

    I'm very conscious of this when I write (independently, without financial gain!) about wine: that this is a very narrow niche. Online, at least, google can lead readers straight to your review of a bottle they're considering. But even so, the audience is small. And a wine-producer's overheads are such that it's pretty hard for them to engage with a plethora of online commentators. Even the music industry struggles to shape the blogosphere, and they have the massive advantage of freely distributable products (mp3s, youtube videos).

    Seems to me that the way forward for 'niche' critics (which increasingly is the same as just saying critics) is to make their writing about more than just the product. Giles Coren successfully did this with restaurant reviews, by endeavouring primarily to amuse readers, not merely to review. So a niche subject can still be non-niche in appeal, but the critic has to work very hard to add extra value to his/her criticism.

  7. Yes, above all, write amusingly and entertainingly. Dick Francis probably taught more people more about horse racing than a roomful of racing correspondents...