FUTUREWATCH: Critic Publishers

As the number of subscription-funded online wine reviewers grows, questions are being asked about the generosity and integrity of some of their scores. Robert Joseph reports  

Lisa Perrotti-Brown MW - Image: DR
Lisa Perrotti-Brown MW - Image: DR

Reading time: 4m 28s

  • Wine criticism is shifting from magazines to newsletters.
  • Lisa Perrotti-Brown MW sees conflicts of interest due to the link between profitable tasting events run by the newsletter publishers and the scores given to specific wines.
  • Attention is also being drawn to the possibly questionable consequences of retailers being given early access to tasting scores.

 

Lisa Perrotti-Brown MW, former editor in chief of the Wine Advocate, has dropped a small bomb in the crowded waters of wine communication. In the press release for the Wine Independent, the new platform she is launching in May with photographer Johan Berglund, she contrasts her venture with “supposedly reputable publications – ones that claim to be independent” that suffer from “numerous conflicts of interest…” These, she continues, have meant that “faith in wine reviews has been eroded to the point where buyers no longer know who they can trust.”

Setting aside any questionable motivations behind the reviews, a separate, but parallel controversy has also blown up over ‘score inflation’. In November 2020, for example, a fine wine enthusiast called bweimer headlined a post on the wineberserkers.com forum with ‘The zenith of score inflation?’ before going on to note that “The top 22 wines in James Suckling's Top 100 Wines of 2020 are 100 pointers. There are more 100 pointers in the list but I didn't have the patience to go through the entire list.”

For some observers, these two issues may be connected.

New platforms everywhere

Before considering the conflicts of interest to which Perotti-Brown is referring, it is necessary to examine the way that wine communication has changed. Until the end of the 20th century, with the exception of a few newsletters such as the Wine Advocate, most wine criticism was still largely in the hands of traditional publishers whose financial viability relied on copy sales and advertising. In 2000, a decade after the publication of the first web page on any topic, Jancis Robinson MW and Robert Parker launched jancisrobinson.com and eRobertParker.com as subscription services. Five years later, Thierry Desseauve and Michel Bettane, respectively former editor and chief critic of La Revue du Vin de France started their own Bettane+Desseave website, and in 2009 top UK wine writer, Tim Atkin MW opened the digital doors of timatkin.com.

The following year, former Wine Spectator senior critic James Suckling, partnered with the Hollywood director, James Orr, to start jamessuckling.com, and, in 2013, after being passed over for the editor-in-chief chair at the Wine Advocate (and seeing the job go to Perrotti-Brown), Antonio Galloni, started his own Vinous.com. Others have followed, most notably former Meininger’s contributor and Decanter Bordeaux correspondent, Jane Anson who launched her own platform called janeanson.com late last year.

Follow the money

While all of these individuals would have claimed that having their own platforms guaranteed their independence and impartiality, over time this has become a little less clear – at least in terms of some of their financing.

In 2012, eyebrows were raised when Robert Parker sold a substantial stake in the Wine Advocate to a Singaporean wine merchant. Two years later, blogger and investigative reporter Blake Gray publicly wondered about the provenance of some of the $850,000 investment Antonio Galloni had raised to acquire another critic, Steven Tanzer's, International Wine Cellar newsletter and website. In 2019, the Wine Advocate was bought by the publishers of the Michelin Guide while, in 2021, Robinson sold her website to the venture capital-backed US media conglomerate, Recurrent Ventures.

Without income from advertising, and possibly needing more than has been forthcoming from subscriptions, several of the platforms, including the Wine Advocate, Bettane+Desseauve, Vinous and James Suckling have branched out into running events at which subscribers and others can buy tickets to taste highly-rated wines. These, of course, are served by producers and distributors who also have to pay – possibly thousands of dollars - for their participation.

Pay to play?

The temptation for a reviewer to add a few points to a wine whose producers might be more likely to buy a table from which to pour them is clear. As is the parallel incentive for the winery to attend after receiving a high score in the hope of being similarly rewarded when submitting subsequent samples. Justifiably or not, Perrotti-Brown specifically refers to this aspect in her accusations of ‘conflicts of interest’. And others quietly link it to what they see as an increase in the number of highly-marked wines.

There is no disputing the fact that, like restaurant cooking and automobile manufacturing, wine quality has improved at every level in recent years. Many - but not all - wine competitions strictly limit the proportion of medals they award, but judges with a long experience of attending these events acknowledge the growing number of impeccably made wines they are asked to assess.

Critics have no such constraints on the percentage of top scores they award, so it is perhaps unsurprising that they are giving more high marks than in the past. And complaints about score inflation are hardly new. James Suckling was lambasted for “bestowing such towering point scores” by Evan Dawson in Palate Press as long ago as 2010, and in 2013 James Laube wrote in the Wine Spectator that “Anyone who pays attention to wine ratings knows one thing: Critics are giving more 100-point scores than ever before…”

It should also be noted that while, as Gray has pointed out, Michelin’s Korean operation has faced accusations of “running a consulting service… entering into contracts with restaurants and giving them advance warning of inspector visits, sharing the evaluations and essentially selling stars,” until now, no one has publicly suggested that the ratings of the Wine Advocate or any of these other platforms have been unduly influenced by the prospects of selling tables at tasting events.

Advance knowledge

But nor – until Perotti-Brown’s recent statements - has anybody questioned the implications of reviewers supplying advance notice of high scoring wines to distributors who have bought ‘ultra-premium subscriptions’.

Given the feeding frenzy – especially in the US – that surrounds the release of limited-production,100-point wines costing hundreds of dollars, the value of this information is clear. As is the potential for retailers and reviewers to have relationships that some might consider unhealthily close.

Perrotti-Brown is a highly-respected Master of Wine. It remains to be seen how her Wine Independent platform is received – and how other reviewers and their readers react to the wide-ranging accusations she has made. Wine competitions can, and do, invite independent observers to verify every aspect of their operations. This is far less practicable for individual reviewers who may judge wines while visiting producers and, even when blind-tasting in their own homes or tasting rooms – as many do – have no way of proving that no scores are ever changed after the bottles are removed from their tasting-bags.

The wine world – especially at the premium and super-premium end of the scale on which the newsletter-publishers operate – benefits hugely from experienced, knowledgeable, impartial reviewers. But these critics already increasingly face competition from peer-review sites like Vivino. They may also find themselves under greater analysis from journalists like Blake Gray and chat groups like wineberserkers, whose wine-loving members have no commercial axe to grind.

If so, this would be good news for the wine industry and the consumer…

 

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