How the Internet has democratized drinking.

Wine, beer, and other potent potables.
Sept. 25 2009 4:33 PM

We're All Wine Critics Now

How the Internet has democratized drinking.

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No sooner had the furor over the freebies died down than the other scandal surfaced. Last year, Jay Miller awarded a 96-point rating to the 2005 Sierra Carche. It was the first-ever vintage of this wine, produced in the Jumilla region of Spain by the same British company that makes the Fat Bastard line of wines. On the basis of Miller's gushing review, a number of point-chasing Parkerites raced out to buy the '05 Sierra Carche—and many were shocked by what they tasted. It was egregiously bad and had nothing in common with the wine Miller had described. One unhappy buyer e-mailed Miller to ask about the discrepancy and took the unusual step of sending him one of the bottles he had purchased in the hope that Miller could somehow account for the divergence of opinion. Miller never got around to opening the bottle, a fact that became known when other participants on Parker's board began to pipe up about their own dissatisfaction with Sierra Carche. Sure enough, when Miller finally uncorked the wine, he found that it was indeed terrible.

It turns out there were multiple lots of the '05 Sierra Carche, and a good bottle evidently found its way to Miller. But more interesting than what this episode reveals about possible flaws in Parker's methodology—he and his colleagues regularly taste in the company of winemakers and importers, who clearly have an incentive to show their best stuff—is what it says about consumers. A decade ago, it is doubtful that so many people would have dissented from Miller's judgment; because he is a "pro," they would have given his palate the benefit of the doubt. Now, though, consumers are far more confident in their own tastes and are no longer quite so deferential. And, as the Sierra Carche debacle vividly demonstrated, the Internet has empowered them to act as watchdogs, publicly demanding answers (and with regard to Sierra Carche, they are still on the case).

Like other journalistic niches, wine writing is in crisis at the moment; newspaper and magazine positions have been eliminated, and while a few critics—Parker, Robinson, Meadows, Tanzer—are able to charge for digital subscriptions, there is as yet little money to be made from writing about wine online. Indeed, with so much free wine advice now just a tap of the keys away, the demand for fee-based wine coverage, never all that large to begin with, is undoubtedly shrinking. Meanwhile, the number of countries making good wines has increased dramatically, and fine-wine prices have also soared. One of the subtexts of the flap over Miller, Squires, and their free trips is that the economics of wine writing has changed and that the standard Parker established 30 years ago—no advertising, no junkets, buying most of the wines he tasted—is no longer tenable, not even for Parker himself. (He now says that he buys "more than 60 percent" of the wines he tastes, down from the "more than 75 percent" that he claimed just last year. However, in 2006, Parker's assistant told the New York Times that "by far the largest portion" of the wines he tasted were free samples.)

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But for wine writers, the Internet poses a communications challenge every bit as great as the economic one. It is not just that readers are using the Internet to scrutinize critics as never before; they are using it to be wine critics themselves. The most compelling example of this is CellarTracker; this online cellar management program, started by former Microsoft executive Eric LeVine, now has a database of more than 1 million tasting notes and has become a hugely popular clearinghouse of wine information and advice. It is wine enthusiasts sharing impressions with other wine enthusiasts, and a lot of users have plainly decided that there is considerable wisdom in crowds. CellarTracker hasn't usurped professional wine critics, but it is forcing them to justify their existences to an unprecedented degree.

The changed circumstances under which wine writers now operate were driven home to me at Slate's first-ever Twitter tasting, held last month. The response was overwhelming; 150 people attended the live tasting in Manhattan, many of them tweeted prolifically, readers weighed in from home, and the comments about the wines were generally very knowledgeable. Although I was leading the tasting, it was really a conversation about wine, which is as it should be. We are moving from a monologue to a dialogue, and this reflects a fundamental truth about wine: It is a matter of taste, and taste differs from one person to the next. There's still a need for expert opinion, but authority is going to have to be worn a lot more lightly going forward, and it isn't going to command quite the deference that it used to.