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.

Illustration by Rob Donnelly. Click image to expand.

Unless you spend a lot of time in wine chat rooms, you may have missed the recent controversies involving critic Robert Parker. The short version: Parker's publication, the Wine Advocate, was found to be violating its own strictures against freebies and fraternizing with wine importers, and a contributor he hired gave a high rating to a wine based on a sample that seemed to bear little resemblance to what was available on retail shelves. The back-to-back scandals, which have damaged Parker's reputation for probity (one of his biggest selling points as a critic), came to light via several wine Web sites, including Parker's own online discussion board. The Internet angle is actually the most significant aspect of this story, for it underscores how profoundly technology is changing the relationship between wine critics and consumers—the relationship between you and me.

True, the transformative power of the Internet is hardly a revelation at this point, and it isn't as if the wine world has been slow to join the digital age. Wine chat rooms have been around for years, the Web is crawling with wine blogs, and almost every major critic—Parker, the Wine Spectator, Jancis Robinson, Stephen Tanzer—has established a significant presence on the Internet. The Internet has also given rise to several important new critics, notably Allen Meadows, aka Burghound. But while the online world has clearly changed the way in which wine information is disseminated, the notion that it might fundamentally alter the critic-consumer dynamic was, until recently, mostly a matter of prognostication—everyone agreed it was bound to happen, but at some indeterminate point in the future. What the Parker imbroglio demonstrated is that the future has arrived.

In early spring, Jay Miller—a close friend of Parker's who started writing for Wine Advocate a few years ago—went on a purely social trip with a group of importers whose wines he reviews. It subsequently came out that Miller had also taken all-expense-paid trips to Argentina, Chile, and Australia and that another Wine Advocate contributor, Mark Squires, who oversees Parker's discussion board, had likewise gone on multiple junkets. (All this emerged after I inquired about one of Miller's trips during a spirited e-mail exchange with Squires, which prompted Tyler Colman, a wine writer who blogs under the name Dr. Vino, to ask Parker and Miller about the latter's conduct.) The nature of these trips had not been disclosed to Wine Advocate readers, and they were glaring breaches of Parker's ethical guidelines. He has always said that he funds his own travels and eschews "gratuitous hospitality," and he has also stressed the importance of keeping one's distance from the wine trade. The enormous authority that he wields rested in no small measure on a perception among consumers that he was uncompromised and incorruptible.

Parker initially claimed that the allegations concerning his colleagues were "totally fictitious" and were being peddled by "extremists." But as more details poured out on Dr. Vino's blog, he grudgingly acknowledged that, yes, mistakes had been made. (To see Parker's comments, check out post Nos. 11, 40, 71, and 117 on this thread.) This Internet rumpus soon found its way into the mainstream media; in late May, the Wall Street Journal ran a piece about the Miller affair. Parker, in a letter to the editor that he posted on his Web site (it never ran in the paper), asserted that he had dealt with the matter in a "forthright, transparent, and public manner." This didn't exactly square with what the commenters on his board had observed, and when some of them had the temerity to say as much, they were treated to a whiff of grapeshot: Some of them had posts deleted, and at least one longtime participant had his posting privileges revoked entirely. (Another, recently established, discussion board, Wineberserkers.com, quickly became a meeting point for the purged and disaffected. If you want to read some of the dissident literature, click here and here and scroll down.) In response, a number of people threatened to cancel their subscriptions to the Wine Advocate (there is no way of knowing how many followed through).

Suffice it to say, the ethical lapses wouldn't have become public knowledge, and the fallout wouldn't have been nearly so spectacular, had it not been for the Internet. And while Dr. Vino unearthed the story and the Journal article pushed it along, it was pressure from his own readers that ultimately forced Parker to own up to the missteps and issue an updated code of conduct. (Parker says that he will continue to pay his own way but that his colleagues are held to "high but less stringent" standards and will be allowed to take free trips if they are "educational" in nature and are sponsored by governments rather than trade associations.)

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.)

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.