The Suckling chronicles

James Suckling, a critic for two decades at Wine Spectator, left the publication last year to start his own website of video reviews. Suckling wanders top vineyards of the world, bestowing scores on wines saying “I’m 90 points on that,” “I’m 94 points on that” all the way up to 100. Points are awarded in the presence of winemakers who made the wines (or winery owners). Suckling does not always interview those winemakers. Videos also include tastings with American retailers in a 90-point challenge wherein retailers select five wines under $30 for him to taste with them and hope he will rate the wines at least 90 points. No retailer has yet to fail.

In one video, Suckling fires back at critics who say that he pulls wine scores out of thin air by detailing exactly how he pulls them out of thin air. He explains on his iPad that things like color get 15 points.

Suckling has yet to detail on his iPad or elsewhere is a statement of ethics. Veteran wine writer, Tom Maresca, has called him out for it on his blog, offering a point-by-point critique of a recent Suckling column in Decanter magazine. The main point of Maresca’s critique is that Suckling uses the magazine to highlight producers participating in his for-profit tasting event in Tuscany, Divino. (Franco Zilliani posts on the exorbitant fees wineries must pay to pour.) Maresca concludes: “That isn’t journalism: it’s advertising.”

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27 Responses to “The Suckling chronicles”

  1. Wait, are we meant to take him seriously? I thought it was satire…

  2. I have mixed feelings about JS. I don’t mind him making money. Everybody wants to make money. He should be totally transparent, but since I haven’t been to his website, I don’t know if he is or not. His score-porn drama is a little over the top, but whatever. If people don’t like it, he won’t succeed.

  3. I’m curious about Tom Maresca’s statement, “That isn’t journalism: it’s advertising.”

    I never thought what James Suckling was doing was journalism. Review, yes. Journalism, no. Advertising, maybe.

  4. I’m sure I’ve brought this up before, but I guess it bears repeating: There’s a scene in Jonathan Lassiter’s “Mondovino” where upon finding out that Suckling reviews his landlord’s wine, Lassiter asks him whether he gets a break on the rent if he jacks up the points in the review. I’ve watched this scene a number of times, and I’m convinced that Suckling’s corruption is so ingrained that he doesn’t even understand the implications of the question.

  5. Anybody who doesn’t smell the reek of corruption around Suckling needs to get there smeller tuned up.

  6. “their”

  7. “his”

  8. The Suckling Chronicles, aka – The Lemmings Manifesto… Puleeze! As long as there are consumers who blindly live and die (buy?) by the point system, there will be reviewers to score the wines.

  9. “her”

  10. He is what is wrong with wine criticism. Also I know why he has not posted a statement of ethics, because he has no clue what ethics means. He is corrupt beyond redemption and I hope that people at large see this and his failure becomes a cautionary tale.

  11. Maresca concludes: “That isn’t journalism: it’s advertising.”

    Well, it is his way of living and earning…

  12. […] Maresca takes him to task at Tom’s Wine Line as does Tyler Colman over at  Dr Vino ….. he’s a dodgy bastard that’s for sure….. but his mum still loves him. […]

  13. […] decision to feature Suckling so prominently in its latest issue. The piece is worth reading. (H/T: Dr. Vino and Mike […]

  14. The former Wall Street Journal wine columnists had the best ethical stance of any wine journalist I am aware of. We need more like John & Dottie and less like Suckling.

  15. There is no way a way should be given any points for color because you can not judge color unless you bring a consistent lighting source with you to evaluate color.
    Before I got into the wine industry I worked in the printing industry where we did a lot of color work. Our shop and our better customer’s offices were set up with color viewing areas for consistent viewing situations. That was the only way to guarantee consistency.
    Unless Suckling and Parker are bringing light boxes with them everywhere they taste, there should absolutely be no points for color.
    Gee, I wonder why Mega Purple is so popular????

  16. Aaron, “fewer” not “less”

    Dale, “reviewing” IS journalism, if done as an honest advocate for the consumer. Otherwise it is shilling.

    Is Suckling actually reviewing the wines honestly for consumers or just making up nice words to please his friends and adver… uh, sponsors, I have no idea so I cannot pronounce on his ethics.

    I can say that he and his pompous attitudes do not appeal to my sensibilities at all, so I simply tune him out (although his daughter sings reasonably well.)

    Truth is, I do look at his videos, but only in search of the cringe-factor.

  17. @justalinguist Reviewing IS journalism? Not in my book. Not at CBS News, where I used to work. And not in the dictionary.

    Reviewing, by definition, is subjective. Journalism, by definition, attempts to be objective. Not the same thing at all.

  18. Suckling is a joke! The man is a caricature of himself.

  19. Thanks for your comments. I’ll post more later today but I just wanted to flag the interesting discussion on this topic at Wine Diarist (includes comments from Galloni and others):

  20. Dave E – Yes, Suckling’s revelation in Mondovino was astonishing.

    Dale C – The column in question was in Decanter magazine. Are you saying that they don’t practice journalism at that publication?

    I do think the lack of comment from the editors there is surprising.

    As to the subject of whether reviewing is journalism, I wholeheartedly believe that it is. Dale, are you suggesting that Consumer Reports does not practice journalism because it almost entirely does product reviews? Or that a restaurant reviewer could announce his or her visit, get the meal comped, and have the chef cater for free a subsequent rooftop party simply because the review is “subjective” and thus not bound to the strictures of journalistic ethics? Or if a car reviewer got to keep a new loaner for a period of months?

    I agree that disclosure and transparency are key and encourage Suckling to produce a statement of ethics. In some segments he appears to pay his own way, paying for the wine at retail. But things are less clear with the winery visits. And then there’s the whole pay-to-pour (pourola?) at Divino Tuscany. Although his website came of age after the FTC guidelines on endorsements (and the FTC has not been vigilant about enforcement), he is still bound by them.

  21. Tyler, the review elements of Decanter Magazine are, by definition, not journalism. Other elements of the magazine may be.

    Consumer Reports reviews, by definition, are not journalism either. Restaurant review, car reviews, etc., are, by definition, not journalism.

    Yes, I’m saying the same thing over & over, but the real question is WHY none of the things I’ve mentioned are journalism. Journalism is, by definition (not MY definition, but the accepted definition) publishing NEWS in a publication, be it newspaper, magazine, TV, Internet, etc.

    Reviews simply aren’t news. The fact that a new restaurant opened could be news. But someone’s opinion of said restaurant is not news & therefore not journalism. The introduction of a new fuel efficient car might be news, but the review itself is not newsworthy.

  22. Dale, You have a narrow definition of journalism. The New York Times has a more expansive definition than the one you suggest since their “ethics in journalism” policy it applies to all sections, not just “news.”

    Whether you agree with their policy or not is another matter. But it does apply to the whole paper, including features, op-eds, and, yes, reviews.

  23. Tyler, not everything the NYT publishes is journalism & I don’t think they’re saying it is. There are certainly elements of the NYT that are journalistic & elements that aren’t – same with Decanter Magazine.

    The definition of journalism I discussed is not “mine”. It’s the definition offered by the World English Dictionary, Merriam Webster, Encarta, & more.

  24. Guy Woodward, editor of Decanter, commented below Tom Maresca’s original post: ‘James Suckling’s piece was an adjunct to a larger piece about the popularity of Italian wine in the US. Suckling was asked to write an opinion piece to complement this, on the subject of the diminishing relevance of ‘SuperTuscan’ wines, something which, as the reviewer of Italian wines for one of the US’ leading wine publications over a period of two decades, he is eminently qualified to do. Whether or not you like the piece is a matter of opinion. Like any other guest column in Decanter, however, his views and those of winemakers quoted in it do not necessarily reflect that of the magazine. But we believe in being an open church – allowing and airing multiple views. It should be noted that Suckling is not recommending wines for Decanter, nor was his upcoming event – which had not been announced at the time the piece was written – promoted with the piece.’

  25. Can’t we just talk about The Hair?

  26. Guy, Thank you for that intervention, pointing out the chronology of Suckling’s column coming together.

    Joe Jensen – thanks for the comment about color. Yes, exactly, what shade would receive a full 15 points for color? And does that vary for nebbiolo, pinot and cabernet? Young wine/old wine? etc.

  27. How can he see the color of a wine through that cloud of cigar smoke?


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