Changing critic, changing styles?

With yesterday’s announcement from Robert Parker that Jay Miller will be leaving The Wine Advocate, five wine regions will be getting new reviewers for the publication.

David Schildknecht is a thoughtful, erudite, thorough reviewer with a tremendous knowledge of the regions he covers. The one time I met him, he held forth on not only the wines in front of us but also Austrian soil types, vineyard weather exposure, family histories of producers, classical music and butterflies. He was an importer of German wines. He currently reviews the wines of Germany, Austria, the Loire, Languedoc-Roussillon, Beaujolais, Alsace, and America’s east coast. He will add Oregon and Washington to this list.

Neal Martin, 40 and based near London, will be the publication’s critic for Spain, Argentina and Chile adding to his new-ish coverage of Sauternes, South Africa and part of New Zealand. He has mostly been an “at-large” critic without a geographical region though he has been working on a book about Pomerol. In a 2006 posting on his site after attending a Spanish tasting, Martin wrote: “I have never really got under the skin of Spanish wine. This tasting does little to alleviate my apathy.” Martin entered a eBob thread on tempranillo in 2007 and wrote “in most cases I view it as more of a work-horse grape that works better as a blend rather than a single variety.”

A couple of things to note in all this. First, Parker has not selected a regional expert for any of the new regions. While Galloni had only been to California and Burgundy twice before assuming his coverage of those areas, it’s not immediately clear if Martin, in particular, has been ever been to and tasted in the regions of his new assignment. Also, a with so much ground to cover, hopefully they manage to slow down and not feel compelled to taste at nine wineries in a day.

Further, and most importantly, neither Martin nor Schildknecht would appear to have any patience for the high-octane, woody style of red wines of all of his coverage that Miller championed and showered with points, including many 100-point scores. So the wineries that were making wines in a style explicitly to appeal to Miller may find these new critics more abstemious with the scores. Or perhaps not–maybe the path of least resistance for the new critics is simply to lavish praise on all styles? Their first reviews will tell.

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17 Responses to “Changing critic, changing styles?”

  1. The funny thing is the number one reason Americans buy wines is because they have tasted it before. The number two reason? Recommended by a trusted source. [Wine Business Monthly survey 2008] Scores don’t matter to most wine consumers.

  2. Tyler — is it too much to hope for a third possibility? The wine makers choose to express their vineyards more transparently, and the new reviewers assess the effort with more transparency? Having tasted with Neal Martin, I don’t think he cares about a path of least resistance. In fact, his perspective may be even more useful given his published history in Bordeaux. It will be easier for those who follow him to calibrate his notes on Spain on a relative basis even if he goes in without a documented Spanish wine history. And it’s a short flight from the UK, or Bordeaux.

    For many, this transition paints a bright line in the wine review history books and retailer websites who published scores from “Parker’s WA”. Who knows, maybe even Dan Posner will… Nahhhh!

  3. Though I too admire David Schildknecht’s writing and methodical (albeit geeky) approach to reviewing, I fear that his overwhelming workload and complete lack of knowledge about the Pacific NW does not inspire a lot of hope for better coverage of the region. It’s clear that RP does not feel it is especially important. On the plus side, the 2010 and 2011 vintage in both Oregon and Washington were so cool and the harvest this year so late that in fact Euro-style wines – both whites and reds – will be much in evidence. A recent tasting of the 2010 Ken Wright Pinots proved the point. Here’s a highly-regarded winemaker who has cut about 2+ degrees of alcohol off the current releases, and delivered what seemed to me to be the best wines of his career.

  4. One of the things that come to mind from reading this is that there are perhaps two schools of thought:

    1 – what’s-in-the-bottle-focus

    You can make a strong argument that what matters most, or even what is the ONLY thing that matters, is what is in the bottle. The wine. If that is your belief then it really does not matter if you have “only been to Burgundy twice” since what is most important is what is in the bottle, and that you can equally well taste at home, e.g. in Chicago.

    2 – what’s-the-wine-and-what-does-it-represent-focus

    Another line of thought is that wine is more than just a beverage. When you drink wine you also drink an origin. there is a provenance, there is a person that has made the wine, there is climate, terroir (if you believe in terroir), there’s a history and culture etc etc. If you think that is important, then going to “the source” is important. Meeting the people is important. When you drink wine it is more than just sipping water, alcohol and flavours.

    Can you claim that one view is better than the other? Don’t know.

    But it certainly makes a big difference for how you look at wine critics, wine reviews, wine writing and wine appreciation.

    I think I’ll have to write something on this on BKWine Magazine one day. Interesting debate. But I’ll have to think a bit more about the headings…

  5. Andrea – Thanks for stopping by. In my experience, I’ve noticed similar influences on purchasing decisions. There are just so many shelf-talkers and each one is 90+!

    Miguel and Per – Yes, I do think it is possible to be a good taster and offer useful advice about the wines without ever venturing to the region. For example, if you don’t like a lot of oak in Chilean red wines over $20, venturing to the country will likely not turn up anything more than you could find in stores in the US. But in Spain–the diversity is astonishing and much of it has reached our shores relatively recently. Going there would have meant that a critic would have had his finger a bit nearer to the pulse of this emerging trend.

    Evan Dawson had a good post about whether critics should speed through winery visits or marinate themselves more in the region. I like a blended approach, writing from a physical remove yet visiting frequently enough to get a feel for what’s happening on the ground.

    Miguel- I also wonder if Neal will come to the US to taste through the portfolios of US importers as Jay had done?

    Paul – Thanks for the comment. And good to know about Ken Wright’s dramatic change!

  6. On a very busy day (and night) of editorial deadlines on top of lots of correspondence (no kidding ;-), please permit me to add just a few comments to your post, Tyler.

    First, you’re too kind in your praise of my erudition – but I’ll take praise where I find it, thanks! You mentioned my having once been an importer of German wine. Just for a fuller record, any interested readers can read the next paragraph.

    I was a restaurateur 1977-1980 (when close acquaintance with California wines sparked by livelong love affair with wine in general); a retailer from 1981-1997 (during which time, besides writing on the side inter alia for Steve Tanzer, I imported wines from Germany and France that weren’t otherwise available stateside, the jurisdictions in which I worked – DC and KY – having made that legally possible). During my early years in DC, I was surely among the first outside the Pacific Northwest to become actively involved in selling wines of the then-emerging Willamette Valley. From 1997-2006 I worked as an importer-distributor, in which capacity I did not however import wines of Austria or Germany, since I wanted to be able to keep writing about them without conflict of interest (which when I was importing solely for retail customers and without regard to importer affiliation was not a serious concern).

    Secondly, I am humbly aware of my lack of recent experience in Oregon and (especially) Washington and I’m just as humbly aware I’m merely the guy with the good fortune to have been offered this opportunity. My background – involving as it does a lot of experience with places where Pinot Noir, Riesling, and Cabernet & Co. grow – when combined with the fact that I am a quick study in matters of history, terroir, and viticulture could, and I believe will, create conditions for useful perspective on the wines of Oregon and Washington. Readers of my reports – or of my (some will say incessant, ponderous, and interminable) postings over the years at or – will already know how I rate wines and perhaps more about how I view wine ratings and the role of the wine critic than they ever wanted to know, so I shall refer anyone with interest in the allegedly fine points of methodology or epistemology (and occasionally ethics!)to those reports and web site bulletin boards.(I am also a long-standing columnist for The World of Fine Wine and Vinaria … ok, I know, the first is frightfully expensive to subscribe to and the second in German, but that’s just in case anybody is really, really interested, which I am not so arrogant as to presume.)

  7. David,

    Thanks for stopping by and filling out your resume more completely–I didn’t mean to shortchange you!

    Good luck to you adding to an already full workload! I, for one, look forward to your reviews from the Pacific Northwest.


  8. Tabloid stuff Tyler. As usual.

  9. Hi “Hill,”

    I’m asking the question if a change in critics at Robert Parker’s The Wine Advocate could lead to wine producers changing their winemaking to suit different palates.

    Is that the fodder for British tabloids (since your IP address shows you’re in Britain)? Over here, tabloids focus on babies with three heads, celebrity affairs and plastic surgery gone awry. If British tabloids focus on wine and wine making, then I guess I should check them out!

  10. Hill – Here’s the tabloid treatment you were looking for:

    “Professional Wine Snob in Booze Junket Payola Scandal”

  11. If this blog is not the “three heads, celebrity affairs and plastic surgery” one of the wine world then what is?

  12. any fool can criticize, condemn, and complain…and most fools do – mark twain

  13. Interesting picks for new reviews. I for one am looking forward to hearing about Martin’s thoughts about Spanish wines.

  14. Any idea as to why Squires isn’t covering Spain. I would have thought he was a much more obvious choice than Neal Martin.

  15. Could you imagine having Mark Squires as an ambassador for your company? Parker knows what he’s doing by keeping the guy under wraps as much as possible.

  16. […] and denouements. There is also some interesting commentary by Blake Gray, Alder Yarrow, and Dr. Vino, including thoughts on what the change of critics will mean for various wine regions. As the Wine […]

  17. […] of talk this week about a change in reviewers at the Wine Advocate. Do you read wine […]


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