Back in early December, when the news broke that wine critic Robert Parker was selling a substantial stake in his long-running publication The Wine Advocate, pretty much every wine writer and blogger weighed in on the news. I held off on saying anything on this blog, mostly because I generally try to write about wines and not wine personalities (the occasional exception being information about winemakers as further background on the wines), but also because I felt like the other shoe was yet to drop.
The other shoe (or at least the first of a series of “other shoes”?) dropped Tuesday, when Antonio Galloni, the TWA critic declared in the past by Parker himself to be his “heir apparent”, announced he was leaving The Wine Advocate to start his own venture, antoniogalloni.com. This came as no surprise to me, because my view of the likely goings-on behind the scenes at TWA went something like this:
- When Parker started announcing Galloni as his “heir apparent” a few years ago, I felt it was somewhat likely that this had something to do not only with the fact that Galloni has a good palate but also that his career in finance probably gave him the means, both in terms of personal capital and connections/knowledge, to put together a buyout over time to provide an exit strategy for Parker, who was nearing retirement age but not quite ready to hand over the reins yet.
- When the news broke in December 2012 that Parker had decided to sell a substantial stake to a group of investors from Singapore who had originally approached the TWA writer covering Asia/Australia, Lisa Perrotti-Brown, Ms. Perrotti-Brown was also installed as editor-in-chief of TWA. Though Parker downplayed the editor-in-chief duties handed to Brown as mostly ministerial, the timing seemed hardly coincidental. It seemed to me that Perrotti-Brown had engineered a deal that offered Parker more money than he could turn down, and more money than Galloni (who was presumably caught by surprise) could put together to match in the short time frame left (with Parker likely anxious to close by the end of 2012 due to tax reasons) and quite naturally, would include a more prominent seat for Ms. Perrotti-Brown in the new regime. Surprise eleventh-hour coup in place, with Parker insisting he was still in charge for now, the rivalry for control among TWA: the Next Generation was on, but mostly over.
- If my theory is correct that Parker and Galloni had a framework for handover in place previously, around which Ms. Perrotti-Brown was hoping to do a surprise end run, that would explain why she could not go to Galloni (or any of the other TWA writers) to try to cut a deal to keep him at TWA before announcement of the sale was inevitable, as one might have otherwise expected as part of such an acquisition deal. And perhaps, it explains why, on the topic of which TWA writers would be retained, Perrotti-Brown would let this shot-across-the-bow quote appear in the WSJ article about the deal: “There is a plethora of good wine writers out there. It’s a buyer’s market”.
- Presumably that set the stage for Galloni to plan his own surprise announcement in response, that he would leave to establish his own wine writing kingdom rather than stay as usurped crown prince in the TWA domain. Whether he can parlay his TWA cred into a successful, differently-styled venture of his own remains to be seen.
The question remains, what’s left of TWA with Galloni leaving? While speculation has begun as to which experts on Italy, Burgundy, Champagne and California will be found to step into Galloni’s shoes, it’s hard for me to think that this model even works anymore, at least in the U.S. The wine consumer in America has changed.
For the generation that grew up with Robert Parker, “cool”may have been discovering French wines, mainly from Bordeaux, and then-emerging wines from California. And sure, there will always be trophy-chasers and speculators that will look for a Parker-like guide; perhaps, as TWA’s new owners seem to be betting, the real market for such a guide in the future is Asia. But for America, let’s look at real drinkers as opposed to collectors. Today, young American wine consumers are increasingly priced out of TWA’s traditional bread-and-butter regions like Bordeaux, California and Italy, so they don’t need The Wine Advocate. Moreover, I don’t think they want to be told which wines to buy, the way that the generations before wanted The Wine Advocate to do for them. The Millenials that I know are very open to wines from all regions of all varieties. If they have mainstream tastes, they are just looking to graduate from the Franzia box wine that they chugged in college to say, today’s emerging market wines, like Argentinean malbec or a Portuguese red that gives value for the money. They aren’t hell-bent on being validated as having the dozen highest-rated wines out there, they’re just looking for one good wine at a time.
Those that tend toward more geekery aren’t likely to look to the Wine Advocate, Wine Spectator, or any single source to find new wines, really. The young wine geeks I know in New York (granted, perhaps not a representative sample of what the whole country is like) are more likely to be turned on to wines in a variety of ways. By trying it at their local wine bar (which in New York may well be Ten Bells, Bar Veloce, or Terroir, etc., where they’re more likely to drink lagrein than Lagrange) for example. Cool and emerging for this generation is not drinking wines from the huge brand conglomerates that own Bordeaux and Napa, it’s finding some funky selection from edgy distributors like Dressner or Jenny and Francois at a geeky neighborhood shop like Chambers Street Wines, Frankly Wines or Blanc et Rouge. There, they’re buying grower fizz, gruner, or they’re not buying wine at all – they are just as open to craft beers, spirits like scotch, and mixologist creations. Or they’re finding wines from Wine Disorder, from a blog like Brooklynguy’s, or more likely, a blog that one of their friends writes.
In this changing landscape, wine writers (and that includes bloggers and not just traditional, subscriber-model formerly-print “critics”) will succeed if they focus on artisanal wines, the stories behind them and the qualities that make them fresh, distinctive and worth a look. While I don’t necessarily try to be that hipster with this blog all the time, I hope this site will be one of the many voices you’ll look to for ideas. If the days where one voice could make or break winemakers and influence the style of wines made worldwide are in the past, I for one will be glad.