A Consumer Revolution in Wine
By David White
"This democratization of wine is great," asserted Jancis Robinson, one of the world's leading wine authorities, over coffee one recent morning.
Robinson was in Washington, D.C., to promote the seventh edition of The World Atlas of Wine, the indispensable reference book co-authored with Hugh Johnson.
Robinson has spent the last four decades writing about wine, publishing thousands of reviews. Yet while chatting about wine criticism, she seemed excited about the prospect of consumers putting less stock in her opinion.
"No longer are wine critics and reasonably well-known wine writers like me sitting on a pedestal, haughtily handing down our judgments," she said. "Nowadays... [consumers] can make up their own minds. That's altogether a lot healthier."
To hear Robinson so eagerly applaud the declining influence of prominent critics was refreshing.
In the optimistic future of American wine, well-informed consumers will be confident in their own preferences and eager to explore without consulting a professional critic. Already, we're well on our way.
Just look at CellarTracker.
In 2003, Eric LeVine, a wine collector, built a data-management program for his cellar. His friends soon begged him to share it online so they could catalog their wines and record tasting notes. So LeVine made his program available to everyone, for free.
The website has become extremely popular, with nearly 1 million monthly visitors. Each day, more than 2,000 wines are reviewed on the site. This means CellarTracker users review more wines every six days than Robert Parker, the world's most famous wine critic, reviews in an entire year.
CellarTracker isn't just used by oenophiles. About nine in ten visitors are unregistered, meaning regular consumers visit the site for wine reviews. This demonstrates that fewer and fewer consumers are relying on prominent critics to tell them what they should or shouldn't drink.
It's no wonder why Alder Yarrow, the wine writer behind Vinography.com, celebrated "the CellarTracker age" during a recent appearance on I'll Drink to That with Levi Dalton, a popular podcast. While discussing the waning impact of critics like Robert Parker and publications like Wine Spectator, Yarrow praised the multiplicity of voices that now populate the wine world.
"There are thousands of opinions... and people like me all over the States and all over the world are [now] accepted as critical authorities on wine."
In addition to CellarTracker, these "critical authorities" are sharing their thoughts on personal blogs, message boards, and social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
While some of these authorities are like Yarrow -- i.e., well-known wine writers with large audiences -- many are simply influential, local voices, like the staffer at the neighborhood wine shop, the hip restaurant sommelier, or the wine geek in everyone's life.
Many amateur critics -- and virtually all CellarTracker users -- continue to utilize a 100-point scale to "score" wines. But as the number of wine critics increases, one can only assume that the reliance on points will diminish. This, too, will be a positive development.
After all, tasting is subjective, and one critic's 95-point wine is another critic's swill. That's why it can sometime seem as if every wine on a supermarket's shelf has been awarded 90 points or more. Such pronouncements only make sense when they're coming from a critic whose palate you trust.
Here, too, Robinson is hopeful.
"I hated it when it was the tyranny of the points," she said. "I think it affected American retailers particularly badly, who for a long time gave up their own selection process and palates and just rolled over and repeated what [Robert Parker's] Wine Advocate and Wine Spectator said. What's the fun of that? They were abdicating responsibility, really, for wine selection."
Already, more and more wine retailers are eschewing points. These shops stock their shelves with handpicked wines -- and they're staffed with wine educators who are eager to chat with customers.
Without question, consumers are growing increasingly comfortable dismissing those gatekeepers who sit "on a pedestal, haughtily handing down judgments." That's why the future of wine in America is so bright.
David White is the founder and editor of Terroirist.com, which was named "Best Overall Wine Blog" at the 2013 Wine Blog Awards. His columns are housed at Palate Press: The Online Wine Magazine.