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Changes at The Wine Advocate Signal a Shift in the Market

For many wine lovers, the news that Robert M. Parker Jr. is planning to sell a portion of his influential newsletter, The Wine Advocate, to a group of Asian investors and step down as editor in chief does not so much signal an end of an era as acknowledges changes that have been under way for a decade.

The article, by Lettie Teague in Monday’s Wall Street Journal, also reports that the print edition of The Wine Advocate will soon be eliminated, and that Lisa Perrotti-Brown, a correspondent for The Wine Advocate based in Singapore, will take over editorial control. Mr. Parker will assume the role of chairman, and he will continue to write for the newsletter, primarily covering the wines of Bordeaux and the Rhône.

Mr. Parker is still the world’s most influential wine critic, at least in the sense that his words help set the prices of the top-flight Bordeaux market and Châteauneuf-du-Pape, as well as the auction market for old benchmark wines. In a larger sense, though, the peak of Mr. Parker’s influence, when he along with other publications like Wine Spectator shaped how several generations of Americans thought about wine, has passed. The move recognizes a new reality, that the center of orbit for critics like Mr. Parker is now in Asia rather than North America.

 

In a statement posted on his Web site, Mr. Parker described the new investors as, “three 30-, early 40ish, highly qualified business and technology people and enthusiastic wine lovers as well as longtime subscribers.’’

“They are totally independent of the wine industry and have a very global vision that is essential in today’s world,’’ he said. He also said he was in no way stepping down.

“I am still in this profession for the long term as I remain the C.E.O. and chairman of the T.W.A. board, and an owner,’’ he wrote. “Moreover, I will continue to comprehensively cover Bordeaux, the Rhône, retrospectives on California vintages and profiles of under-$25 wine bargains from our finest importers.’’

When Mr. Parker, now 65, began publishing his newsletter in 1978, the world of wine was a far narrower place, easier to understand and to sum up. The primary focus for fine wine was France, specifically Bordeaux, Burgundy and Champagne. The rest of the world had access to a few wines from Italy, Spain and Germany — even the occasional Eastern European bottle — and California was emerging as a force to be reckoned with, but the choices by today’s standards were few.

At the same time, a generation of baby boomers, benefiting from the food and transportation revolutions, having now seen European culture on television and firsthand, and with disposable income in hand, was poised to embrace wine. Certainly, though, they needed help.

Mr. Parker made it easy. He popularized the 100-point scale, which made it simple for an eager but ignorant public to compare bottles regardless of where they came from and who produced them. He took on a crusader’s role, holding accountable well-known producers who were coasting on reputation and calling for an end to abusive agricultural practices and fraudulent production techniques. He focused a democratic spotlight on the small producers who might never have been appreciated in a more rigidly class-conscious evaluation system.

Most important, though, his boundless enthusiasm for wine, his genuine, hedonistic passion for drinking and eating, infused baby boomers and Gen Xers with the desire to share those experiences. I’m certainly among the generations strongly influenced by Mr. Parker. It’s no exaggeration to say we’re all his children.

In one sense, Mr. Parker and other like-minded critics planted the seeds of their own obsolescence. The 100-point scale and the vocabulary of tasting notes — those brief wine descriptions that break down what’s in the glass to a series of aromas and flavors — are meaningful only until people start to develop a sense of their own taste. Wine-lovers discovered that these were merely intermediate tools, and that with confidence and ease comes a curiosity that goes beyond what’s in the glass.

As the most serious wine lovers matured, they began to hear other voices, especially as the Internet gave platforms to many different points of view. To many, Mr. Parker’s views began to seem narrow, outdated and defensive. While he has never lost the power to move bottles with a high score and a few words of praise, his ability to shape thinking, at least in North America, has waned.

I’m simplifying things, of course. The universe of wine aficionados is wide, and each personal arc of discovery differs. Some people will always be content to rely on scores and notes to tell them what to buy, and absolutely nothing is wrong with that. But in the last decade, there has been the decentralization of critical thinking about wine in North America and Europe. It’s a healthy evolution and points to a rising level of confidence in the small fraction of Americans who drink the vast majority of wine in the United States.

Like previous generations of Americans, the new wine markets of Asia will benefit from any guidance and influence The Wine Advocate can offer, until, for them, too, it’s time to separate and go off on their own.

Source: http://dinersjournal.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/12/10/changes-at-the-wine-advocate-signal-a-shift-in-the-market/