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Aug. 18, 2021

Engineering Wine Criticism w/ Jeb Dunnuck,

Engineering Wine Criticism w/ Jeb Dunnuck,

Becoming a wine critic sounds like a dream for many. However, even though the cost and effort of setting up a website and putting out information have declined dramatically, doing the work of becoming a professional is no easy task - the time and effort i

Becoming a wine critic sounds like a dream for many.  However, even though the cost and effort of setting up a website and putting out information have declined dramatically, doing the work of becoming a professional is no easy task - the time and effort it takes to taste and review thousands of wines a year is daunting.  Jeb’s journey from aerospace engineer to reviewer of The Wine Advocate to being the Editor-in-Chief of highlights the passion required for the journey.  Jeb talks about his journey, critics going independent, blind tasting, score inflation, and more, all in service of helping his subscribers make informed wine buying decisions.  Another unique viewpoint on the evolution of the wine critic on XChateau!

Detailed Show Notes: 

  • Jeb’s background
    • He grew up on a farm in rural Indiana - no wine on the table
    • Self-trained in wine
    • He traveled through France and fell in love with wine
    • He never had an epiphany wine
    • Worked at Lockheed Martin in upstate New York - was an aerospace engineer for his initial career
    • Did a part-time job at a wine store in Denver
    • 2008 - created a website - The Rhone Report
      • Released a quarterly pdf for free for 3 years
      • Built a subscriber base for 2 years
    • 2013 - Robert Parker asked him to work at The Wine Advocate (“TWA”)
      • Worked at TWA for 5 years
      • Having a chance to work with Robert Parker was key to joining
    • 2017 - left TWA and started
      • The Rhone Report reviews were morphed into
      • Left TWA because Jeb disagreed with the direction of the new ownership, the culture changed dramatically
  • Wine critic vs. wine publication
    • Believes the person writing the reviews is more important than the publication
    • The business model of publications lean them to emphasizing the publication over the critic
    • It’s up to the consumer to know their critics
  • (“JD”)
    • More of a “singular voice”
    • He doesn’t believe in large teams of critics
    • has a small group of critics covering multiple regions each
    • Jeb doesn’t pretend to be a writer as he comes from an engineering background => his goal is to help the consumer make buying decisions and find the wines they like
    • Writes concise vintage reports, talks about style and structure of wines
    • He doesn’t write opinion pieces, commentary, or do events
    • He doesn’t take money to review wines, completely subscriber funded
    • Reviews 9-12k wines/year
  • Critics going independent
    • Believes the trend is actually towards more business-driven, team-driven critic reviews => the size of the wine world is so big that it is pushing that way
    • If the critic is the most important thing for reviews, going independent is the way to do wine criticism
    • Best practices for wine critic ethics
      • Don’t take money from people making the product
      • There are shades of grey - e.g., sometimes people pick up the tab at a dinner
      • Critics should pay their own way (airfare, hotels, meals, etc.…)
      • JD buys a lot of wines but could not purchase them all
    • Cost of being independent
      • Website and getting information out is low now
      • But providing professional (e.g., extensive) coverage is hard and expensive (time, travel)
  • Blind tasting
    • Jeb is a fan of blind tasting for how to approach wines
    • Believes the role of the critic is more than the tasting note - it’s to provide context on the region and the producer (which can’t be done with blind tasting)
    • People promoting blind tasting are taking money from the trade, so Jeb believes they have to sell their process
  • Impact of top scores
    • Less impact today because so many great wines out there
    • More great wines than ever before => lots of substitutes, even at 95+, 100 point scores
  • Pathway for wineries to become iconic
    • Make a consistently great wine, takes time
    • Need to have wines tasted and reviewed by top publications
    • Need to make enough so people can try it and get exposure globally
  • Score inflation and compression
    • “I do think scores have increased”
    • Believes there’s less compression - more critics are using the whole scale (up to 100) with more highly rated wines than in the past
    • The format of score presentation now gives the appearance of score inflation
      • Scores used as email marketing will only be high ones
      • Most people access scores online via a score database, sorting by the highest score vs. having to read through a printed document
      • Scores used for large reports to give delineation between wines
    • 100 point wines for Jeb must have the following:
      • Hedonistic pleasure
      • Intellectual pleasure
      • Intensity of aromas and flavors
      • Age ability
      • Singularity (they stand out)
  • Barrel samples
    • Similar to evaluating a young wine, can still be useful
    • Range ratings for barrel samples are important because the scores can come out before the wines are released, giving subscribers guidance for purchasing
  • JD’s subscriber base
    • Don’t have a lot of demographic info on subscribers
    • Pretty serious about wine, mostly collectors
    • ~80% US-based, so CA wines are important to them
  • User-generated reviews
    • CellarTracker - useful because you can follow individuals
    • Aggregate reviews are not useful;  “0 x 100 = 0”
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