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Aug. 4, 2021

The Wine Critic Evolution w/ William Kelley, The Wine Advocate

The Wine Critic Evolution w/ William Kelley, The Wine Advocate

The retirement of Robert Parker marked a major change in the role of the wine critic that had been building over time.  William Kelley, Reviewer of Burgundy, Champagne, English Sparkling, and Madeira for The Wine Advocate (“TWA”), gives us his thoughts on


The retirement of Robert Parker marked a major change in the role of the wine critic that had been building over time.  William Kelley, Reviewer of Burgundy, Champagne, English Sparkling, and Madeira for The Wine Advocate (“TWA”), gives us his thoughts on how the wine critic landscape is changing and why, the impact wine critics have on the market, and the role of TWA.  Dig deep into the mind of a wine critic on this episode of XChateau. 

Detailed Show Notes: 

  • William’s background
    • He ran a tasting group at Oxford for 3 years
    • He was initially planning on becoming an academic
    • He ended up working a harvest in California in 2015
    • Makes wine - Chenin Blanc in California (beginning in 2015), in Chambolle Musigny (beginning in 2018)
    • Pitched a piece to Decanter and ended up becoming the North American and Burgundy editor
    • 2019 - got a call from The Wine Advocate (“TWA”) and became a reviewer there
    • Currently researching a book on Burgundy that would not be an encyclopedia-style of book
  • The evolving role of the wine critic
    • Two main trends changing the role of the wine critic
      • The scale of the wine world is bigger, and no one can taste everything anymore (which was possible when Robert Parker started) -> creates the need for more reviewers, more specialization, and critics living in the regions they cover
      • The explosion of the value of fine wine - most people can’t afford luxury wines today, this makes reviewers of high-end wines dependent on the producers, whereas Parker used to buy the wines and retain the consumer perspective
    • More small niches are being created in wine media
      • Subscription models are still doing well (including at TWA)
      • Lifestyle writing is moving beyond the aspirational and anchored more in reality
    • Most wine media jobs are occupied by people who’ve been doing it for a long time (little mobility, ability for new voices to come up)
      • Many people in wine media don’t make enough to make a living
      • People doing blogs are likely to go to mainstream media as people begin to retire
    • Critic influence
      • Consumers spending a lot of money on wine still care which critics score the wines
      • Retailers generally show the highest scores, regardless of who the critic is
      • Strong/historic brands are “immune” to critic criticism
      • High scores (e.g. - 100 points) still matter
        • Cedric Bouchard - gave a 2008 100 points
          • He wanted to show there’s no glass ceiling for wines
          • This gave Bouchard feedback and recognition for his growing practices, which were counter the Champagne norm
        • Egly-Ouriet, already an established top grower Champagne, said his business increased 33% after getting 100 points
        • 100 point scores can be a disruptor of the traditional hierarchy
    • The business model issue with wine media - critics sell the wine but don’t get a stake in the profit
  • TWA’s role in the wine world
    • Scores are needed in the industry to sell wine
    • TWA has become like the “Standard & Poor’s” of the wine world
    • Parker also sold a lifestyle - he had charisma, led a lifestyle of opening great wines and at well, including at events with clients
    • Recently launched new sustainability features
      • A filter for organic and biodynamic wines (for all wines)
      • Nominations for producers who work sustainably in an exemplary manner (a small set of producers)
    • William reviews ~5,000 wines/year and gets to choose which wines to review
  • Pathways to becoming an iconic brand today
    • Bizot never got 100 points, still an iconic, cult brand
    • Need the right confluence of market dynamics
  • Score inflation
    • There has been some score inflation
    • Score compression is a bigger problem - scores are less differentiated
    • This partly has to do with how people buy wine (e.g., they only buy 90+ point wines)
  • New platforms that have an impact on the market
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