I met the guy everyone thinks is the New Emperor of Wine last week at the Taste Washington event. He’s a thirty-ish fellow from Belarus via New Jersey. He was walking around in a white and green New York Jets jersey and people treated him like a god. Wine is changing and the New Emperor is part of the story. Here is my report.
The Old Emperor
The Old Emperor of Wine is Robert Parker, of course. That’s the title that Elin McCoy gave him on the cover of her book, The Emperor of Wine: The Rise of Robert Parker and the Reign of American Taste. Parker is often cited as the most influential wine critic in the world. His writing on Bordeaux wines helped make these products objects of global interest. Jacques Chirac awarded him the Legion of Honor for his service to France and her wine industry. Parker is controversial because of the perceived power of his palate. Parker has particular tastes, it is argued, and winemakers who cater to those tastes receive big Parker numbers and are rewarded handsomely in the marketplace. Those who go their own way suffer.
And yet the French hate him. Parker is one of several villains we meet in the film Mondovino. Here’s what he looks like according to an illustration I found in Slate. He looks more like a devil here than an Emperor, shoving his idea of wine down the public’s throat (or over their heads, actually).
Robert Parker is more than a wine critic, he is a business model. Parker scrupulously avoids conflicts of interest, accepting no payment from anyone with a financial stake in wine, so he must sell his knowledge and opinions to pay the bills. He does this successfully in a variety of ways including subscriptions to his magazine Wine Advocate ($75 per year in the U.S.), his frequently updated internet wine site, eRobertParker.com ($99 per year) and sales of his many books and buyers guides ($30 to $75). People will clearly pay a lot to learn Parker’s opinions. They will pay even more to meet him in person. Dinner with Robert Parker appears frequently on charity wine auction lists. I don’t think I have ever seen it go for less than $10,000 although I admit I don’t follow these things closely.
Parker’s reign is coming to an end, however, according to an article by Michael Steinberger in the current issue of The World of Fine Wine ($300 per year in the U.S. – wow!). Parker is getting older and slowing down, Steinberger writes, overwhelmed by the global expansion of the wine industry. He’s slowly turning over the chores to a stable of hired tasters with regional specialization and in the process losing his hegemony over global wine.
The New Emperor, the one I met in Seattle, represents a different business model and a different idea of wine. His name is Gary Vaynerchuk and he is director of operations at the Wine Library, a wine store in Springfield, New Jersey that is owned by his family, immigrants from Belarus. This is what he looks like, based on an image that appeared in another Slate story.
You don’t have to settle for the illustration, however, because you can see him in action on the web at his website, Wine Library TV. His daily 10-20 minute wine tasting webcasts draw a growing audience — I have seen estimates that range from 60,000 to 90,000 viewers a day. They come for a completely different experience of wine.
Click on the link above and watch one of Vaynerchuk’s wine reviews right now. Yes, do it now. His real-time reviews may change the way that you think about wine. The narrative is zany and over the top. The “tasting notes” are instant, personal, confident and detailed. I admit they make me wish that I could taste as much in a glass of wine as he does. But it’s his business and he does it with gusto. The surround sound experience (complete with the splurt as he spits into a NY Jets bucket) will either delight you or appall you, but it probably will not leave you unmoved.
Gary Vaynerchuk is to traditional wine criticism as the X-games are to the Olympics. It’s the same game, more or less, but intentionally taken to a new level. Like the X-games, I’m not sure it is to my taste, but it fascinates me. Like the X-games, I suspect it is an experience that will appeal instantly to young people who are drawn by the combination of extreme bungy-jumping pure adrenalin rush and geeky technical detail. Like the X-games, I think it is probably here to stay.
Wine Empire 2.0
The New Emperor embodies a new business model, too. Parker studiously avoids conflict of interest. Vaynerchuk accepts such conflicts as inevitable and moves on. Wine Library TV is given away free on the internet, not sold on a subscription basis (another appealing factor for young people, who often resent being asked to pay for web content). The webcasts generate business for the store, however, and for other enterprises, including a forthcoming book (101 wines guaranteed to “bring thunder” to your world).
One particularly interesting part of the New Emperor’s empire is Cork’d, a wine social networking website (Facebook for wine geeks, I guess). Cork’d aims, like Cellar Tracker, to turn the tables on wine critics by collecting reviews from wine drinkers themselves, many of whom are very knowledgeable, so that the ratings are free, interactive, and reflect the tastes of an (hopefully) informed consensus. Is it working? It is too soon for me to tell — I’ve only been experimenting with Cork’d for a few days.
Cork’d is classed Web 2.0 — shifting power from a small number of content providers to a huge user base. Lead by Emperor Vaynerchuk, the Cork’d army could seize control of the idea of wine from Parker and the others. Imagine what Parker’s staid critics would say about that! I’ll have to watch Gary Vaynerchuk to see how his empire unfolds.