“The king and his subjects,” he says, “is the Robert Parker era.”

Wine Criticism Faces a Shifting Future
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It should have been Robert Parker’s crowning moment. At the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone earlier this month, he was inducted into the Vintners Hall of Fame.

Parker wasn’t there in person (some health concerns), but his video message thanked California for the recognition – although thanks might equally have gone the other way. California wine, at least an ambitious subset of it, owes him an awful lot.

There were just a couple of dents in this otherwise perfect moment of gratitude. About a week earlier, Parker got word that a top critic at his Wine Advocate newsletter, Antonio Galloni, was heading out the door to found his own online publication at antoniogalloni.com.

Other critics had departed from the Advocate in the past. But Galloni wasn’t just another critic for hire. In 2011, he drew shock waves when Parker tapped him to take on the pivotal role of California critic for the Advocate, in addition to Burgundy, Champagne and Italy. Soon his words were strong currency in Wine Country.

He was poised to be Parker’s successor – to continue what had become wine criticism’s most powerful post, even if there was a growing belief that there would never be another Parker.

But Galloni wanted something more – or at least something different.

“I realized the Wine Advocate readership is a great readership,” he said recently. “But it really is a fraction of the market.”

This latest tumult simply underscored the chatter in recent weeks that the Advocate was quickly fading from the spotlight.

Indeed, that was a widespread conclusion after Parker revealed in December that he was selling a significant portion of his publication to three Singapore investors, reportedly for around $15 million. The publication would move its editorial helm to Singapore, where another critic, Lisa Perrotti-Brown, would become its top editor.

Parker left several key questions about the sale unclear, and it was rumored that Galloni, with his own investors, had hoped to buy the Advocate himself.

The fine print

But the undoing was in the fine print. All the Advocate’s critics, who operated as independent contractors and retained the rights to their work, were expected to become full-time staff. As Galloni, who joined Parker after running his own publication, the Piedmont Report, put it: “I don’t want to be an employee.” Even Parker acknowledged he wasn’t surprised that Galloni didn’t want to stay.

Is this truly the end of the Parker era of criticism? Was the world’s most powerful wine critic perhaps conflicted about handing the reins to an heir apparent?

For his part, Parker told his readers it would be “business as usual.” But when Galloni took over Parker’s chair, he immediately became one of the most influential voices affecting California’s multibillion-dollar wine industry. What would Galloni’s scores mean when not delivered under Parker’s rubric? Right this moment, a huge question mark looms high above Highway 29.

This particular change really just scratched at a broader set of questions about wine criticism. Once, a handful of publications held sway, but the wine world has become more diverse and complicated.

There’s a rising generation of consumers, part of the Millennial surge, who are compelled by a wine’s story, not its score. Too many industry wonks think that can be tackled with a quick fix – hire a Twitter monkey – but they’re wrong. This generation of new drinkers is spending more money, and at a younger age. They want wines that are relevant and forthright.

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