If sommeliers want to win their 30-year war with critics, they must harness the power of validation.

Before the rise of Robert Parker, sommeliers had far more power in deciding what wines Americans drank. Many Americans hated and feared them. That’s a major reason Parker became so powerful: he freed people from relying on the supercilious, judgmental old man of their restaurant nightmares.

I felt this way myself. A few sommelier encounters I had in the ’90s weren’t pleasant. I tried to learn more about wine so I didn’t have to ask for help, and learning more about wine meant reading  Parker. I’m sure there were good sommeliers around, but where I ordered wine, nobody made me feel excited, much less good, about it.
Restaurant service has changed dramatically. No longer are fine diners most likely to be older, conservative, and seeking formality. High-end diners now want service that puts them at ease, and friendlier (and often, younger) sommeliers play a big role.

Sommeliers like different wines than Parker likes; this is not news. I attend a fair amount of events for sommeliers, and as a group, they detest the Wine Advocate and Wine Spectator. The ratings from those publications are done without considering food matching, which makes their judgment different from that of sommeliers. Beyond that, historically, sommeliers and mainstream wine media are natural enemies. The 100-point scale basically arose so that people wouldn’t have to rely on sommeliers.
The hatred is mutual. Parker posted this about a Philadelphia restaurant:

“I loved everything about this place…no precious sommelier trying to sell us some teeth enamel removing wine with acid levels close to toxic, made by some sheep farmer on the north side of his 4,000-foot elevation vineyard picked two months before ripeness, and made from a grape better fed to wild boar than the human species….we all know the type-saving the world from drinking good wine in the name of vinofreakism…”

Now, with Parker pulling back, anecdotal reports abound of his influence waning. Sommeliers seem to be on the verge of winning their 30-year war with critics*. There are more diners than ever asking for lower alcohol wines that will go with their meal.
* I count as a critic, but in this war I’m a double agent. Don’t tell anyone!

Though it’s an old profession, sommeliers are a new and invigorated force in the wine world, and as a group are approaching the equal of the combined power of Advocate and Spectator. But they’re not there yet, in large part because they rarely work as a group to promote the same wines in the way the Advocate and Spectator independently yet consistently reward high-alcohol, low-acid wines. 

Sommeliers follow hip trends, which is great if you like drinking something different all the time. But this weakens their overall power for a couple of reasons. First, not as many diners seek variety in wine as seek reliable quality. Second, promoting Gruner Veltliner one month, Riesling the next and Albariño the next doesn’t have the same long-term effect on the public consciousness as giving the same type of wine (Napa Cab!) 95 points every year.

In January, Wine Spectator‘s Tim Fish posted an odd “peace offering” of a story in which he felt the need to tell his magazine’s readers what a sommelier’s job is. Imagine that: Wine Spectator believes its readers need a definition.

Fish and I apparently look for different things from sommeliers, as he writes, “There seems to be an intercollegiate competition to see which sommelier can champion the most obscure region or wine. It’s like a bet: ‘I’ll see your Spanish Verdejo and raise you three Scheurebes.’ ” Me: bring on the Scheurebe, at least by the glass. By the bottle I might play it safe with the Rueda.

But Fish’s conclusion reminds me of my own bad experiences in the ’90s that drove me — a potential devotee of sommelier wines — to read Parker and Spectator in the first place.
Fish: “If it irks you that people want Silver Oak Cabernet or Kosta Browne Pinot Noir, maybe you need a new line of work. Guidance and advice is good, but it’s your job to serve the customer, not “fix” them.”

Sommeliers can win their war with critics, but Fish is right, “fixing” customers is a delicate business. That column was an outlier; usually Advocate and Spectator don’t come across as looking down on their audience. Parker’s strength as a writer has always been his enthusiasm, and the Spectator has professional editors who look out for that sort of thing. I don’t feel my taste questioned when I’m reading them.

There’s a wine bar here in San Francisco — Terroir — where I once ordered a wine from their short by-the-glass list, and was insulted by the bartender for my lack of taste. For ordering a wine the bar sells. Now, I’m a knowledgeable enough drinker to realize that guy was a jerk, and not hold it against the next sommelier I encounter.

But one thing I have learned in many years as a critic is that having faith in one’s own taste is surprisingly rare. Most people seek reassurance. When I worked at a major newspaper, readers frequently asked me what I thought of a wine they liked: Not a new release they were considering buying, but one they already had consumed. My opinion shouldn’t matter, but people seek validation.

The Spectator and Advocate provide potential validation every issue. This wine is 95 points, so if I like it, I have good taste. If I don’t like it, maybe the problem is me.
Sommeliers are making huge inroads into challenging this assumption. They are turning the tide in their war on critics. It’s winnable. But they need to constantly be aware that validation is a major part of the service they provide. “An excellent choice, sir,” is a great thing to say — even when it isn’t true.

Wine writer W. Blake Gray is Chairman of the Electoral College of the Vintners Hall of Fame. Previously wine writer/editor for the San Francisco Chronicle, he has contributed articles on wine and sake to the Los Angeles Times, Food & Wine, Wine & Spirits, Wine Review Online, and a variety of other publications. He travels frequently to wine regions and enjoys coming home to San Francisco.

26 Responses

  1. Jason Phelps

    I’m glad you said “potential validation”. Scores and the application of high ones consistently on certain wines is to me no firm validation that the wine is meritorious in any situation than the type of tasting that helped assign the score. When you think about experiences, what we should all be thinking about rather than scores, both critics and sommeliers are trying to do the same thing in theory.

    While I do know some sommeliers that are into esoteric wines, many of the sommeliers I taste with on a frequent basis are more interested in helping less experienced wine lovers (me) enhance my experience and have exposure to an ever broadening world of wine. This to me is how I feel I am best served in trying to help others have enjoyable wine experiences. Most wine is consumed by casual drinkers with some other activity going on, eating, socializing or celebrating for example, and pairing wines with those activities is vital when trying to help people have the most enjoyable experience. New wines don’t always work best, but neither do the tried and true. Sometimes consumers do also need to be challenged. Both sommeliers and critics can offer those challenges, and the people offering them are hoping for a willing audience.


    • Blake Gray

      Jason: I’m afraid I may not have explained “validation” well enough regarding scores. I am NOT saying a high score means the wine is good, or will be enjoyed by everyone. What I am saying is that a consumer who buys the wine and likes it feels validated if it gets a high score, and that feeling of validation is important.

  2. King Krak, I Drink it Orange

    “that having faith in one’s own taste is surprisingly rare. Most people seek reassurance.” – Amazing, consider how the majority of Americans are so surprisingly confident about their knowledge of Science, Religion and Politics when they in fact know so little. But trust their own tastes about a wine they drank? No way?!!!

  3. Pamela Heiligenthal

    Having worked as a sommelier for many years it really bothers me when I hear stories such as yours because somms shouldn’t intimidate, but rather engage and educate. And I think any good somm makes a guest feel at ease. I’ve also had my share of bad experiences and I attribute it to entitlement and/or bad training. Regarding the WS, I subscribe as do many somm friends—-heck, many work hard to achieve WS Wine List award recognition…so saying the majority despise them is going a bit far…but on a side note, I wish more publications would consider food matching when reviewing wine. This is where I see a big gap, and I’ve tried to incorporate food pairings in my own reviews. Some critics say it is not their job to match a wine with food—-I say nonsense! And sometimes I wonder if excluding food pairings in wine reviews isn’t partially to blame why we see so many wines made in a standalone sipper style to substitute as a cocktail. We don’t need no stinking food with this wine! It tastes great on its own! Ok, I’m a bit off topic now, but as long as I’m on the subject of wine reviews, do you know what else I would like to see change? Speed tasting! I think a fair review requires spending a little time with the bottle (and with food). Drinking it in the same fashion as a consumer (in my opinion) will give a more accurate rating.

  4. Thomas Matthews

    It’s nonsense to posit some kind of animosity between Wine Spectator and sommeliers. We have been encouraging restaurant wine programs since instituting our wine list awards program in 1981; nearly 4,000 restaurants now participate, including such notables as Michael Mina in San Francisco, The French Laundry in Napa Valley and Restaurant Daniel in New York City. Right now, visitors to WineSpectator.com can read an interview with Gilt’s talented sommelier Patrick Cappiello, who tattooed the Grand Award logo on his leg. The best sommeliers share our mission, to educate people about wine and help them develop their own palates.

    Thomas Matthews
    Executive editor
    Wine Spectator

  5. Bruno

    Dear Mr. Gray,
    I have just finished reading your article and I feel sick to my stomach.
    Your caricature (and the pic as supporting evidence which gives my profession a bad name and promotes a stigma that I thought had disappeared by now.) of the old fashioned, pot bellied, tastevin wielding sommelier could not be as far from what a sommelier today is all about. Furthermore what research backs up your claim that there is a war between wine critics and somms??
    While I blame the lack of nuances of the 100 point scale, I welcome the fact that it helps consumers to make a choice therefore drink wine.
    You also talk about validation… It is human nature to seek validation. It makes us feel good about ourselves. A good somm is one who knows people and understands human nature. A good wine critic only has to contend with the products he writes about…
    If I may take a few more minutes of your time, I would like to thank-you for not lumping all somms into the same “jerk” category but more importantly not lumping somms who have studied for many years to get where they are with some booze dispensing jerk who calls himself a bartender by virtue of the fact that he stands on the other side of the bar.
    Now that I am reading my answer to your post I feel that I have been suckered into reacting therefore writing back. What if you simply made up the whole story to get people like me to post their answers and your only motivation was validation???
    Mr Gray I give you 79 points…you fail.

    • Blake Gray

      Bruno: At last, a sommelier who uses the 100-point scale!
      You might take the trouble to reread the third paragraph. I think the picture made you miss what I actually wrote.

  6. Blake Gray

    I’ve been thinking about Bruno’s comment for a while and realized I failed to expressly state something that perhaps I should have: I LOVE deferring to the sommelier. That’s how I have my best wine experiences today. But customers like me are made, not born. I wish the sommeliers I encountered in the ’90s had been like the enthusiastic somms I meet today. Good somms will turn this decade’s quiet young diners into sommelier-wine devotees of the ’20s, if they never forget the power of validation.
    So thank you, Bruno.

  7. Evan Dawson

    Blake – I appreciate the points you’re trying to make. But I wonder: Why don’t you quote at least one sommelier in the piece? Why not interview a sommelier about this war with critics? Surely it would bolster the position that the war exists.

    • Blake Gray

      Evan: Because I never imagined anyone would doubt it. I spend a fair amount of time around sommeliers and whenever they mention the wines Parker and the Spectator like, it is with distaste.
      In fact, I’m very surprised to see you question it. Do you believe sommeliers like the same wines as Parker and the Spectator?

      • Adam Lee/Siduri & Novy Wines


        I happened to be with two sommmeliers in Las Vegas last night and they were unaware that such a war existed, and disagreed that there was such a thing. They also felt somewhat insulted that all somms were characterized in the blog as having one type of wine preference.

        Perhaps it would benefit you to visit the rest of the country and see what sells rather than going to the same SF restaurants that select wines that you like.

        Adam Lee
        Siduri Wines

      • Evan Dawson

        Blake – Sure, some do. Some don’t. But not all those that prefer sleeker wines find themselves to be at war with the critics. My apologies to this sommelier for using him by name, but let me give you an example.

        I think Michael Madrigale is among the best sommeliers in the country. He is tireless, filled with passion for his work and, most importantly, he is absolutely wonderful to be around. He has endless knowledge of his wine lists, and he’s spot on with suggestions – after asking a few questions to his diners regarding their preferences.

        Now, if you follow his enthusiastic commentary about the wines he pours, you’ll find a whole lot of wines that the big critics don’t necessarily love. Mike strikes me as a wine intellectual and a terroir geek. However, on occasion you’ll find the bigger, richer styles, and he pours them enthusiastically. On top of that, he has a good relationship with the wine press, and he respects them, even if he doesn’t always favor their highest-scored wines.

        In other words, it’s not so cleanly bifurcated. But again, I’m open-minded that a deep-rooted war exists, and I’d love to hear from the somms who say so.

      • Blake Gray

        Evan: I can’t believe I’m having this conversation with you, but do you understand what a column is, as opposed to an AP-style story?

        I guess I could have called a dozen somms I know and run quotes something like, “I don’t think the wines Parker rates highest are good with food. I prefer wines that are good with food.” But my job is to inform AND entertain, and that sounds pretty boring to me.

        I’m sorry, but I’m going to rest on this piece as is. You are welcome to doubt it. Perhaps you would like to write a piece about how this is wrong, and somms are NOT at war with critics? I’d read it.

      • Evan Dawson

        Blake – Now, now. No need to condescend. I asked a legitimate question.

        Of course I know what a column is. The best columns are more than just rants, of course. The best columns take a stance and bolster it with new information and / or supporting quotation and sourcing. In your case, you quoted Robert Parker and Tim Fish, but no sommeliers. I just found that odd, and I thought you missed the opportunity to strengthen your position. I also understand that you thought everyone would agree with your premise, so you didn’t need supporting quotation. But as you’re finding here, that’s obviously not the case.

        Adam Lee is accusing you of myopia here; I’m simply saying that a quotation or two would go a long way.

        Here’s an example. Let’s say you’re a columnist who wants to make the point that the rich should pay more in taxes – and even some rich people agree! You could write a column saying exactly that, but if you don’t quote a single rich person who agrees with this, it’s not going to have the same impact. However, if you lay out the facts of income inequality, and then quote Warren Buffett, it’s a column with real force. Even better if you talk to someone in the administration who can tell you that their internal work indicates that, sa, roughly a third of the wealthiest Americans would embrace a small tax increase.

        I don’t think quoting somms to support your position is boring, at all.

        Of course, the comments section offers a nice chance to expand this conversation. I hope sommeliers will jump in, because I don’t think for a second that you were inventing this so-called war; I’m sure some somms have been saying this.

      • Jim Silver

        It seems like everyone is making valid points here. Blake is absolutely correct that a war with critics existed and continues to exist, but certainly not in any empyrean way. Much of these were private/personal wars, where it was easy to openly deride the “commerical” and espouse the “obscure.” But “classic” was always “classic” no matter who did the espousing.

        Everyone I knew in the Somm industry read the WS, most still do. Tom is right, and I’ll double down on it and say that many or most of the Somms that exist today exist because the WS created demand for their services by bringing that culture to the American middle class. They propagated much of today’s wine culture actually.

        Evan points out in a roundabout way the problem with modern day wine criticism, or wine writing in general today, is that we are fed small bites of anecdote seasoned with opinion. There’s no space or time anymore to interview key people, or get all sides of the story. What we’re left with is wine writing distilled. Imagine if you asked Gerald Asher to write his thoughts on a particular wine on the back of a napkin, this is what you’d get – today’s wine writing.

        Here’s the structure of a wine blog article: 1) introduce subject, post ironic picture 2) explain your lack of experience on the subject in a humble way and how happy you are just to be there 3) opine about the subject a bit and draw baseless conclusions, and 4) Ask the reader hypothetical questions…

        But Blake (who is I feel among our most fascinating writers) makes the best point of the day with the Validation statements. I never did anything more important for my customer than make him feel good about himself, good about his choice, ease his confusion, elevate his dining experience, and feel that he got quality and value. To even think that a Somm is supposed to “educate” the unwashed customer is absurd and arrogant. “Inform” maybe, but proselytize? No way. Try to remember who you are, you’re the wine waiter. Your particular set of skills in beverage management, selection, accounting and inventory, and the creative ways you placed the wine list on an iPad notwithstanding, the customer only cares how he’s doing that night.

        Jim S
        Sommelier Striped Bass 1993-5
        Sommelier The Four Seasons Hotel 1995-8

  8. Tish

    Blake, you deserve credit for launching this topic into the blogosphere. You should take the strident tone of many of the comments as “validation” of the topic itself. And while critics vs. somms is not a real battle in that they operate in vastly differnet contexts, they both stand for sources of wine guidance, and so this topic is worthy of continued discussion.

    I recall that original Tim Fish column in Wine Spectator. It struck me as ridiculous posturing — he even claimed to have seen a wine by the glass list on which he did not recognize a single label or variety (somehow I fail to believe such a list actually exists). Tim’s worst flaw — even worse than the holier-than-they tone — was his failure to acknowledge the unmistakable trend toward sommeliers (as if most resto wine pros even call themselves that anymore) being more down to earth and accessible than ever. The tastevin-wielding cliche is gone, period. For WS not to acknowledge and embrace this fact is a sign that they feel threatened.

    I don’t see critics vs. somms as a war so much as a see-saw situation. For 30 years, the sense of authority among wine “guiders” has been tilting toward critics, thanks largely to the mass delusion that wine ratings are generally useful. Yes, yes, that is another debate, but the key moving forward is AUTHENTICITY.

    In short, whom do you trust for wine guidance these days… Is it a middle-aged man tasting a wine once, in a lineup of 20-25 at a pop, “blind” and without a crumb of food, then tattooing each wine with a number? Or is it a professional who has had to stick his/her neck out to select from a vast universe of wines, creating a subset that makes sense for a specific restaurant context?

    The wild card in this see-saw situation over past decades, unfortunately, has been retailers, who have too often given up their own sense of authority by letting critics ratings stand in for advice. I am counting on ratings-free retailers and somms (or whatever they choose to call themselves) to reclaim their position as sources of the best advice consumers can get. The fact that their advice, by definition, relates to wines people can actually get right then and there should not be underestimated. There is nothing wrong, conceptually, with the idea of magazines that cover the whole universe of wines; but most of what critics actually write about is of use to a very small fraction of the genreal wine-drinking public.

    The real world of wine is very different place than that which ciritcs inhabit; and it’s high time that real-world guiders take back their place as voices of reason and fruitful advice.

    • Blake Gray

      Tish: Retailers, wow, that’s a whole different story. Maybe when the flak from this one dies down I’ll get into that 😉

      • Chuck Hayward

        Now that is the article that needs to be written!! All ready to assist you on that one!!

  9. Matt Sohlstrom

    I have worked as a Sommelier and Waiter for many years and I don’t have disdain for either the WS or R. Parker both have done a great service to helping the public have a better understanding of wine. I had the great pleasure to spend four years working with the great Sommelier Phil DeVito before he retired from Salishan Lodge. Phil was never intimidating he had always taken a relaxed approach to selling wine. I learned to ask the right questions and a customer will help me to help him choose a wine that will compliment his food and his wallet. Phil’s philosophy was to let great wine age in the cellar and only put it on the wine list when it had reached some level of maturity, often letting better vintages cellar for 10 or more years. This is one thing I don’t see with many wine lists now as prices of top wines have risen to such a degree few restaurants can afford to cellar them. A couple years back I spoke to a restaurant owner that stated “I won’t buy a wine that scores less than 90 points” which I found sad as I believe it’s those lesser scoring wines that often mature faster and offer the public a nice wine to consume sooner. The tanic monster’s many restaurants offer at 3-5 years of age seem to be the new normal. To me this is the down side of the 100 Pt. concept. I have a hard time understand what Great Bordeaux at $1000 is like to drink at that young age when in my opinion it needs 20-30 more years in the cellar.

  10. Troy

    Ask him now what he misses about being a sommelier? “Drinking grand crus on a nightly basis; I am Mr. $15 and under now,” he confesses, laughing. But that deep knowledge of the best wines and producers informs his every purchasing decision. He will tell you he learned what value means – a wine that is spot-on for its price.