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The Golden Years of Wine Criticism

By Charles Olken

My buddy of too many years to remember, Steve Heimoff, who once was the California wine critic for the Wine Enthusiast and who made himself into a household name (to local wine lovers) by launching a blog in his own name, has just recently commented on the “Golden Age of Wine Criticism”, which he says began in 1978 and ended in 2008. The range is a little too narrow for my taste, because it ignores the earlier beginnings of the era of wine criticism from narrow audiences to a large and growing crowd, but it is close enough, and a few years here or there was not really the point. Steve, like us all, sees history through his own glasses. I have been around a bit longer than Steve and so my frame of reference extends a somewhat longer. And because I have not chosen to join Steve in retirement, my sense is the Golden Age has not ended.

Here then, are my comments to Steve on his blog. They are not meant as criticism, but as explication. And, with apologies, they end with a little bit of nostalgia on my part.


“Steve, I might choose different dates, say a decade earlier with the emergence of Robert Finegan and the quick follow-ons of Connoisseurs' Guide, The California Grapevine and the so-called "White Book".

But why quibble? The wine world turned a corner with the emergence in the 1960s of a burgeoning middle class. It was that demographic change that also brought us gourmet restaurants like Chez Panisse and The Four Seasons, soccer, and the car culture.

It was certainly the Golden Age for the "singular voice" critics with recognizable names from Finegan to Parker to Laube to to Heimoff to Olken to Steiman to Broadbent--all of whom are already leaving or will soon pass from the wine scene.

Even if Galloni and others take their place, they will not ever have the same cachet. The Internet, the rise of the sommelier as hero class, MWs, have all already seen to that.

But, I don't see wine criticism going away. It has matured and so have the wine markets and the people who make them up. I still get plenty of mail asking for more and different information, and it matters not that our rag and every other publication now comes with broad data bases that cut our info in a thousand directions.

People remain curious. People remain boggled by tens of thousands of labels and a new vintage every circuit of the earth. We live in the information age, and critics, in the larger sense of the word, whether paid to publish wine evaluations or doing them for wine lists, as bloggers or as wine merchants will always be with us in one form or another.

So, congratulations to us all for being at the right place in the right time. I, for one, am not ready to leave the field. These are the Golden Years of the Golden Age and I intend to make mine last as long as possible.


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The Golden Age of American Wine Criticism
by Bob Henry
Posted on:9/23/2016 12:00:19 AM

(Preface: I have already left a comment on Steve's blog, so this will be a supplemental.)

I "carbon date" the birth of The Golden Age of American Wine Criticism to the decade of the 1970s, with the rise of these "taste makers" in the paid media:

  • Wine Spectator
  • The Wine Advocate
  • The Wine Enthusiast
  • Connoisseurs' Guide to California Wine                 
  • Frank Prial's wine column in the New York Times
  • Robert Lawrence Balzer's wine column in the Los Angeles Times
  • Gerald Asher's wine column in Gourmet

For California wine collectors, the pivotal vintage was 1974 Cabernets Sauvignons.

For French wine collectors, the pivotal vintage was 1982 red Bordeaux.

For the first time, middle class Americans willingly paid for wine advice through magazine and newsletter subscriptions.  For the first time, middle class Americans willingly bought guide books on wine.

And for the first time, "taste makers" realized they could actually earn a decent living as a wine writer.  Maybe even create a publishing empire out of it.

See David Shaw's two-part 1987 profile of wine writers of this era for the Los Angeles Times:


by Adam Lee
Posted on:9/28/2016 5:58:24 AM


I often look at other areas of criticism and look at how the wine business compares.  The movie industry comes to mind as (for me) having some of the most obvious corrolaries to the wine busines.  At one point there were several major movie critics (Siskel, Ebert, Rex Reed).  This has been followed by a period of democratization (in this case of the product being reviewed -- with DVDs and then streming).  The major critics fell in influence with crowd-sourcing of reviews and recommendations taking over.  Perhaps the most worrisome comparison is that inflation-adjusted movie attendance is down from the highs and shows no signs of rebouding -- perhaps a cautionary tale for the wine business.

Adam Lee

Siduri Wines

Wine and Movies
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:9/28/2016 8:31:41 AM

Hi Adam--

The wine critic business has certainly changed already even though we don't see much evidence that the paid critics have greatly diminished in number. Yes, newspaper criticism has been reduced, but I see that as a function of the changes in that business.

As to whether the wine business will start to decline as the world further changes, I rather doubt that the equivalent of DVD and Netflix-like wine sourcing are going to emerge anytime soon. At least I hope not. I don't want to get my wine on tape or disc or over the internet.

The sway of wine competitions -- and gold medals
by Bob Henry
Posted on:10/10/2016 1:12:18 AM


When one considers tha landscape of wine reviews in newspapers (outside of the North Coast wine country), I don't find any of them publicize/tout the results of judged wine competitions.

Wine magazines such as Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast and Wine & Spirits don't publicize the results of judged wine competitions.

Neither do newsletters such as The Wine Advocate.

So where does this notion come from that winning a gold medal at [fill-in-the-blank judged] competition lifts winery sales in retail stores?

Grocery stores discourage shelf talkers in the wine aisle because they add to visual clutter.

Shelf talkers exist in BevMo stores, but they largely cite wine magazine scores (now that Wilfred Wong has departed).

And independent wine stores's shelf talkers either cite Wine Advocate or Wine Spectator scores above 90 points -- or they write their own.

Does the "average" consumer even know the names of wine competitions . . . follow their results . . . and use them as a buying guide?

I have my doubts.



When did a U.S. wine culture blossom?
by Bob Henry
Posted on:10/10/2016 7:09:36 PM

Harvey Steiman, writing online for Wine Spectator in celebration of its 40th anniversary, dates the blossoming of a wine culture here in the States to the 1970s.

"The Future of Wine;

How America became a wine culture, and where we go from here"



"... By the 1970s, a wine culture was blossoming, in tandem with a food revolution nurtured by Julia Child on television. Thanks to advances in viticulture and enology, better wines flowed from almost every region, including some that were far from the wine mainstream. And more people knew about them, thanks, at least in part, to Wine Spectator, which was founded in 1976."

by Charlie Olken
Posted on:10/10/2016 8:14:52 PM

As I wrote earlier, so much of how one dates the emergence of the modern era here in California depends on one's perspective.

And also on the definition of the beginnings of the modern era.

Joe Heitz first vintage was 1962. Ridge and Chalone emerged in the same general time frame. Hanzell preceded them and was making high class Chardonnay back in the days when there was so little Chardonnay planted that the grape did not register in the annual Grape Acreage Report. It was lumped in under "Other Red Varieties".

The first Martha's Vineyard bottling was 1967. Robert Mondavi built his new winery in 1966. So there was plenty of activity already under way in the sixties. 

Harvey has seen a parallel to the emergence of a food culture featuring folks like Julia Childs and Alice Waters--both in the sixties.

With all due respect to Bob Morissey who founded the Wine Spectator, it was a product of the wine boom that had emerged full-fledged by that date.

And one more interesting statistic. From the end of Prohibition until 1968, fortified dessert wines outsold table wines in CA. The growth in table wine is the beginning of the wine boom, and that started in the sixties.

And as my generation fades, those days will be gone and found only in the back pages of old wine books--if wine books even exist anymore.

When did the wine press "Golden Age" begin?
by Bob Henry
Posted on:10/12/2016 12:39:58 AM

I acknowledge the emergence of a wine boom in the 1960s.

In my initial comment, I addressed the question of a wine press boom dating to the 1970s.

Prior to that, only the wine cognoscenti knew about newsletters such as Robert Lawrence Balzer's Private Guide to Food and Wine (launched in the late 1960s).

Knew about Robert Finigan's Private Guide to Wines (launched in 1972).

Knew about Jerry Mead's weekly column Mead on Wine launched in the early 1970s.

Knew about Hugh Johnson (whose first book Wine was published in 1966, and his second book The World Atlas of Wine in 1971.)

Knew about Michael Broadbent (whose wine writing career commenced in the 1970s.)

Knew about Clive Coates (who founded his magazine The Vine in 1976.)

Knew about Decanter magazine (launched in 1975).

Kevin Zraly's wine education course started in 1976.  This year he celebrates his 40th anniversary -- by declaring it his swan song:

The wine press blossomed in the 1970s -- sparked by the blossoming of the industry in the 1960s.

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