I'll Have What She's Having

Tatler Singapore|May 2020

I'll Have What She's Having
Who influences a wine critic? Our columnist reveals who she trusts in Asia and elsewhere—and shares these experts’ top picks for your cellar
Sarah Heller, MW

After a decade of breathless infatuation with influencer marketing and its promise of tighter brand-to-consumer contact, anyone could be excused for asking just how different the results have been from the campaigns of yesteryear that featured more straightforward celebrity endorsements. The wine industry, though relatively slow to get in on the act, has actually created some interesting partnerships that may serve as case studies for how a fairly conservative industry can reach new audiences through fresh online voices (take the brash wine entrepreneur Gary Vaynerchuk, known as Gary Vee and considered an online influencer OG, who got his start pairing wine with Froot Loops on YouTube). Now the web is awash with would-be wine influencers, but just who are they really influencing?

Meanwhile, the perpetually imminent demise of that genteel relic, the professional wine critic, seems to have come and gone somewhat anticlimactically, with every scribe who hasn’t simply retired having joined the legions of digital “content creators”. A lucky few have even successfully rebranded themselves as “wine personalities”. And the old hierarchy of all-knowing elites and their blindly following masses has become that much more smudgy, and in some cases inverted.

Thus, it becomes ever harder to determine who genuinely has influence. By that I mean not page views, Weibo followers or Instagram likes, but rather the ability to move bottles off shelves. Influence takes on a whole new level of complexity when we consider markets like our own in Asia, far removed from most traditional authorities of wine taste in Europe, the US and Australia. The call for local voices, who would at least ostensibly have a greater understanding of local tastes, is seemingly hindered by a subconscious bias towards “authentic” foreign experts (think just how much easier it is for a French sommelier to upsell you on a bottle of “Bourgogne” than a Yorkshireman).

One could argue that the retired Robert Parker, whipping boy of virtually every article about the downsides of a perhaps excessive concentration of influence in the hands of a small number of players, still reigns supreme because his 100-point system remains dominant. However, in my own research into the online wine purchasing habits of our region’s millennials, virtually none of the countless websites surveyed used any critic’s scores at all, relying instead on user reviews. While travelling around Asia, I’ve also frequently noted that restaurants with wine lists featuring critics’ scores tend not to be too fussy about whose scores they are: RP (Robert Parker), WS (Wine Spectator) and AG (Antonio Galloni) are commonplace, but so too more dubious two-letter combos like WX or VW, not attributable to any critic I know of.

The thing is, reluctant as we may be to hand over our trust to just anyone, unless we’re content to drink the same few brands we’ve always chosen year in and year out, we have to put it somewhere. As someone who’s built a career around wine in Asia for almost 12 years, I obviously have my own cadre of local friends and insiders I trust far more than scores from a pair of unidentifiable letters, plus a few international voices I rely on to surface brands and regions I might not encounter locally.

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May 2020