Readers of this blog know I contribute frequently to Decanter, a magazine for which I have a lot of respect. This doesn’t mean I agree with every opinion expressed in it, however, and I was particularly troubled to see James Suckling, for whose opinions I have very little respect, featured prominently in the current edition (Decanter, May 2011).
The Suckling’s article strikes me as a textbook example of the worst kind of wine writing. It’s an opinion piece (rightly so-called because there is hardly a useful or accurate fact in it) about whether the so-called “SuperTuscans” are a fading star. The cover promises more: “James Suckling on the Rise and Fall of SuperTuscans,” it says, but that isn’t what the Suckling delivers. Strange, because this is an issue on which consumers and producers have already voted with their dollars and their efforts. Since almost all SuperTuscans are now covered either by the IGT category or the many Tuscan DOC and DOCG designations, many producers have moved their formerly maverick wines into the more spacious conventional categories. And from everything I’ve been able to gather from importers and retailers, with the exception of the greatest stars of the SuperTuscan cast, sales of the whole category have been declining steadily in favor of classifications like Chianti Classico and Brunello.
But this article is a typical Suckling performance. Let me walk you through it.
Step 1: Immediately remind your readers how important you are: “People ask me if I invented the term SuperTuscan.” Gracefully concede that you didn’t, and you don’t know who did. Also admit that you don’t know whether these wines have “as much resonance with consumers” as they used to. So much for the “fading star” question, ostensibly the point of the article. Don’t trouble yourself to look up any production, sales, or distribution figures that might suggest an answer. That’s not your style.
Step 2: Provide an extensive quote from one of your winemaking friends who is, incidentally, a participant in your upcoming, for-profit event, Divino Tuscany (see below for the skinny on this). Don’t worry that the quotation has nothing to do with the subject of your article: the point is publicity, not relevance. Thus, Lamberto Frescobaldi opines that people “may not have a clear understanding” of the term SuperTuscan, goes on about how they don’t know what a Chianti or a Brunello is either, and concludes that prices for these various wines vary.
Now, as author, don’t use that as an opportunity to explain to your readers what a SuperTuscan is or how it may differ from a Chianti or a Brunello; that would just be information, and too boring.
Step 3: Do talk a bit about the DOC and DOCG wine appellations, which allows you to mention your favorite wines in those categories – none of which costs less than $100 a bottle, which seems to be the lower limit of the Suckling’s interest in wine. Then admiringly recount the stories of two of the most prestigious (and expensive) SuperTuscans, Tignanello and Sassicaia.
Step 4: Introduce another of your friends who makes an expensive SuperTuscan (and is also a sponsor of Divino Tuscany) and have him pronounce a ridiculous opinion on this whole group of (still undefined, unidentified) wines. Here’s Luca Sanjust, who produces the $100+ SuperTuscan Galatrona: “These wines introduced people to drinking wines for pleasure, not just in an intellectual way, like old Barolos and Brunellos.” (Well, that opened my eyes: I never knew I wasn’t enjoying wine before the SuperTuscans came along. Just think of all those years and years in which nobody ever drank wine for pleasure!)
Step 5: Conclude your article by letting your buddy do the heavy lifting of pointing out how stupid all other wine writers are. Signor Sanjust does that nicely for the Suckling. He starts sensibly enough by observing that “we can’t become Burgundy or some other region like that.” But then he denounces “all those idiot wine critics and bloggers” who say that Italians should stick with native Italian varieties. “They don’t understand that there are microclimates and soils that are perfect for other grapes, and that they make great wines.” Final word, right? Says everything there is to say on the subject?
Well, no; I think that those idiot wine critics and bloggers know perfectly well about the diversity of Italy’s terroirs, and they have serious reservations about the greatness of the wines in question. Does the world truly need another $100 Tuscan Merlot? I have problems with brand-new estates in California offering their first vintage at more than $100 a bottle, and by the same token I have doubts when Signor Sanjust tells me “we are simply trying to give the maximum pleasure to wine drinkers.” If he really means that, let him lower his price to around $25 – and then we can talk.
A question of propriety:
Almost all the wines the Suckling mentions in this article, and the only two individuals he quotes, are sponsors/participants in Divino Tuscany, a barbarously named four-day event the Suckling is presenting in Florence in June – featuring “the best wineries in the region – all personally selected by me.” He is charging consumers €1,600 for the event, and that doesn’t include travel or lodging. This is clearly not a penny-ante matter.
For him to be writing now about only participating wineries, and in particular, giving such inordinate space to self-serving personal promotion by Luca Sanjust, seems a blatant conflict of interest. This isn’t wine journalism: this is public relations. Those are two different activities and should be carried out by different people. The ethics of the wine business can often be murky, but journalistic ethics are pretty clear-cut: you’re not supposed to have any pecuniary relationship with individuals or firms about which you’re ostensibly objectively reporting. It’s not so long ago that journalists were released from magazines and newspapers for considerably slighter involvements than the Suckling’s with the people he writes of.
Persistent rumors in Italy – admittedly unverifiable: nobody is talking for attribution – claim that the Suckling is charging wineries heavily to be represented in Divino Tuscany. One figure I have heard is €10,000 per winery. Should these rumors turn out to be true, would this be the same as what the pop music industry used to call payola, and what politicians now know as “pay to play?” You tell me. Even if untrue, it still seems to me a glaring breach of journalistic ethics to write a purportedly unbiased article that hardly mentions a single wine that isn’t a part of your own clearly for-profit venture. That isn’t journalism: it’s advertising.