The moment you subscribe to winespectator.com, you’re asked which newsletters you want to sign up to. There are eight of them, covering news, eating out, “wine and pop culture”, value wines, healthy living, collecting, videos and retailing. While Wine Spectator the magazine, with dense pages of tasting notes and dry interviews, can be a tough read, its online sister is a sparkier proposition. It aims to cater to every subset of wine lover, from barbecue dads to Burgundy nerds. The news pages (especially the “Unfiltered” section) are pleasingly broad in their reach: Sarah-Jessica Parker’s new rosé and the antics of John Oliver on Last Week Tonight sit alongside James Molesworth’s latest pontifications on Bordeaux en primeur.
winespectator.com prides itself on its 385,000 ratings and indeed they are comprehensive and compelling. At the top end there’s a wealth of elite reviews – Bruce Sanderson on Tignanello back to 1971, or Domaine Armand Rousseau (“I was excited when I pulled up to the cuverie and cellars on the outskirts of Gevrey…”). Then there are the ‘Value’ wines: who wouldn’t click on “8 vibrant Riojas” or “Refreshing whites from Northern Italy” or “Charming Gamays from Beaujolais”, each list with a pithy 200-word introduction?
It’s a pity, then, that Wine Spectator’s philosophy of total independence precludes any indication as to where a wine may be bought. The natural reaction on being recommended a wine is to ask where it can be found. But Wine Spectator finds such questions tactless. In a section entitled “How to buy wine”, owner Marvin R Shanken and executive editor Thomas Matthews gently explain, at length, “Unfortunately, there is no one easy answer,” as if buying a bottle of wine were as complex a negotiation as purchasing plutonium. In a nutshell, the editors worry their integrity will be compromised if they both recommend and direct you to a retailer. This stand may be worthy, but it’s frustrating, and it comes across as sanctimonious.
Otherwise, the organisation’s mission statement – to be “the most respected source for wine expertise and wine lifestyle inspiration” – can claim to be accurate if syntactically garbled. Its contributors represent the establishment arm of American wine writing of this and the previous generation – Jim Laube, Kim Marcus, Bruce Sanderson, Thomas Matthews, Alison Napjus, Tim Fish. Wine Spectator oozes respectability. That look slipped somewhat when, in 2008, an entirely fictitious restaurant, complete with wine list including WS’s lowest-scoring Italian wines, won the magazine’s Award of Excellence. To enter a fake restaurant and to win an award was an “act of malicious duplicity”, executive editor Matthews protested. You can read his denunciation of the prank here.
The restaurant awards brings in some $1.5m a year (this is a conservative estimate based on the $375-$475 fee to enter and the 4,000-odd restaurants that win an award); it’s a measure of the publication’s standing that its reputation suffered no lasting damage. Quite the opposite: it can still move markets. When Leoville-Barton 2016 was named its wine of the year in 2019, its trade price jumped 22% on Liv-ex.
Winespectator.com launched in 1996 (it’s predated by bbr.com but not many other wine sites) and it’s earned its spurs. Over the quarter-century of its existence it has been on top of every stage of web evolution, from trading platforms to mobile apps. It was one of the first to run vintage charts and an early adopter of video. But sometimes being first out of the water is a drawback: the vintage charts look a little threadbare now, and the videos are exquisitely boring.
A website’s forums are often a very good indicator of its general health and relevance. Winespectator.com’s chat rooms are full of solid citizens with strong opinions and good cellars, who view things like orange and natural wines with suspicion. If you spend too much time with them, you get the feeling the real conversation’s going on elsewhere.
- Topicality 8/10
- Useability 7/10
- Geek appeal 5/10
- Popular appeal 5/10
- Recommendations 8/10
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