Features 4 June 2020

Wine websites: which are worth paying for?

In lockdown, online wine traffic has surged. But if you’re looking for wine recommendations, which site merits its subscription fee? Adam Lechmere peeks behind the paywalls

Words by Adam Lechmere

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When winespectator.com was launched 23 years ago it had little, if any, online competition. decanter.com’s first news pages appeared in early 2000, around the same time as jancisrobinson.com. And that, at the start of the millennium, was that.

(Main pic, clockwise from bottom left: Wine Spectator proprietor Marvin R Shanken; James Suckling; Jancis Robinson MW; Antonio Galloni of Vinous; Lisa-Perrotti-Brown MW of Wine Advocate)

What a difference a couple of decades makes. The wine aficionado now has a choice of dozens – hundreds, thousands – of sources of online information, from amateur bloggers to professional websites retaining teams of wine writers on six-figure salaries.

Among these there are, of course, many free websites, some of them excellent. There are bloggers whose level of expertise is equal to and often far higher than many more established wine writers. There are listings sites, news sites, excellent merchant sites. Search a well-known wine and you’ll be returned 500,000 results, of which the first five or six pages will list substantial and authoritative sources of information about that wine, its winemakers and owners, tasting notes, price, both actual and historic, and much, much more.

Here we’ve concerned ourselves with just five wine websites, which between them account for tens of millions of page views and which – most importantly – put all or most of their content behind paywalls.

These five sites are the most frequently-quoted by wine merchants worldwide. Some – like jamessuckling.com in Asia – have greater influence in some territories than others. A decade ago you might have said that Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate held sway over the entire wine world (arguably more in the US than Europe, but his Bordeaux scores still transfixed the London wine trade), and Wine Spectator’s opinions still matter: when Leoville-Barton 2016 was named its wine of the year in November 2019, its trade price jumped 22% on Liv-ex. But it can no longer be said that one palate makes or breaks reputations; when did you last hear a wine described as “parkerised”?

Subscribing to one of these websites isn’t a difficult decision – a matter of a few pounds or dollars a week in most cases. But it’s a decision all the same. Over the next few pages we’ve tried to give a (subjective) idea of which of these sites, all of them serious operations, might be the best for you, depending on your level of wine commitment.

We’ve judged them on five criteria: topicality (do they reflect current events?); useability (does the navigation work?); geek appeal (are the features more than 3,000 words long?); popular appeal (are everyday wines seriously assessed?); and the usefulness and breadth of the recommendations section.

Wine Advocate

Robert Parker ruled the wine world for a generation. His name lives on as a url (The Wine Advocate’s online handle remains robertparker.com) but no longer as a pejorative adjective (the word “parkerised”, to describe a particular style of fruit-forward, extracted wine, isn’t heard much nowadays). In any case, the legendary wine critic, now retired after selling the Wine Advocate group in 2012, was always far more nuanced than his reputation suggested. Read more

Wine Spectator

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. Read more

Vinous

It’s astonishing to remember that Antonio Galloni founded Vinous just seven years ago (after a dramatic falling out with Robert Parker over his resignation from The Wine Advocate). In that short time, he has built a site that rivals (and in many ways betters) major competitors such as winespectator.com and the aforementioned robertparker.com. Much of the site’s success has been down to Galloni’s deep pockets and dogged acquisitiveness. Within a year of launch he had bought Stephen Tanzer’s International Wine Cellar (taking on Tanzer as editor-in-chief). Neal Martin joined in 2018. There are few major wine figures who haven’t had a call from the soft-spoken MIT alumnus, chequebook in hand. Read more

jamessuckling.com

There’s something endearing about the marquee claim on the homepage of jamessuckling.com. “25,000 wines tasted in 2019. More than any other wine critic!” It’s an impossible statistic to verify, of course, but it’s the exclamation mark that sets the tone: with James Suckling, it’s size that matters. Read more

jancisrobinson.com

Jancis Robinson MW OBE is one of the handful of wine writers worldwide who can justifiably claim to be a household name. Her website, jancisrobinson.com, exudes a cool, no-nonsense authority. A clever marketer, she has gathered around her a salon of eminent and idiosyncratic talent. Julia Harding MW and Richard Hemming MW headline an international team – former El Bulli sommelier Ferran Centelles, Italian expert Walter Speller, “the world’s youngest MW” Tom Parker, Alaskan former “commercial fisherman” (sic) and academic philosopher Elaine Brown – are all authorities in their particular fields. Other proprietors tempt their big-name contributors with six-figure salaries; Robinson doesn’t wield the chequebook to the same extent – the kudos of working for her is a big part of the deal. Read more

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