Liv-ex interview with James Suckling, part two: Behind the scenes

James Suckling interview

Last week we published the first part of our interview with acclaimed wine critic James Suckling. The second part, shown below, focuses on James’ path to wine journalism, his reasons for leaving the Wine Spectator and his relationship with Robert Parker.

You have lived in Italy how for 14 years 1998. What is it about Italy that attracts you?

I moved there in 1998 after spending 12 years in London.

I just love the Italian culture, the people and the wines. It is just a great place to live. I moved to Italy in 1998, after 12 years of living in London, as I saw in barrel how amazing some of the 1997s were. I understood that if they reduced yields they could make fabulous wine. Spring frosts reduced yields that year and the resulting wines were just fabulous. I think producers realised, and I realised, that if yields were reduced on a regular basis then they could make fabulous wines. I wanted to be in on that renaissance. It has been an amazing ride to be there and I think there is more to come.

Does it frustrate you that Italian wines still don’t get the same attention from the trade and press as the major French regions?

Maybe slightly. But you have to remember that the Italians have been making great wine for a lot less time than the Bordelais.You may find a few wines from the ‘50s and ‘60s from producers like Conterno or Biondi Santi, but those are the exceptions. Modern wine making – and the idea of “great wines” – is a much more recent phenomenon in Italy. Bordeaux has been doing it for hundreds of years.

I think in time Italy will continue its path to great wines. And I’m convinced that Italy will be the next big thing in Asia.

You’ve talked about your love for Pomerol and Tuscany. How do you keep your objectivity when tasting?

By definition, wine criticism tends to be fairly subjective. You’re giving a personal opinion about wine. It’s not like being a news journalist, which is where I started many years back. Having said that, I wouldn’t say that I give higher scores to Pomerols over Pauillacs. I really try and look at each individual wine on its own merits. You just have to try and be as professional as possible.

You were at the Wine Spectator for almost 30 years; how did you get started there?

I started back in 1981 when I was 22. My father was a big wine collector and I was working as a daily journalist for the Wisconsin State Journal. There were no jobs on a daily newspaper at the time so I answered an advert to become a staff writer on the Wine Spectator, which at the time had just 800 subscribers. I started out in a garage in San Diego with the team there.

Why did you leave?

I had just worked so long there. And I had some other things that I wanted to try, like making documentary movies. I also wanted to spend more time in Asia and have the freedom to pursue different things and try being an entrepreneur. I was 51 years old and I figured that it was either now or never. But I spent most of my adult life there and I am still friends with many of the people on the magazine.

How have you found the experience of going solo?

It’s a lot more work – I can say that much! But it has been very exciting and I’ve learnt an awful lot. As anyone who is an entrepreneur knows, you have to constantly adjust to the situation. I suppose the best thing has been being able to spend so much time in Asia. I’m there for around half the year now, as my girlfriend lives in Hong Kong. There’s this huge potential in Asia and that’s where I am going to be focusing my efforts over the next 10 years.

What are your thoughts on the current state of wine criticism and journalism?

Wine writing and criticism has been in a bit of flux. There are so many blogs out there now and there is so much information available on the internet. But I think that in the end, people are realising the value of reliable information and proper critical writing. To be a good wine critic, I think you need experience, knowledge and a deep education in the subject. Obviously, someone working in their twenties writing a blog can’t have the same experience as someone like me or Jancis [Robinson] or Tim [Atkin] or Robert Parker. I think criticism is here to stay, but it is becoming far more specialised. There are so many excellent wines in the world now that is it impossible to keep on top of all of them. People talk about score inflation – how could you give 10 100 points in 2009? There are so many excellent wines out there. I’m sure that if you looked at it statistically, scores would have risen since the ‘80s. But it’s not because I am being more generous; it’s that the quality has improved so much.

You and Robert Parker are arguably the most influential US critics when it comes to Bordeaux. What is your relationship like? Are you friends or rivals?

I have always been competitive – when I was growing up I played tennis semi-professionally – but I am super friendly with Bob. I am just sorry that there is not more communication between the different US-based wine writers. I am probably better connected with UK wine writers. I’ve always been good friends with Tim [Atkin MW] and Jancis [Robinson MW].

What’s the major difference between US and UK writers? 

I think it’s fair to say that the two voices that move the market most are US-based. I’ve often thought about why this might be. Maybe it’s because US writers are more focused? The UK wine writers tended to be more generalised and not just focused on fine wine. A lot of them write for daily newspapers and they have to write about inexpensive wines sold in supermarkets, while we US-based writers can chose to be a little bit more upmarket and focus on Bordeaux, Burgundy, top Italian – whatever.

Although it’s fair to say that the UK wine writing scene is much more jovial than in the US. There are things like the Circle of Wine Writers that bring people together and in the ‘80s eight of us formed a group called the Octagon, with Tim, Jancis and Oz, etc. It was really fun and we all used to get together and taste. I miss those times. It’s a bit more lonesome for me these days!

What sets you apart from Parker? What do you do differently?

I think my palate is different from Bob’s. I can appreciate big powerful wines, but at the same time I look for balance and elegance. In Bordeaux this is maybe less apparent, although I do tend to go for more racy styles like VCC, Cheval Blanc or Haut Brion. But in California you can really see the difference. Robert likes some wines that I find difficult to enjoy.

So what do you drink at home?

I like to drink anything and everything that starts with a ‘B’ – Bordeaux, Burgundy, Brunello and Barolo.

And nothing from the US? 

Not much to be honest!

Your daughter has had a lot of success recently with her music career. You must be very proud.

She’s a real pro – just amazing. She’s already more famous than me. I’m sure that from now on I will be known simply as Isobel Suckling’s father.