Liv-ex interview with Jeb Dunnuck: from aerospace engineering to wine criticism

Jeb Dunnuck is an American wine critic, specialising in the wines from the Rhone Valley, Southern France, Bordeaux, Washington and California. He established the Rhone Report in 2008, joined The Wine Advocate in 2013 and left the publication in 2017 to start his own website JebDunnuck.com, which provides in-depth wine reviews and commentary. Having recently published his verdict on Bordeaux 2018, Dunnuck kindly set some time aside to share his thoughts with Liv-ex. In the interview below, he talks about the vintage, the future of wine criticism and his career.

How did you get interested in wine?

As part of a college program, I worked abroad in 1996, selling clothes in Whiteleys department store in London, and traveled through France while I was there. That was the start of my love of France, but I didn’t dive into wine until just after college, when I worked for Lockheed Martin in upstate New York. I had access to a multitude of good wine shops, and I still remember hiding $20-$30 a week from my wife so I could buy a different bottle every week. Some of the first wines I bought were 1990 and 1996 Bordeaux. When I moved to Colorado in 2000, I belonged to several great tasting groups and pretty much monopolized our family vacations to visit wine regions. I also took a part-time job at Applejacks Wine & Spirits in Denver, in the evenings and on weekends, just to learn a new side of the business.

It wasn’t until 2008 that I created the TheRhoneReport.com and started writing professionally about wine. I would work during the day at Ball Aerospace, then write for The Rhone Report from about 8pm to 2am. I did that for five years. The website was open to the public for the first three years before moving to a subscription-based model. The site continued to grow and gain traction, and then sometime late in 2012 or early in 2013, I received an email from Robert Parker asking me to work for him. It was at that point that I left Aerospace and went full-time into wine.

What motivated your decision to leave the Wine Advocate in 2017?

I loved my time at the Wine Advocate when Parker was heavily involved. However, the company changed dramatically over the four and a half years I was there. At the end of the day, I disagreed with the direction of the company, and it wasn’t a good fit anymore. Also, with the drastic shift in wine criticism towards larger teams of reviewers, I felt there was an opportunity for a single voice covering key regions to stand out.

What makes JebDunnuck.com different? What’s your USP?

The focus at JebDunnuck.com is the Rhône Valley, Bordeaux, all of California, and Washington State. For these key regions, I’ll take longer trips (multiple times a year in some cases) and release large regional reports that normally cover 600 to 1,000+ wines. In addition to being published online, these reports are also available in a downloadable PDF, which allows subscribers to read through a report as opposed to just clicking through a list. I think this is a much better way to process the information.

In addition to these larger reports, I do smaller articles on other regions, retrospectives, and individual producer profiles. I also taste with the top importers in the US, which allows me to provide coverage on key wines from other regions of the world that are brought into the United States.

Last year, I reviewed over 9,000 wines, offering a single perspective at JebDunnuck.com. I focus on what I feel are the key regions that I know and love. This gives readers one person’s opinion over multiple regions, and they don’t have to try to account for 7-8 different critics’ tastes, writing styles and approaches. In wine criticism, or any criticism for that matter, you can’t separate the criticism from the person, and I have issues with crowd-sourced reviews as well as publications that try to hide who the reviewer is in favor of publication ratings. This isn’t done to help the consumer but to protect and promote the business and brand of the publication — end of story.

Lastly, I approach the job with an engineering viewpoint as opposed to that of a writer; I’m here to solve problems, primarily to help subscribers find wines they like. That’s it, that’s the goal. I’m not trying to entertain you with witty writing or catchy headlines (although, of course, I hope the reviews are interesting and informative).

What is the most enjoyable aspect of your job?

I love all aspects of the job. I get to visit regions I love, interact with winemakers, take part in large tastings, and I get to share all of that with my subscribers. It’s also a plus covering multiple regions, because there’s always something new and the job is incredibly dynamic. I do all the database work and I’m also heavily involved in managing the website which satisfies the engineering part of my brain.

You have recently tasted the 2018 vintage in Bordeaux. How would you describe the quality and style of the wines in general?

I love the vintage, and it’s certainly in the same league as past great vintages such as 2016, 2015, 2010, and 2009. The wines are ripe and opulent, with beautiful fruit and texture, yet they also have a sense of freshness and purity. And they have serious structure. From a strict consumer standpoint, there was way too much focus in the press on the early season rains and mildew, which was understandably a nightmare for the estates, but not a driving factor in the quality of wines.

Do you have a favorite Bordeaux vintage?

I don’t have favorite wines, and it all depends on my mood. I certainly gravitate toward the riper vintages though, and 2005, 2009, 2010, 2015, 2016, and 2018 are all brilliant vintages. If push comes to shove, I’ll take a 2009 any day of the week.

What’s your view on the En Primeur system and pricing?

No system is perfect, but the negociant and En Primeur structure in Bordeaux certainly moves a lot of wine. However, I think estates are trading security and market control for convenience when they deal exclusively with négociants. The negociant structure also separates the estates from the end consumer, which I don’t think is healthy. Bordeaux isn’t the only region that can be accused of that though.

Regarding En Primeur in general, the system needs to reward consumers for purchasing unfinished wines, and consumers don’t have to be burned too many times before they completely abandon En Primeur. En Primeur has become a spectacle for the trade, and I’m not convinced excitement in the trade equates to excitement with the end consumer, who at the end of the day is the one buying and drinking these wines. Unless the margins return to significantly benefiting the consumer and giving them a real incentive to buy unfinished wine, I think it’s a dying system that makes little sense in most vintages.

How do you feel about the changing face of wine criticism? Parker’s retirement, the growing number of critics and the increasing popularity of social media platforms like Vivino. What do you think the future of wine criticism looks like?

As to the changing face of wine criticism, it’s inevitable that it would change. Critics like Robert Parker, Stephen Tanzer, and James Laube laid the foundation for people like me today. Wine consumption and enthusiasm continue to grow by leaps and bounds, so it’s great to see new faces in wine criticism. The wine world needs more consumer advocates, not fewer.

However, while it’s easy to think there are many professional critics, the reality is that the field is tiny. For the US market, the number of relevant publications offering true professional coverage can almost be counted on one hand. And there’s a reason for that; providing timely, comprehensive coverage is hard work, not to mention expensive. Unquestionably though, the dominant critic model that existed with Parker has changed, and today you have Wine Spectator, The Wine Advocate, myself, James Suckling, Vinous, John Gilman, and Allen Meadows all offering important voices to consumers to help them with their wine purchases.

Regarding crowd-sourced reviews, that’s been around for some time now, and it hasn’t impacted true professional reviews. The consumers using Vivino for wine reviews aren’t likely to subscribe to professional wine publications and vice versa. I think there will always be a place for professional wine criticism.

Lastly, I want to stress that the idea that the wine reviewing market is saturated is simply not true. I heard the same thing when I started The Rhone Report, when Parker was in his heyday, and thankfully, I ignored it. There’s always room for passionate, talented people in any industry, and I certainly welcome the competition!

Is there score inflation in wine criticism or are wines now better made than they were?

Rating wines is like driving a car; the person in front of you is going too slow, and the person flying by you is crazy. I think people score how they score. Unquestionably, wines are better today, more regions are producing world-class wines, and you have more people rating wines.

Another factor is how we consume content today. Critics release reports covering 600 to 1,000 wines and the first thing most subscribers do is sort the list by score. You end up with multiple pages of high scoring wines, and people rarely get to the sea of still very good and outstanding wines in the report. All this feeds the perception of score inflation.

How do you feel about awarding 100 points?

Awarding a 100-point rating to a wine is no different than rating a wine 90 points. I have a scale, I use it, and I do my best to approach every wine with the same focus and criteria.

What region(s) are exciting you most at the moment and why?

The wine world is always changing, and you can find exciting things in numerous regions today. Bordeaux has had an influx of new owners, new directors, and people with incredible passion and talent, not to mention a string of great vintages. Napa, like Bordeaux, has a similar laser focus on quality, with almost unlimited funds to pursue it as well. The number of brilliant wines coming from Napa is truly shocking. The Rhône Valley hit home runs with 2015 and 2016, with 2015 being one of the best for the Northern Rhône and 2016 being in the same league for the Southern Rhône. You see a similar level of passion and focus on quality in both regions today. I think the Southern Rhône is making some of their finest wines ever, and while there were just a handful of collectible domains in the past, that number has soared today. Washington State, which is too often overlooked, has had an incredible surge in talent and is making world-class Bordeaux blends and Syrahs today as well.

The Rhone has been a perennial underperformer in the secondary market. Why do you think this is?

That’s a great question and I’m not sure I have a good answer. I suspect it could be due to the smaller number of perceived collectible wines. The Rhône has been defined by a small handful of top estates for too long. While the secondary market is still focusing on Rayas, Bonneau, Beaucastel, Guigal, Chave, M. Chapoutier, and a few others, the reality is that there are a wealth of brilliant estates today that more than merit inclusion. Secondary market performance notwithstanding, I can say with confidence the best Rhônes are a match for anything out there.

What’s the best wine you’ve ever drunk?

I certainly couldn’t narrow it down to a single wine.

What would you consider to be your greatest career achievement to date?

Being part of NASA’s Kepler mission (which was built by Ball Aerospace in Boulder, CO) from the very start, it was great to see that mission be so successful, rewriting science books and completely changing our understanding of our place in the universe, so that ranks pretty high.

From a wine standpoint, I’m proud that I was able to create a company like the Rhone Report from scratch, and have it take off the way it did. In the same mold, JebDunnuck.com has been more successful than I ever dreamed, so I’m proud to have created two separate, successful companies that help consumers find wines they like.

What are your plans for the future?

Keep doing what I’m doing. It’s important to realise that JebDunnuck.com is less than two years old, yet even in that short period, we’ve had incredible success. We’re continually updating and adding functionality to the website, adding to the database, and we have no plans to rest on our laurels.