The James Suckling era ends (and what we ate and drank for my birthday)

poggione

Above: We treated ourselves to a bottle of 2004 Il Poggione Brunello di Montalcino and porterhouse steak last night in celebration of my birthday. When we planned this classic Tuscan meal, I had no idea that my birthday would also deliver the news that James Suckling had left the Wine Spectator.

Yesterday, as we were preparing for birthday and Bastille Day celebrations chez Parzen, the following news arrived via email from a colleague and friend:

    James Suckling, who joined Wine Spectator in 1981 and has served as European bureau chief since 1988, has retired from the company.

    Suckling’s tasting responsibilities have been reassigned. The wines will be reviewed in our standard blind-tastings in the company’s New York office.

    Senior editor and tasting director Bruce Sanderson will oversee coverage of Italy. Sanderson, who has been with the magazine for 18 years, currently reviews the wines of Burgundy, Champagne and Germany.

fiorentina

Above: To make a proper “bistecca alla fiorentina” at our house, we season the porterhouse generously with kosher salt, rubbing the salt into the meat, and then we char the T-bone, with the steak upright.

Neither Tracie P nor I could ignore the uncanny coincidence that we had decided to open a bottle of 2004 Brunello di Montalcino by Il Poggione, a traditional-style wine made by a family who has vehemently and vociferously opposed the modernization of its appellation. There’s no two ways about it: during James Suckling’s tenure at the Wine Spectator, the scores he gave to modern-style Brunello — with Casanova di Neri as its poster child — helped to eclipse the sale of traditional-style wines, like those made by Il Poggione. (In all fairness, Suckling also gave good scores to Il Poggione but his historic preference for dark, concentrated, oaky Brunello with higher alcohol levels, indisputably skewed his evaluations toward modernism.)

fiorentina

Above: Then you cook the steak on either side, very quickly at high heat. By cooking the steak upright first, the meat “heats through” entirely.

Another layer of irony was cast upon the news and our Brunello by the fact that Mr. Franco Ziliani — at times Mr. Suckling’s detractor — had suspended publication on his wine blog Vino al Vino, the leading Italian-language wine blog, a few days earlier. (Mr. Ziliani’s relationship with Mr. Suckling is even referenced by the author of the Wiki entry on the Italian wine writer.) “A pause for reflection,” wrote Mr. Ziliani on Monday, a search for “clarity” in his life and for a sense of purpose for the blog, he explained. “To blog or not to blog,” he asked rhetorically.

fiorentina

Above: High heat is the key to searing and caramelizing the fat on the outside of the steak while leaving the meat in the center tender and nearly raw.

The two events are certainly unrelated but their confluence is rich with meaning. We often forget that that the current economic crisis has affected both the wine industry and the publishing industry. Hawking wine is no easy tasks these days (especially when it comes to high-end, luxury wine like Brunello) and hawking newspapers and magazine is even harder.

fiorentina

Above: Traditional style Brunello and steak, one of the great gastronomic pairings in the Western Canon. (Honestly, I wish I would have used a slightly shorter cooking time. I prefer my steak “black and blue,” charred on the outside, blood rare on the inside. But it was delicious nonetheless!)

While I’ve been a devoted fan of Mr. Ziliani’s blog since I first discovered his writing more than 5 years ago, I can’t say that I’ve been such an admirer of Mr. Suckling’s take on Italian wine. In fact, I think that Suckling historically ignored and omitted the great icons of Italian wine from the canon of the Spectator’s “top wines of the world” because he was looking for wines that appealed to his idiosyncratic sensibility without viewing them in a broader scope and without consideration for the wines that Italians consider to be indicative of their winemaking tradition. At the same rate, looking back on Suckling’s legacy (however skewed) as an arbiter of Italian wine, I feel compelled to acknowledge his contribution to the world’s awareness of the overarching greatness of Italian wines.

fiorentina

Above: Potatoes, spinach, grilled onions, and steak, all dressed simply with kosher salt and extra-virgin olive oil.

And so we raised a glass of 2004 Brunello di Montalcino by Il Poggione last night, to both Mr. Suckling and Mr. Ziliani, polar opposites in their approach to Italian wine, leading voices of antithetically positioned vinous philosophies. I hope and trust that both will continue to share their impressions and palates, using whatever media they see fit, with a world ever-thirsty for Italy’s unique wines.

16 Responses to The James Suckling era ends (and what we ate and drank for my birthday)

  1. Ron DiGennaro says:

    But don’t you think Parker is much more culpable for pushing the dark, oak-laden, highly alcoholic blockbusters even more so than Suckling? I mean, both men share the same sensibility and preference for and about big red wines but in my view Parker has been much more vociferous and militant about it. Fascinating the way you weaved the steak grilling lesson in and around the controversy and the uncorking of an Italian classic. Bravo.

  2. brooklynguy says:

    happy birthday pal! all the best to you in the coming year. this is a great post – you wove everything together perfectly. and that steak looks ridiculous, by the way.

  3. Eric the Red says:

    Terrific and generous post. Sad to hear that Franco is suspending blogging. Hungry for that steak.

  4. acevola says:

    Nun si po’ aviri la carni senz’ ossu

  5. dwight stanford says:

    Balancing the “all publicity is good publicity” with individual taste preferences is tough. I think the wine writers and a few good forward thinking producers like Gaja and Banfi changed the landscape of italian wine making a few decades ago. Perhaps their time is through and we need to think more about individual winery’s expression of the local terroir and use of “clean” winemaking techniques. The problem with some wine critics is their lack of appreciation for the traditional wines and their preference for over-oaked, late harvested fruit bombs. There must be a “via media” where a conscientious producer can make a great wine from great grapes, not buried beneath an abundance of oaky characteristics, but truly characteristic of the local tradition buoyed by modern wine making skills. It could be that today’s young wine critics have never experienced the amazing older wines made from a particular region in Italy and thus have no frame of reference other than their preference for a modern, oaked wine of whatever grape variety, which in the end tastes like it could have been made on any continent

  6. tom hyland says:

    As I said at vinowire, Suckling’s leaving the Spectator is great news. He clearly does not have an “Italian palate” and as you point out, he rewarded oaky, modern wines fro the international tastes, in other words, wines that really have little to do with the heritage and soul of Italian viticulture.

    Of course, as they say, “the devil you know…”. Let’s hope that Sanderson has a better feel for what real Italian wines are all about and honors these wines with the proper writeups. I think it’s clear that among real Italian wine lovers, Suckling’s influence was limited, to say the least.

    • Jerry says:

      Tom:

      Couldn’t disagree wth you more! Really, to say that among Italian wine lovers, Suckling’s influence was limited is so far from the truth it’s shocking. He jas probably done more for the promotion of all Italian wine than any other person on the planet. If he does not continue to write, his historical contribution to the enjoyment of Italian wine will be sorely missed. Shame on you for not recognizing this…

  7. adrian says:

    Great, great post Jeremy…first real analysis of this news. Certain vino gadflies were just parroting the news.

    Also, like the photo logo at the top…great juxtapositions.

    Wish Pizzeria Mozza had a Brunello, but today was 94 in L.A….that’s Rosato weather! Marisa Cuomo Aglianico/Piedirosso…yum.

    Tanti auguri once again…!

  8. nice post.. e poi buon compleanno…..
    i think wine spectator should grab you while they can! haa, its the only hope…
    i’m with you on the bloody rare fiorentina…
    always paranoid to overcook it….
    cheers!

  9. hande says:

    I so agree with everything you say!

  10. Do Bianchi says:

    thanks, everyone, for reading and for weighing in. As Charles Scicolone rightly points out, in the end, it’s the winemakers who chose to go for the scores… Although I could never agree with James’s take on Italian wine, I can’t help but recognize all the good he did by raising awareness for the “category” in general. I, for one, am looking forward to what he’ll do next and for the record, although I’ve never met the man, everyone whom I know who knows him says that he’s a super nice guy. One of these days I hope to catch up with him in Encinitas, CA, not far from where I grew up and where his family lives and where he hangs at 3rd Corner, an awesome wine bar. Thanks for reading!

  11. Dan P says:

    Happy bday! Nice coinky-dink. Let’s send free one-way air tickets to Phuket to all of James friends in central Italy and start sponsor a fundraiser to turn his house into a museum.

  12. daniel o'byrne says:

    nice post, here in Greve in Chianti la fiorentina usually gets salted only after it is taken off the coals, and out of reverence it is served without any side dishes, then as they sit down to eat they say “non si guarda in faccia a nessuno…” (also out of reverence I suppose)

    Suckling’s departure is quite a surprise, I agree he did very much for Italian wine in general if not Tuscan wine in particular, and I think he had a good palate (it should be remembered that he also covered Bordeaux) even if it was skewed 5 points upward for oaky and extracted wines, but I think he was mostly playing for what Wine Spectator wanted to create as the American palate or at least that of their 1 million subscribers…you will not get much return on recommending wines based on perfume, subtlety, austerity, etc., to the masses (although this could change and may be changing even if slowly)

    could you imagine Suckling writing in a tasting note “shows great terrior expression…”… the whole magazine would blow up like the world trade

    what to expect now? from the Wine Spectator, continuance of the past editorial stance regardless of the new critic? from Suckling a tuscan wine newsletter? independent wine critic? does it even matter?

    p.s. happy birthday, a good sangiovese rosato is perfect summer drinking can stand up even to a bistecca

  13. Susannah says:

    Well happy belated birthday. Quite a post. I share many of those feelings but agree that he has raised the image of some Italian wines. It will be nice to see a new era dawning. I do hope Franco changes his mind. Non puoi fare niente??

  14. Dan P says:

    J&T, There is a school of thought that says only oil your meat before cooking and salt at start of resting. I find this method creates another layer of flavor by curiously isolating the beefiness quotient. Hope to see you soon. DP

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