The Suckling: Pomposity and Corruption?

James Suckling was always my least favorite Wine Spectator columnist. He was Spectator’s “European bureau chief” from 1985-2010 (as though the Speculator had a whole “bureau” in Europe, and the Suckling was just presiding as its chief).

It’s not just that his giant head looks like a pumpkin with hair from the ’70s. Once I started tasting the Italian wines he wrote about, I found his scores to be substantially inflated. If I subtract four or five points from his scores, I can usually pretty accurately estimate my score for the same wine. And his Bordeaux opinions always seemed belated and obvious. For example, in a June 30, 2009, column entitled, “A Right Bank Year to Rediscover,” he wrote that 1998 Pomerols and St. Emilions were awfully good. Geez, was there really anyone in the fine wine world that didn’t already know by ’09 that 1998 was a great year for the Right Bank?

In July 2010, it was announced that the Suckling was “retiring” from the Speculator. In September that year, Suckling announced his involvement in something called “One Wine, One World.” These were two wine blends, a red and a white, that the Suckling assertedly himself “made,” with help from Mexican winemaker Hugo d’Acosta, from grapes from California, Mexico, Hungary, Slovenia, Roussillon and Italy. It was served at a dinner for the Pope and the Catholic bishops of England, Scotland and Wales, at St Mary’s College Oscott in Birmingham, to celebrate the end of the first ever state visit by a pope to the United Kingdom. According to an interview in Decanter, the Suckling claimed he made the wine on a “whim,” explaining, “I wanted to blend Californian and Mexican wine, ‘and then I thought, ‘Why not make it a political statement – why not make a global wine?’” Maybe because there’s no sense of terroir whatsoever in a blend that eclectic and bizarre? Maybe because it sounds undrinkable on its face?

The wine’s involvement in the papal visit to England happened by way of a huge contributor to the Catholic Church, the Maimonides Foundation, run by billionnaire and papal favorite Nasser D. Khalili, whom the Suckling approached. As the Suckling wrote on his new website, “It’s hard to believe that my charity wine One Wine One World only began as an idea during the summer of 2010 during a lunch in Ensenada, Mexico, and, it is now in a bottle, and people are drinking it all over the world.” Suckling also announced that he had been signed by IMG Artists, LLC. Here’s the Suckling on video talking about the project, for the “Pop-ill” visit, as he pronounces it:

In October 2010, the Suckling announced his video-based website JamesSuckling.com, which features the Suckling hanging out with basically any wine world figures who will appear in the same frame with him. If you don’t believe me, check out this “I’m here,” promo:
Or this one, filmed at Wally’s in Los Angeles, featuring fellow wine world douche that I’ve written about here, Bipin Desai’s sommelier Christian Navarro:

My “favorite,” i.e., the most cringeworthy video of the Suckling canon to date, which was promoted ad nauseum through the Suckling’s website and that of Gary Vaynerchuk, shows the Suckling and Gary V. opining on wines Gary offered up for the Suckling’s minimal critique from Gary V.’s wine store. The Suckling is so lazy in this “tasting,” that he makes Gary seems industrious and thoughtful by comparison.

In the video, the Suckling repeatedly uses his nauseating catch phrase, “I’m 90 points on that,” which strikes me as the most disgusting, egotistical and obnoxious possible catch phrase for a wine critic. Here’s a video solely devoted to the Suckling’s pompous catch phrase:

And apparently wines that rate less than 90 points for the Suckling aren’t even worthy of mention. As the Suckling’s website insists, “In general, jamessuckling.com will focus entirely on outstanding quality wines, regardless of their price or origins. I don’t see it necessary to publish notes with scores of less than 90 points.”

The Suckling has been tirelessly promoting these vacuous videologs anywhere he can. He even showed up as a guest on the For the Love of Port Forum a couple weeks ago (after all, he wrote a book for the Speculator on Port that was published in 1990), where he lazily and minimally responded to questions about Port from Port fanatics. The Suckling failed to even show up for three of the seven days the Suckling committed to on the FTLOP Forum.

I’m appreciative of others who have expressed their revulsion for this loathsome gasbag, such as the creator of the blog “James Suckling is a Douche.” I particularly commend wine writer and blogger Tom Maresca for his recent investigation into the Suckling’s upcoming Italian wine event.

Tom writes that in a May 2011 piece on Super Tuscan wines for Decanter, the Suckling promoted wines that are featured in, and sponsoring, the Suckling’s “Divino Tuscany” June 2011 wine event, for which the Suckling is charging $2600 a head. The Suckling is also reportedly charging participating wineries $16,000 a piece.

Here’s an excerpt from the Suckling’s invite to this Italian wine sleazefest: “For Divino Tuscany, I chose the best wineries in the area to pour their top wines from recent and past vintages. My partner in the event, arts and event management company IMG Artists, has organized the best in music, food and entertainment events around the globe.”

The Suckling’s “Founding Wineries” for this event are Altesino, Antinori, Barone Ricasoli, Brancaia, Caiarossa, Caparzo, Carpineta Fontalpino, Casanova di Neri, Castellare di Castellina, Castello di Bossi, Castello Banfi, Castelvecchio, Castiglion del Bosco, Ciacci Piccolomini, Duemani, Eredi Fuligni, Fattoria di Felsina, Fattoria Casaloste, Fattoria Le Pupille, Fattoria Viticcio, Fontodi, Gagliole, I Greppi, Il Borro, Il Palagio, Marchesi di Frescobaldi, La Massa, Mazzei, Petrolo, Podere Poggio Scalette, Podere Sapaio, Poggio Antico, Poliziano, Principe Corsini, Riccardo Baracchi, Ruffino, San Fillippo, Siro Pacenti, Tenimenti Luigi d’Alessandro, Tenuta dell’Ornellaia, Tenuta di Biserno, Tenuta di Nozzole, Tenuta San Guido, Tenuta Sette Ponti, Tenute Silvio Nardi, Tenuta Vitanza, Testamatta di Bibi Graetz, Tolaini, Tua Rita, Uccelliera and Valdicava.

Here’s the link to Tom’s thoughtful piece. As Tom explains, “Almost all the wines the Suckling mentions in [his Decanter] article, and the only two individuals he quotes, are sponsors/participants in Divino Tuscany” As Tom concludes, the Suckling’s Decanter article, “seems to me a glaring breach of journalistic ethics to write a purportedly unbiased article that hardly mentions a single wine that isn’t a part of your own clearly for-profit venture. That isn’t journalism: it’s advertising.”

Bottom line: The Suckling is the kind of blow hard, egomaniacal, ethics-less wine world jerk who could start to make Robert Parker look like a saint.

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17 Responses to The Suckling: Pomposity and Corruption?

  1. Leah says:

    Great writing and an enjoyable read. I have never followed Suckling and never will due to the fact that I think he’s a phony and I wonder what fools are paying $2600 for his phony Italian sleazefest… What a waste of money!

    I met Christian Navarro some years back when I was just getting into wine and remember saying to myself this guy is a totally clueless and egotistical. He doesn’t belong in the wine world and I have no idea how he got there.

  2. Darcy Kelley says:

    Any article that begins with an expressed dislike of the target, and mockery of his/her physical appearance, is once that can be discounted considerably.

    I find Suckling’s palate consistent and reflective of what I like in wine. For me, he’s more accurate (with scores, organoleptics), and reliable, in approaching Italian wines than, say, Galloni or Gambero Rosso. That’s just my opinion. But I don’t denigrate Galloni or Gambero Rosso – we just see wines differently.

    Unless you have proof Suckling has taken bribes or kickbacks, labeling Suckling as “corrupt” is baseless. You just sound like an angry, hateful person who has just never liked the guy, so what else would I expect you to say?

    Not reporting on wines under 90 points is understandable. A Canadian wine writer, Tony Aspler, starting doing that about 2 years ago. I would not be too keen to hire a tasting coordinator at $50K a year to type up tasting notes and maintain a tasting database. A magazine can absorb that cost a lot easier than one person.

    And as for the Decanter article, I did not find it too enriching; nevertheless, your gripe is with the managing editor who decides what gets printed, not the writer (Suckling). If you don’t want to go to the event – don’t go. I don’t think anyone cares either way.

    As for Suckling not responding on that Port forum, that’s a pretty small gripe to make. When the guy was writing for the Spec, (a) he was the most active Spec writer on the WS board, (b) was attentive to questions/comments left on his WS blog, and (c) to this day responds to most posts made on his Facebook page.

    Anyone can deep dive on very specific events or issues and then generalize in a broad, sweeping way; the generalizations are rarely accurate, or insightful. Such is this article and you, a biased focus group of one.

    • Richard Jennings says:

      Darcy,
      We’ve never heard from you before, and yet you were on top of this piece with a lengthy comment within a few hours of its going on line. What’s up with that? At any rate, if you really track with the self-aggrandizing bozo’s scores and limited comments on wine, more so than with more thoughtful reviewers like Galloni, Gambero Rosso, Tanzer, and the like, then I guess you’ve found your man. Hey, I know one guy in our tasting group who regularly chooses the corked wine first in blindtastings becaue he’s totally oblivious to cork taint, so there’s obviously something for everyone in the wine world. I don’t understand your comment about hiring a tasting coordinator, and I think it is not responsible for a major reviewer not to tell their readers what they rank below 90 points. At any rate, not clear why you’d be on a blog like this, which goes in depth on wines and winemakers if you’re a fan of the “I’m 90 points on that” school of superficial wine reviewing. I’m just sayin’.

  3. Bill Klapp says:

    Outstanding, Richard. But here is the problem with “the Suckling”: he has no pride, no sense of shame. It does not matter how he appears to others. He seems oblivious to what is being said about him. It does not seem to matter how many times that his pomposity balloon is popped in the media. The balloon must be made by whoever makes the self-patching tire! He is the poster boy for the old saw, “There is no such thing as bad publicity.” And sadly, even though you had to write what you wrote (or die of apoplexy!), and I well know that feeling with regard to the idiot at hand, the Suckling would take one look at your blog and contentedly say to himself, “Cool! This Jennings guy reposted FIVE of my videos!” Yep, there’s no such thing as bad publicity…

  4. Paul Schmitt says:

    Wow LOL funny – great read (don’t hold back…tell us how you really feel). I thought you supported your points well. It’s cross my mind on more than one occasion when reading a Wine Spectator that some of it’s writers were “under the influence”.

  5. SS Chris says:

    Richard,

    Just an FYI that there’s a new Acronym for calling someone a Douche that is on it’s way to universal acceptance (see “KaD” in the Urban Dictionary). It all began on another wine Forum with a post by Brooklyn Paul, who claimed “Kahuna’s a Douche”. A subsequent poster quickly (& brilliantly) acronymed it to “KaD”. So, for James Suckling, all that is needed is a simple “JSaD”….or another example, one I believe close to your heart, would be CNaD (for the aforementioned Bipin Somm).

    Disclaimer: Brooklyn Paul, the Acronymer and Kahuna are good friends and the “douche calling” was in jest….although KaD can be used with serious intent.

  6. CHRIS BROWN says:

    LOVE IT, LOVE IT, LOVE IT. You call it like you see it. Very refreshing.

    I agree too and most people do too which is probably why in my opinon he was move on to better things at the Wine Speculator.

    Bravo Richard!

  7. Kirk Grant says:

    RJ,

    I really appreciate the depth of coverage that this write up provides…and while I have similar thoughts about J.S. and find his lack of character and ethics to be a big problem…there is something about how you presented the information that I think is leading you to you discrediting yourself as well. Resorting to an attack on the physical appearance of an individual takes away from the credible and valid remarks that I think are the more important observations. We live in a country that seems to thrive on negativity…so I have to wonder will more negativity attract more people? For me, it’s very off-putting. I want to enjoy my downtime, not fill it with one person tearing down another simply because there’s no filter on the internet. Future articles that are written from a more positive (or more professional) manner would likely gain my attention in due time…but this article comes across as if it was written by the school house bully who has traded punches below the belt for a Macbook and Italian loafers.

    • Richard Jennings says:

      Kirk,
      Thank you for the comment. The “school house bully” comment really takes me back. As a kid who was small for my years to begin with, and who skipped a year, I was always fodder for the bullies, and never in any position to be a bully myself. It strikes me as odd that I might be considered a bully just for using my words on the Suckling, but I get your point. A few people have objected to my reference to his huge head (“like a pumpkin, with ’70s hair”), and I hear you. The Suckling does seem to think he deserves to be a video star, and I think his appearance, on video, is worthy of comment, but it seems to be a bridge too far for some people. I will consider that for the future. It’s not my usual way of critiquing things, even those that I disagree with. I think watching several of his videologs, which are minimal in terms of information, but are all about him, and his pomposity as a rater, got the better of me. I know of no major critic who provides less in the way of information and understanding than the Suckling. He’s not even sure of the grapes that go into the wine he claims to have “made” for the Pope’s event. I’ve said all I have to say about the Suckling, though, and he’s not worthy of continuing comment here. And I have never before mentioned physical appearance about someone I object to here, and don’t plan to do so in the future.
      –Richard

  8. Sure, sometimes Sucking can be obnoxious, but if think of him (and other wine critics) as a pundit and not a journalist his antics are no different than political pundits like Glenn Beck or Keith Olbermann.

  9. Kirk Grant says:

    Richard,

    Well said. We all have our own “buttons” and as I said before…I think the Suckling pushes all of mine as far as the wine industry goes. I’ve been very fortunate to taste with a group for about 4 years now that is mostly comprised of individuals who have been in the wine industry for 10-20 years. We get a good laugh together in private…and we certainly join in with the heckling and enjoy the raw humor that comes with someone who apparently has difficulty staying grounded. Your candor and open acceptance of constructive criticism speak highly of your initial intent to inform and critique.
    @ Colorado Wine Press – I never stopped to look at it in this manner…but that’s a great way to put a spin on who he is, what he does, and how valuable (or invaluable) his information is.

  10. Eric Lecours says:

    ciao richard, i never knew you were so candid. it’s refreshing. too many bloggers are afraid to offend anyone (hi g). when it comes to published wine critics, consumers seem to confuse confidence with competence. they exploit this, knowing that they have much more to gain than lose with incessant, overly confident proclamations like “i’m here” or “i’m 90 on that…”

  11. Piqueur de l'Abruti says:

    As someone who has seen quite a bit of Suckling at close quarters (socially rather than professionally) I can only say that ‘loathsome gasbag’ is at the politer end of the scale of epithets I would apply to him.

    I don’t think I’ve ever met someone quite so puffed up with his own self-importance or so full of undisguised contempt for anyone or anything that doesn’t offer the potential to further inflate his grotesquely enlarged self-esteem. In fact, it is rare to hear him say anything that is not obviously aimed at self-aggrandizement. Mostly this takes the form of name-dropping of rich/famous people of his acquaintance (all but the dimmest of whom would, I suspect, see him as an odious sycophant). Conversely, he never fails to miss an opportunity to express his scorn for those he delights in describing as ‘bottom feeders’ (in other words, people who are not rich, famous or well enough connected to be of use in the Suckling scheme of things).

    A pompous egomaniac? Surely – but that hardly begins to cover it.

    • Richard Jennings says:

      Piqueur,
      Thank you for that additional insight into the Suckling. What you say is fully consistent with what I’ve read and seen on video from the Suckling over the past year and a half, since he left the Spectator. It will be interesting to see just how much longer he’ll sustain himself on an inflated ego and large quantities of hot, gaseous air.
      –Richard

  12. David Welch says:

    I had a little bit of respect for Suckling at WS because he was a consistent palate that I could calibrate from. But when he came out with “I’m at” video I knew the next thing was a string of 100 pt scores, which have been flying out his arse with great regularity over the last few months. I have not seen a more pathetic attempt at trying to remain relevant. This pay to play news is not surprising. I think that JSaD is trying to pad his pockets to make up for what he thinks he is “owed” by the wine world, which would fit perfectly in the pompous gasbag stereotype he is putting on display. Great article full of relevant digs, I always thought his head looked like plastic thought, so I have to call you on that one. It looks more like an orange beach ball with fake hair to me.

  13. David Draper says:

    I have posted on the James Suckling is a douche site long before this, shortly after his popping up at the same bar in Havanna where Anthony Bourdain was filming his first episode of the season. Coincidence? I think not. Bravo for Tony not to give him any “No Reservations” air time. I’m sure Tony was cordial to the man, but thinking, “what a douche!”

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