Wine’s New Advocate Takes the Reins


After a long career writing about wine, Joe Czerwinski has been named editor of the Wine Advocate.

By W. Blake Gray | Posted Monday, 06-Dec-2021

Last week, Joe Czerwinski was named Editor in Chief of the Wine Advocate, and also announced he will be taking over reviewing Napa Valley wines, the marquee critical job at the publication, with Lisa Perrotti-Brown leaving both roles.

Here is one big change already: I don’t know what Perrotti-Brown is thinking because her relationships with the rest of the wine media were frosty, like Advocate founder Robert Parker’s before her. (In contrast, I interviewed Wine Spectator’s managing editor many times.) When I heard Czerwinski got the Advocate top job, I reached out for an interview, and two days later we spent 30 minutes chatting on Zoom. This was unimaginable in the previous history of the Wine Advocate. It’s a different era already.

Czerwinski spoke to me from his suburban New York state home, in front of floor-to-ceiling wine sample boxes (and that’s just the beginning, Joe!) This is an edited transcript.

Congratulations! I feel like a sports reporter, I want to ask, How great does it feel? What were you feeling in the moment you learned you had the job?

My first reaction was, do I want it? My second thought was, if I don’t do it, do I want to work for whoever does get it? I wouldn’t say I was ecstatic at first. It’s grown on me. For perspective, I was traveling in the Rhône working 16-hour days when I found out.

Tell me about that. What is your schedule like when you’re reviewing?

Every reviewer works differently. When I travel in France, I do a large tasting each morning, from 8 or 9am until lunchtime, for anywhere from 60 wines to up to 100. I have a quick break for lunch and do a few producer visits and get up the next morning and do it all over again.

That sounds exhausting. I know people don’t want to hear that, but that’s a tough schedule.

People don’t want to hear about that. They want to hear about the great wine you’re tasting and the fancy dinners. That’s what people want to see, and that’s what we try to give them when we’re posting in social media.

I interviewed F. Paul Pacult a couple months ago, he’s maybe the world’s leading spirits critic, and it made me sad to learn he doesn’t drink spirits anymore; he tastes them in the morning but wants to give his liver a break in the evening. Are you still able to drink and enjoy wine?

Certainly. I’m a flavor nut. I’m a flavor fanatic. Every once in a while people ask their hypothetical question, would you drink more or less wine if it had no alcohol in it. For me, I would drink way more. I love the flavors. I love the experiences. Once in a while I give in and overindulge, like everybody else. But it’s something you have to keep an eye on in this profession.

Do you have favorites?

I’m attracted to the diversity and the range of styles in wine. That’s part of the joy of it. But I do have favorites. I reviewed German wine for a while when I worked at Wine Enthusiast. German wines were one of the few wines I was exposed to as a kid. My folks usually had Zeller Schwarze Katz in the refrigerator, or Blue Nun, or Liebfraumilch.

Do you still drink Liebfraumilch?


Let’s talk about wine styles. When Robert Parker started the Advocate, he was wide open to many styles of wine. It’s striking to read the difference between the early years and the later years, when he seemed to double down on the idea that only one style of wine was worth rewarding. How do you feel about wine style? Are there styles you think aren’t worthy of high ratings?

The moment Bob opened the door to having other reviewers than himself involved, this idea that we represent a singular perspective went out the window. We’ve got at the moment eight different reviewers and we all have different perspectives on what we’re looking for in wine. Taste is subjective. We advocate for different styles of wine.

Is there any style you’d like to advocate more than has been in the past?

The mission for Wine Advocate has always been to guide readers to the highest quality wines. Wine quality is somewhat objective and somewhat subjective. For me, the four legs to that chair are balance, length, intensity and complexity. I don’t think you’ll ever find me advocating for a wine that doesn’t have those attributes. Those attributes of wine quality are independent of flavors, like blackberries and blueberries or whatever.

You work for Wine Advocate so you probably don’t know this, but because I don’t, people talk to me about Wine Advocate, and I can tell you that your biggest fans are people who own wineries in Napa Valley. I know they will read this story very anxious for clues about what you will be like as a reviewer of Napa Valley wines. What will you be looking for there?

I’ve got a certain amount of history. If someone wants to dig hard enough they can find the first feature-length tasting story I ever wrote, and it was on Napa Valley Cabernet. It was a long time ago for a different publication. I’ve been around long enough to see some things in Napa change and some things stay the same. For me, it’s an interesting time in Napa. There’s a lot happening. There are so many wineries, thousands of wines coming out every year. From a consumer perspective, people are probably looking for guidance more than ever.

Will you consider value for money in your ratings?

It doesn’t play into the rating. It’s not a factor. When I travel in France, those tastings I spoke about in the morning, those are blind tastings. I have no idea what the wines cost. It’s the wine critic’s job to highlight the best wines, but also the wine critic’s job is to call out the wines that are overpriced and underperforming.

But most publications don’t do that. Parker did in the beginning, and it was one of the greatest things he did for the wine world in the 1980s, to say these famous-name châteaux aren’t keeping up standards. Now I never see anyone doing that.

I don’t think critics set out with the intention of slagging people. It’s a tough line to walk because critics are somewhat dependent on the wineries for samples. And at the same time, we’re dependent on consumers for our livelihood and credibility. That doesn’t mean we go out of our way to find bad wines to write about. There’s enough really good wines for us to write about. If you’re a subscriber to the Advocate, you can go back two years and read an article I wrote about Provence rosé, the 2018 rosés. The wines that year were not very good. I wrote about it. I heard about it from the CIVP who organized the tasting. But guess what? They organized the tasting the next year too. A good critic doesn’t go out of their way to bash someone about, just to prove a point. A good critic calls it as they see it. A good critic tries to do some self-selecting ahead of time. There’s just too many wines out there to taste. There’s no logical reason for me to taste 10,000 wines from Napa Valley, other than to say, I can taste a lot of wine. I’m looking to steer people to wines that I think are going to be good. I have limited time and resources. I don’t have the time to do everything out there. I’m going to do a self-selection ahead of time. I think that’s one of the reasons you don’t see too many wines getting beat up by critics. On the import side, the selection is often done by importers. On the domestic market, a lot of it is going to come down to reputation and what other people have said.

Czerwinksi says price is not a consideration at the Wine Advocate.

© Stuff
| Czerwinksi says price is not a consideration at the Wine Advocate.

I know that’s going to lead wineries to ask, how can I get Joe to review my wine?

They get in touch with me and give me the elevator pitch, and if it sounds interesting, I’ll try it. My predecessors have arranged tastings through Napa Valley Vintners in the past, and I will probably keep that tradition.

A lot of people hate the 100-point scale, and when Michelin bought the Wine Advocate, there was some thought the Advocate might go to a three-star scale or a four-star scale. Do you see that sort of change happening?

I don’t see it changing at all. We haven’t received any comments from Michelin about changing the system we use. It’s much easier and more intuitive for the vast majority of our readers. It’s what they’re used to at this point. When you’ve got wine publications and wine shows in other parts of the world, changing to go to a 100-point scale, do you think we need to do something different?

Let me ask you about grade inflation. I noticed that you have not given as many 100-point scores as Lisa Perrotti-Brown. What does a wine need to be for you to give it 100 points?

When I give 100 points I need to feel something about it. It’s the easiest way to put it. I go back to something Bob once said about, what’s the difference between a 98 and 100? Speaking just for myself, using the scale, it’s easy-intuitive for me to say what kind of ballpark it goes into right away. A 90-91, or a 94-95, or a 98-100. The difference between a wine that scores 98 and 100 is often something as ephemeral as the feeling it evokes when you taste it. This is part of the reason why the 100-point scale comes in for abuse. People think it’s some kind of absolute judgment of the wine’s quality. It’s not. It’s a reaction of the reviewer’s judgment at the moment of the tastings. You might taste the same wine from a different bottle the next day and not have the same reaction.

That doesn’t bother you?

I’m willing to tolerate a certain amount of variability in my own tasting. I understand that tasting a wine once is different from tasting a wine 10 times, or tasting a wine 20 times. If I were to taste a wine 20 times, if I were to have my score distribution where I were within a point or two, nine out of 10 times, I’m comfortable with that. There are so many variables that go into tasting that I think it’s okay to have a certain amount of variability. If there’s five points of variability or 10 points of variability, you have a taster who’s not comfortable with what they’re doing. But if you’ve got identically stored bottles, with identical closures, they should have similar scores.

Wine Spectator always makes a big deal about their scores being replicable, but what you’re saying is also my experience in tasting. I judge at a big competition in Europe and they test us every day – give us the same wine blind two different times – so I know exactly how replicable my scores are. Have you considered doing something like that with the Advocate critics?

My experience at my previous publication is that reviewers are quite resistant at being tested in that way.

If you’re having dinner, and you get to choose, what’s your dinner and what’s your wine for it?

Lately for me, the easy thing has been to grill a steak and pull out a big red. That’s quick, easy, and yet still feels like a real dinner to me. I was raised where we had meat, potatoes, veg. It was basic American eating.

Let me ask you a business question. When the previous owners bought the Advocate from Parker, the statement at the time that the Advocate was going to increase its business in China. Now I see on your promotion the same statement, that the Advocate hopes to increase its business in China. Why hasn’t it taken off so far?

China’s pretty inscrutable to me. I do know that that’s part of the growth plan, going forward. Obviously there are a lot of consumers in China. A lot of them are new to wine. A lot of them can use guidance. But entering the Chinese market is a difficult thing. Information might be a more difficult thing to sell in a closed economy than goods.

The announcement of your promotion also came with the announcement that the Advocate wants to hire a new reviewer. I know a lot of people will be interested in that. What are you looking for in a new critic?

What are we not looking for? We want them to be young but experienced. It’s a whole series of contradictions. We want them to be seasoned but fresh. We want them to be specialized but a generalist. Because we have an existing team we need to find someone who fits among the reviewers we already have.

What will the new critic review?

It depends who we hire. If we hire an Australian specialist, I’ll give up Australia. If we hire a Rhône specialist, I’ll give up the Rhône. If we hire a Champagne specialist, William will have to give up Champagne.

I’m glad to have this interview. Robert Parker’s outlook to people outside his circle was pugnacious. He took a lot of abuse from people so I understand it, but still, he’s an attorney and he set a pugnacious tone, and Lisa Perrotti-Brown followed up with that same pugnacious face to the world. But you are different, you are known in the industry, and you seem to be a kinder, gentler face of the Wine Advocate. Is this a new kinder, gentler era?

I hadn’t thought about it in those terms at all. I realize being a face is part of the job. My focus is on assembling the best team of critics, and adding someone who fits in. Bob took a lot of arrows for a lot of years. At a certain point, that wears on people. I’ve been pretty lucky so far. I expect the arrows to come in any second. It comes with the job. I don’t know if you go on Wine Berserkers.

Yes, I get some arrows there.

There’s a thread on there that makes fun of wine reviews, the language that is used to describe wine. It’s 20 pages long. Sometimes I wonder if I’m doing anything right because I’ve never been on there.

Well, you will be now.

When I first started in professional wine writing and editing, because I came up as an editor, I’d say within a month of being hired for that gig, I got called up to a meeting with the owner of that company and got reamed out for saying I wouldn’t do something that he wanted me to write. I left that meeting thinking, well, this was good while it lasted. I ended up being there for 18 years. You just have to be secure in the knowledge that your self-worth isn’t wholly tied up in your job.