By wine critic standards, James is young. Young enough to know that millennials are changing the way the world treats wine, and young enough to know to listen to them. His small staff is all under age 30, and he relies on them heavily to influence the look and feel of his brand. These days, the James Suckling brand means not just writing wine reviews, but producing wine-related documentaries, putting on international wine events, and collaborating with luxury designers to create new products for the wine industry. And he’s moving the dial towards the younger crowd and towards Asia. He’s got his sights set on expanding the US market worldwide.
James lives in Napa Valley, Hong Kong, and Tuscany. He’s American, and Napa Valley is the premier wine location in the US, so it makes sense that he has a base here. He lived in Tuscany for so long that it is now like a second home to him, so that also makes sense. But Asia? He finds it to be the most dynamic place right now for wine, and so it’s the place where he spends the most time. He’s now holding his signature events like “Great Wines of the World” in Hong Kong and Beijing. He’s working on [an undisclosed] deal with the Ministry of Agriculture in China. And he’s possibly their best wine ambassador when he says things to journalists like, “The future is in Asia.”
I suppose it’s not surprising when you realize the conglomerate luxury brand owner LVMH is now making wine on the border of Tibet. In fact, their wine, a Cabernet, Cabernet-Franc, and Merlot blend – is the first Chinese wine that James liked.
And Suckling is no stranger to the luxury world. He not only lives on the Ferragamo Estate in Tuscany but collaborated with the family to create a leather wine briefcase to hold wine bottles and wine glasses. Then he partnered with Lalique to make the “The 100 Points Collection” of crystal wine glasses. The handmade briefcase and Lalique glasses combo can run up to $8,500.
But these are sidelines and not his mainstay. He’s focused on sharing his wine knowledge. “I didn’t spend 25 years in the business not to share it,” he says. He began his post-Wine Spectator career with a website designed to provide wine education and to review wines.
He quickly found that because so much information on the internet is free, people are reluctant to pay for content, and he struggled with the rampant copyright infringement he battled. Mike D. Diamond (Beastie Boys) once told him that it was because of copyright infringement that his iconic band went on tour instead of selling music, and so Suckling did the same and launched his wine events. “My goal is to do the best wine events and to attract younger consumers who are interested in having fun and tasting interesting wines.”
His events are not your typical stuffy wine tastings. He has a traveling DJ, Australia’s Surahn Sidhu, who was with Empire of the Sun for several years. His music lends a fresh vibe to the events and crowds have been known to start impromptu dance parties, which is not exactly your average wine-tasting.
His event business seems to take up the greatest proportion of his time. This year alone there will be “The Great Wines of Italy” event in four US cities, and the “Bordeaux Confidential” in Hong Kong, where barrels will ship overnight from Paris to Hong Kong for barrel tastings.
Other than global wine events, he’s keen on Napa. “I’d like to taste more [Napa] wines and pinpoint some more of the [best] new producers. And, I’d like to do an event called ‘Great Wines of Napa Valley’” either this year or next – in either NYC or Hong Kong.”
Suckling believes there is an exciting movement happening with American wines. He’s working on a documentary titled “American Wine Revolution,” which looks at “how wine began in America, all the way back to the pilgrims.” It will be his third documentary.
American winemakers tend to cater to the American market, which can be different than the global market. “American palates tend to like super fruity, big, muscular wines,” he says, “Which are less popular outside the US.”
“I left the US in 1985, then I started tasting American wines again in 2005-2006, and it was crazy how the style had changed. [In 1985] people were picking at such high potential ripeness, and the wines were so alcoholic, but now people are more concerned with drinkability.”
The trend to the non-jammy, lower alcohol wines is promising for Suckling. He notes that “internationally those wines aren’t as coveted as they are in the US, they’re just too heavy.” But he says that many of the top American winemakers are now making wine in the European-style.
In fact, he’s so pro-American these days that he named the 2013 Opus One the global wine of the year in 2016. “I gave it a perfect score. 2013 was a great vintage, the wine is great, and you can buy it around the world. That was exciting as an American to have an American wine as Wine of the Year for www.jamessuckling.com.”
Asked about other California wine regions, he mentions Northern Sonoma County as a highlight. “I tend to like stuff made on the coast, like the Fort Ross area,” but he wants to expand and explore other California wines.
Layne Randolph, Inside Napa Valley, Summer 2017