Our team of wine experts—the largest team of full-time reviewers of any of the major wine criticism publications—is expanding. This year we welcome Erin Larkin, who will be taking over coverage of Australia.
We sat down for a glass of wine with Larkin to learn more about her background, her approach to writing wine reviews and her plans for her coverage of Australia.
Let’s start at the beginning—where did you grow up?
I grew up in Perth, Western Australia—all around really, but mainly on the coast in the northern suburbs. In my teens, my mum made the radical (at the time) move to move us into a suburb in the city (Northbridge), which had a huge influence on me. It’s a cool place now, but in 2000 it was still very grungy and edgy—I think in a lot of ways the exposure to this area taught me some of the resilience I’ve come to rely on as an adult. We spent (my mother, sister and I) the better part of a year in Huddersfield in Yorkshire when I was 14. My sister and I went to school there for a time, and it was during that year that I got my first taste of Europe—mum would take us there often on the weekends.
How did you get into the wine industry?
I did not intentionally “get into the wine industry,” but as anyone who has had a (late?) career change will attest, sometimes the very best decisions are the ones you do not plan. I started tasting voraciously—first with reps and winemakers who would come to the bottle shop I worked at, later I started tasting with a wine group run by a senior wine writer here in Perth, and within the year I was tasting hundreds of wines every week and absorbing information like I never knew I had the potential to do. Anyway, many things led on to a raft of others, and my foray into wine spiraled quickly; I soon had a weekly wine column, I was judging at wine shows (albeit as an associate at the time), I was on talkback radio on Saturdays during the cricket season, and I moved from the bottle shop to working at a fine wine retail store in the western suburbs. Things evolved so quickly, but I was tenacious and diligent and hardworking—traits I now recognize as being far more valuable than I viewed them at the time.
What has Australia got in store for us?
Australia is such a large and varied country, packed with diversity and nuance in all regions. The biggest challenge/goal/mandate I am setting for myself is to accurately relay the strength in each of the regions and bring to the fore the producers who may not have had the opportunity to garner international attention prior to now. I will always pay respect to the classics (I’m a purist and a classicist, but I do love evolution too) and to the better-known houses, of course, but if you think of the “winescape” like a large and complex puzzle, then you’ll know the pieces are all different shapes and sizes. It will be a huge benefit to readers globally and to producers (within Australia) to be able to have the stories told from a local perspective. Whether it is the great wines from my home state, perhaps from regions you are not yet fully acquainted with, or revisiting the best wines from around the country, I’m not only committed to sharing the tales, but bloody excited about doing so. I know Joe was disappointed to relinquish Australia—he is very fond of the wines (and the people)—but I am extremely grateful to be part of the team and covering Aussie wines for the Robert Parker Wine Advocate readers. To that point, I think Australians are very keen to benchmark their wines against the global benchmarks, and that attitude fosters a very open mind to quality and perspective. Over the years, I have been to countless tastings pitting the best of Australia against the world, often blind, just to see how the wines stack up. The truth is, they go really well! So, there is a quiet (or, not so quiet, in my case) confidence within Australia about the quality of the wines we produce.
What were you doing prior to joining Robert Parker Wine Advocate?
I was reviewing wine in Australia for the Halliday Wine Companion. The structure of reviewers is not dissimilar to that of Robert Parker Wine Advocate, in that each of the tasters specializes in distinct regions, which not only focuses on regions in detail and allows the tasters to delve into smaller estates and vineyards, but it also shows the diversity and strength of each reviewer’s voice. I enjoyed absolutely all of my time working with James and the team—it was an honor to call them colleagues, many of them now friends, and I was sad to leave—however, the offer from Joe to join the team here was not something anyone in their right mind would pass up! It gives me the huge (and somewhat intimidating) opportunity to cover Australia and give voice to the detail that is difficult to uncover from afar.
Writing about wine carries different responsibilities than being a wine critic. The weight your words and scores carry has real-world consequences. How do you feel about this responsibility as a critic?
I wouldn’t be here—at Robert Parker Wine Advocate, as a critic—if I had an issue with the concept of scoring. First and foremost, the act of ranking (which is what the scores do, at the end of the day) is natural—we all do it, every day, with every decision we make. It’s an algorithmic yes/no, up/down, left/right process. The complexity that comes with scoring is that the “yeses” might have 20 shades—there’s a gray area in between—and then we get into the “nos,” another cascade of options. Each of these requires a number to differentiate or group them from/with the others. The responsibility and consequence that comes with scoring is certainly more daunting; however, I work very hard not to get swept up in the potential impact of the score, and rather, I spend my efforts deciphering the wine and working to translate that for the reader. I do my homework, I ask questions of the producer, I ask to retaste if I am unsure or uncomfortable… I have learned from experiences over time that this is the best and most diligent code of conduct. I am, at the end of the day (we all are), a wine lover—I buy wine, I do my own research with other writers/critics, and I taste widely. I collect it.