Robin’s (professional) life story

On the off chance that you really need to know more—for instance, if you’re digging up dirt, I’ll point you in all the right directions. And whether you’re a friend or foe, I’ll write in third person for your editing pleasure.

Robin was born in New York City and grew up in Northampton, Massachusetts. His travel writing career began at 18, after his freshman year in college, when he got a summer assignment covering Northwest Mexico and Baja California for the Let’s Go series of budget travel guides, which were researched, written, and edited by undergraduate students. His other assignments for Let’s Go included Ecuador, the Galápagos Islands, Barcelona, Catalunya, and Spain’s Balearic Islands.

After receiving his undergrad degree in neuroscience and philosophy, Robin moved to Italy and took a teaching job at the American International School of Genoa. On weekends, he started writing for Fodor’s, the travel guide series, reviewing restaurants and hotels in Liguria, Piemonte, and Emilia-Romagna. He continued for Fodor’s part-time after he came back to America for law school.

Over the course of 10 years, Robin reviewed restaurants, hotels, wines, and tourist attractions in countries across Europe, Latin America, and Asia, with a focus on culinary tourism and food destinations in Italy, Mexico, Argentina, Chile, El Salvador, Hong Kong, and Thailand. He also wrote travel guides and restaurant reviews for Condé Nast, the Guardian, and Metro New York, and became the regular food critic for the New Haven Advocate and PLAY Magazine.

Around this time, in the interest of having a more professional/technical perspective as a food and wine writer, he got a cooking certificate from the French Culinary Institute in New York (the 6-month “La Technique” program), and a WSET level 3 sommelier certificate from the International Wine Center in New York.

He founded the Fearless Critic series in New Haven, Connecticut, when he was a third-year law student. His first restaurant guide was called The Menu: New Haven. Robin never worked full-time in law, although he had summer associate jobs in the U.S. Capital Markets group of the London law firm Allen & Overy and the now-defunct New York firm Dewey Ballantine.

After a brief and harrowing five-month stint as an associate at the management consulting firm McKinsey & Company, Robin raised money for Fearless Critic, packed up his car, and moved the company to Austin, Texas to launch the restaurant guide series there.

In Austin he rented a small office at 1704-1/2 South Congress Street (which cost about $300 per month at the time) and hired a small panel of local food writers and a bare-bones staff. They spent two years reviewing 390 restaurants in Austin and editing and publishing the book, which eventually sold about 40,000 copies.

Two years later, after the series had grown to six books, the company was acquired by Workman Publishing in New York, and Fearless Critic became a Workman subsidiary. Robin continued on for several more years as editor-in-chief of the imprint, during which he grew the series to 25 books in eight U.S. metro areas, making it the second-largest U.S. series of restaurant guidebooks after Zagat.

Workman also published Robin’s first solo-authored book, The Wine Trials, a guide to cheap supermarket wines that beat expensive wines in blind brown-paper-bag tastings with ordinary wine consumers. When Robin and his team tabulated his results from the tastings, they found that people actually preferred cheaper wines to more expensive wines.

This was a controversial result. A brief Newsweek pre-review was followed by a sight-unseen hatchet job on the book from the New York Times wine critic, which in turn set off op-eds and a media firestorm in the wine world.

Wine snobs freaked out and wrote op-eds trashing Robin, but anti-snobs stood up for him and wrote their own, inspiring a highly questionable next step: Robin’s undercover exposé of Wine Spectator magazine’s restaurant awards program. He made up a fake restaurant in Milan selling Wine Spectator’s worst wines, submitted the application with the requisite $250 fee, and a few months later, revealed that his restaurant, Osteria L’Intrepido, had won an Award of Excellence.

These experiments and controversies got Robin more interested in the topics of wine prices, wine awards, and wine snobs, which ultimately drew him into a new career in economics. After 10 years running Fearless Critic, he left the company and moved to Oakland, California, where he joined the UC Berkeley economics department as a Visiting Scholar under labor economist David Card. He went back to graduate school and received his Ph.D. in economics from the University of Bordeaux, France, under the supervision of Jean-Marie Cardebat and Julian Alston.

In the years since, in the UC Davis Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics and the California Agricultural Issues Laboratory, he has collaborated on a variety of research and books with economist Daniel Sumner, studying a variety of agricultural markets including cannabis, carrots, and plant-based meat.

His academic work has been published in government reports and peer-reviewed journals such as Chance, Frontiers in Decision Neuroscience, PLOS One, and the Journal of Wine Economics. He has also blogged for Freakonomics, and published op-eds in media outlets including USA Today and the LA Times.

A list including links to freely accessible versions of his papers and articles, including the ones mentioned above, can be found at his UC Davis faculty page.

In April 2022, Robin began writing a regular food column, “Best Bites,” for his hometown newspaper, the Daily Hampshire Gazette. In roughly 40 Gazette columns since then, he has reviewed many of the restaurants and previously published some of the text that now appears, in various revised and mashed-up forms, on Robin’s World.