Are Wine Critics More Qualified Than Wine Bloggers?

Vinted on January 20, 2015 binned in commentary, wine news

A friend of mine – Elaine Brown of Hawk Wakawaka Wine Reviews – recently sent me a note indicating that another friend of mine (David White of Terroirist) and I were mentioned in an online article over at FirstWeFeast.com that was written by yet another friend of mine, Jonathan Cristaldi.

Yeah, the wine world is kind of small like that.

Anyway, the article is titled “10 Dirty Secrets of Wine (That Nobody Wants to Talk About)” and it makes for a fascinating, funny, and at times kooky read about some revealing but less-than-glamorous aspects of the wine trade in general (my personal favorite from the list, which is funny although it sells many bartenders seriously short: “Bartenders and mixologists don’t give a shit about wine”).

The item in which we’re mentioned is “Wine critics aren’t necessarily more qualified than bloggers,” which I am quoting below so you can get up to speed quickly:

If we drew a line in the sand and asked established Wine Critics (capital C) to stand on one side, and amateur wine bloggers (lowercase b) to stand on the other, we’d immediately expose an ongoing war of credentials—one which leaves its bloodied tracks on bitter comment threads around the Internet.

Wine bloggers are correct in assuming that many notable critics have bypassed formal beverage industry education in lieu of “life experiences.” They take great pleasure in declaring that major critics are class-act bullshit artists—the likes of Robert M. Parker Jr. (a lawyer and self-taught wine guru), James Suckling (an undergraduate tennis pro with a graduate degree in journalism), and Eric Asimov (the nephew of author Isaac Asimov, with an undergrad degree in “American Civilization”).

Still, the relationship between the two camps is complicated. When the Critic unleashes a bad score or expounds on the subject of natural wines, wine bloggers will heap waves of tyrannical expletives upon them—but only behind closed doors. Put those same bloggers in front of the venerable Critic, and you’ll see them whimper in admiration and jealousy.

The Critic is well aware of this duality, and several of these esteemed scribes take great pleasure in lashing out against people they consider to be amateur fluff writers. In truth, many amateur wine bloggers are anything but amateur, having earned legit credentials from industry-lauded institutions like the Wine, Spirits & Education Trust (WSET), the Society of Wine Educators, or The Guild of Sommeliers, and many of them contribute articles to the very publications that major Critics write for — folks like Joe Roberts of 1 Wine Dude; David White, who founded and edits a daily wine blog called Terroirist; Elaine Chukan Brown of Hawk Wakawaka Wine Reviews; and many others.

Does formal education trump life experience? Do professionals owe it to their readers to earn a formal degree? Who, then, is rightfully deserving of the title “Critic”?

There are a whooooole lotta worms in the can that JC opened up there…

Having been kindly cited by JC as an example of someone on the (little b) blogger side that’s earned “legit credentials,” I figured that I should weigh on some of the heavy question bombs that he threw out at the end of that section.

Does formal education trump life experience? Do professionals owe it to their readers to earn a formal degree? It will probably come as a very anticlimactic pseudo-shock that my general answer is “No; it doesn’t matter.”

There are two ways that one can learn about any topic in the detail required to impart meaningful gravitas to their critical words about that topic: 1) study it in various forms, or 2) practice it in various forms.

Preferably, you’d combine some version of the two, which is what I think helps to turn knowledge into expertise, and then expertise into wisdom.

But just as it does not necessarily follow that someone who studies a topic could master it in practice, it doesn’t follow that someone who doesn’t formally study it should immediately be labeled a bullshit artist. I don’t think I’d want to go up against Parker’s palate, as subjective as it arguably might be, because the guy’s spent the last umpteen years visiting wineries, and tasting wines. To suggest that he has not gained serious insight into the details of how wines are made worldwide is, to put it bluntly, delusional.

Just as delusional, in fact, as assuming that someone who studies and tastes wine in their own time, and obtains legitimate creds, can claim inherent superiority on the subject over someone who has not done the same things.

I think if you don’t formally study wine and the art of tasting it, and you have any hope of being an authoritative voice on the subject, then you’re starting with a potential handicap. But handicaps can be overcome, and the results often judged accurately in the courts of professional respect and public opinion.

Cheers!

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    Comments

  • Jean Yates


    What makes a wine expert? Taste and taste and taste and taste and taste and taste – not drink in a casual setting, but study by tasting the vintage after vintage, block after block within a vineyard, clone by clone, across wineries/vineyards/winemakers/varietals/clones of varietals/age of vines/age of wine. Verticals, blind tastings, every day tasting at least 4 wines. For years and years. Not at the winery or special events accompanied by chatter at the tasting room and random munchies. In a room with no extraneous perfume, noise, chatter. Gradually, a sense of the wines develops. It takes time. I respect people with a long history of scrutinizing wine for the purpose of learning. Too much wine writing today is based on very little tasting experience compared to the wine experts I respect the most – those who are in the industry, and a few very smart wine writers with many years of consistent, wide and deep study.

    For 26 years I owned a wine shop and for many years tasted daily – multiple bottles of wine from across the world (with an emphasis on Oregon) with reps, winemakers, and my staff. I respect and learn the most from the best reps, winemakers and people who sell wine. Yes there are inherent prejudices – they have to sell. But get to know them and they share their real views. Bloggers/wine writers just don't have the experience of tasting the number and range of wines over time that some industry people do. There are very big exceptions – but many bloggers have limited access to wine and only a few years of every day study/tasting of wine. It makes a huge difference.

    Jean Yates
    Oregon Wine Marketing (formerly owner of Avalon Wine)

    • 1WineDude


      Great points, Jean. Expertise is, after all, always the result of focused, hard work. Of course, that doesn't preclude online writers from gaining that experience in wine, but it certainly makes it more difficult for them to do so.

  • Blake Gray


    Annnnnd here we go with the merry-go-round of blogging about blogging, and commenting about blogging about blogging, and responding to commenting about blogging about blogging. Happy New Year!

    • 1WineDude


      Blake, so are you commenting about commenting about commenting about blogging about blogging? I need a drink…

      • Isaac James Baker


        Have we just entered a black hole? Seriously though, I'm with you. Regardless of the label one assumes (critic or blogger – and I don't think these camps are nearly as relevant as they once were) what's key for me is maintaining a sense of humility and awe. The wine world is massive, ethereal and alive, and I'm not interested when a critic or blogger speaks as if they've got it all figured out and you, the reader, should be honored to hear their expert opinion. Of course, this critique doesn't apply here, but I guess what I'm getting at is that I'm less interested in credential pissing contests and more interested in people who tell good stories. Cheers!

        • 1WineDude


          Isaac – wow, I love your comment! “maintaining a sense of humility and awe” – that's so apt, especially when considering the depth and breadth of wine as a subject. Cheers!

      • Isaac James Baker


        Have we just entered a black hole? Seriously though, I'm with you. Regardless of the label one assumes (critic or blogger – and I don't think these camps are nearly as relevant as they once were) what's key for me is maintaining a sense of humility and awe. The wine world is massive, ethereal and alive, and I'm not interested when a critic or blogger speaks as if they've got it all figured out and you, the reader, should be honored to hear their expert opinion. Of course, this critique doesn't apply here, but I guess what I'm getting at is that I'm less interested in credential pissing contests and more interested in people who tell good stories. Cheers!

        • 1WineDude


          Wait… didn’t you just say that, Isaac? Is there an echo in here…? ;-)

          • isaacjamesbaker


            Oops sorry, double click? Feel free to delete.

            • 1WineDude


              Isaac – who knows, my comments stuff was going batty for a couple of days…

  • 1WineDude


    Note: I’m having comment sync issues, and this comment by Paul G. got lost in the shuffle of that. I am reprinting it here above my reply:

    “Hello young wine lovers! Your beloved “credentials” didn’t exist 25 or 30 years ago when the geezer critics got going. So back then life experience was the one and only way to learn about wine. And in my view, still the best way. That said, it’s fair to ask any geezer critic to try their palate and expertise at a legit credential. Which I’ve done, successfully. But the real credential is longevity and credibility. If you ain’t got the stuff you won’t last long.. -PaulG”

    Paul, well said. Reputations are not received along with diplomas, they are earned.

  • SAHMmelier


    “There are two ways that one can learn about any topic in the detail required to impart meaningful gravitas to their critical words about that topic: 1) study it in various forms, or 2) practice it in various forms.

    Preferably, you’d combine some version of the two, which is what I think helps to turn knowledge into expertise, and then expertise into wisdom.”

    Yes, yes, and yes. Every year I taught, I learned. I leaned more in the first year or in practicum with good teachers than I did in formal education. But the formal education provided, not just required credentials, but also an awareness of how the mind functions best to support the learning. One begets the other and hopefully spurs a sense of how little we know and how much more there is to learn.
    I have no formal credentials, but I learn with every bottle opened, article read, and through the wisdom of others. Formal education will support that, but never complete the process.
    I, too, loved Isaac’s comment. Cheers!

    • 1WineDude


      Thanks, SAHMmelier. One does indeed beget the other!

  • Vincenzo


    I think the internet has really turned a few areas of society on their heads. But I think that “criticism” (be it wine, film, literary etc) has felt it in a rather profound way. Years ago, a critic was separated from a blowhard (however slightly) by the fact that the critic had a platform from which they could criticize. A literary critic without a publication was just a person who loved (or hated) books. This platform brought with it the perception that the critic was an all-knowing expert in the field whose personal excellence made them most qualified.

    In reality, magazines and newspapers picked whomever could write the best copy.

    Now, we have the internet. Anyone with an internet connection can have a platform. And I think that’s great! People will always take criticism (be it by a “professional” critic or a blogger) with a grain of salt. The only people who really lose out are those who try to fight off bloggers as if they are merely a passing fad.

    • 1WineDude


      Vincenzo – “The only people who really lose out are those who try to fight off bloggers as if they are merely a passing fad.” Amen to that!

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