Brave New World (or “Do We Really Need Wine Experts Anymore?”)

Vinted on June 28, 2010 binned in commentary

Just over one month ago, I was quoted in an (excellent and well-written) article by Spencer Bailey of the Columbia Journalism Review, titled “Everyone’s the Wine Expert: Wine critics and bloggers, professional and amateur, are mixed up in a social media web.”

At the time, the CJR article was (rightfully) the subject of interesting and thought-provoking analysis by some very intelligent stewards of the wine world, most notably Tom Wark and Steve Heimoff.

I found myself quoted slightly out of context in the article, and somehow placed on opposite but connected poles of viewpoints with wine writer and educator Karen MacNeil, as if we were some sort of quantum-entangled pair of electrons in a physics experiment.  I’ll mention right now that I am not equating myself with Karen MacNeil in terms of wine writing – not even close; I’m simply pointing out the juxtaposition of our attributed viewpoints in the CJR article.

The article quotes Karen in raising an important viewpoint about wine writing; a concern discussed in detail at the Professional Wine Writers Symposium earlier this year, and one that I’ve pondered on many occasions myself:

“Maybe what blogging will do is undermine the whole idea that this is a subject that is rich and deep and requires some substantive thought and substantive knowledge,” says Karen MacNeil, author of The Wine Bible and one in a small stable of writers that wine critic Robert Parker has recruited to contribute to his Web site, erobertparker.com. “If everybody’s an expert,” she says, “nobody’s an expert.

This was followed immediately by the opposing viewpoint, which was attributed to me despite the fact that it’s not an entirely literal record of my take on the issue:

Do we really need expert critics anymore? Many bloggers don’t think so, arguing that credentials are merely one part of what makes a great wine writer. How you say something—not simply who says it, they argue—is what’s most important. “Readers today have got to feel like the experts connect with them in some way,” says Joe Roberts, who runs the blog 1WineDude.com. “It’s not just, ‘Oh, this person’s got great credentials because they work for Wine Enthusiast.’”

So, over a month later, why am disturbing the tomb and (sort-of) resurrecting the discussion?  It’s the question “Do we really need expert critics anymore?” – the CRJ article proposes it, but then moves off of that topic rather quickly.  Which is a shame, because that’s where the real meat in this pie lies…

That question isn’t as crazy as it might first sound.  Think about it – do you rely on an expert to pick out a commodity like mustard at the grocery store?  The answer almost certainly is No; you’re likely very happy to try different and new mustards without a shade of reservation, and/or feel quite confident enough in your own personal tastes to navigate a shelf full of even the most artisanal mustard offerings.

The counter-argument, of course, is that wine is a lot more complicated than mustard, and the CJR.org article touches on this as well:

Wine is, after all, a complex drink, and it needs to be analyzed in a complex way, usually by someone with a deep understanding of wine or by someone with credentials, such as a WSET advanced degree. Which means that while passionate amateur drinkers can write about their experiences with a Bordeaux, say, they’d ideally be able to do so with as much authority and understanding as a professional—something many talented bloggers already do. In fact, at times, it’s hard to discern who’s a professional and who’s not. The surest sign of a blog’s quality: reading a review of the site. As Joe Roberts puts it, “It’s no different, in a way, than picking up a book. If you see a lot of accolades for the work, you think, ‘Maybe I’ll give this a shot.’”

The bottom line is that we will only need expert critics so long as we, as consumers – avid or casual – deem them valuable. And the central theme of any journalistic endeavor today, whether it be on- or off-line, is that it had better provide real value to somebody or it’s going to be deader than Lincoln.

I’ve lost count of the long-time, well-seasoned wine industry insiders with whom I’ve spoken who have told me how much easier it was in the past to be a wine expert, because so little information was available on wine to the average consumer; knowing a little could get you pretty far, assuming you had other chops (tasting, writing, etc.) to go along with it.

That situation has changed – it’s long gone, never to return.  An immense amount of information about wine is available, much of it is instantaneous and free.  In fact, many would argue that we now are faced with a glut of too much wine information (not all of it correct) and too many wine brands from too many places offering too many choices to consumers.  That’s nearly a full 180 degree shift from the not-so-distant past.

So, having said all of that, what’s the answer?  Do we need expert wine critics or not?

The answer, to me, is almost undoubtedly Yes.  It’s just that the idea of what constitutes an expert is being redefined, and is arguably becoming radically different than in the past.

No one can tell me (or you!) with 100% certainty what we will consider a great wine or a bad wine – they may come close, but they will never be 100% on the money.  I have to be that expert. You have to be that expert.  Every consumer does – you have the power (with all of that information at your fingertips), so now you have the responsibility as well – the responsibility to learn what you like, and what you don’t; the responsibility to use your powers for good.

Can the experts help you do that?  Yep.

Can they dictate it to you, as many of them tried to do in the past?  Nope.

Welcome to the Brave New World of wine – I hope you’re up to the challenge!

Cheers!

(images: taringa.net)

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    Comments

  • @italianwineguy


    just be careful when they call from Rolling Stone, Joe

    • 1WineDude


      Rolling Stone? Never heard of it…

  • Richard Scholtz


    I would argue that wine experts are just as valuable now as they were in the past, and it has to do with there being more information. More importantly, I think their worth is possibly greater now because of the amount of DISINFORMATION that is out there (harvest reports, anyone?). Wine experts are needed now more than ever to filter through all the information, and determine what is correct, and what is garbage.

  • Wine-Know


    Wine consumers, especially novice wine consumers, will always need expert help until they gain the confidence to select, buy, drink and talk about wine themselves.

  • Steve Heimoff


    Sure we'll need experts. And we'll have them. Question is, who will they be? Answer: The best writers.

    • @norcalwingman


      I agree with Steve to a point, I think the gist of what he means is echoing what Joe said in that, you are the expert in the eyes or ears (depending on the media/circumstance) of the people you make a connection with. These people have the choice to either trust what you say or call bullshit. Obviously, the more well written the information is, the easier it is to understand and believe.

      …con't

      • @norcalwingman


        For whatever reason, people that are pasionate about wine garner the ears and earn authority. I have a great example. I was at the kitchen store this weekend picking up some tools and there was an elderly lady chatting with the store clerk about wine stoppers. He wasn't understanding what it was she was looking for, however, I overheard the conversation and spoke up with the sound of authority in my voice and made a recommendation. She appreciated that I took the time out of my day to provide her with something she deemed vaulable, and took my advice.

        Wine writing is no different. Speak with authority and connect with your audience. Whether that is good writing or writing in the voice that talks to your reader is ultimately up to the end consumer, just like wine… Either you like it or you don't.

        Cheers
        Brian
        norcalwingman (not an expert)

  • lori


    I think there's room for everyone in the blogosphere: professionals who gain a following of strangers who trust their advice because they provide reliable information and amateurs who have a passion and share it with friends who trust their advice because they are familiar. But as Steve said, they will need to be good writers. In both camps the good writers will succeed.

  • Cambiata


    A wine writer that has the time and resources to taste through thousands of wines can be a beacon for consumers. If there were local mustard shops with hundreds of mustard choices, consumers might benefit from a knowledgeable mustard critic.

    Secondly, let’s not underrate the value of education. Consumers usually do not have the time to educate themselves to the level of Master Sommelier. Breadth of knowledge can lead to insight. Populism can lead to middle of the road conclusions unsatisfactory to the zealot – just look at the brands carried by the dominant distributors.

    It’s valuable for a Music critic to point out the extreme artistic achievement of a Bach Partita however that doesn’t mean everyone will start tuning their radios to the all Bach station. It’s just good knowledge to know what music is out there and then if a consumer desires to explore, they have some direction from someone who has studied the repertoire. Critics aren’t absolute but the good ones are valuable.

  • LarrytheWineGuyLV


    All I gotta say is…

    UP THE IRONS!

    How can there be no comment on the greatest band ever making an appearance in such an erudite wine discussion. I think Bruce, Steve and the rest of the boys would be quite proud! The extreme artistic achievement of a Bach Partita is nothing when measured against a Maiden magnum opus such The Reincarnation of Benjamin Breeg or The Longest Day. Of course when enjoying such evocative music one must select the appropriate wine as accompaniment. It is my decidedly expert opinion that a wine such as the 1998 Gaja Sori San Lorenzo or 2005 Ravenswood Old Hill Vineyard would best serve such sonorous selections.

    • 1WineDude


      Larry – glad someone acknowledged Maiden! :-)

  • tim


    Well written and thoughtful. We are all experts on this bus. The brave new world of wine includes everyone and they are at many different levels of expert. You really know you are an wine expert when you realize that you don't know shit. Wine is not Mustard, but a perfect comparison. Great writing clearly adds value, great stories about place and provenance adds value, great ways to have fun whilst enjoying wine adds value. Food pairing, music pairing, seasonal pairing, when does it end or is this where it begins? Great post Dude.

  • RandyHall


    Shut it, Joe. You're the best overall wine blogger (written in English) for 2010; you got an award that says so, and I'd say that nobody would refute you. Therefore you CAN and should compare yourself to Karen MacNeil, and the sooner you get that you're playing at the same level, the better off you'll be.

    Loved seeing you, as usual.

  • 1WineDude


    Hi all – apologies for not taking part in the (great) discussion in more detail. I was on the road the entire day yesterday (what fun…).

    Cheers!

  • Sondra


    Congrats on being named best wine blogger! That deserves a toast or two… Cheers and thanks for all your good writings.

  • ChrisO


    Joe,

    Another home run! I firmly believe that we do need experts as well as armatures. You said "many would argue that we now are faced with a glut of too much wine information (not all of it correct)" this very statement proves that we need authorities and experts on the subject, go-to people to help us determine what is fact and what is crap. I think you are one of those "experts" you keep referring to and should be proud.

    • 1WineDude


      thanks, Chris – not sure I'd call myself an expert, apart from realizing that I know very little the more that I learn!

  • BellaRouge


    I love this topic. Do we need wine experts? Maybe. But what makes a wine expert? Tasting, trying, tasting, right? The more you taste, the more you understand what the individual personality/terroir of a particular varietal or region looks like. Therefore, you are more qualified to comment on what you feel the best wines are within a particular classification. As consumers taste, try, taste, they also develop an ability, maybe not to the level of an "expert", but they do develop an understanding for what they personally like in wine. Based on their disposable income and depth of interest in wine, their own experiences plus the advice of a blogger they enjoy reading may be all they ever need or want. So, will highly trained wine experts have a place? Sure, but they are not for everyone. As the wine consuming public grows, the old-school attitude that dictates that a wine needs a score or blessing from an expert to be recognized starts to fall by the wayside as not everyone cares. Some people just want to drink what they like and good for them! It's refreshing and opens up an industry that for too long has been monopolized by the opinions of a few.

    • 1WineDude


      Thanks, BR!

  • Kate


    Hmmm….but what good is being an expert if your perspective is so different from your intended audience? Not trying to nitpick a fight here, but after reading Winethropology's piece (and Louisville Juice's) this morning, well, one wonders…

    • 1WineDude


      Hi Kate – I think you're touching on an important point, which is that the connection *and* the knowledge have to coincide, and the nexus of those might happen to be different experts for different audiences. I sure hope so – it would keep things interesting! Cheers!

      • Kate


        Uh, that wasn't my point at all. Before I dive into my diatribe, let me say that I've been a fan for a while. And I've had a few glasses of box wine this evening. But you've been sliding, dude. I watched your video a couple of weeks ago and I thought, Seriously? He's griping about having too much free wine? And the pressures of writing about it? As we say in he south, thems is rich people problems. I realized today that if you're griping, then you're affected. And I'm sorry to call you out like this, but, dude, with all your reviews turning up grades better than W scored at Yale, you must be the darling of whomever arranges those trips to faraway places for you. My question was really that if you are so drowning in free wine, then you must also be quite detached from the what it's like to buy a bottle of wine. If that's true, then, oh, fuck it…I'm thirsty and my glass is empty. Connect the dots, you'll get my blurry point. But kudos for using the word "nexus" in your reply. I needed that for my buzzword bingo. Kisses

        • 1WineDude


          Fair enough, Katie. You could be right, it's something I struggle with quite a bit.

          Having said that, it's also not my full-time job (yet – I am working on it). The "free" wine is not for getting me drunk, giving to my friends, or partying with – it's for as much honest assessment and analysis as I can muster. So the problem of trying to treat those samples professionally and actually 'grade' some of them fairly (let's not forget that I did not take on the grading thing lightly and only implemented after readers gave it the ok in comments and in voting) – well, it's a real problem for me. Could be that some people have it more together and could get through it with more poise, but if so then I am (regrettably) not one of those people.

  • BellaRouge


    Good point on knowledge and most importantly, interaction. I am not a fan of scores, in fact, I really despise what they have done to the wine industry. What's really disturbing is some of the anecdotal tests that have been done of putting the exact same wine into two packages and presenting them to "experts" who give them vastly different scores. What's up with that? Wine is not an exact science by any means and scores and experts try to treat it as if it were and it is fundamentally a flawed approach, in my opinion.

  • Tone Kelly


    What I value in a wine critic (or any other critic) is consistency. If a critic has a constant yard stick and and palate that is true and constant then I can compare the critic's reviews to my own palate, even if I don't agree with his palate. An inconsistent reviewer is like a random shot in the dark – I cannot trust the review.

    • 1WineDude


      Good point, TK – that's an area where print wine media has what I view as a significant edge over on-line / bloggers right now (for the most part, anyway).

  • Mav


    Iron Maiden's Brave New World is an astounding album. One of their best. I don't play an instrument but I am pretty sure I am a damn expert when comes to knowing great music. And yes I totally rock, and posses excessive amounts of intelligence and good looks. Great article.

    • 1WineDude


      Mav – laughing out loud, thanks for the awesome comment; and yes, you do RAWK! :)

  • Jenny


    Here Here! Yes there is a definite place for wine expertise however it should be mainly about what you yourself enjoy.
    http://www.blog.onxwine.com

  • MajorPronin


    Interesting article. Put me in the camp where I feel we have way too many "experts" around, bloggers and not. Just in the past month I was told a few of my wines were corked. After I finally picked myself off the floor and made every effort to stop laughing (I do not use natural cork closures) I decided to leave this alone, after all, I was discussing the wine with a seasoned professional, certificates and all, buying wine for a mid level restaurant chain. Who am I to argue with his great palate. Then just this week, tasted with a couple of professionals, one a well seasoned winemaker and another broker/distributor. Both nosed the wines and proclaimed, Oxidized! Not so fast there. I asked them to swirl their glasses for a few seconds, the alleged "oxidation" magically dissipated.. I then pointed out that what they just experienced was reduction, a (very) direct opposite of oxidation. But no worry, Larry Stone made that same mistake tasting my wines (to be fair, he placed an order on the spot).

    If seasoned professionals cannot figure out what's in their glasses (and I can offer a very long list of these "expert" tastings, will make for a great book one day), then how is an averge blogger gong to offer a proper opinion on wine? A couple of years back I came across a fairly popular wine blog and saw the couple describe "brett" in the wine they were reviewing. By their own admission the brett then dissipated with some air contact. Well, not brett after all, is it? When this fact was brought to their attention all I saw was a "We're no experts, we just want to share our experience with our readers via our blog…" statement. Did they post a retraction and point out the wine, after all, had no brett? Absolutely not! Do you think sales of that wine benefited or declined? So, now you have some "… we just want to share our experience…" experts, whose recommendations people trust, playing with someone's income, big time, with absolutely no remorse whatsoever.

    Do we need wine bloggers? Tough call, I enjoy some posts here and there as long as they do not deal with actual wine reviews/recommendations because when they do it is more often than not that I just cringe when I read their assessments/evaluations. Not that I have a lot of faith in some professionals' reviews as you can see.

    • 1WineDude


      Thanks, Major (may I call you Major? sounds so professional :-).

      You are touching on a topic that came up during my panel at the Wine Bloggers conference, and also was discussed at various points during the last Pro. Wine Writers Symposium in Napa earlier this year.

      The bottom line is that there are too many people out there overstretching their bounds when they evaluate wine publicly. I'm not saying that they shouldn't be blogging or writing about wine, just that they should be careful about the conclusions being drawn and qualify their statement appropriately.

      For example, I personally tend to shy away from making pronouncements here on how / why a wine might taste the way that it does. Some things are pretty obvious – TCA, brett (most brett, anyway) – others are more difficult (ripeness, reduction). Karen MacNeil told me that winemakers sometimes laugh at the descriptions of wines made by winewriters who guess as to the origins of those flavors / aromas, as often times those writers get it wrong.

      I myself am usually quick to admit when I screwed up something that I've posted – but that's just me. The best thing we can do as bloggers is to be humble, I think, and admit very publicly that we got something wrong, with just as loud voices as we used when we made any incorrect conclusions.

      Cheers!

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