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.”
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!