About every other week, some friend or 1WD reader emails or tweets me a link to Matt Kramer’s “Drinking Out Loud” blog on WineSpectator.com. And about every other week, I have the same reaction after reading it: Kramer writes well, but his conclusions sometimes leave holes large enough that you could drive a steel tank full of Yellowtail through them.
Usually I simply shrug and ignore those conclusions, but Kramer’s piece (titled “Dubious Wine Achievements of Our Time: How smart wine people became boneheads”) published last week struck enough of a nerve that, Shatner style, I just… couldn’t… let… GO!
It wasn’t Kramer’s near-total dismissal of both Bordeaux (maybe he should have called it “Bored-oh?”) as a region (points with which I largely agree, by the way) and Russian River Valley Pinot Noir (points with which I largely disagree) that set me into a fit of head-scratching bewilderment, but his assertion that fine wine recommendations cannot successfully be crowd-sourced.
That latter conclusion flies so forcefully smack-dab into the face of reality that I can only categorize it as head-in-the-sand posturing. Sounds harsh, I suppose, but I see no reason to let something slide when it’s so far off the mark from reality.
Let’s break this one down, shall we?
First, by looking at what Kramer actually wrote, and then at the (potentially invalid) assumptions upon which those statements were based. C’mon, it probably beasts actually working over the next few minutes, doesn’t it?…
Here’s Kramer’s take on the non-wisdom of crowd-sourcing when it comes to wine (emphasis mine):
Not since the old Soviet and Maoist eras have we seen “the people” so lavished with praise and unqualified admiration. Inevitably, the wisdom of the crowd got applied to wine criticism. You see, if enough people—never mind how little they might actually know—post enough of their tasting notes, a crystalline “truth” about a particular wine, or even a whole region or vintage will make itself known. This, in a word, is propaganda. One hundred people who don’t know much about, say, Auxey-Duresses adds up to 100 muddied, baffled and often duplicative conclusions. (You think all those tasting notes were generated in pristine isolation from everyone else’s conclusions?)
And here’s a (classic!) response form the comments of the same post, courtesy of someone who knows something about crowd-sourcing wine reviews:
Matt, thank you for your very perceptive comments on crowd-sourcing. A simple aggregated number is no way to capture such a rich and subjective topic.
-Eric (the CellarTracker guy)
What Kramer missed in his missive is that crowd-sourcing reviews has been already around for years, they already sway individual purchase decisions and are already here to stay (anyone heard of a little company called Amazon.com??). There really is no debate about this – not anymore, and not in any industry that is even remotely keeping up with the times.
There are two big flaws with Kramer’s style of reasoning against crowd-sourcing, because it is based on assumptions and suggestions that very likely aren’t true:
1) Suggesting that wine is somehow so special that it should be immune from the impacts and influence of the trend towards crowd-sourced recommendations is not only a fool’s bet, but it’s a bet that has already been lost. Crowd-sourcing is standard-fare; it’s not tomorrow’s innovation, it’s today’s reality. Just ask the guy who saw the crowd-sourcing phenomenon’s potential for wine almost ten years ago – Eric Levine, author of the above-quoted comment and founder of Cellar Tracker, the home of the largest volume of wine reviews and tasting notes on the planet.
2) Assuming that the make up of the crowds contains no wine knowledge is to ignore the math. If the numbers are high enough, then the reviews most probably contain input from people who have enough relevant wine knowledge to offer a viable, educated opinion; yes, they contain crap as well, but that’s okay because…
3) The crowd itself will police to a large extent which individual voices will carry the most weight. To illustrate this, we need to go back to Kramer’s article for a moment (don’t worry, it will make sense in a minute):
When it comes to fine wine, there is no wisdom of the crowd—that’s not only a delusion, it’s a pernicious delusion. When it comes to fine wine, there is only informed opinion, never mind whose. Such informed opinion can come from anyone.It doesn’t have to be a professional critic. We’ve all met plenty of impassioned wine lovers who have devoted thousands of hours (never mind dollars) to the subject. We should all listen closely to such people. I sure do.
But we must first decide that they are indeed informed. We must first confirm that they have, based on demonstrated experience or exposure, a basis for their opinion. It’s not enough that they are part of the “wisdom of the crowd.”
This is where Kramer actually got it right, though I suspect not in the way that he intended.
Informed opinions are still the lifeblood of quality recommendations. That’s as true for wine as anything else. And you know who determines which opinions are informed these days? The crowd. The crowd is the lifeblood, it is the knowledge base, it is the expertise and the deciding vote; and it is the collective and real wisdom of that crowd that determines which voices are creamy enough to rise to the top.
It’s true for electronics, it’s true for appliances, it’s true for restaurants, and it’s sure as sh*t true for wine now. If you’ve used a vacuum cleaner for the past seven months, and it’s one that I’m considering buying, then for me you’re an expert on the practical use of that vacuum cleaner. If I taste a sh*tload of wine every year then if I do it well and provide valuable output from that, I will be viewed by a lot of people as an expert. Within Cellar Tracker, you have someone like Richard Jennings, who is one of the most prolific contributors there, and with whom I’ve traveled and have seen firsthand that he knows what he’s doing… well, CT in its crowd-sourced wisdom has anointed him an expert, and a lot of people are influenced by what he has to say as a result.
Now, we shouldn’t ignore something else her e- the fact that the crowd’s voice in total has the ability to sway a lot of opinions. It’s the reason why Amazon reviews summaries are so powerful, and why CellarTracker.com aggregate reviews are so influential with individuals at point of sale. In a way, the crowd both makes the expert and is the expert, or at least has an expert’s influence – as evidenced by a recent conversation I had with a group of Millennial wine buyers, who told me that when they’re in a wine shop they often grab their smartphone and Google a wine specifically to see how many stars that wine received from the crowd on Cellar Tracker. If the number of stars are low, they often skip the wine entirely.
Like it or not, that’s (successful) influence.
Or maybe those near-three-million reviews and near-230K users in Cellar Tracker are actually all bunk, and nobody really pays any attention to them.
I know which side I’m betting on, anyway…