Professional Wine Tasters Are Full of Sh*t

Vinted on February 2, 2010 binned in commentary

Pro wine writers are among the most full of sh*t professions (statistically); so saith Cracked.com, where “Wine Tasters” make their recent list of The 6 Most Statistically Full of Sh*t Professions.

There are two things that surprised me when perusing the list of chosen six:

  1. Weather Forecasters, while predictably ranking high on the list, came in at #2 (Sportswriting took the ‘top’ spot).
  2. Wine Tasters came in only at #5 (c’mon… can’t we do better than that?!??).

Frankly, despite the lack of actual statistics in the article, I’d say that we (speaking collectively for the larger wine writing lot) actually deserve the dubious ranking.

Well, sort of.

As the reaction to my recent interview with Robin Goldstein (author of The Wine Trials, which showcases budget wines that beat out more expensive options in blind tastings) showed, the wine tasting devil is squarely in the details.  And as a group, I think that wine writers / tasters / pros, generally do a crap job when it comes to helping the public understand those details.

Not that this is a new phenomenon.  Thom Shaw once wrote “in wine tasting and wine talk there is an enormous amount of humbug.”  If you substitute “bullshit” for “humbug” you’d probably get an accurate read on the perception of wine tasting, right?

Well, ol’ Thom wrote that back in 1863.  Nearly 150 years later, it still rings as true and cuts as close to the bone of a wine writer as a Dilbert strip does to a cubicle worker – funny, but painfully funny.

So maybe we have helped to make the crow sandwich we’re supposedly having for lunch (hmmm… what pairs with crow… think I’ll pop open some Retsina…)…

I have the distinct (and frightening) impression that there are wine pros reading this right now who are busy sharpening any nearby stones and getting ready to throw them my way, but hear (read?) me out on this one before you start lobbing those galets.

What we have isn’t necessarily a bullshit-overabundance problem as much as a transparency-dearth problem.

Sure, there’s plenty of BS to be found out there, just as there is in any public medium.  But enough people profit from keeping the glass dark in the windows of the wine writing factory that a good deal of the public still thinks of it as a place that houses machines churning out barrels of very brown, very earthy, very barnyardy stuff (if you catch my drift).

Now, blogging is among the most transparent of media these days – not every successful blog is transparent, but chances are if you’re not at least mostly genuine the blogosphere will eat you alive.  If anything, we are good at keeping each other honest in this massive, on-line global community.  It follows that wine blogs are among the more transparent of wine media, because, well, they’re blogs.  And transparency about how wine tasting actually works has got to be good for reversing the stereotype of the snobbish wine bore expert, right?

When we’re transparent, we can state without fear of being called a bullshit artist that subjectivity can’t possibly be totally removed from the equation of wine tasting, and people will still trust our tasting notes; we can be honest about how it’s better to develop your own tastes with the help of experts than to slavishly follow someone’s recommendations (no matter how impressive their legacy or credentials) and then in fine pop culture fashion tear them down viciously from the pedestals onto which we ourselves placed them…

At least it would lower the height of that pedestal and the fall won’t be so bad, right?

But we have a looooooong road ahead of us, people.

Think of it this way – How old are wine blogs?  Vinography.com is widely regarded as the first, the granddaddy of wine blogging, and it just turned six.  So, wine blogging (in terms of being a combination of the blogging media and the wine writing message) is about six years old.

Six years old.

That’s hardly old enough to keep from pissing your pants when laughing at fart jokes. We haven’t even reached the awkwardness of puberty. Wine writing of course has been around much longer. And for most of that time, it’s been dominated by mind-numbingly boring, excessively complex treatises, or centered on the deconstruction of wine to a number after a series of mind-numbingly boring, excessively complex treatises.  The first exposure that most people have to wine writing is probably not the lucid but accessible prose of Hugh Johnson or Jancis Robinson.  It’s somebody using obscure and needlessly long tasting descriptors, followed by a number – and if that’s not a mixed message, I don’t know what is.

Do I feel like a bullshit artist?  Nope.  But do I understand why other people would think that about people who taste wine?  Yep.

One thing’s for sure – I certainly feel like we need to keep on keepin’ on; we got a long way to go yet!

Cheers!

24

 

 

    Comments

  • Chris


    Interesting post, Joe.

    Can you explain a little more about why you believe wine bloggers are more transparent than other wine writers?

    Me, I worry a little about the opposite. Bloggers don't typically have an editor or a publisher who pays that may require some check and balances in their writing and reviews. Bloggers can present basically anything they want. I am still on the first lap around the track as a blogger and I haven't yet really written my blog disclosure statement, though I think it would benefit me and any readers. But even then, who's there to check to see if I really paid (assuming I don't disclose that a wine was comped) or even drank a wine?

    • 1WineDude


      Hi Chris – technically, no one is on the hook for that. However, I'd argue that the blog readers provide the checks & balances.

      I am speaking from my own experience, but when you look at this blog, or Vinography.com, DrVino.com, and many others, the readers who comment are just as informed, opimionated and knowledgeable as the authors, and they are quick to to question inconsistencies or lack of transparency.

      Of course, they can't vouch for a wine being tasted or the truth of what's being written, but I'm not sure that this would be the case for printed / traditional media either (apart from editorial fact-checking, that is).

      Cheers!

      • Chris


        Thanks Joe. That makes sense. I'll keep reading and be sure to call bullsh*t when I see it :)

        • 1WineDude


          I welcome that! Just, be gentle, okay? :-)

  • Cellar Tours


    very interesting and in some way related to my discussion:
    http://www.openwineconsortium.org/forum/topics/ar
    ciao
    simona

    • 1WineDude


      Thanks – very interesting and I definitely think it's related to this topic.

      Personally, I think the business of wine still needs recommendations, especially in such a connected world where so many consumers base their purchases on them. And for recommendations, you need some help / expertise. So I see a role for the wine pro / taster – an evolving one, of course, but still a role.

  • @suburbanwino


    Oh, man. I was ready to come to the table with something profound and thought-provoking, and my mind just went blank. Total blank. Why am I even typing this? Just trying to be transparent, I suppose.

    Okay. I think wine bloggers- at least most of them- have some element of BS in their writing as well. Inherently, we're all probably at least *a little* self-serving (whether we're after notoriety, ad revenue, free wine samples, book deals, approval of our peers, dinners, etc.). This is perhaps a pessimistic view of things, but we need to always keep it in mind when writing if we are to be truly honest.

    • 1WineDude


      Interesting – by not trying to be profound & thought-provoking, you were profound & thought-provoking!

  • @nectarwine


    Joe (1WineDude) – I do think wine bloggers are called on the carpet for bull sh*t much more often and in real time because of the nature of a blog and twitter. The large circle of bloggers is very much interconnected.

    Joe (SuburbanWino) – I agree and am guilty of what you are saying. Each of us is to a degree *a little* (or a lot) self serving. Each of us has an end game we're pursuing (known as local wine guru, minor celebrity, world domination), the challenge is to remind ourselves to continue to be honest.

    While I too ask you to be gentle, I would hope that I'm called out for bullsh*t whenever it is perceived.

    Josh

  • Richard Scholtz


    I think transparency is becoming an ever-increasing issue, especially for print journalism (I speak of the WS and WA type), with the recent fallout regarding a certain taster for WA in Argentina. Within the blogosphere, the news of a pay-for-play scam went around the world numerous times. Do any of you think this would have happened ten years ago? No, it would have been swept under the rug, and everyone would have gone on their merry way. For someone to attack a sacred cow takes a lot of guts and a boatload of evidence. The fact is there are more eyes watching, and if you screw up, the news will spread quickly, and your credibility is gone for good. For every Joe Roberts, Dr. Vino, Gary V, there's dozens that are ready to take their place. And the simple matter is that all of the reviews are OPINIONS. If you don't like the opinions you're getting, get them from someone else. Just because someone disagrees with you doesn't make them wrong. However, if you're not on the straight and narrow, you're a fraud, and should be dealt with appropriately.

    I think blog writers do a pretty good job of policing themselves. The advertising revenue stream is too competitive. Those that write good articles, call a spade a spade, and stay above board will succeed. Those that don't will be banished.

    • 1WineDude


      "the simple matter is that all of the reviews are OPINIONS. If you don't like the opinions you're getting, get them from someone else. Just because someone disagrees with you doesn't make them wrong."

      AMEN to that!

  • Phil


    You got mentioned on EBob…needless to say no one is erecting a statue to you yet…
    http://dat.erobertparker.com/bboard/showthread.ph

    • 1WineDude


      At times like these, I can only offer them this:

      "Thanks for reading!"

      :-)

      • Phil


        Yeah, except I don't think many of them did more than read the headline…

  • 1WineDude


    Sure, burst my bubble why dontcha?

  • 1WineDude


    I've tried the wine forum thing in the past, and have given it up entirely. It's odd but I find that wine forums in general are really intolerant places. The reason it's odd (to me) is that I'm a longtime member of other forums that have exponentially more reach (TalkBass is a good example) and are far more tolerant especially when it comes to newer members.

    Of course, there are trolls in every forum of every type, so if one seems better behaved than another I would chalk it up to how well (or poorly) the forums are administrated.

    So, for wine forums I have found that it's best to let them do their thing and stay away…

  • Ron Washam, HMW


    So if you skip on over to Vinography, that paragon of wine blogging, and read Alder's notes on ZAP you'll see that he rated 220 wines while he was there. A bit of simple math translates that to a wine every 90 seconds or so, 220 times. This is "transparently" stupid and incomprehensibly arrogant.

    I'm sure you're all over there shouting Bullsh*t at him.

    You know, sometimes the comedy just writes itself.

  • 1WineDude


    Well, I'm not over there doing that myself, but the fact that you're calling BS on it here does help to bolster my point (at least, that's how I'm interpreting it for my own selfish purposes! :-).

    I just peeked over at that post and.. I mean, holy sh*t! My palate would be a f*cking tastebud graveyard if I attempted to taste 220 wines in a single day. I'm not necessarily ready to call bullshit on him, but I've got to wonder how accurate a wine rating would be at wine #207 for **anybody**…

  • Kasey Carpenter


    As has been alluded to here, I think the real reason for the dubious honor (while also understanding that many wine writers are rather dull, on the take, and/or flat out lie and thus reinforce the perception) is that we are writing about something subjective.

    I'd put art critics and those who review books up there as well – their breakdown of a work cannot, by its very nature, be rendered sans emotion, and we all know emotion is a volatile, mercurial thing.

    Anyone who takes on the task of quantifying something as subjective as art, literature, and especially wine (which encompasses more senses than any other form of art, and probably requires more imagination than either – but that is my *subjective* take) knows going in that they are dealing in vagaries, opinion, unique slices of time (tasting a bottle that was shipped properly, of a good vintage, no bottle shock, no dumb phase, was stored properly, etc… versus a barrel sample, or versus a bottle shared among friends, en chateau, or one that was mishandled, yada yada – there are so many outside influences, let alone internal ones like personal preference and other prejudices) and a myriad of other subjective factors that should be taken into consideration, but rarely translate to print.

    Yet we need that human (and some say flawed) element. A sniffing machine can break it down to core elements, molecular chains and compounds. But a machine, while technically perfect in analysis, and free from prejudice of label, settings, ad dollars, palette fatigue, etc… can it translate a complex liquid into text? Sure, just as a mass spectrometer can. But can it quantify the wine as metaphor, as a vehicle for sensory perception, and not just a list of descriptors? No. And I think this is where many wine writers fail, they simply run a list of tried/tired and true descriptors, tack on a few clever words, project the drinkability window and *boom* you have a tasting note.

    There will be a change in the way we write about wine. There *has* to be. Wine is more than a liquid, more than another alcoholic beverage. It can totally recall a memory from decades ago, it can serve as an ambassador from a foreign land, it can be a great and challenging puzzle, it can be a vacuous self-indulgent money pit for the egocentric millionaire, it can elevate a meal, can be good for your health, and it can be big business. The wine writer of the future needs to consider the ancillary roles of what lies in the glass. And all those nuances and vagaries cannot be pulled out with a tweet, any numerical/puff/star/glass/clover/sips rating system, or a defecation of poorly chosen words.

    I agree with the assessment, by and large, but more importantly, I hope everyone concerned with the task of writing about wine takes it as a challenge to up their game.

    [ /rant ]

    • 1WineDude


      AWESOME analysis!

      I think that there are few people who really "get" this type of approach – Hugh Johnson being the granddaddy of those, and probably still the best.

  • Purg


    At least wine bloggers can be critical of themselves….unlike a lot of other bloggers I have seen.

    • 1WineDude


      Well, I may not be indicative of the whole group (god help us if I am!) but I think for the most part we are okay with laughing at ourselves!

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