You Are The Wine Conversation (What’s A Wine Critic To Do When Everyone Is A Wine Critic?)

Vinted on January 18, 2012 binned in commentary, going pro, wine appreciation, wine blogging

IntoWine.com recently (at least I think it was recently, as their posts for reasons unknown to me aren’t dated) ran an interview with SF Chronicle wine editor Jon Bonné (long-time readers will recall that roughly a year ago I was on a panel about writing better opinion pieces with Jon and the Wall Street Journal’s Lettie Teague, both of whom probably still in therapy trying to get over my inclusion; I’m kidding… I think…).

I’m not here today to dissect Jon’s responses (many of which ring true for me, and are worth a read because he’s a very, very intelligent guy), but one answer he gave to the IntoWine folks struck me as a bit odd. To the tape (emphasis is mine):

The average consumer still feels intimidated by wine and wine-speak. Are publications like the Chronicle partly responsible for the prevalent feeling among consumers that wine is somehow beyond their comprehension?

If we’re going point fingers at the idea that wine is pretentious, let’s start with the spread of overpriced, mass-produced wine sold as an aspirational luxury. I’ll borrow a phrase from a conversation with a fellow writer a few days ago: You write up to your audience, not down. If sportswriters had to explain a two-point conversion every time they mentioned it, we’d all die of boredom. That’s not an excuse to fall into jargon. But there is no shortage of amateur wine criticism out there that doesn’t contribute to the conversation.”

The trouble for me is that I’ve got no idea what conversation Jon is talking about in that response.

It might be that there is a hidden wine conversation, one available only to a Romanée-Conti-sipping secret society of critics with wine review superpowers like UV vision that can detect the exact number of Brett, fruit, and mushroom particles floating around in a glass of Burgundy and determine at a glance if they are at an appropriate level. A secret society that meets in an underground lair at an undisclosed location (guarded by pools of sharks with lazer beams attached to their heads) and through joint nefarious consensus determines what wines will get the really high scores this year.

The bottom line is that this secret society might as well also be made up of Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny, because the real wine conversation is actually the one that the amateur critics are having. Or, I should say, it’s the thousands of real and virtual “water-cooler” conversations that the amateurs are having every day, all over the world…

While I’m not sure what Jon was getting at in his answer exactly, I suspect that it means there are people reviewing wine publicly who have neither the experience or background to make determinations on its quality in comparison to the greatest wines in the world. And on that point, he’d be right. I can tell you firsthand that the man knows his shiz, is sharper than a tack, and isn’t afraid to voice (and defend) a well-considered opinion – all traits that make me deeply admire his work.

But if I’m right about the reasoning behind the view he expressed to IntoWine, then I can safely conclude that the view is skewed, in that it ignores a fact that is fundamental to how wine information is being consumed today: nearly everyone who buys wine and decides to talk about it in their social circles is now an amateur wine critic to some extent.

This is not new news – in Internet terms, which are more akin to the rapid aging of dog years (and even then, those are parallax dog years, in accelerated speed-of-light terms compared with the orbiting-close-to-the-black-hole-event-horizon off-line world), it’s a bit of ancient history; studies that demonstrate the power of en masse customer reviews have been with us for years; and it’s not as if the pace of the Internet has slowed (or become less of a popular draw) since then. That wine should be somehow immune to the same forces of customers easily sharing their opinions on-line is, simply, insane-asylum-strait-jacket crazy.

This isn’t to say that the role of critics isn’t important – it is, precisely so that the barometer can be set for how wine’s compare across the entire quality spectrum, from the banal to the truly sublime; and not only across the less-experienced spectrum of each consumer’s taste-buds. But that doesn’t make those consumers’ taste buds somehow irrelevant – in fact, within immediate social circles, those consumers’ taste buds might not only be relevant, they might be the only taste buds that matter when it comes to wine recommendations, period.

So what’s a (professional) critic to do when everyone is a(n amateur) wine critic?

The answer, I think, is simple: help the amateur critics.

Professional wine critics now serve at the pleasure of the audiences who give them the honor – and humbling responsibility – of following their advice. Critics must therefore serve their audience above all else – and if separate conversations are being had when it comes to wine, then it seems to me that one of the critics duties in this now-not-so-new world is to help bridge the gap between those conversations, amateur and professional.

In other words, join the (lively, exciting, and engaging) amateur conversations, and invite the amateurs to join in theirs. Social media tools make this very, very easy to do – but that’s another topic entirely, and I’m already thirsty…

So for now, let’s just leave it at this: Don’t let anyone tell you that you’re not adding to the wine conversation – because you are the conversation; and no matter what knowledge level of conversation you’re having, rest assured that your voice now matters, and matters more than it ever has!

Cheers!

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    Comments

  • Thomas Pellechia


    Joe,

    how odd. I find myself agreeing with this post almost completely–yet, I still have trouble with the woeful lack of in-depth knowledge that permeates the so-called conversation.

    It isn't the lack of knowledge that bothers me, per se, as many of us say without knowing exactly what that Latin phrase really means. It's that often the knowledge gap gets recycled and before we know it, opinion morphs into fact, and the work of "upgrading" the conversation is made that much more difficult.

    I guess what I'm getting at is that it's fine to have the conversation, but what matters to me is to ask why we have the conversation, and how far does (should) it go toward creating understanding?

    • 1WineDude


      Thomas – great points, as always!

      I think that the conversation is not made up of extremes – it is a continuum and has been for a long time. The major difference is that, in the past, through bulletin boards and the like, people who are really geeky about wine and want to discuss the high-end (for lack of a better term) have been able to gather and do that – but now the volume of the conversations is shifting the other way. The difference is that the amateur voices have more outlets, more influence, more weight, more everything. This is true for any hobby, pursuit, etc. Wine is not immune from that effect, and so the amateurs with followings in social media will have listeners, and will influence on some scale, no matter their level of expertise in the topic.

      I am NOT advocating that people never listen to experts, or accept opinion as fact (expert or not). The trade off for the freedom is responsibility – and I see the experts, and those with followings, as having a sort of moral responsibility to help shape those conversations and help correct them when the opinions get too out of hand. I would humbly submit my own work here on 1WD as part of that (tomorrow's post, arguing that Pinotage has been unfairly maligned by amateurs and professional critics alike, will be the latest example). The point is that an increased volume does not have to mean a dumbing-down – and outlets will always exist, I think, for those that want to take the conversations to esoteric heights; but we cannot and should not expect the majority to want to get in on those conversations, because they are geeky, and it we cannot and should not denigrate the conversations of others who want to share the joy of wine with each other. Because the wine world, ironically, has lost a lot of that joy – which is pathetic; for Pete's sake, we are talking WINE here, the most social and joyous of all beverages (MUCH more on that meme coming up in the future from me – in fact, I am planning some potentially BIG stuff based on that, which may result in a fairly substantial shift in focus here on 1WD in the not-too-distant future).

      Cheers!

    • 1WineDude


      Thomas – great points, as always!I think that the conversation is not made up of extremes – it is a continuum and has been for a long time. The major difference is that, in the past, through bulletin boards and the like, people who are really geeky about wine and want to discuss the high-end (for lack of a better term) have been able to gather and do that – but now the volume of the conversations is shifting the other way. The difference is that the amateur voices have more outlets, more influence, more weight, more everything. This is true for any hobby, pursuit, etc. Wine is not immune from that effect, and so the amateurs with followings in social media will have listeners, and will influence on some scale, no matter their level of expertise in the topic.I am NOT advocating that people never listen to experts, or accept opinion as fact (expert or not). The trade off for the freedom is responsibility – and I see the experts, and those with followings, as having a sort of moral responsibility to help shape those conversations and help correct them when the opinions get too out of hand. I would humbly submit my own work here on 1WD as part of that (tomorrow's post, arguing that Pinotage has been unfairly maligned by amateurs and professional critics alike, will be the latest example). The point is that an increased volume does not have to mean a dumbing-down – and outlets will always exist, I think, for those that want to take the conversations to esoteric heights; but we cannot and should not expect the majority to want to get in on those conversations, because they are geeky, and it we cannot and should not denigrate the conversations of others who want to share the joy of wine with each other. Because the wine world, ironically, has lost a lot of that joy – which is pathetic; for Pete's sake, we are talking WINE here, the most social and joyous of all beverages (MUCH more on that meme coming up in the future from me – in fact, I am planning some potentially BIG stuff based on that, which may result in a fairly substantial shift in focus here on 1WD in the not-too-distant future). Cheers!

  • Gary


    Joe,

    This article hits home to me in many ways. I chose to be a Vintner because of my love for wine. I was a fan first. My studies, free labor helping other Vintner’s, and close work with Farmer’s helped me understand how to craft wine that “I” like. Much like a Chef, a Vintner’s most important tool is “self.” Without a good sense of self then wine, very much like food, would become unidentifiable. Every bottle of wine from a particular vineyard would taste like the next. The human touch is what gives the wine from that vineyard an identity.

    This same sense of “self” carries into everything we do in life. I read your work because I identify with what you write. I understand the hard work you put into your work everyday and enjoy the end product. I also have a few local (Cali based) blogs I read also because I can identify with the author. Should I care that they gave a mediocre score to the same wine that was quoted on the front of a magazine claiming “Wine of the Year?” If I should then we need to ask the question, “When was the last time every “professional” Critic gave the same wine that honor?” Never, because they to have a sense of “self.”

    Just like the bottle of wine produced by two Vintner’s, the Writer will inject his/her sense of self into their work. Even the secret society of wine writers can not take their identity away.

    Write what you believe, cook what you like, and make what you drink.

    Cheers,
    g

    • 1WineDude


      Gary – WOW. Thanks so much for that comment – it is really inspiring not just because it means something I put work into resonated with you, but also because it is a perfect example, I think, of why the conversations outside of the most educated cognoscenti do matter, and matter deeply to some people. Cheers!

    • Joel Ohmart


      Gary,

      I could not agree more regarding the sense of "self" winemakers put into the wines they craft. I would still consider myself an "amateur" in many regards, but I have met enough winemakers to realize that the difference between a good wine and an amazing wine goes far beyond geography, farming practices, oak treatments and choices regarding fermentation. That sense of self is what makes the wine industry so personal for many, and is all too often overlooked. To quote a much more experienced vintner than me; we are not making Coca Cola here! Even if one tries to make wine by formula, it seems the self inevitably works its way into the wine that is made.

      • Gary


        Joel,

        LOL – Love the quote! Wine is a beverage but Coca Cola it is not, and Mother Nature sees to that!

        Cheers,
        g

      • 1WineDude


        Totally agree with Joel – such as awesome way of phrasing it!

  • Bella McDowell


    This is a topic I have been thinking about a lot lately. While I am not quite an amateur, I am definitely not an expert (and never claim to be). But I enjoy participating in conversations with experts and find it is one of the best ways to learn. The more I talk with, read, and listen to what the experts have to say, the more I climb up the wine ladder of knowledge. So I hope experts will always open a place in their conversation (even if it is a little trying on their patience) for the amateur wine critic, appreciate their enthusiasm to learn, and take it as a compliment that we all are actually excited to hear what they have to say. (besides, even the most pompous of experts was an amateur at some point…)

    • 1WineDude


      Thanks, Bella! “take it as a compliment that we all are actually excited to hear what they have to say” – that is SOOOO very true, it is one of the highest compliments that we can pay someone, I think, to show that we care about what they have to tell us in their sphere of expertise (thank you for that, by the way! :-). Cheers!

  • Randy Caparoso


    I don't blame you for calling out Mr. Bonne, Joe, since he let his pants down a little — while decrying the disconnect caused by winespeak, he let out a little bit of the conceit often shown by print journalists in respect to so called "amateur" (code for "online' or "blog") writers (is it okay to call bloggers journalists yet?).

    There's certainly a lot of "noise" out there (whoops, we're in one of those places as we speak), but I have to agree: nothing but good is bound to come out of it. The more people talk and air out their thoughts, ideas and experiences, the more they become adept at the subject. Would Julie had learned to cooked without the vehicle for writing about Julia?

    Don't get me wrong, though: as a longtime print journalist myself, wine blogs and chat rooms have scared the hell out of me — anyplace where geeks hang out can wilt your whistle. But the basic idea is that it's all good — geek on, my friends — especially for the unwashed or peripheral masses who insist on drinking wine for pleasure rather than making a lifetime obsession of it (power to the people and all that)…

    • 1WineDude


      Hey Randy – I first want to make it clear that I am calling Jon out on one paragraph, and not trying to take any pot shots, etc. (I know that you know this, but just in case any others are reading this who misinterpret that). I have done that in the past with other wine critics, and it certainly runs the risk of looking like I am trying to chop them down in order to gain publicity and all that stuff, which I am not – and in the past I have not always walked that line successfully so it was with a TON of forethought and a LOT of introspection that I decided to post this in the first place. Ok, now that that is off my chest…

      You make a great point that there is a fine line to be walked in those conversations as well, between geeky and seeking knowledge, and the joyful urge to share. I think the conversations among the readers over the years here on 1WD have walked that line pretty well, actually, which is great. I mean, we get wine newbies and people like you, Randy, all conversing together… that is really special, And your willingness to engage in the conversation shows I think that you understand that those newbie voices count, as does their enthusiasm and joy for wine, because they are the future lifeblood and consumers of the stuff. Cheers!

  • Thomas Pellechia


    "…(besides, even the most pompous of experts was an amateur at some point…)"

    Joe, proof that the conversation must continue: one of your readers found me out!!!

    • 1WineDude


      Thomas – HA! Whatever, my friend – if you are pompous then I am actually seven feet tall and not 5’5″…. ;-)

  • Sondra


    Great post, Joe. Isn't wine consumption all about the conversation? Isn't the point of all the blogging, articles, twittering tweets to engage the 'amateur's' attention and get him or her into the act of discovering wine? Everyone is an expert when it comes to what we like in a wine. You well know that wine experts don't even agree on the merits of a particular wine. What makes them experts is their passion and persistence to learn and know more about wine, unless they only want to posture to all the rest. I agree with Bella, anyone who is learning to enjoy wine loves to talk about it. And let's face it we are all critics whether we are paid for it or not. Thanks for such an engaging conversation.

    • 1WineDude


      Thanks, Sondra! I love the thought about getting back to the basics of wine – enjoying it and sharing it. I can tell you that I am planning on making that a focal point of the future conversations here on 1WD… MUCH more to come on that in the sort-of-near future :). Cheers!

  • Randy Caparoso


    Understood, Joe. My point is that it is okay to be geeky, and it is okay to be the opposite of geeky. It's *all* good — let the wine and conversation flow, praise the bloggers and pass the biscuits and all that…

    The days when "wine knowledge" was under the realm of a few authors or designated "experts" are gone — kaput. A long time ago, a fellow who wrote something called "Wine Bibber's Bible" talked about how good it was to be an amateur because the word is derived from the Latin root amo, "to love." And the best experts are those who love what they are talking about, be it cars, boats, books, food, wine, etc. I also once read in a New Yorker where Bill Gates once said "we all do best what we love most." That's what's driving a lot of wine chatter today; and despite the seeming chaos, the overall movement is very healthy and positive for all of us, wine professionals and amateurs alike…

    • 1WineDude


      Amen, Randy!

    • Joel Ohmart


      Love that quote from Bill Gates.

  • Joel Ohmart


    Joe, the subject of this post is why I became involved in the online wine community to begin with. I have only been in the wine industry for a short time, and even now realize that the very term "expert" being discussed has a highly elastic definition. I would not even approach the term in describing myself, but various people I have read, and talked with online would fit the vinos bill in my opinion. And it would seem these people, if they do not have their head firmly planted up their posterior, agree with you regarding amateurs and the ongoing conversation that must continue in my opinion. After all, for those who professionally review wine and those who make it, wine is a life blood. For those amateurs, or even the people who only "know what they like and what they don't like" are the ones who may glance at reviews and most importantly BUY OUR WINE.

  • Joel Ohmart


    I don’t mean to defame experts; they do set the barometer in many aspects with experience and factual knowledge that many do not possess. Furthermore, inaccurate information is rampant in wine circles as most other circles of discussion on topics all across the social board. That being said, I feel I need to echo your sentiments you have often wrote in the past along with many others, most people that buy most of the wine consumed in this country could care les about ML, TA, VA, RS, oak treatments, single vineyard designation or the fierce debate regarding Biodynamic wine. And these people are where the rubber meets the road as far as my limited view can tell. The conversation must continue, because if it does not then people become uninterested, and we all suffer. Thank you for this post.

    • Thomas Pellechia


      Joel,

      I've been in the wine biz on multiple levels for nearly 30 years now–and I hate it when someone refers to em as an expert. Hate the word and all that it connotes.

      The only time we become experts is when we are gone and there's nothing left to learn.

      • Joel Ohmart


        I could not agree more!

  • Greg Baiocchi


    Joe, this is a topic being discussed in wineries everywhere. Although I have been in and around the wine industry now as a consumer, part of the work force and now winemaker with a new brand, I believe it is so important to reach out to the wine blogisphere.____

    Building my brand is dependant on the experience and how that experience is translated by each persons words and emotions or experience with wine is so different, regardless of talent and knowledge. It's almost like picking partners or consultants to help market your brand.____

    In the end a small lot premium wine brand has to use all avenues to compete and from my experience passion and product usually rises to the top. Making good descions on who can help is much harder than making the wine itself.____

    Cheers

    • 1WineDude


      Greg – thanks; I'm not going to go so far as to say that finding partners in the on-line world is harder than making wine :), but will say that it does behoove brands to chose carefully in terms of how much time they invest with the right influencers. But to your point, *some* time has to be spent with consumers, regrdless of their "reach," because they're the ones buying your stuff! Cheers!

  • Randy Caparoso


    Here's the funny thing, Mr. Ohmart: in the world of wine journalism, virtually all the "experts" — you name it, Robert Parker, Robert Lawrence Balzer, Bonne or Feiring, et al. — started off as amateurs, or basically someone who was either drafted or drafted themselves to start writing about wine. Unlike the fields of oenology or viticulture, prior education is not required or even recommended.

    Heck, I got my first sommelier job in 1978 in a French restaurant, simply because I liked wine (granted, a lot) and was bored of waiting tables (I talked my boss into letting me be the resident "wine expert"). From there, I started writing newspaper wine columns and magazine pieces, etc.

    That's why it's such a hoot whenever you hear of wine writers in the print world poo poohing wine writers in the blogosphere. Far as I'm concerned, anyone who has the love and wherewithal can become an expert because the fact of the matter is, that's how they all start!

    • Joel Ohmart


      Randy,
      Your sentiments fill me with hope! I suppose I never want to become an "expert" I just really want to know more; and my thirst for knowledge of wine and all that is involved will never stop.

  • CJH


    Being new to the wine conversation I love this post. Thanks a ton!

    • 1WineDude


      Thanks, CJH! Welcome to the conversation :).

  • Lee Newby


    I find it pretentious to use “conversation” in this way as meaning the total body of debate and exchange on the topic of wine, but that’s just me.

  • @QuitWINEing


    Great post, dude!

    I had a winemaker comment on a recent post I did which speaks right to heart of this subject. Here are his words:

    "I love your pairing and I love your approach on wine! People take things way to serious… it is after all a beverage, albeit a kick ass beverage! Thanks for making things fun and educational. Keep up the great work and thank you for your nice comments on my wine."

    I might have a certification to backup my wine knowledge, but I've met many, many people who don't that know a crap-load about wine. In my mind, I don't care if you're an "amateur" or a "professional," as long as you're getting people to join in on the conversation. Anyone that can get people to give my beloved beverage a chance is all right in my book. As people's palates develop, so will their desire for knowledge and so will their decisions on who to trust for wine recommendations.

    • 1WineDude


      Thanks, @QuitWINEing!

  • Jason


    Great post (as usual), and I think that you're headed in the right direction by mentioning the thousands of vinous conversations taking place every day, across a whole spectrum of knowledge/interest. To claim or imply that there's a single overarching wine conversation raises the same problems as claiming that we are (or aren't) in a Golden Age of Wine. You may have incredibly compelling reasons for believing what you do, but unless you can define the terms in question – and CAREFULLY – people aren't going to know what you're talking about, and they may start refuting beliefs you don't even have.

    So I doubt Bonne meant to dismiss outright the opinions/discussions of every single nonprofessional wine commentator, even if his statement does have the effect of privileging his concerns and those of his peers above the rest of us mere mortals. But he is dismissing SOME opinions/discussions, and while I personally would like to think that I'm not lumped among them, I'd prefer to take that statement as a personal challenge to myself: to ensure that with my blog, I'm saying something worth saying. Recent(ish) posts on Evil Bottle and The Passionate Foodie echo this sentiment.

    But in short, I think this is a matter of definitions.

    • 1WineDude


      Thanks, Jason – I think it is more than definitions, though that is a part of it; it is acknowledging that the times have changed, and that consumer voices count a LOT more than they used to in these conversations. The only voices that don’t “count” I suppose are those that other consumers have already decided don’t matter – i.e., the ones who have no audience. So maybe some voices don’t matter, but I think that is actually the minority, not the majority – a huge percentage of those voices matter to *someone*. Cheers!

  • martindredmond


    Great post Joe! You hit the nail on the head. I'm a fan of Cellar Tracker where thousands upon thousands of amateurs share their opinions about wine. it's interesting to see the spectrum of opinions about a wine. That's part of the fun, and the education that happens when one starts to really get into wine!

    • 1WineDude


      Thanks, Martin! CT is such a great example, and it works the same way that Amazon reviews work for most people, in that the thinking is that the aggregate of a lot hands-on reviews probably isn't too far from the reality that we would experience with a product ourselves. Hugely influential and guess whose reviews for a wine will come up in Internet searches first? CT's almost certainly. Cheers!

  • Todd C


    As an old friend of Randy's, I enjoy hearing his views on the subject and agree that only good can come from the conversations because that means people are getting excited & involved! And isn't that what we're all hoping for? More people discovering the joys of wine? And since wine tasting is a subjective experience, what does it hurt to listen to other's experiences?

    • 1WineDude


      Todd – Exactly! You definitely “get” it; I feel as though on the whole the wine biz and to some extent the wine media as well have lost the focus – whatever happened to wine as a pleasurable, sensual experience??? There's plenty of room for both the esoteric and intellectual and sensual topics to be explored. That's what makes wine so freaking amazing in the 1st place! Cheers!

  • winebratsf


    Great points Joe. I agree, that the conversation needs to be between EVERYONE – amateur and pro alike. The crucial conversation in my mind is the one between those two groups; much as I respect Jon, it seems that he is having a private conversation with the rest of wine geekdom that we aren't privy to.

    • 1WineDude


      Thanks, Thea – I have mad respect for Jon as well. And I can appreciate both conversations, I suppose, when it comes to amateur and geek/pro since I’m involved in both. But I can say unequivocally that 1WD exists for the masses, to help people get more pleasure out of wine. I love the geekdom, but I’ll give it up for making people’s lives a little better if it comes down to it! Cheers!

      • winebratsf


        Exactly! I'm a wannabe wine geek but I love sparking the conversation with everyone. In the end, wine is good if you like it. Unless it's full of Brett in which case you need to get your head examined. :-p

        • 1WineDude


          Thea – ha! I have been to some regions in France where they would challenge you mightily on that remark (as for me… I am NOT challenging it! ;).

          • winebratsf


            True true. Those darn French! So good and yet…

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