[ WARNING: following is one of my lengthy diatribes. If you’re the
lazy and impatient busy type, skip to the summary! ]
Do you believe that fine wines are multi-faceted?
What I mean is, do fine wines change over time, present different shades and complexities of aromas and flavors?
If you agree that fine wines are complex beasts, then I’m about to show you why it should logically follow that wine experts may not provide the best reviews of those wines.
Because if you also happen to believe in the truth-enlightening powers of scientific and statistically relevant data, then you cannot continue to hold onto the stubborn belief that traditional wine expert opinion always offers a superior summation of a wine to that provided by aggregate reviews in outlets such as CellarTracker.com. At least, you can’t do it without being Spock-raising-a-quizzical-eyebrow-at-you illogical. By the way, if you don’t believe in those truth-enlightening powers, then I’ve got some creationist “textbooks” to sell you, but let’s not get off track, okay?
Anyway… evidence actually supports the view that individual wine expert opinion is inferior to the wisdom of crowds when it comes to reviewing wines. It’s not that single-shot expert opinion in this field is somehow irrelevant or useless, but that it is less valuable than the opinion offered by an educated, engaged, passionate, and diverse group of people (which may or may not contain experts in their ranks).
Don’t believe me? Well, then, put down that copy of Wine Spectator for a second and hear me out. Because while the view that crowd-sourced wine reviews have merit has been called “propaganda” by wine writers as celebrated as Matt Kramer, looking less passionately and more logically at the act of reviewing suggests that it is the Kramers of the wine world who are spouting the propaganda when it comes to dismissing the wisdom of the crowd…
It’s not that expert views are without merit, but The Crowd has taken it on the chin almost as much as the experts have lately. Hell, even Dan Berger, who I deeply respect – and with whom I’ve judged wine competitions this year – recently got in on that act when he semi-bashed reviews from blogs on his Napa Valley Register column. But much of that type of Crowd criticism is about to seem a lot less pointed, I think.
First, let’s look at Princeton’s Professor of Economics Burton G. Malkiel, who’s A Random Walk Down Wall Street is about as old as I am and is as close to a classic tome as one can get in the investment world canon. Malkiel summarized the findings behind the wisdom of crowds generally in that book’s later editions when he wrote the following tidbit (emphasis mine):
“In general, research shows that groups tend to make better decisions than individuals. If more information is shared, and if differing points of view are considered, informed discussion of the group improves the decision-making process.”
Note that we’re not talking about herding mentality or groupthink here, but of high-quality decision-making. Ok, so what, groups are capable of making decisions that trump those made by individuals. What does this have to do with wine reviews? Aren’t those reviews discrete, single-point decisions about a wine’s quality? Doesn’t group decision making have more to do with the board room than the wine cellar?
Wine reviewing – fine wine reviewing, anyway – is not actually a single-shot decision, is it? Sure, we pretend that it is, with pithy tasting notes, grades, numeric scores, puffs, stars, smiley faces, and the like. But the fact of the matter is that fine wine changes; in the bottle, in the glass, in our mouths. It’s not static. What might be a 91 one minute could evolve into a 97 the next day, or the next week, or over the next fifteen years. Sure, we can make quick quality judgments, but unless someone spends several hours (or days) with a fine wine, a single data point in judging something as tinged with subjectivity as an overall quality impression arguably isn’t superior to multiple data points taken at different times, under different circumstances, and maybe when tasted by different people.
In other words, reviewing a wine implies a decision process that ideally would be based on as many different points as possible. Think of it this way: would you rather buy a wine tasted in five or ten minutes, sampled in an “artificial” situation, and then graded by an expert; or one in which many people tasted that in different circumstances, the type of circumstances that would most closely mirror your own? Would you buy an expensive item on Amazon.com based on one high-quality lab review, or dozens of reviews based on real-world usage of that pricey product?
Ben Ramalingam’s Aid on the Edge of Chaos, a blog about complexity sciences and international aid (they intersect, apparently; who knew?), deftly touched on the topic of single-point versus (for lack of a better term) multi-point decisions back in 2011, when Ramalingam talked about James Surowiecki’s now famous book Wisdom of Crowds (emphasis is mine):
“…in so-called single-shot decisions, experts are almost always more accurate than the collective across a range of conditions. However, for decisions… where individuals should be able to consider the success of previous decision outcomes… the collective’s aggregated information is almost always superior.”
Still not sure this fits into wine reviewing? Consider this: what is a fine wine qualitative assessment if not a decision in which previous outcomes are important? A great wine might have been tighter and less penetrable than a walnut’s ass in its youth, but blossomed into a multi-layered beauty ten years down the line, when initially only the faintest hint of that future pleasure would have been detectible in the glass. And at some point, a previously glorious wine will be ready for the vinegar bottle, no matter how amazing it once was. Even small amounts of previous context can be important to our perception of a fine wine’s development.
Interestingly, the “almost” part in Ramalingam’s “the collective’s aggregated information is almost always superior” is actually somewhat incorrect. Turns out, the data apparently never support the view that single opinions trump those of the crowd, particularly when it comes to predictions. And please don’t tell me that I have to explain expert wine reviews as being predictive (how many come with a proposed drinking window, again?).
Take a look at Acumen VP Terry Ketchersid’s view on the book Think Twice by Michael Mauboussin. Think Twice cites work done on crowd wisdom by Scott Page, the Leonid Hurwicz Collegiate Professor of Complex Systems Political Science, and Economics at the University of Michigan. To quote Ketchersid (emphasis is mine):
“…if you have a group of incentivized, or otherwise motivated individuals, with diverse backgrounds, the crowd will always predict more accurately than the average person. Yes that is always, not sometimes. Of interest, the collective is often better than many of the experts in a particular field. In the words of the author, “This is not good news for experts and it is deeply humbling for all decision-makers.”
The bottom line: Any view that purports the opinion of wine experts to be substantially better or more useful than that of the crowd (albeit the right crowd) is increasingly incorrect in light of both scientific research and public opinion.
Should wine experts (including folks like me, I should add) be concerned about this stuff?
Yeah, they probably should. After all, the track record of wine experts in adapting to obvious trends and avoiding sticking their heads firmly into the wine world sand isn’t so impressive. As I’ve written here before, the adage that “when everyone is a critic, no one is a critic” probably isn’t totally correct. The crowd not only can offer up valuable quality assessments when it comes to fine wine, but it also is capable of self-policing and of deciding who it deems as having the most value when it comes to expert opinions.
I don’t know about you, but all this has me deeply humbled as a wine reviewer. Not only that, but the predilection of younger wine drinkers to make buying decisions based on Googling CellarTracker.com’s aggregate reviews now seems much less young-whipper-snapper-upstart-shenanigans to me than it does logical, efficient-market consumer behavior.
Look out, traditional wine world; the data just aren’t totally on your side here…
62 thoughts on “Does The Wisdom Of The Crowd Provide Better Wine Reviews Than The Experts?”
I generally agree with this post and with those quoted within it, but I want to point out that Malkial's quote that you used includes this: "…informed discussion of the group improves the decision-making process.”
Don't overlook the word "informed."
I believe that's where the weakness in the argument is found as it pertains to reviewing objective criteria thorugh a subjective functionality.
Thomas – no doubt. But I’d argue that much of what we get on CT for example is informed.
I agree with Thomas. While an aggregate of wine experts may provide a better quality assessment then a single expert, a collection of random schmos is a collection of random schmos.
I once heard wine reviews described as a "snapshot" of a wine, that will never give you a 3-dimensional image of it. To take that analogy further, a collection of photos gives you a better idea of what somebody looks like than a single photo.
All that said, websites like yelp have taught me that crowdsourcing works better in theory than it does in practice. Yelp reviews read like restaurant reviews written by middle schoolers, and the sense of self-importance they often contain is borderline nauseating. I have much more faith in a restaurant recommendation from someone I trust than an aggregated yelp score.
Gabe – ah, but the question is, are those reviews, in aggregate, largely “correct”about the restaurant?
in my humble opinion, no.
Pok Pok is one of the most famous Thai restaurants in the country, and has opened multiple locations in Portland and Manhattan since they opened their doors. It has the same aggregate score as Appethaizing, which is a hole-in-the-wall Thai place across the street from Pok Pok, and gets most of its business from people who don't want to wait in line at Pok Pok.
Their aggregate yelp score may be the same, but any food critic that can rub two brain cells together will tell you that these restaurants are not in the same league
Gabe – but then we’re reducing the review down to aggregate scores, both of which are probably calibrated differently based on the reviewers.
Well, without the aggregate, what is crowdsourcing?
Gabe – it's apparently just as flawed as the exist system we accept de facto now :-)
LoL. too true
Yelp has a much broader demographic than what you find on CT. Certainly there are CT reviewers that are not that knowledgable but I have found a number of people that I trust. I've purchased more than one 90 pt & up wine based on a professional review only to be very disappointed. I've found that reviewing multiple opinions on CT to be much better and these mistakes are now avoided more times than not. Bottom line is that looking at CT on my iPhone is much more helpful in the buying process than a professional review.
You can't directly compare just based on number of stars. A 4 star hole in the wall isn't supposed to be the same as a 4 star high end restaurant. Does the experience meet the promise of the brand is more important.
Location is also something you need to keep in mind. Living in the Bay Area the San Francisco restaurant crowd is much tougher in giving out their ratings. I know many 3 Star restaurants in SF that are much better than 4 star rated in the area. But that is part of my own subjective analysis and I still find Yelp much more useful than professional reviews. Not to mention, you get much more extensive coverage.
Bottom line is context is key when filtering the crowd but it's worth it.
I almost never post a review on CT without reading the other reviews, (generally before drinking or even buying the wine). This allows me to consider what others thought and tasted and gives me some things to look for. I wish I could say it doesn't color my review, I sure it does. But isn't that the point? It's the discussion, albeit spread over months and years that allows CT come up with a more accurate number for the world.
Pbilling13 – yeah, it is the point, I think.
I would argue that "crowd" is a term that is perhaps the most important word to examine more closely. While it is certainly a fairly easy concept to understand, it is far more difficult to define. I have many wines that have few if any reviews on CT, which means that a single outlier can easily affect the collective view (read "average score"). While I agree with your basic premiss that the collective view on CT is more valuable than to me than any one critic's view in making purchasing decisions, it still is subject to the overly loud voice of the individual.
I also am not so sure that "groupthink" can be so easily dismissed. If an individual goes out and buys a wine that has been overwhelmingly lauded by the CT community, won't at least part of his experience include the knowledge that he is drinking a widely enjoyed and revered wine?
Masi3v – part off the point is to be influenced at least in buying terms. After which group think is probably a definite possibility!
On the producer side, the thing that drives us crazy with Cellar Tracker relates to the "informed" views, and whether we actually should care or not. We stopped caring when we would see back to back reviews of a Chardonnay, for example, with one hating on it saying it was the most over-oaked bomb ever produced, side by side with a review that touted it's steely minerality. (And yes, it was a naked wine, produced without oak).
On the other hand, I've had the experience moving some wines on Woot, for example, where it was difficult to sell out some wines that had been produced as an exercise in style — actually great wine by a top winemaker with wonderful fruit — because the wooters couldn't find a single review on Cellar Tracker.
So personally, I've learned to live with the quirkiness and am just glad there are enough people who enjoy what I help produce to share thoughts about it….
Jim – that’s also part and parcel of utilizing any review, from any source, potentially.
Jim points out exactly what I mean when I question the "informed" portion of the equation, and the Drunken Cyclist makes a great point concerning "group-think."
When I produced wine, the only reviews I cherished were the ones that helped me to improve the product–they came usually from people in the business, other winemakers. Reviews from critics and consumers I saw as subjective likes and dislikes. The aim, for me, was to find enough customers that appreciated my subjective tastes, and that meant not bowing to the general aggregate, but reaching for a specific aggregate instead.
I went broke trying, so maybe my outlook is completely wrong!
Though I understand, and agree, with much of the theory behind the wisdom of crowds, I am not sure it works that well with subjective matters, such as wine. The example of Yelp shows some of the problems of such crowd sourcing, from shills posting reviews to people with an axe to grind against a restaurant owner posting negative reviews. On Amazon, they crowd source review, granting 1-5 stars, with 1 star being the worst rating. Some people give out 1 star despite not even having read the book! They simply might object to the politics of the writer, or even the price of the book. Crowdsourcing wine reviews presents some of those very same issues.
What's more important to a wine consumer? A crowdsourced rating score, or an individual review that tells a story about the wine? I think that for a good number of consumers, the story will trump the score. And those crowdsourced wine review sites, rarely seem to provide the story behind a wine. By trumpeting the greatness of crowdsourced sites, we actually declare that stories about wine are far less valuable. Though neuroscience studies show the great important of such matters.
I also think that the lone expert, the wine store employee, can trump crowdsourcing. That employee has the opportunity to question the consumer about their preferences, to make multiple suggestions, and offer recs a person might never have searched for online. Speaking to an wine shop employee is far easier and quicker than checking for multiple wines on your iphone, reading dozens of wine reviews, etc.
I could go on and on. :)
Will this post be tied in later to your previous VineSleuth article?
Richard – probably no tie in, but I love what you say about the storytelling.All – I don't disagree that this whole thing is fraught with issues. But then, as some of you have pointed out, all reviews including those of experts are also fraught with issues :-) I suppose in a lot of ways that underscores Richard's point about the importance of storytelling.
The issue of "crowd wisdom" is not quite as simple as you suggest here. Surowiecki himself specifies 4 conditions under which crowds are "smart".
-It needs to be diverse, so that people are bringing different pieces of information to the table.
-It needs to be decentralized, so that no one at the top is dictating the crowd’s answer.
-It needs a way of summarizing people’s opinions into one collective verdict.
-And the people in the crowd need to be independent, so that they pay attention mostly to their own information, and not worrying about what everyone around them thinks.
In crowdsourced opinion such as Cellar Tracker the participants are not independent–they can be influenced by previous reviews. And although a summarized collective verdict may be accurate, there is no reason to think particular reviews are accurately picking out features of the wine on which to report. The descriptions are not crowdsourced since they don't represent a collective verdict. Only an average score would be crowdsourced. The most important function of expert reviews, in my view, is not the score but the description.
And I agree with previous comments. Yelp is utterly useless. At least on Cellar Tracker we can assume that reviewers have some experience. Inexperienced wine drinkers are unlikely to have cellars to track. As far as I can tell, Yelp commenters are, as Gabe put it above, "random schmos".
It seems to me this whole debate hinges on the silly notion that when it comes to wine there is a "right" answer. That's nonsense on the face of it.
If you want to base your buying decisions based on the opinions of the mob at CellarTracker, go ahead. If you want to buy because Parker gave it 95 points, why not? Ultimately, you begin to buy wines based on the results as those results appeal to your own taste, or your own wallet. Individual reviewer or crowd sourced? Neither one is right, or better. If you buy a bunch of wine because 1WineDoody says they're good, and they turn out to be disappointing, you simply begin to disregard his opinions. Would it have been wiser to heed the advice of CellarTracker? Unlikely. My experience, at least with wine competitions and other kinds of blind tastings, is that the most interesting wines, the more complex and subtle wines, at least in my opinion, drift to the middle of the results, while the barely above average wines, by virtue of their simple inoffensiveness, or maybe their overwhelming effusiveness, drift upward and win Sweepstakes. The crowd finds the most comfortable solution, not the most interesting. If you agree with the crowd, they're right. If you have your own "informed" opinion, they're usually wrong. So, essentially, there is no right or wrong. Just your own "truth."
Joe: The big problem with this idea is, What's better?
Do you follow the wisdom of crowds in selecting movies or TV shows to see? If so, perhaps you will also prefer that method for selecting wines.
On the subject of Yelp I have a rule:
I never sign onto a website with a name that already tells me what to expect and I know I won't like what it is to expect.
I agree with your premise Joe. I for one, believe the more "data points" one has, the more likely they are to arrive at a better decisions. Of course there are always exceptions, and of course it matters if the opinion is informed. I think CT is a valuable resource. But if I'm really looking to make a buying decision based on something other than my own tasting of the wine, CT is one of many resources I use to get the 411.
Couldn't agree more @martinredmond What is better, Pro reviews, or Pro reviews AND CT? More info is always better IMHO.
On more than one occasion I've bought highly rated wines only to be disappointed and find out that I'm not the only one via CT.
Now, instead of just reading that 90 point review plastered on display in front of the wine I check CT on my iPhone first and rarely am disappointed with my purchases. Or, just support your local wineries where you can try before you buy.
HAVING BEEN INTRODUCED TO THIS SPECIFIC SUBJECT POSTING VIA ANOTHER WINE BLOG (“EXPERT WINE REVIEWS MAY BE INFERIOR”), LET ME PROFFER SOME “COMMENTARY.”
BE FOREWARNED: THIS IS GOING TO BE A L-O-N-G REPLY, SO INDULGE ME.
CALTECH PROFESSOR LEONARD MLODINOW (WHO CO-AUTHORED TWO BOOKS WITH RENOWNED PHYSICIST STEPHEN HAWKING) HAD THIS TO SAY ABOUT JUDGING SOMEONE’S “EXPERTISE” . . .
~~ BOB HENRY
Excerpts from The Wall Street Journal Online
(April 30, 2008):
“Numbers Guy Interview: Leonard Mlodinow”
[Article link: http://blogs.wsj.com/numbersguy/numbers-guy-inter…
By Carl Bialik
“The Numbers Guy” Blog
[ Bob's aside: Leonard Mlodinow’s book titled “The Drunkard’s Walk" has a chapter on the statistics of wine scoring. To read Mlodinow's guest commentary article for the Wall Street Journal titled "A Hint of Hype, A Taste of Illusion [Why Wine Ratings Are Badly Flawed]" use this link: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703…
Links to statistics professor-turned-winemaker Robert Hodgson's studies cited by Mlodinow:
— and —
WSJ: You argue persuasively that much of what we consider a track record of EXPERTISE is really an accident of luck. Is there any true EXPERTISE, in your opinion? Are there any experts you trust?
MR. MLODINOW: I believe there is true EXPERTISE in some endeavors, and not in others. There is obviously no such thing as EXPERTISE in predicting the results of coin tosses, but there is EXPERTISE in predicting the behavior of lasers. I feel that picking stocks or predicting Hollywood hits is more like the former. The process of building a company or making a film is more like the latter.
But there is a related question: Given that we are discussing an endeavor in which it is possible, how can you tell if someone has EXPERTISE? That is hard, because EXPERTISE plus bad luck can equal a failure, and lack of EXPERTISE plus good luck can equal success. The only way to tell the two apart is to observe the individual over a long time, which in statistics often means 100 or even 1,000 trials. This is obviously often not possible, so I recommend instead that we judge people by a thoughtful analysis of their intelligence, philosophy, work ethic, etc., rather than simply by their results.
WSJ: Just because a certain human achievement — say, clutch hitting, or successful stock picking — exhibits the normal statistical variation, does that necessarily mean the best performers were just lucky? Or is there something about human intentionality that makes it possible that the best performers really did exhibit extraordinary skill and were deserving of the result?
MR. MLODINOW: Intentionality and talent always matter. An extraordinary feat is certainly made more likely by someone’s focus, hard work, etc. But chance also matters. And since there are few situations outside the science laboratory in which the random influences can be eliminated, luck is almost always a part of the statistical variation we observe in people’s feats.
. . .
WSJ: Might we need to proceed irrationally in our lives to succeed? In other words, if we really believed that so much of success was the result of luck, wouldn’t a lot of us just give up trying?
MR. MLODINOW: Some theorize that this is the evolutionary reason that we like to assume we are in control, even when we clearly aren’t. That may be so, but I don’t mourn the role of luck, I celebrate it. All else equal, it is a lot more fun not knowing how your book will do, or how your life will turn out, than it would be if everything could be determined by a logical calculation. Moreover, the fact that luck matters means you can help yourself by being persistent. A failure doesn’t mean you are unworthy, nor does it preclude success on the next try. As Thomas J. Watson, the highly successful IBM pioneer, said, “If you want to succeed, double your failure rate.”
WSJ: How would you respond to Mark Twain’s quip that “People commonly use statistics like a drunk uses a lamp post: for support rather than illumination”?
MR. MLODINOW: I think Mark Twain was 110% correct.
Bob – thanks, the Twain quote is classic
On the handful of occasions I've consulted Cellar Tracker as a consumer, I've gotten negative value out of having done so. I ended up wasting time and finding that there is little predictive power in the aggregate or individual scores for how I'm going to enjoy a wine. So, now I just ignore Cellar Tracker entirely and focus on acquiring primary source info. I'm not sure why I'm supposed to care what others think about a wine before I try it. I agree with others who have said that the 3rd-party best source of advice is someone whose future livelihood depends on your repeat business / making good recommendations to you (e.g. your wine shop guy or retailer).
Nick – totally; the shop guy/gal and the somm are usually the most influential critics in the world to the customers there speaking with at any given moment :-)
General observations that dovetail with Ron's sentiment: "So, essentially, there is no right or wrong. Just your own 'truth.' "
After a budding wine enthusiast has read the leading wine writers/critics for a general education on the subject, developed a vocabulary of descriptive terms that makes sense to him/her [*], and tasted a sufficiently wide array of wines to have developed a level of discernment and preference . . . why does s/he need a wine guru?
Trust you own palate while dedicating yourself to having fun experimenting. Seek out novice experiences.
Thumb your nose at wine shibboleths. (Robert Mondavi — "himself" — enjoyed Napa Valley Cab on oppressively hot Summer days. So the story is told that he regularly plopped ice cubes in his glass of Cab to chill his beloved beverage. He "broke" the rules with impunity. So can you.)
Enjoy what you like — and don't feel you have to "defend" yourself.
And if you get it "wrong" every once in a while? Relax — and join the pros.
Anecdote recited by Clive Coates Master of Wine (and countless other wine scribes and pundits:
". . . the late, great [wine writer] Harry Waugh, who, once asked if he had ever confused Bordeaux with Burgundy, replied, 'Not since lunch.' "
[ * See “Cherries, Berries, Asphalt, and Jam; Why wine writers talk that way," Slate (posted June 15, 2007). Link: http://www.slate.com/articles/life/drink/2007/06/… ]
Thanks, Bob. I agree totally, which is probably why I continue to try to lend credence to the idea that wine lovers should trust themselves (through crazy articles like this one :-) Cheers.
As someone who has "moonlighted" on weekends at leading wine stores in Los Angeles (working the sales floor. writing the newsletter, and running the weekend wine bar program), I continually offer consumers this advice:
Wine magazines and books can educate you about wine in general: its history, geography, varietals, and industry leaders.
Wine reviewers (print and online) can introduce you to specific varietals and brands you may not be aware of.
Forming a wine tasting group and throwing sampling parties exposes you to more wines than your single paycheck (or wine storage capacity) might allow.
Once you have your baseline knowledge, have fun with your hobby.
Enjoy your new-found friendships with "fellow travelers."
Bob – great advice. My time spent with wine mags ended quickly, and personally I never really looked back because I didn’t need to do it (unless I wanted to, and even then it was for articles, not recommendations)…
I think you've got it Bob. The more you educate yourself and experience different wines the more value you can get from other's opinions; whether it's Pros, CT, or fellow travelers.
The greatest value I get from CT is writing my own reviews and when I'm ready to drink the next bottle of the same wine I can read what I wrote the first time. Writing a review also forces me to put more thought in to it.
Erratum: "Seek out NOVEL experiences."
Postscript. The pros misidentify wines all the time, as Harry Waugh suggested.
See "In Blindness Veritas?; Tasting wine blind isn't all it's cracked up to be." Slate (posted November 7, 2007): Link: http://www.slate.com/articles/life/drink/2007/11/…
Damn it – don't educate the masses, pls. As one who buys most. Of my potables on auction, I rely on CT and , knowing the limitations, believe it is an awesome resource, better than any critic…proven over time…but it is my edge …if others figure this out, I will be screwed…so – everyone – believe in the gospel according to WS, Parker, and ur other gods…they are all-knowing and never for fault.
Zoeldar – whoops… sorry…
Regarding . . .
"Damn it – don't educate the masses, pls."
. . . I recall reading this statistic somewhere: 88% of the wine in the U.S. is drunk by (around) 13% of the consumers.
Dovetails with the "80:20 Rule" of marketing: "80% of your sales revenue comes from 20% of your customers." First credited to 20th century management guru Joseph M. Juran.
So have no fear, the "masses" aren't your buying competition.
They don't know about or care about "fine" wine.
Have never heard of James Laube or Robert Parker or Stephen Tanzer. Don't read Wine Spectator or Wine Advocate or International Wine Cellar.
Bob-to that point, I'm betting that all of us here are at the tippy top of the wine buying pyramid right now…
When it comes to buying and savoring wine, we are "outliers."
The apex of the consumption pyramid.
The "1 Percenters" who are the innovators in first adopting a new winemaker or varietal.
Bob – I think you meant “variety” and not “varietal?” ;-) Sorry… cannot resist… that one is a loooooong-standing pet peeve here :).
I stand by my use of the word "varietal" — as in grape varietal.
Know Cabernet Sauvignon, but have never tried Cabernet Franc ? Consider a bottle from California, Washington or France (Bordeaux and Loire). Or consider Carménère from Chile.
Know Zinfandel, but have never tried Plavac Mali or Dobričić ? Consider a bottle from Croatia.
Know Chardonnay, but have never tried Aligoté ? Consider a bottle from France.
Know Riesling, but have never tried Müller-Thurgau ? Consider a bottle from Germany or Oregon or Italy.
Know Pinot Noir and Cinsaut, but have never tried Pinotage? Consider one from South Africa.
And if you are so motivated, see if you can ascend this "mountain":
"The Wine Century Club"
"The 100 Club – of Grape Varieties" by Jancis Robinson, M.W,
(Me? I stopped counting when I hit three digits a long time ago.)
Bob – I stopped counting after 200 on the WCC. As for varietal – it’s only a noun in limited circumstances, and is never and has never been a synonym for variety when used as a noun. Despite the fact that most of the wine world uses it incorrectly :-)
You must be alluding to wine blog entries such as this:
If the word "varietal" has come into widespread adoption by the wine industry, then I would submit that its “corrupted" usage is "correct" – as industries often “coin” and define their own terms. (Sometimes defying academic correctness.)
And journalism "style guides” and dictionaries over time “legitimize” such misusage.
That is the malleability of our mongrel English language — a mash-up of so many Romance languages.
You could say that the (mis-)usage of “grape varietal” is an example of the “wisdom of crowds” – as everybody is doing it.
And a Sisyphean task to break the trade and the public of this ingrained "bad" habit.
Bob – I know, but I continue the good fight. It’s my primary pet peeve about the wine biz… As it stands today, using varietal as substitute for variety is no more correct than me calling a cat a tree. People misuse terms and words all the time, but so far no serious body is calling “they’re” a correct use of the possessive… etc.
See if this link works:
As is it with every other thing, I've always subscribed to the school of thought that says that the crowd can not be wrong – I guess that pretty much makes clear which side of the divide I stand.
I'm more of a statistics based guy, so I'd naturally want to go with what the 99 percentile recommends as being good (perhaps, even though they might end up being wrong) rather than go with a one-man heads-up from an expert…strange but true.
1winedude, nice argument you have coming here. Will be watching to see what other have got to say
Thanks, Hugo. As I get older, I place *MUCH* more value in stats and data, so I understand your stance. Cheers!
THE "WISDOM OF CROWDS" IS CHALLENGED BY THE PSYCHOLOGICAL PHENOMENON KNOWN AS "GROUPTHINK."
SEE THIS BOOK REVIEW ON THE SUBJECT OF ILL-INFORMED HUMAN JUDGMENT:
Excerpts from BusinessWeek “Opinion” Section
(May 11, 2009, Page 069ff):
“The Unwisdom of Crowds”
Book review by John Carey
[is a senior correspondent for BusinessWeek in Washington]
Going to Extremes:
How Like Minds Unite and Divide
By Cass R. Sunstein
(Oxford University Press, 199 pp.; $21.95)
Cass R. Sunstein is an amazingly prolific and influential legal scholar. The subjects of his hundreds of articles and more than 15 books range from constitutional law to animal rights. "If you look at what he's written and done, he should be 900 years old," says Scott H. Segal, partner at Bracewell & Giuliani, a law and lobbying firm. In fact, the longtime University of Chicago law professor (who moved to Harvard in 2008) is an affable 54-year-old . . .
. . .
. . . his latest  book, "Going to Extremes: How Like Minds Unite and Divide" . . .
What jumps out from the book is Sunstein's mistrust of human judgment in everything from politics to business, especially when people band together. There's little wisdom of crowds here — and not many knowledgeable individuals, either. In many cases, "people suffer from a 'crippled epistemology,' in the sense that they know very few things, and what they know is wrong," Sunstein laments.
This wrongheadedness just gets worse when people put their heads together. Like-minded folk tend to aggregate into groups, causing their views to grow more extreme, Sunstein argues. . . .
Don't flatter yourself that you're immune to the pernicious power of the group. Among the evidence Sunstein cites (which includes some of his own research) is the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment. A number of students randomly chosen to be "guards" ended up brutalizing those who were their "prisoners." "Perhaps all of us, under certain circumstances, could commit atrocities," concludes Sunstein. Certainly, he suggests, all of us are capable of being irrational. Even direct appeals to reason can be a waste of time. In what Sunstein calls "an especially disturbing finding," people's false beliefs can actually be strengthened when they're shown the error of their ways.
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ALSO CHECK OUT NICHOLAS CARR'S BLOB TITLED "THE WISDOM OF STATISTICALLY MANIPULATED CROWDS."
Bob, I know group think, I was a manager in corporate America :-)
ON THE SUBJECT OF WINE MERCHANTS AND THEIR RELIANCE ON SELLING OFF 100 POINT SCALE SCORES (AND THE RISE OF "MILLENNIALS" AND SOCIAL MEDIA).
Excerpts from Slate
(posted July 21, 2011):
"The Greatest Wine Retailer in America;
How Chambers Street Wines eschewed critic ratings and built a loyal following.”
By Mike Steinberger
"Drink: Wine, Beer and Other Potent Potables" Column
Depending on your circumstances, visiting a great wine shop can be an exhilarating experience or it can leave you feeling like a eunuch at an orgy. I'm on an austerity plan these days, and while I can walk into most wine stores content merely to browse, there is one shop that I actively avoid in the interest of financial rectitude and domestic tranquility. That would be New York's Chambers Street Wines. IF THERE’S A BETTER WINE PURVEYOR ANYWHERE, I HAVEN’T ENCOUNTERED IT; at Chambers Street, temptation lurks in literally every rack and bin, and even just writing about the place makes me want to whip out a credit card. . . . BUT IT IS ALSO THAT RAREST OF THINGS IN AMERICAN WINE RETAILING: A STORE WITH A DISTINCTIVE VOICE. [Capitalization added for emphasis. – Bob]
. . .
THERE IS ANOTHER THING THAT SETS CHAMBERS STREET APART FROM MOST OF ITS COMPETITORS: LILLIE AND WOLFF HAVE NEVER USED RATINGS FROM CRITICS TO HELP SELL THEIR WINES. WHEN CHAMBERS STREET OPENED, IT WAS DIFFICULT TO FIND AN UPSCALE WINE STORE THAT WASN’T COVERED IN SHELF TALKERS TOUTING SCORES FROM ROBERT PARKER AND THE WINE SPECTATOR. MANY MERCHANTS HAD SIMPLY STOPPED SELLING WINE AND WERE INSTEAD FLOGGING POINTS. BUT LILLIE AND WOLFF WERE INTENT ON ESTABLISHING A RAPPORT WITH CUSTOMERS THAT WASN’T MEDIATED BY THIRD-PARTY OPINIONS. "We wanted the shop to be completely personal — to get know people's taste, and to recommend wines we liked and that we thought they would enjoy," Lillie told me. He's quick to note that, back in 2001, the kind of wines that he and Wolff were interested in didn't get much attention from critics, which made it easier to eschew scores. Fair enough, but I still think it took some guts make Chambers Street a points-free zone.
A DECADE ON, THEIR DECISION LOOKS PRESCIENT. THAT’S BECAUSE RATING SEEM TO BE DIMINISHING IN IMPORTANCE. A VERY SELF-CONFIDENT WINE CULTURE HAS TAKEN ROOT IN THE UNITED STATES: PEOPLE ARE USING DISCUSSION BOARDS AND SOCIAL MEDIA TO FIND THEIR WAY TO GOOD BOTTLES, AND THE INFLUENCE OF CRITICS IS WANING, ESPECIALLY AMONG YOUNG DRINKERS. … RAMPANT GRADE INFLATION COULD BE HASTENING THAT DECLINE. High ratings help merchants sell wines, and being cited on shelf talkers and in email offers is free publicity for critics, who thus have an incentive to bump up their scores. But big numbers have now become so prevalent that they've turned the 100-point scale into a farce. I THINK RETAILERS ARE GOING TO HAVE TO LEARN TO SELL WINE AGAIN, and in that sense, Chambers Street has a big jump on a lot of other stores.
. . .
From today's Wine Business Monthly e-mail news blast:
"Goodbye, Wine Snobs: How E. & J. Gallo Winery Courts Millennials"
Wine Over Ice? Younger Consumers Not Tied to Drinking Traditions
[Link: http://adage.com/print/244559 ]
— and —
"How Millennials are Changing the Wine Industry"
The Millennial generation, which includes the youngest legal drinkers, is consuming more wine than previous generations when they turned 21, and the industry is taking note.
Bob – just read that same thing. If Gallo is doing it, then for sure there are data behind the move that convinced them there is money to be eventually be made because of it. I think it underscores a theme I’ve been repeating ad nauseum here…
I do get the feeling that this whole subject is a broken record since every time I get sucked into responding I end up saying the same thing. Every opinion is valid, you don't need a wine professional to tell you what to like, however a crowd-sourced opinion is usually based on assimilation of information that already exists. Critics, sommelier and retailers are usually the first people who start creating awareness, interest and acquisition of wines when they are brand new. Wine professionals spend their days sitting for appointments, deciding what works for their clientele and in so doing establish themselves as a reliable resource for discovery. When I was in retail from 1990 – 2008, most of the wines I was recommending hadn't been reviewed yet, but clients still wanted some reasonable assurance they were getting something they liked. They would come in with their wine review mags marked up in red for their shopping list and after going through it with them they were disappointed few if any of those wines were available until I told them "The wines you want, you don't know about yet". Like Chambers Street, I never relied on having shelf-talkers to sell the wines I helped select and it was all sold by hand to people who trusted our opinion.
The bottom line is it is extremely unlikely that you will find the first opinion for a wine on Cellar Tracker, and unless that person is highly influential in that community there may not be another until the wine gets more traction outside. The other problem with crowd sourcing of opinion is knowing what is based on fact v. erroneous belief. The winery I do sales for now is commonly mentioned on Yelp where our products are confused for another company that doesn't even make wine or they complain we don't pour a 30 case production, $120 wine in the tasting room for drop in visitors.
The wine review magazine I publish surveys subscribers to get their opinion. One of the questions is what people want in a review. Nearly 90% said a review and a numerical score.
Doug, we'll never get to the bottom of this one, I suspect. Your comment about the survey intrigues me; I wonder if it's skewed? I.e., are those subscribers more apt to want scores/reviews in the first place? Doesn't matter for your purposes, I guess, but an interesting question.
Joe, To answer the skewed question, I imagine it is. I wouldn't expect people to pay for something they didn't find value in using as a resource. Having said that, there isn't one outlet that is useful for everyone. That is the beauty of so many diverse viewpoints. People will tend to go back to whatever resonates with their taste or sensibilities and gives them actionable info (especially if it is ahead of the curve). If there are any examples of where a crowd sourced opinion of someone outside the industry drove wide-spread adoption of a new wine, I would be happy to look at it. :)
Doug – agreed, and I suppose you're right. But I remain convinced that those crowd reviews influence purchases, at least at the goggle-it-right-before-buying point.
Joe, That was never my point that people don't use them, just that isn't likely going to be the viral origination of the information. Put another way, tomorrow at this time the world will be full of opinions on the iPhone 6. Right now there are probably very few people that actually know the complete feature set, and those who have tested it may have an exclusive review the second it is unveiled, but until then it is complete speculation, even with the leaks we commonly see.
Doug, I understand, and agree, I was just putting the value of the crowd reviews in more context.
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