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!