Should wine writers be experts?

By Felix Salmon
May 18, 2010
Spencer Bailey has a piece on old-school wine journalists vs new-school bloggers, in which he essentially says that the former are qualified to do their jobs, while the latter have freshness and an appealing voice. The oddest part of the column, for me, was the emphasis on the qualifications of the old guard:

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Spencer Bailey has a piece on old-school wine journalists vs new-school bloggers, in which he essentially says that the former are qualified to do their jobs, while the latter have freshness and an appealing voice. The oddest part of the column, for me, was the emphasis on the qualifications of the old guard:

A number of amateur bloggers, for instance, now call themselves critics. This is, some argue, a worrisome trend for the winemaking industry itself, if not also for professional wine writing…

“Maybe what blogging will do is undermine the whole idea that this is a subject that is rich and deep and requires some substantive thought and substantive knowledge,” says Karen MacNeil, author of The Wine Bible and one in a small stable of writers that wine critic Robert Parker has recruited to contribute to his Web site, “If everybody’s an expert,” she says, “nobody’s an expert.”

MacNeil, for the most part, is right. Magazine writers, newspaper columnists, and heavyweight critics like Parker—the industry’s leading critic, who launched The Wine Advocate in 1982 and created the 100-point rating system widely in use today—have become respected for a reason. These writers and critics really know their stuff, and the brands they write for are trusted as a result…

Wine is, after all, a complex drink, and it needs to be analyzed in a complex way, usually by someone with a deep understanding of wine or by someone with credentials, such as a WSET advanced degree.

As a recently-minted wine columnist for Reuters and someone with nothing approaching a WSET advanced degree, this was all very interesting to me, and in general I couldn’t agree less.

For one thing, it’s great for the winemaking industry that the universe of wine criticism is expanding from a few all-powerful critics to something much broader and more heterogeneous. No longer does everybody need to make the same style of Parker-friendly wines: winemakers now are increasingly able to follow their own tastes and instincts, and to find critics out there who understand and get excited about what they’re doing.

As for the importance of substantive knowledge and expertise, I’m increasingly coming to the conclusion that such things are a double-edged sword. Yes, it helps to know what you’re talking about. But all too often expertise manifests itself in impenetrable winespeak (“cardamom and leather on the nose, with lingering top-notes of freshly-mown grass and wet greyhound”) and an ever-shrinking audience of older, richer wine snobs. Wine is wonderfully social and democratic drink — you can find some great stuff for $15 a bottle, or $3 per generous glass, which is a great price-to-pleasure ratio. But all too often people get scared off by the snobs, decide that they “don’t know anything about wine”, and never discover this wonderful world.

Learning about wine, I think, is something best done over time and out of love, by drinking it and by occasionally visiting wine-growing regions of the world, which are invariably beautiful places to go on holiday, even if you’re not a wine geek. And it’s perfectly fine for wine writers to take their readers on that journey with them, rather than waiting until they’ve achieved some level of snobbishness before feeling qualified to write anything. All too often, natural enthusiasms are educated out of wine drinkers, who are constantly and unhelpfully told that the most expensive wines are the best wines. This syndrome is particularly pronounced in California, where heavy and tannic cabs, which pair well with nothing except for maybe a bloody steak and a cigar, are elevated to cult status and aped by winemakers across the state.

I, for one, would fully embrace a world where everybody’s an expert and nobody’s an expert, where people can find critics and bloggers whose tastes overlap with their own rather than feeling intimidated into thinking that if they don’t like what Wine Spectator likes then there’s something wrong with them. As for the idea that magazines get respected because of the degree of knowledge that their writers show, I think it’s much more the other way round. And the 100-point system is an absolute abomination, which in and of itself is reason to hate old-school wine journalism.

The best wine writers, I think, are those who wear their erudition lightly, and who don’t tell their readers what to like. John Brecher and Dot Gaiter used to do that in the WSJ, and it’s a crying shame that they’ve been replaced by critics who habitually zoom to the most expensive part of any wine list. After writing my first official wine column, I noticed something quite human about myself: I wanted to show off, and talk about obscure and expensive wines. But that doesn’t serve a broad audience: it just exacerbates the syndrome of people buying wine for all the wrong reasons.

So let’s celebrate the diversity of the wine-blogging world, and let’s stop being intimidated by experts. If you’ve found a wonderful $6 bottle of rosé, then that’s fantastic: you get loads of pleasure without having to spend lots of money. There’s no shame in that, and if you want to share your discovery with the rest of the world, then please do. No need for expertise.


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I see two problems with wine snobbery. First, the sensation taste is subjective. I loathe mushrooms, for example. I’d be happy to cart them off to the surface of the sun, never to be seen again. But my girlfriend can’t get enough of them. Is her subjective mushroom experience any more valid than mine?

Because in wines, that subjectivity isn’t valued. It’s just about what’s fashionable. When Sideways came out and Paul Giamati ranted about how much he hated merlot, wine snobs all over the world starting buying pinot by the caseload and pouring their merlot down the drain. Well, you know what? I love merlot. Bloody well love it.

And there’s nothing wrong with buying it cheap. Once you purchase a varietal, there’s a mutually agreed on ‘best’ wine. But why? Why should wine have an ideal type-specimen when any other food is open to interperation? And no wine critic in the world has comfortably answered why study after study shows that their 100-point system is hopelessly skewed by perception of price. People like wine better when they pay more for it. The placebo effect is a bastard.

Posted by strawman | Report as abusive

felix, I assume you’ve heard of Gary Vaynerchuk? he does a daily video-cast of tastings, in an un-assuming way:

Posted by KidDynamite | Report as abusive

It’s probably an irrelevant distinction anyway – most Americans have no taste in wine, including most American ‘experts’.

Posted by Gaw | Report as abusive

I’m a tea blogger and the same thing happens with tea as well, except there are no “expert” tea critics out there. What ends up is a rather democratic “everyone has their own taste” world of tea blogs out there.

What I do want to caution, however, is misinformation in such an environment. With wine that is a little less of a problem, since wines are normally clearly labeled, controlled by strict appellation laws, and therefore has less room to go wrong when it comes to vintage, varietal, etc. With tea, a constant issue is that people repeat hearsay and vendor-speak (i.e. lies) and after enough bloggers repeat such things, they become accepted truth. In that sense, having the authoritative, “expert” critics would help to alleviate this problem.

Posted by MarshalN | Report as abusive

KD, as the other smart young blogger besides FS, presumably are you aware that Vaynerchuk is only “recommending” wines he sells? He is a salesman, not a critic. That’s not to say that the wines he recommends are bad, any more than the bond funds that Bill Gross recommends are bad. But maybe we need a new phrase, “talking his warehouse.”

Posted by maynardGkeynes | Report as abusive

@ kd: correction “presumably you are aware”

Posted by maynardGkeynes | Report as abusive

Never thought I’d register to post a comment on this site, but this topic is screaming for a few extra notes. Not on wine journalist vs wine bloggers; but rather on the whole journalists vs bloggers (“citizen journalists,” as some like to call themselves), and the future of mainstream newspapers.

Posted by ddebernardy | Report as abusive

@ Gaw: I beg to differ on that. Those americans who actually drink wine, rather than bud, tend to know a few things about wine — especially if they maintain some kind of wine cellar. If you want to meet wine illiterates who will drink any wine, including two buck chuck (one of whose whites is, btw, not that bad), try the French.

Posted by ddebernardy | Report as abusive

maynardGkeynes: interesting point – i’m less suspicious of it though – I think GaryV talks honestly, openly, and enthusiastically about wine in a non-snobby way, which is exactly what I think most people need.

i don’t get the feeling from him that he’s talking his wine celler, but i guess it’s possible. I also haven’t really watched him at all in the last 6 months.

does he ONLY taste wines that he sells?

Posted by KidDynamite | Report as abusive

Felix – Holding Parker up as an example of a “educated” wine expert is unbelievable. Parker has a law degree not a WSET. When he started in ’82 he was the equivalent of a blogger in the pre-internet era. He was sending around printed sheets of reviews to a small circle of mail subscribers. If he is viewed as an expert today, it is due to self-education and dint of effort. He was an ultimate outsider in a world populated nearly exclusively by industry and auction house shills.

Posted by Gennitydo | Report as abusive

Consumers would do better tasting the wines rather than becoming critics of the critics.

Posted by walt9316 | Report as abusive

Re Gary Vaynerchuk, yes he is a salesman but
1. He tastes wines he sells and wines he does not sell
2. He will not taste wines that he has over 10 cases of in the store
3. He is not afraid to totally pan a wine that he sells. I have seen him try a wine (on Conan) that he said was total crap and nobody should buy. Guess what, it was available in his store.

Posted by njAndrew | Report as abusive

A wine’s appeal is approximately 15% the grape, 15% the vintner, and 70% marketing.

Posted by slave | Report as abusive

As with any other topic, blogged or not, I think it helps if there’s a bit of enthusiasm and authenticity like that Gary lad brings to the table. No Jim Cramer he, praise be.

In relative absence of, or alongside, which some sort of utilitarian context may be of orientational assistance.

And in the case (no pun, etc) of wine, dispensing with customary cross-references to food which may be taken as optional accompaniment, this occasional writer heartily endorses Amiral de Beychevelle SJ 2004 for its absolutely amazing aphrodisiac qualities and need for virtually no time to breathe in advance. One ought nonchalantly to keep some handy at all times.

But if you lot were to buy it all up, I might wish I’d never mentioned it.

Posted by HBC | Report as abusive

Wine writers need only know more than their readership.
Wine critics need to know even less.
The idea that Parker was an expert when he started is incorrect. By his own admission he was just a passionate amateur who paid attention and had strong opinions.

Posted by ReiSei | Report as abusive

I have not had the pleasure of reading/knowing this Gary V. I just live up here at the north end of the Chelehem AVA and go around here and there tasting our local wines on the occasional weekend. I think this is a nice way to do it, and I invite you all to give it a try.

Posted by SelenesMom | Report as abusive

I think Felix should perhaps explore the many wine makers in California, especially southern California, that are making wines not in the cliche cab style he mentions. Here is a perfect example. fo-grenache-20100520,0,7891851.story

Btw, I’m looking forward to my visit to the Rhone in September!

Posted by Lakerman | Report as abusive

There’s nothing wrong with knowing about winemaking and viticulture as long as you get your information from enologists and plant experts, not critics, not writers and certainly not restaurant-oriented education programs. UC Davis has some great distance education opportunities and I assume the wine schools in Australia and France do as well. Winemaking is a unique mixture of genetics, plant and soil science, fermentation science, and magic. You can’t understand the last part unless you understand the first three.

Posted by bigeater | Report as abusive

I think this relates to the question of who decides what is a fine wine. Expertise is great if it can be trusted to be genuine and is not misused as of late. End of the day we like what we like

Posted by Wineday123 | Report as abusive