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, erobertparker.com. “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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