What future for expertise?


3 May 2018 In our Throwback Thursday series of articles from our archives, we are republishing this three-year-old consideration of the dramatic effect of social media on the role of the wine critic, and supposed experts in other fields. 

5 September 2015 This is a longer version of an article published on the front of the Life and Arts section of the Financial Times. 

Only once in my life did I ever think I knew everything there was to be known about wine. In 1978, two years after beginning them, I finished the courses run by the Wine and Spirit Education Trust. By dint of luck, and presumably a hefty dose of grammar-school diligence, I was the top student of my year and reckoned that with a WSET Diploma under my belt, I was now a fully fledged wine expert. (I had to wait six years before the Master of Wine exams were opened to people outside the wine trade.) 

The succeeding years have taught me just how much there still is to learn. I feel as though I discover something new about wine every day. But I suppose, as someone celebrating her fortieth year writing about wine by publishing the fourth edition of The Oxford Companion to Wine, a million-word book consulted religiously by wine students the world over, I am considered by many as a wine expert.

But having being a reasonably well known wine writer for so long, I am keenly aware of the sands that have been shifting under the notion of expertise in this era of instant communication and (often anti) social media. In the last decade or two of the twentieth century, when it took more than a nanosecond to communicate, the most successful wine writers around the globe were considered near-oracular.

This was most obviously the case for America’s most famous example, Robert M Parker Jr, who promulgated a system of scoring wines out of 100 that made ‘understanding’ wine, or at least working out which he judged the best, delightfully easy, whatever your native language. The points system also encouraged those selling wine to let a third party, often but not always Parker, do the selling (and selection) for them. Far too many wine stores, catalogues and websites featured not prose, nor enthusiastic verbal recommendations, but numbers, almost all of them between 89 and 101. Parker also invented a new title, wine critic, and could certainly make or break wines and wineries with the same power as exercised by the most highly regarded theatre or restaurant critics.

Parker was not alone in enjoying the status of someone handing down incontrovertible judgements on tablets of stone from on high, however. Most wine-consuming countries had their wine authorities such as the James Halliday in Australia and Michel Bettane and Jacques Dupont in France, and annual guides such as Gambero Rosso in Italy, Gault Millau in Germany and the Platter Guide in South Africa. They were followed fairly slavishly by both consumers and wine professionals.

But in the twenty-first century the internet and now, particularly, the smartphone have changed everything. Wine drinkers can compare multiple evaluations concurrently – not just at home but in the wine shop and restaurant. There are label-scanning apps such as Vivino, designed to present as much information as possible on individual wines, often including ratings of them, as soon as you point your mobile phone at them. Wine-searcher.com has provided invaluable price comparisons and stockist information for individual wines and retailers around the world since 1999 and has now added average quality ratings and diversified into a label-scanning app. 

CellarTracker.com, set up in 2003 by an ex Microsoft wine geek, has played a major part in transferring power from experts to the wine-drinking populace. It now hosts, and presents free, almost five million tasting notes with scores from more than 100,000 wine amateurs. (Since last year it too has had its own label-scanning app in conjunction with Vivino.) Cellartracker has admittedly integrated the wine reviews and scores of various specialist wine writers’ websites, including my own, but it is arguably the sheer weight of consumer opinion that makes CellarTracker so popular.

Wine used to be one of those subjects about which ordinary people would hesitate to express an opinion. (Food has always been a different matter – perhaps because we all eat, but at one time only a small, elevated slice of society drank wine at all regularly.) With our personal experiences of wine deeply hidden in our own sensory equipment, unavailable for public inspection and comparison, together with wine’s arcane and oft-ridiculed vocabulary, it used to be left to us experts to tell ordinary tasters what to think and how to describe those thoughts.

But now that wine drinking has become so very much more commonplace than it used to be, wine has definitively lost its elitist veneer. For heaven’s sake, it has long been the drink of choice not just for The Archers but on Coronation Street.

So, since even once-rather-stodgy retailers such as John Lewis invite their customers to sprinkle star ratings on their wares, it is not surprising that today’s armies of wine consumers (Americans now drink more wine in total than the French) feel bold enough to share their opinions of those wines. And amateur wine critics may not even have to bother with words, substituting a picture – smartphones having made photographers of us all – and a ‘like’.

Just as on the plethora of user-review sites such as Trip Advisor, Green Tomatoes and Porch, they are encouraged to share their comments and ratings on multiple wine blogs and websites. Backed by the power of Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and the rest, screens not books or newsletters now provide the world’s wine lovers with easy ways to make buying decisions.

One retailer, Naked Wines, differentiated itself early on in its short history by encouraging customers to review wines and communicate directly online with Naked’s winemakers. The business, also built on fashionable crowd funding, has been so successful that the company was judged Online Business of the Year in 2011 when it was just three years old, and the model has been rolled out throughout the US and Australia. Professional wine commentators are redundant in Naked Wine’s closed marketplace.

We all know that word of mouth is the most powerful sales tool in the world, its power exponentially amplified by social media. So what is the role of those of us who make our living giving out expert advice in this new, democratic, much more populated landscape of opinion?

I am feeling particularly sensitive since the new Oxford Companion is to be published next month. Assistant editor Julia Harding and I spent two intensive years, in conjunction with nearly 200 contributors around the globe, updating the old entries and adding 300 new ones so that the whole thing now totals about a million carefully chosen words arranged in 4,000 alphabetically listed entries. When the first and second editions came out in 1994 and 1999, much of the information in the Companion was unique – and certainly did not exist in a single source. But nowadays anyone can look up the headwords of our entries on Wikipedia – and admittedly often find the Oxford Companion entries cited at the bottom of the Wikipedia articles.

My point is that I have gone from being a unique provider of information to having to fight for attention. Both for my many reference books and for the six-digit number of tasting notes on my website, I am increasingly aware that my voice, once one of just a few, is now one of an army of wine lovers confident enough to voice their opinions.

I have read arts critics fulminating against the proliferation of ‘amateur’ reviews and arguing that they cannot possibly carry the weight of those freighted by decades of experience and deeply relevant education. But I can hardly use this argument when I have spent my entire working life trying to arm consumers with as much information as possible so that they can make up their own minds about individual wines.

Unlike Robert Parker, I have never believed that there is only one ‘correct’ objective judgement to be made about each wine. Quite apart from the massive variation there can be between different bottles of the same wine, some of it due to storage conditions, I have always argued that wine tasting is so dependent on individual sensory equipment, not to mention partialities and sensitivities, that it is bound to be subjective – however reliably we professionals may be able to judge its dimensions such as sweetness, acidity, tannin and alcohol level and be able to discern technical faults. Although even here, individuals vary enormously in their sensitivity to the different compounds responsible for them. Some wine professionals are unable to pick out which wines are corked, spoilt by cork taint, because they are insensitive to TCA, the compound responsible. Similarly, we all vary in the number of taste buds we are able to deploy in the tasting process. In 1994 experimental psychologist Professor Linda Bartoshuk coined the inflammatory term supertaster for those with more taste buds than most who tend to be particularly sensitive to bitterness.

I would honestly be delighted if every wine drinker felt confident enough to make their own choices dependent on their own individual responses to wines previously tasted. But I do recognise that for many people it will always be simpler to be told what to like.

The wine market today is more crowded than ever. As wine production has transformed itself from peasant activity to plutocrat’s bucolic folly, and as drinking wine has become a social signifier on every continent (most recently and most spectacularly Asia), consumers are presented with a baffling array of choices. And producers have to keep on making better and better wine every year to stay in the game, so they have shout louder and louder to get attention.

This may partly explain why some days no fewer than six or seven boxes of unsolicited samples arrive on my doorstep – more than ever before – in the hope that I will publish a tasting note on them. But it just might also have something to do with the fact that my expertise is valued. Maybe 40 years of visiting vineyards, listening to winemakers, watching trends emerge, making comparisons and seeing wines evolve from barrel to decades in bottle is regarded as worth something?

It may be difficult to believe but tasting wine is hard work. It’s completely different from the relaxation and joy I associate with drinking wine, tasting requires complete concentration, and a mind that is every bit as open as the mouth, and all-important nose, to new flavours, styles and developments. Prejudice engendered by certain producers, grapes or appellations can be a terrible thing, which is why I love to taste blind (ignorant of the exact identity of each wine) as often as possible.

Tasting is physically tiring, particularly if, like me, you feel obliged to deliver your readers as many tasting notes as possible. Thus I often find myself tasting up to 100 wines a day. This of course puts me straight into the sights of those who have been warning recently in the UK about the perils of toping in middle age, but of course while we taste, we professionals see alcohol as the enemy. Rather than seeking any hint of inebriation, we want our senses to remain as sharp as possible and so try to spit out every drop of wine tasted. (Contrary to popular opinion, there is no tasting equipment in the throat; and several of the world’s most respected wine tasters are teetotal.)

Friends often remark somewhat accusatorily, isn’t your sense of taste meant to decline with age? Of course I have no way of comparing the performance of my olfactory bulb today with 40 years ago, but what I do know is that my ability to concentrate is infinitely greater than it was when I was young. I used to be genial and chatty at wine tastings. Today, blinkered and working feverishly, I look only at my glass, laptop and spittoon. (The fun bit of wine happens in the evening.)

But tasting fairly, acutely and accurately is only half of what is required. Just as difficult, possibly more so, is finding the right words to describe the wine. I like to major on the dimensions of the wine – how tough/tart/powerful/sweet/ready is it? And I describe only the most obvious flavours in it because I’m always writing with the consumer in mind and I know how variable everyone’s tasting equipment is. But just as wine critics have been accused of score inflation (it used to be the case that 85 was regarded as a good score; nowadays a wine has to be over 90 to sell easily), there seems to have been inflation in the number of flavours cited in tasting notes. This is particularly true of wine reviews generated in the US where 10 different flavours – some of them questionable to say the least (grilled watermelon, anyone?) – identified in a single liquid is commonplace nowadays.

Australian taste scientist Professor David Laing demonstrated back in 1989 that humans have great difficulty in identifying more than four different flavours in a single liquid. And when in 1996 he tried a similar experiment on experts who smell and taste for a living, they were better than amateur tasters at identifying mixtures of two and three components but did no better when it came to four.

If some of my colleagues really can identify grilled watermelon, star anise, black raspberry, fennel seed, oolong tea, gardenia, sandalwood, mandarin orange, rose petal and fresh thyme in a single wine, I take my hat off to them, but I get the impression that, in this crowded arena of opinion where we are all trying to make ourselves heard, or at least read, an increasing number of wine reviews are written for producers and retailers to quote rather than with the prime purpose of helping the consumer make buying decisions. Quite apart from the variation in our individual perceptions, whoever gets up in the morning and tells themselves that they simply must find a wine that tastes of fennel seed, grilled watermelon and gardenia?

Nor do I believe in revisiting and amplifying tasting notes after tasting the wine. As is all too obvious from the results, I favour the stream of consciousness approach rather than the polished short essay. In fact I was rather shocked recently to be asked by an American interviewer whether I rewrote my wine reviews.

So long as I am valued by wine consumers and producers I will embrace the new landscape, knowing that nowadays it is all too easy for readers and tasters to criticise the critics in online comments that will be read by as many people as the original judgement.

With access to an army of opinionated young wine drinkers, whether consumers or professionals pouring their latest finds by the glass in a bar in Shoreditch or showing fellow enthusiasts round an urban winery in Brooklyn, like any expert nowadays, I know I can stay in the game only by working hard and accurately enough to earn my readers’ trust and respect.

The 4th edition of The Oxford Companion to Wine (£40/$65 OUP) was published on 17 September 2015. The most up to date version is the online one to which Purple Pages members have unlimited access here.

Photo courtesy of Maria Elena/Flickr.