What does it mean to be an expert, and who are the monolithic public set up in opposition to them?by Barry Smith / December 14, 2016 / Leave a comment
Have we had enough of wine experts? Do they represent an out-of-touch elite? Should we opt, instead, for the wisdom of the crowd?
This line of thought echoes a current trend against being talked down to or told what to think. And, at a time when the public shows little faith in economic or scientific findings, surely wine expertise doesn’t stand much of a chance. Besides, there is more than a hint of truth in the idea that other wine lovers are often condescended to by confident and competitive wine critics.
The public’s suspicion is that the authority assumed by wine experts is a carefully cultivated affectation based on a cosy consensus established by a privileged few. Surely, it will be said, matters of taste are purely subjective and there are no facts about quality that can be dictated to us.
But is this right? You may know what you like, but do you know why you like it? Which features of the wine you are responding to? If you knew, wouldn’t your search for the next good bottle go better?
Behind the populist call to arms is for a democracy of taste in which each of us is entitled to our own opinions and where no one has the authority to say we are wrong. Yet all that democracy guarantees is autonomy in reaching a verdict—it does not guarantee that every opinion is equally valid. We all outgrow the opinions of our youth and we should remain open to change as we educate our palates.
The trouble is with the way we’ve framed the discussion. It’s too simplistic. What does it mean to be an expert, and who are the monolithic public set up in opposition to them? The class of wine experts can be subdivided into categories such as: producers such as viticulturists, makers, chemists, and oenologists; industry professionals, including merchants, marketers, buyers and sommeliers; and also critics, writers, tasting panel judges and bloggers. The skills they exhibit vary considerably.
Personally, I learn far more from wine makers than from critics, although many of the former cannot articulate their knowledge or experiences with the skill of writers like Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson. I also have a special affection for sommeliers. They play a vital role as intermediaries between producers and…