A colleague of mine, who’s an intelligent and affable guy who knows plenty about wine, spends a lot of time with customers patiently listing the attributes of the wines for sale. He waxes poetic using vivid descriptions like, honey-dipped rocks, bruised apples, dusty plum compote, raspberries rolled in crushed granite, and pepper skin to describe the wines’ flavors. He’s enthusiastic, he’s creative, he knows the wines very well, but in the midst of all that talk of fruit and rocks, he often forgets to say the three little words that every customer wants to hear, “this is good.”
That’s right. It’s that simple, and that complicated. And, it doesn’t just apply to wine.
Ever logged onto Yelp to find a mechanic or hairdresser? Taken a look at TripAdvisor before booking that hotel on the beach in Maui? Read an Amazon review before deciding whether or not to drop $250 for the new Kindle? You’re not alone. In fact, you’re one of millions. TripAdvisor alone has about 12 million unique visitors each month. The reason why is easy enough to intuit. We’re looking for a guarantee of quality before we spend our hard-earned cash on a hotel room, a book, or a bottle of wine, and what better way to find out if something is worth our money than to go to the source(s) — people who have already experienced the product we are considering and can tell us whether or not their experience was a good one. Which begs the question, don’t these people need to be experts in hotel rooms, books, or bottles of wine in order for their opinions to have real merit? The answer is, no. At least according to James Surowiecki, the New Yorker staff writer behind the “Financial Page” column and author of the book The Wisdom of Crowds. His theory is that a large group of people with some knowledge is smarter than a small group of “experts.”
Mr. Surowiecki’s position is good news for wine blogs like Palate Press, which taps a large number of bloggers/columnists for content, and for sites like CellarTracker, which allow users to view a multitude of wine reviews, opinions, and scores both from other users and from mainstream “experts.” Obviously, given the popularity of user reviews and the fact that the web makes them very easy to access and share, the notion that a group is smarter than the experts is not very good news for established wine critics like the ubiquitous Robert Parker. But, it also seems to indicate that those wine blogs which amount to little more than post after post of wine reviews by a single author aren’t necessarily the way to go either.
If Mr. Surowiecki is correct and groups are smarter than experts, will shelftalkers bearing an excerpted description and numbered score from RP or WS become a thing of the past? Will the traditional wine review, whether in print or online, live on in the future? Will there be a place for wine experts at all?
Maybe the definition of what’s good is for all of us to decide.