The 3 Words Every Wine Consumer Wants to Hear

5 Nov



photo courtesy of Paul Goyette


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.


7 Responses to “The 3 Words Every Wine Consumer Wants to Hear”

  1. Beth 11/06/2009 at 12:33 pm #

    I have to be honest, a lot of the time I prefer using sites like TripAdvisor and PalatePress over expert reviews. Much of the time, expert reviews are influenced by things that they shouldn’t be influenced by, like free gifts and personal issues. I personally prefer reading about what real people REALLY think, as opposed to what some “master” at the top of the hill wants you to believe. I guess that’s why I love blogs so much, because they’re real.

    • Ms. Drinkwell 11/06/2009 at 2:09 pm #

      I agree. I enjoy reading reviews from sites like TripAdvisor because they document real experiences from people who aren’t necessarily experts on what they’re reviewing. I think it’s insightful to know how a diverse group of people reacts to something. Experts sometimes quibble over the minutiae or delve into the really geeky details, which is, frankly, pretty boring to most people except other experts in the subject. Sometimes I worry about that with wine blogs, as it seems that the audience is primarily made up of other wine bloggers or people in the business.

  2. Susan Guerra 11/06/2009 at 3:00 pm #

    I think that Gary Vaynerchuk said it best when he was interviewed in The New York Times—that every palate is like a snowflake—in other words, unique. I dislike the term “expert” and I asked NJ Monthly not to call me that when I began writing their wine blog (alas—they do). The reality is that no matter what I know about wine I will never know it all as it is an ever-evolving product. And to Gary’s point, taste is highly subjective. I once sat on a tasting panel with a wine writer from a major publication and he was assigning the scores before I was even done swirling! Not a lot of contemplation going on there, it seemed. As you point out, we are all looking for that guarantee of quality from people who have experience with the product, which today is even more critical—and all the better if it comes from a diverse group who have spent their hard earned money to formulate the opinion.
    Sue Guerra

    • Ms. Drinkwell 11/07/2009 at 7:02 pm #

      Thanks for such a thoughtful comment, Sue. Couldn’t agree more about the “expert” label. Wine is my vocation as well as my avocation in no small part bc of how challenging and multifaceted a subject it is. I will never know it all, and that’s ok by me. I also agree with you on the matter of subjectivity of taste. I have followed a few discussions recently in which commentors insist that subjectivity should have no place in a professional’s tasting experience. I find this position exasperating. Professional wine people are in fact people and not robots. To say that we can turn off subjective preference completely is in my view a totally unrealistic expectation. And for what purpose? I can’t quite figure out why this is such a sticking point for some.

  3. Thomas Pellechia 11/09/2009 at 7:00 am #

    Ms. Drinkwell,

    To address your point re, subjectivity, there are two types of wine evaluation: for the consumer and for the trade.

    Generally, no wine critic subjugates subjectivity. A critic evaluates for his or her personal taste and then assumes the rest of the world should find the same attributes or flaws as he or she does.

    Yet, there is an overwhelming technical side to winemaking. Those who would evaluate wine for its individual merits are (usually) trained to know and identify the technicals. To me, that’s what a wine judging is supposed to be focused on–although it often isn’t, as Susan’s comment illustrates.

    In my judgment, the problem in understanding the separation of the technically objective from the personal subjective has bastardized the original purpose of wine judging, which was to recognize merit and achievement, not to recommend wine to the consumer. That remains the critic’s job.

    To put all the above into a short form: it isn’t a problem of taking the subjective life out of wine, it’s a problem of confusing two separate evaluations of wine as one.

  4. Thomas Pellechia 11/09/2009 at 8:34 am #

    Another thought occurred to me on my morning walk:

    If all palates are snowflakes, then logic dictates that wine reviews and critics should not have a forum, as they are merely talking about one snowflake and trying to make it seem like it represents the blizzard.

    The odd thing is that such “snowflake” comments often come from those who have a regular gig telling others what wines taste like.

    Go figure.

  5. konnio 11/18/2009 at 10:14 am #

    Hmmm, very interesting … I really enjoy your blog

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