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Friday Fishwrap
CODA: Biology, The Value of Wine Expertise and the Din of Barking Poodles

By Stephen Eliot

I am beginning to think that the wide world of wine discussion is not so dissimilar to the ideological conflicts of the political left and right. Most every topic has its two sides lined up along an indelible line that immutably delineates two opposing camps, and, even when the topic is not one that seems to invite debate, it is quickly recast as a bi-polar issue imbued with evangelistic right or wrong fervor.

Is a wine natural or not? Is it above or below a specific alcohol content? Do scores matters? Is expertise real, and, even if it is, does it actually have any worth? These are not only the endlessly replayed hot-button questions that keep the wheels of contemporary wine conversation turning, they insidiously surface in almost every discussion whether they are germane and relevant or not. Worse, they are increasingly cast in black-or-white terms, and the infinite gray spaces that, in fact, exist in between sides seems almost wholly ignored. Yes, I miss the “grays”. That is where real balance and insight are most usually found.

A couple of days back, I voiced my amused disagreement with an academic study that suggested that so-called “wine experts” were inherently more sensitive tasters and biologically inclined to their chosen profession. “Self selecting”, I believe was the term used in the report, and the conclusion that followed was that being inherently “different”, wine experts were irrelevant to the larger, presumably less-sensitive market. The particular burr under my saddle was the notion that biology rather than experience, practice and study defined a wine expert, and I felt no need to defend my or anyone else’s relevance. There seems, however, to be a great many who do and an equal number who squeal with delight at being handed scientific “proof” that wine experts are the deviant bunch they always believed them to be. It didn’t take long.

A lively debate has unfolded on various wine websites, one that is filled with defense, vitriolic attack and dismissal. A few who harbor utter distain for critical reviews have been quick to jump in with their “the king is dead, long live the people” line of reasoning, and one happily dances on the grave of critics by citing the broad-based popularity of Moscato and sweet reds as proof “that people are finally embracing their own taste – which is what the wine industry has been professing for decades.” Finally? Really? I seem to recall that Blue Nun, Lambrusco and candied White Zinfandel were monstrously popular and enormously lucrative in their days …and the notion that the “industry” catholically encourages everyone to follow their own individual path is as ridiculous as the idea of a wine-expert genotype.

Wine experts, from sommeliers and retailers to critics DO have their places, but those places are specific and not general. The only “experts” that influence the very broad market that is presently transfixed by Moscato and sugary reds are marketeers. As for the smaller segment of the wine-drinking population that takes wine somewhat more seriously, expertise is relevant and will remain insofar as it provides reliable and sensible advice, the ultimate value of which will be decided by the consumer, not someone ranting on this or that electronic forum.


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