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When Everyone Is A Critic, No One Is Listening

By Stephen Eliot

We do our best to keep up with what a good many observers of the wine scene have to say, and, although we admit to not being able to keep up with the unstinting flood tide of information and electronic opinion, if one thing is sure, it is that a good story will not go long unnoticed.

One that caught our attention this last week was Rebecca’s Gibbs meditations 1 on a recent working paper published by the American Association of Wine Economists regarding the dynamics of social media in “private”, on-line wine recommendations.2 Ms. Gibbs’s article. “Conformity or Consensus? Online Wine Ratings”, does a good job at summarizing in clear terms the scholarly paper’s findings that online wine reviews may be influenced as much by a need to conform as by anything else, and, with an insightful, sidelong swipe at large-scale wine competitions, she questions just where the best wine advice might be found.

She writes,

“A working paper published by the American Association of Wine Economists suggests that we are sheep when it comes to rating wines online. Baaaarbera, anyone?”

“Wine critics have traditionally played a role in molding our views of a wine’s quality but they no longer rule the roost. The Internet has provided myriad sources of information on wines, and social networks are an increasingly important source for recommendations. In 2014, anyone can be a wine critic and CellarTracker is the best-known site for wine lovers to post their tasting notes online. Launched in 2003, it now lists almost four million reviews and boasts more than 304,000 members. It is a symbol of the democratization of wine criticism but can we trust the masses or should we stick with our favorite expert for advice?”

Now, that last question is left unanswered by Ms. Gibbs, but the very fact that it has been raised strikes me as potential heresy in the world of unfettered, latter-day electronic democracy, and therein lies the article’s greatest worth. When it turns out that the first few posted online wine ratings for any given wine at Cellar Tracker appear to have had a significant influence on the all of the subsequent ratings that followed, that some human need to conform and belong may be at work, it is reasonable to debate the value of such reviews. Moreover, if true, the power of those first few reviews is not about to be missed by savvy wine salespeople looking to make their marks on the market. A few strategically placed positive comments may well be the guarantors of certain success.

The culture of social media is not only here to stay but will evolve in unimagined ways in the years ahead. As far as the world of reviewing wines goes, social media is the vector for selfless sharing and a powerful marketing tool. It seems to me, however, that the guidelines for finding reliable wine advice in the future are the same as those of the past; trust in your own taste and heed the voices that consistently make sense to you.



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For thirty-five years, Connoisseurs’ Guide has been the authoritative voice of the California wine consumer. With readers in all fifty states and twenty foreign countries, the Guide is valued by wine lovers everywhere for its honesty and for it strong adherence to the principles of transparency, unbiased, hard-hitting opinions. Now, it is becoming the California winelover’s most powerful online voice as well. And, our new features provide an unmatched array of advice and information for aficionados of every stripe.


social media influence
by tom merle
Posted on:5/28/2014 4:00:17 PM

Our alternative solves the problems of relying on one critic's palate or a group site like CellarTracker which the economists believe is flawed by due to normative influence.  There is a third way.  We assemble a large tasting panel (from 16 to 36 members of our wine club) who taste a selection of wines blind using both a 5star with half stars rating method and a ranking of the first three favorites.  This provides a descriptive norm in the language of the researchers.  Plus it has the added advantage of finding one or two wines that appeal to an array of "civilian" palates, not the refined taste of an "expert".

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