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THURSDAY THORNS
07/31/2014
In Defense of Experience and Expertise

By Stephen Eliot

I am beginning to wonder if the most significant thing about latter-day wine journalism and the world of wine blogging with its unending, self-published broadsides is that culture, convention and most anything that remotely smacks of accepted wisdom are sure targets for attack.

Expertise is roundly dismissed and eschewed for solipsism and declarations that quality and beauty lie solely within the eye of the beholder. There are no great wines other than those that an individual deems to be great, and the worth of any observation and commentary about wine is relativistic and valid only when perspective is noted. Caveat seems to have replaced certainty, and cacophony is the sound of the day.

Even when not obvious and however well-disguised, there is a decidedly adversarial edge to so much wine writing these days. Somewhere along the line, an “us versus them” mentality has insidiously worked its way into much of wine conversation, and generations seem to have been set against one and other.

The Millenials are the force with which to be reckoned, or so we hear, and Boomers are more irrelevant by the day. Younger wine drinkers refuse to be fooled by the elitist musings of older, beard-stroking, white males, and, if the opinions of anyone over fifty are to be considered with caution, those from the sixty-something crowd are so suspect that they are best dismissed out of hand. The new battle cry is “damn (the) experience and full speed ahead.”

Now, I fully admit to a bit of defensiveness, for the thinning hair that I have is indeed gray, but I value experience as much today as when, as a very young man, I found my passion for wine and read every word that I could from the “old” masters of the day. Andre Simon, Alexis Lichine, Frank Schoonmaker and, later, the likes of Harry Waugh, Michael Broadbent, Gerald Asher, Leon Adams and Hugh Johnson opened more doors than I could imagine, and never once did I approach their writings with any kind of youthful chip on my shoulder. I traded stories and opinions and talked endlessly with my contemporaries as well in my pursuit to learn everything that I could, and, whatever the source of information, from professional and eager novice alike, I would measure its worth in my own experience. And, guess what, those old guys had a good deal to say.

Wine is an acquired taste, and once acquired that taste will evolve. That which was terrific early on came in time to seem simple and sometimes quite vapid as experience accrued. While I have no issue with wines that are “yummy” and directly delicious, I nonetheless revel in real complexity, the broad range of sensation and the catalyst to contemplation that the best wines provide.

A winemaker for whom I have a great deal of respect greets visitors to his winery with a sign that simply reads “If you know what you like, you are a wine expert.” I happen to like his wines very much, but knowing what you like after tasting a half dozen wines hardly strikes me as expertise.

Expertise does not necessarily demand decades of tasting and study. There are good many talented young writers and retailers and sommeliers who have paid their dues and rigorously done the work, and years in the trenches will never guarantee that someone really knows what they are talking about. But, I would argue, experience is a must when claiming authority. You cannot know what you like until you have tasted it, and understanding why you like a given wine, not merely that you do, seems to me the beginning of real wine mastery. I cannot feel but that the rush to “demystify” wines and break down perceived snobbism has sadly tainted and unjustly devalued authentic expertise.

Expertise is a process, a journey if you will, and the longer the road, the more expert one becomes. Yes, I am now one of the “old guys,” and the journey has been as gratifying as it is long. With any luck, mine is far from being over, and I am excited about what I will learn tomorrow. I have my opinions. They have been earned, but they are not static, and every new wine and every new vintage to come will have a hand in their shaping. They will only be final when the journey comes to an end.


 

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Comments

I know what I like
by Ron Washam, HMW
Posted on:7/31/2014 8:37:01 AM

When a person responds to wine, and wine expertise, with the trite response, "Well, I know what I like," I respond, "Yeah, that's what pyromaniacs and pederasts say."

No Subject
by Jeffrey
Posted on:8/1/2014 9:56:02 AM

The backlash is primarily against the two major actors in wine criticism: Parker and The Spectator.  I believe it is justified.  Each became an almost parody of itself, from Parker's narrowing definition that only wine appealing to his extreme palate was acceptable and anything outside those parameters was not only different but faulty, flawed and fraudulent and his increasingly histrionic outbursts and attacks in all directions to the Wine Spectator's devolution into glossy yet vapid lifestyle magazine and "wine celebrity" navel gazer.  Each is getting what they deserve.  That many millenials (and others, as I'm in my 40s and few of my peers have any use for the RMP or TWS) are throwing the baby out with the bath water is unfortunate but hardly unexpected.  The excesses of the two dominant entities have tainted the good works of many.

Perhaps if the millenials had entered a wine world where the dominant authorities and commentators were nuanced, intellectuals such as Broadbent, the reaction would not have been so visceral.  They would have entered a world where wine commentary invited respect rather than ridicule.

No Subject
by Miles
Posted on:8/2/2014 1:38:22 PM

Another part of the problem is plain ignorance. I am a millennial. Many people of my generation are more interested in craft spirits and beer, but not wine. People assume that wine tasting notes are speculative and subjective nonsense. Anyone who knows anything about organic chemistry and olfactory sciences will tell you how and why wine tasting works.

 

The real problem is the social culture around wine and nothing else. I fear the same issue will exist with Whiskey when hundreds of new distilleries are appearing now and have only an very aged market of baby boomers whome they may offer once it is actually ready. The culture around both Whisky and Wine are esoteric and need updating.

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