A trend is ravaging American media. A series of hot takes purporting to take down the wine industry has been steadily carving out a niche on the internet, claiming that wine experts are a hoax and expensive wine is bogus.
It started back in 2010 with a “Freakonomics Radio” episode that had some surprising news about how wine tastes. “Believe it or not, the most dominant flavor may be the dollars,” the producers declared. In fact, they went on, the industry is so riven with falsity that “wine experts should just put a cork in it.” The episode zeroed in on wine enthusiasts in two blind tastings who could not tell the less expensive wine from the more expensive wine. It also referenced a study that found that in blind tastings, average consumers actually enjoyed cheap wines more than expensive ones. In other words, the folks at “Freakonomics” concluded, more expensive wine just isn’t any better than the cheaper stuff.
In a similar vein was a video published on Vox titled, “Expensive wine is for suckers.” “We shouldn’t have spent $43 on this bottle of wine,” reads the description of the video. Like the economists in the study referenced earlier, the video’s producers gave participants three different wines in a blind tasting, and concluded that you probably won’t like the taste of more expensive wine until you know it’s expensive.
But Vox’s debunking of expensive wine continued just a few weeks ago, when the site published yet another story titled, “Why amateur wine scores are every bit as good as professionals’.” The piece looked at the scores that amateur wine enthusiasts gave to certain wines on a site called CellarTracker (basically, the Yelp of the wine world). Then they compared those scores with the scores of expert wine critics like Robert Parker and Jancis Robinson. The article found that the amateurs and the experts ranked the wines very similarly; as a result, the author concluded that paying wine experts for their opinions was a waste of money.
“It’s possible all those enthusiasts on CellarTracker already knew what Robert Parker and other experts said about each wine and just parroted their scores,” the author admits. But he is highly skeptical that this is the case. “Does it really seem likely… they had all read the expert scores,” the piece goes on, and “they were consciously or unconsciously swayed as a result?”
Actually, that seems more than just likely. It seems almost certainly true.
The pleasure of “taking down” the wine industry is certainly understandable. There’s something devastating about knowing that other people are able to appreciate something that we can’t. It’s especially unsettling to know this about something we imbibe regularly, yet know we are not fully experiencing. There’s something mystical about wine – all those mouthfeels and blueberries and leather. What could be more delicious than to find out that those shamans, those mavens with their alienating knowledge, were nothing but charlatans, snake-oil peddlers whose knowledge was all a hoax?
As the “Freakonomics” folks put it, “Buying a bottle of wine shouldn’t be as complicated as buying a house. But thanks to the layers of experts between us and the grapes, we have performance anxiety.” They go on: “Wouldn’t it be nice to drop the pretense — to set aside the ratings and price — and just drink?”
The problem is, it’s not the “layers of experts” that make wine complicated. It’s wine.
There are many reasons why wine is so complicated. For starters, winemaking is complicated. So many factors go in to producing a bottle of wine. How much labor is needed? How much harvesting? Where are the vines? How long has it fermented? What kind of soil is it grown in? What kind of climate? How long has it stayed in barrel? All of these factors will affect the taste — and the price – of the wine. And learning to recognize those factors through smell and taste takes time, patience, and effort.
Then there’s the fact that there is just so much wine out there. It makes choosing and understanding each bottle that much more difficult. This is especially true here in the United States, because we are not a culture that grew up with wine. Wine in the U.S. is a relatively young culture, and though we want to understand wine, we’re very new at it.
Compare us to Europe, where drinking wine is such an integral part of the lifestyle, a part of the attitude. In the rural wine regions of Europe, you don’t go to a wine store and choose a bottle from a selection of 10,000. You live in a specific region that grows one kind of grape best, and the wine that comes from that grape is what you drink, probably every night with dinner. The soil itself determines what wine people drink, and they grow up with a specific varietal like mother’s milk.
We Americans very much want to understand wine; we are even obsessed with wine (and debunking it, apparently!), but our primary encounter with the stuff is usually in a wine shop offering a dizzying selection.
As we Americans progressed along our journey to understand wine, a few shamans popped up along the way to help us on our journey. Robert Parker, Marvin Shanken, and Jancis Robinson were our influencers, our Jedi masters, teaching us what to look for and how to enjoy this strange and beguiling beverage.
One of the things we learned from the experts is the notion of “terroir,” which refers to the way the same grape will change from year to year, vintage to vintage. Because of the variability of the soil and the climate, the same wine will have perceptible differences every year. It’s part of what makes drinking wine such a wonderful, mystifying journey.
This is also the reason that people with less experience drinking wine tend to enjoy cheaper wines. It’s not because wine is one big hoax. It’s rather because their first experiences with wine were probably with cheaper wines, and cheap wine is manipulated to taste the same every year. There’s no inconsistency, no terroir. It’s homogenized, for a very simple reason: We are a culture that likes sweet things. When you’re drinking a really cheap wine like Yellowtail or Trader Joe’s Two Buck Chuck, you’re drinking a wine that has added sugars and added coloring so it tastes the same every time you buy it. And it’s wine experts who teach us how to move past these wines, and how to enjoy the more expensive stuff.
For me, it was master of wine Jancis Robinson, along with New York Times chief wine critic Eric Asimov. Both have an incredible thought process that reveals their true love of wine. Wine journalist Jamie Goode’s blog Wine Anorak, and his book The Science of Wine, have been key sources of discovery, too.
Of course, not every wine writer is a Jancis Robinson. There are some real grade-A snobs out there talking about wine. Of course there are. People are people, and as in every other industry, there are insecure folks in wine who feel the need to put others down, or lord their knowledge over you, or discount your taste. But just because there are some rotten apples doesn’t mean that the entire industry is a farce. It’s nothing short of a logical fallacy to claim that because some wine snobs are snobs, therefore the entire industry is bunk.
Here’s the thing. Wine is intimidating. And as the studies suggest, you may not enjoy more expensive wine until you teach yourself how to understand what’s good about it. But that doesn’t mean that the entire industry is a hoax.
Wine is not only a natural phenomenon; it’s a beautiful thing that takes a human hand to turn it from the fermented juice of grapes into art. It’s a process that’s worth understanding and exploring. But just because you can’t immediately understand it with your first sip of wine doesn’t make it a sham.
I have been in the wine industry for over a decade. I owned a wine bar and a wine retail shop here in New York City. I teach wine and spit wine geekiness into a microphone for my podcast. But I am not a wine expert. I am entirely self-taught. I am in love with wine – just like those amateur wine critics writing on CellarTracker. Just like you. And you know how I learned about wine? By reading experts.