Only once in my life did I ever think I knew everything there was to be known about wine. It was in 1978, after finishing two years’ worth of courses run by the Wine & Spirit Education Trust. By dint of luck, and a dose of grammar school diligence, I was the top student of my year, and reckoned that with a WSET diploma under my belt, I was now a fully fledged wine expert.
The succeeding years have taught me just how much there still is to learn. But, as someone celebrating her 40th year writing about wine, I have to concede I am considered by many as a wine expert. However, I am keenly aware of the sands that have been shifting under the notion of expertise in this era of instant communication and (often anti-) social media.
In the last decade or two of the 20th century, when it took more than a nanosecond to communicate, the most successful wine writers around the globe were considered near-oracular. This was most obviously the case for America’s Robert M Parker Jr, who from 1977 promulgated a system of scoring wines out of 100 that made “understanding” wine or, at least, working out which he judged the best, delightfully easy, whatever your native language. The points system also made it possible for those selling wine to let a third party — often, but not always, Parker — do much of the work of selling (and selection) for them, and in the Parker era, shops, catalogues and websites featured not prose, nor enthusiastic verbal recommendations, but numbers, almost all of them between 89 and 101. Parker could certainly make or break wines and wineries with the same power as exercised by the most highly regarded theatre or restaurant critics.
Parker was not alone in enjoying the status of someone handing down incontrovertible judgments on tablets of stone. Most wine-consuming countries had their wine authorities, such as James Halliday in Australia, Michel Bettane and Jacques Dupont in France, and annual guides such as Gault Millau in Germany and the Platter Guide in South Africa. They were followed fairly slavishly by both consumers and wine professionals.
Back in those days, wine used to be one of those subjects about which ordinary people in anglophone countries would hesitate to express an opinion. It used to be left to us experts to tell ordinary tasters what to think and how to describe those thoughts. But now wine has definitively lost its elitist veneer.
In the 21st century, the internet and now, particularly, the smartphone have changed everything. Wine drinkers can compare multiple evaluations concurrently — not just at home but in the wine shop and restaurant. Label-scanning apps such as Vivino and Delectable are designed to present as much information as possible on individual wines, often including ratings, as soon as you point your mobile phone at them. Winesearcher.com has been providing invaluable price comparisons and stockist information for individual wines and retailers around the world since 1999 and it has now added average quality ratings and diversified with its own label-scanning app. Another app, with the slightly painfully punning name Raisinable, compares the value offered by specific wines on the lists of restaurants in London and New York.
CellarTracker.com, set up in 2003 by an ex-Microsoft wine geek, has played a big part in transferring power from experts to the wine-drinking populace: it now hosts, and presents for free, almost 5m tasting notes with scores from more than 100,000 wine amateurs. (Since last year it, too, has had its own label-scanning app in conjunction with Vivino.) Cellartracker has, admittedly, also factored in the wine reviews and scores of various specialist wine writers’ websites, including my own, but it is arguably the sheer weight of consumer as opposed to expert opinion that makes CellarTracker so popular.
One retailer, Naked Wines, differentiated itself early on in its short history by encouraging customers to review wines and communicate directly online with the winemakers supplying the website. Its business, built on crowdfunding, has been so successful that the company was judged Online Business of the Year in 2011 when it was just three years old, and the model has since been rolled out throughout the US and Australia. Professional wine commentators are redundant in Naked Wine’s marketplace.
My point is that I have gone from being a unique provider of information to having to fight for attention. Since word of mouth is the most powerful sales tool in the world, its power amplified exponentially by social media, what is the role of those of us who make our living giving out expert advice in this new, democratic, much more populated landscape of opinion?
I am feeling particularly sensitive because the fourth edition of The Oxford Companion to Wine is about to be published. Together with assistant editor Julia Harding, I have spent two intensive years, helped by almost 200 contributors around the globe, updating the old entries and adding 300 new ones so that the whole thing now totals about a million carefully chosen words arranged in 4,000 alphabetically-listed entries. When the first and second editions came out in 1994 and 1999, much of the information in the Companion was unique. But nowadays, anyone with internet access can look up the book’s subject headings on Wikipedia — and, admittedly, often find the Companion entries cited at the bottom of the page.
I have read arts critics fulminating against the proliferation of “amateur” reviews and arguing that these cannot possibly carry the weight of those freighted by decades of experience and deeply relevant education. But it’s not an argument I can use when I have spent my entire working life trying to arm consumers with as much information as possible so that they can make up their own minds about individual wines.
Unlike Robert Parker, I have never believed that there is only one “correct” objective judgment to be made about each wine. Quite apart from the huge variation that there can be between bottles of the same wine, some of it due to storage conditions, I have always argued that wine tasting is so dependent on individual sensory equipment, not to mention partialities and sensitivities, that it is bound to be subjective — no matter how reliably we professionals may be able to judge its dimensions such as sweetness, acidity, tannin and alcohol level and be able to discern technical faults.
Even here, individuals vary enormously in their sensitivity to the different compounds responsible for them. Some wine professionals, for example, are unable to pick out which wines are corked, or spoilt by cork taint, because they are insensitive to trichloroanisole, or TCA, the compound responsible. Similarly, we all vary in the number of taste buds we are able to deploy in the tasting process. As long ago as 1994, the experimental psychologist Linda Bartoshuk coined the inflammatory term “supertaster” for those who have more taste buds than most and tend to be particularly sensitive to bitterness.
The wine market today is more crowded than ever. As wine production has transformed itself from peasant activity to plutocrat’s bucolic folly, and as drinking wine has become a social signifier on every continent (most recently — and most spectacularly — Asia), consumers are presented with a baffling array of choices. And, as producers strive to make better and better wine every year just to stay in the game, so they have to shout louder and louder to get attention.
This may partly explain why some days no fewer than six or seven boxes of unsolicited samples arrive on my doorstep — more than ever before — in the hope that I will publish a tasting note on them. But could it also have something to do with the fact that, even in this era of the citizen critic, my 40 years of visiting vineyards, listening to winemakers, watching trends emerge, making comparisons and seeing wines evolve from barrel to decades in bottle might just be regarded as worth something?
It may be difficult to believe but tasting wine is hard work: it is completely different from the relaxation and joy that I associate with drinking wine. Tasting requires complete concentration and a mind that is every bit as open as the mouth, and all-important nose, to new flavours, styles and developments. Prejudice engendered by certain producers, grapes or appellations can be a terrible thing, which is why I prefer to taste blind (ignorant of the exact identity of each wine) as often as possible.
Tasting is physically tiring, particularly if, like me, you wish to provide drinkers with information on as many wines and tasting notes as possible. Thus I often find myself tasting up to 100 wines a day. While this puts me straight into the sights of those who have been warning recently in the UK about the perils of toping in middle age, I should stress that when we are tasting wine, we professionals see alcohol as the enemy. Rather than seeking any hint of inebriation, we want our senses to remain as sharp as possible and so try to spit out every drop of wine tasted. (Contrary to popular opinion, there is no tasting equipment in the throat; and several of the world’s most respected wine tasters, such as Katsuyuki Tanaka, are teetotal.)
Occasionally, when I mention my decades of experience, friends remark somewhat accusatorily, “Isn’t your sense of taste meant to decline with age?” Though I have no way of directly comparing the performance of my olfactory bulb today with 40 years ago, I do know that my ability to concentrate is infinitely greater than it was when I was young. I used to be genial and chatty at wine tastings. Today, blinkered and working feverishly, I look only at my glass, laptop and spittoon. (The fun bit of wine happens in the evening.)
But tasting fairly, acutely and accurately is only half of what is required. Just as difficult, possibly more so, is finding the right words to describe the wine. I like to major on the dimensions of the wine: how tough/tart/powerful/sweet/ready is it? And I describe only the most obvious flavours in it because I’m always writing with the consumer in mind and I know how variable everyone’s tasting equipment is. But, just as wine critics have been accused of score inflation (it used to be that 85 was regarded as a good score; nowadays a wine has to be above 90 to sell easily), there seems to have been inflation in the number of flavours cited in tasting notes. This is particularly true of wine reviews generated in the US, where 10 different flavours, some of them questionable to say the least (grilled watermelon, anyone?), identified in a single liquid is commonplace nowadays.
Back in 1989, the Australian taste scientist David Laing, from the University of New South Wales, conducted an experiment in which he demonstrated that humans have great difficulty in identifying more than four different flavours in a single liquid. And when in 1996 he tried a similar experiment on experts who smell and taste for a living, they were better than amateur tasters at identifying mixtures of two and three components but did no better when it came to four.
If some of my colleagues really can identify grilled watermelon, star anise, black raspberry, fennel seed, oolong tea, gardenia, sandalwood, mandarin orange, rose petal and fresh thyme in a single wine, as one resourceful recent reviewer managed, I take my hat off to them. But I get the impression that, in this crowded arena of opinion, where we are all trying to make ourselves heard (or at least read), an increasing number of wine reviews are written for producers and retailers to quote rather than with the prime purpose of helping the consumer make decisions about what to buy. Quite apart from the variation in our individual perceptions, who really gets up in the morning and tells themselves that they simply must find a wine that tastes of fennel seed, grilled watermelon and gardenia?
I would honestly be delighted if every wine drinker felt confident enough to make their own choices dependent on their own individual responses to wines previously tasted. But I do recognise that, for many people, it will always be simpler to be told what to like. As long as I am valued by wine consumers and producers, I will embrace the new landscape, knowing that nowadays it is all too easy for readers and tasters to criticise the critics in online comments that will be read by as many people as the original judgment.
With a growing army of opinionated young wine drinkers — whether consumers or professionals pouring their latest finds by the glass in a bar in Shoreditch or showing fellow enthusiasts round an urban winery in Brooklyn — I know that, like any other wine expert, I can stay in the game only by working hard and accurately enough to earn my readers’ trust.
The fourth edition of ‘The Oxford Companion to Wine’ (£40, OUP) edited by Jancis Robinson and Julia Harding is published on September 17
For details of our FT Fives Wine Dinners hosted by Jancis Robinson, go to live.ft.com/fives-wine dinners
Photograph: Victoria Birkinshaw
Letter in response to this column:
Get alerts on Life & Arts when a new story is published