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Who Needs Wine Experts?
By Panos Kakaviatos
Feb 18, 2020
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Not too long ago, the highly respected American public news source National Public Radio asked, “Is wine tasting junk science?”

It referred to several academic studies that implied the irrelevance of wine expertise.

For example, a 2001 study in Bordeaux caused a stir when a Ph.D. candidate served the same white wine to 54 oenology students, but added red food coloring to some glasses, creating an impression of one red and one white.  Most not only rated both wines quite differently, but also believed them to be made from different grape varieties.

Along a similar line, University of Davis study found that consumers have a wider range of wine sensory “likes” than expert tasters and competition judges.  The results of the study suggest that consumers are likely better off “trusting their own preferences” to choose wines they like, rather than relying on “expert” advice, as reported in the industry magazine Wines & Vines in 2014.

Indeed, respected wine author and consultant Robert Joseph wrote in an e-mail:  “Most wine consumers, like consumers of cheese, tea and chocolate and music, don’t generally need experts; by trial and error – and with help from friends and family – they find what they like and generally stick to it.”

And that idea crosses price points, “similar to shoes,” Joseph added.  “It’s pretty amazing how successfully people buy shoes, often for high prices, without the need of education or experts.”

Especially in our social media era, wine experts who work as critics face growing competition from websites and Internet platforms that reflect consumer-shared experiences as an alternative to relying on the palate of a single critic, who may be seen as influenced by the wine trade or even a snob.  With a user count of over 40 million (and growing), the Vivino application, for example, records two million wine searches worldwide each day, putting into online practice the University of Davis study, with no limit as to how many wines each consumer can submit and describe.

Forums like Cellar Tracker tend to highlight higher-end wines, averaging scores from wine consumers so that a “box score” is trusted, bringing the notion of “trusting your own palate” to a larger online scale.  Felicity Carter, editor at Meininger’s Wine Business International, stresses that, “Consumer scores are rising in importance; we’re now living in a scored economy, where people book holidays, or buy products, based on how other consumers have scored them, so the wisdom of the crowd will become more important in wine, not less.”

Wine educators, like Ben Giliberti, say that consumers should hone their palates.  “Expert scores are like giving a starving man a fish,” he wrote.  Rather than relying on wine critic scores, Giliberti says that reading about wine and trying wines on your own, whether at store tastings or via wine appreciation groups, can “…teach you how to catch the fish.”

Despite that … consumers do seek wine expertise, including advice from educators like Giliberti, ideas from consultants like Joseph, new trends from writers like Carter and, yes, scores from “established” wine critics.

From influential wine critics to people in the business of selling wine, such as store managers, sommeliers or brand ambassadors, the “wine expertise jobs market” is growing, as reflected by numbers seeking official qualifications to enter it.

The WSET reported its highest-ever annual candidate figures for the last academic year:  In 2018-2019, 108,557 candidates took a WSET qualification, breaking the 100,000-barrier for the first time.  The figure represents a 15% increase year-on-year versus last year’s candidate figures, and reinforces a continued annual growth trend.

Forbes magazine recently counted sommeliers as one of five top paying contract jobs, especially for those who invest in … wine expertise.

It seems that honing one’s own palate and seeking expert guidance are not mutually exclusive.  Price data platforms like Liv-Ex feature summaries of major critics when Bordeaux is being sold from barrel, for example.

Indeed, one could soundly argue that our social media era – with massive amounts of information as well as “fake news” – makes vetted expertise more valuable.  “If you look at many of the major import markets, you see that scores and medals are becoming more important, not less so,” Carter says.  “They are a way of cutting through the noise.”

Furthermore, social media and online information make it easier for fans of different styles to follow specific critics; lovers of elegance and refinement favor critics who dislike big, high alcohol wines, for example.  Lovers of so-called “natural wines” find their expert champions as well.

And new trends or up-and-coming wine regions reinforce the need for expertise. Joseph notes that, “Experts come into their own when introducing people to unfamiliar styles and regions, giving consumers confidence to spend a little more time – and giving enthusiasts more in-depth knowledge.”

A Wine Monitor study by research firm Nomisma found that organic viticulture has nearly tripled in Europe over the last decade, for example, as reported in The Drinks Business.  Trendy urban markets like London see growth for organic wine sales as nearly 40% of wine lists there already include at least one organic, biodynamic or natural wine, according to Bibendum’s 2018 trend report.  Along with growth comes the selling point for expert guidance, as many consumers seek better understanding of what organic wine is.

For regions, winery associations fund promotional tours to inform consumers.  Individual wineries fund promotional dinners for potential wine clients, whether importers or private buyers.  But even already established regions, whether through winery associations or individual wineries, recognize the increasing importance of consumer ratings and organize consumer events to provide both expertise and tasting opportunities.

So even as many consumers trust their own palates and rely less on wine experts, the need for wine expertise and guidance is growing, especially for new trends and up-and-coming wine regions, and because our era of multiple information sources online creates a greater need for vetted information.

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Special note:  I am honored to have received one of the 2019-2020 W.S.P.C. Diploma Bursaries for this text, which I wrote to apply for a bursary towards my WSET Diploma studies.  The text was selected by Ktima BIBLIA CHORA, one of three Greek wineries generously supporting the Bursary Scheme.