In a social media world, expertise still matters
Yes, this is the Age where Everybody’s Opinion Matters. Social media and the Internet have done that. They’ve toppled dictators like Mubarek and maybe Khaddafi, mobilized union workers in Wisconsin, and undermined the power of authority in general, including wine experts.
Anybody can write about wine and just about everybody apparently does. Google “wine blog” and you’ll get 21.3 million hits. That’s nearly 15% of the entire U.S. population. I doubt all of them are wine blogs, properly speaking, but a good many are. I know some people will find this hard to believe, but I’m glad that so many people have taken such an active interest in wine, and that they like it enough to write about it and then publish it on the Internet.
It’s tempting for some columinsts to take this phenomenon a step further and say that it’s proof that everybody’s opinion is as good as anyone else’s–that Joe Blow from Kokomo’s thoughts about wine are as valid as those of a professional wine critic, like, well, me. And, of course, from a philosophical, humane, political and democratic point of view, that is correct: my views have no more worth than Joe Blow’s.
Joe Blow is certainly entitled to his opinion, and anyone who respects Joe Blow’s opinion is entitled to read his thoughts. But I would argue that, in addition to the philosophical, humane, political and democratic perspectives according to which Joe Blow is entitled to express his thoughts about wine, there is another dimension in which Joe Blow’s opinions are hardly worth the electrons it takes to send them into the ether. And that dimension is the epistemological.
Epistemology is the science or philosophy of knowledge. It looks into the questions of how we know, how we determine if what we know is real or illusory–in short, how we know that something is true.
“Truth,” most people would agree, is different from “opinion.” It may be your opinion that 2 plus 2 equals 5, but it would not be true, and this can be proved (if you’re a mathematician) rather unequivocably. There are many things in this world that even the simplest, least educated people will agree is true: that the sun rises in the east, that squirrels like nuts, that a full belly feels better than an empty one.
But there are areas of truth that are not obvious to everyone. Meteorology, for example. Do most people understand why cirrus clouds form, or what causes a tornado? They do not. In order to understand such things, you have to be educated in the science of meteorology, which requires years of study in a school. You can say that tornados happen because God wills them, but that is not a real explanation. If somebody claims to understand the weather without formal training in meteorology, that person should not be trusted.
It’s the same with wine knowledge. It takes a long time to develop, and an even longer time to develop a palate that can taste wine and say intelligent things about it. Now, I know that wine reviewing isn’t a science, like meteorology. It’s more of an art or craft. But the validity of a person’s opinions about wine is directly related to the amount of time and effort that person has put into the study of wine, which includes reading, traveling, learning from others and extensive tasting.
There’s been a lot of debate over whether the end of an era has arrived where older critics have been replaced by a new, democratic wave of wine enthusiasts who are tired of being dictated to by the same clique of power-hungry elitists that have dominated the wine world for decades. There may be some truth to that; younger generations are always overturning the older generation, and that’s the way it should be. But before anybody claims that professional Baby Boomer critics, who’ve been at it for a long time, have no more right to their opinions than Joe Blow from Kokomo, remember that you may be right from a philosophical, humane, political and democratic point of view. But epistemologically speaking, you’re dead wrong. Expertise still matters.
Here’s a challenge to any blogger who thinks his/her overnight words are worth reading: write a 2,000 word article (much less a 100,000 word book) on the technical aspects of any wine, variety or region you choose. Make it coherent and intelligent and compelling, something to read 50 years from now. Anybody can fake a silly review on a blog, recycling information provided in the press release. Few people can write an authentic wine article that’s true, substantial, complex, explanatory and visionary. Those of us who can are called experts, not bloggers; and bloggers that hope to knock us off our perches need to step up to the plate and hit home runs, not take an occasional base on balls, to get taken seriously.