The wine critic as imposter? Read on
It’s not a statement of hubris, just of fact, to say that I often meet people who tell me they’re honored to meet me. They call me an expert on this or that, and sometimes they say they’re actually embarrassed or shy to be talking to me.
I’m used to it and can understand it. I’m fairly well-known, a big fish in the small pond of California wine reviewers. However, this reaction on people’s part always embarrasses me and causes me no little discomfort. It’s not just that I don’t want people to feel awkward around me, it’s because a little voice inside my head is going, You don’t understand, I’m not who you think I am.
When people impute to you positive qualities you’re not certain you possess, there are different ways of dealing with it. How you do so, I think, depends on the way you were raised, and your moral underpinnings. You can smile indulgently, accept the praise and even act in such a way as to acknowledge that, yes, you know you’re pretty special, but you have the grace not to revel in it.
That’s not how I react. Rather, I try to let the other person know that, in my own eyes, I’m not as smart as they think I am, and that who I really am is probably someplace midway between who they think I am and simply a guy who’s been writing about wine for a long time and may have learned a thing or two.
Mind you, I don’t dismiss what I’ve learned since the late 1970s when I took up the study of wine. I realize it’s a lot more than 99% of people will ever know. What I do dismiss is this notion that I’m somehow a high priest of wine wisdom, and the reason I dismiss it is because it’s simply not true.
This arose yesterday when I was with an executive at a high end San Francisco restaurant. I’m sure he was just being gracious in welcoming me so profusely, but he did use the word “honored” more than once and said similar things that made me think he thought I’m one of these people who can tell the difference between Williams Selyem’s Allen Vineyard and Estate Vineyard Pinot Noirs three blocks away and explain in the minutest detail how I know.
Believe me, I can’t.
I did remind him of the old Harry Waugh remark concerning Burgundy and Bordeaux and explained that ole Har–one of the greatest palates and writers of his generation–gave permission to all who came after him to stumble, sometimes badly, and feel no shame.
I like to think my attitude toward myself is one of common, garden variety humility, but there is another, more pathological explanation. The Imposter Syndrome is a psychological phenomenon in which people are unable to recognize their own accomplishments. (Here’s Wikipedia’s entry on it.)
The key sentences are “Despite external evidence of their competence, those with the syndrome remain convinced that they are frauds and do not deserve the success they have achieved. Proof of success is dismissed as luck, timing, or as a result of deceiving others into thinking they are more intelligent and competent than they believe themselves to be.”
Lots of creative people have Imposter Syndorome. It can happen to anyone who’s oohed and aahed by the public. Sally Field, the actress, displayed a touch of Imposter Syndrome when, in 1984, accepting her second Oscar for Places in the Heart, gasped, “….you like me, right now, you like me!”, in a way that showed how amazed she was that anyone could like her because, in her own mind, she was, somehow, unlikeable.
I know all the major famous wine critics and writers in California and have seen them all onstage, conducting tastings before groups of people who paid good money, and who obviously respected and admired them as rock stars. I’ve watched closely how many of these critics wing it before their audiences. They say things that aren’t true, or are unverifiable, and they depend on the fact that they’re one step ahead of most of their audience members to get away unchallenged. Critics like these ought to worry about not being as good as people think they are, and maybe they do: I hope so. It should inspire them to work harder to be better.
Myself, I’m too aware of how much I don’t know to try and be Mr. Font of Wisdom, and I think it’s only appropriate to let audiences I speak to know that. A lot of the truisms about wine that experts put out there aren’t true at all. They’re conventional wisdom, but with many exceptions to the rule. I think it’s important to let people know that, at least in California, things are much more complicated than simply saying, for instance, “You can always tell a Gold Ridge Pinot Noir because [fill in the blank].” If you know it’s a Gold Ridge Pinot Noir then sure, you can always tell. Some experts will stand up in front of audiences and explain all about Gold Ridge and then accept the accolades for being so smart. For myself, who was a journalist long before I was a wine writer, it’s important to explain Gold Ridge (or anything else) this way: “Many people say a Pinot Noir grown in Gold Ridge soil will exhibit [whatever]. I don’t always find that, but maybe it’s because my palate isn’t as finely tuned as theirs.”
Is that Imposter Syndrome, humility, or simply a recognition of the fact that wine is a lot more complicated than conventional wisdom implies? You tell me.