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The wine critic as imposter? Read on

17 comments

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.

  1. I think anyone who is in such an expansive field as wine has got to feel this way more often than not. The deeper I get into this, the less sure I feel about anything. But you know what, I love it that way… so much to learn and to experience, I’ll take the feeling of being a fraud in my knowledge for that as the tradeoff :).

  2. I definitely feel the same way as you Steve, although the amount of “honor” people feel around me is considerably less (if present at all). For me it tends to manifest itself more in people always leaving the wine choice at a restaurant up to me or looking at me for the “verdict” when trying a new wine. It is bad enough that I didn’t tell anyone I was taking the CSW exam (except my wife) and didn’t want to tell anyone after I passed it, because I become embarrassed and uncomfortable when people seem to humble themselves before you. I took the exam for myself, not to brag about it to others.

  3. george kaplan says:

    You know you’re really thinking” I”m king of the world!”

  4. Dear GrapesRGreat, thanks for the comment.

  5. Yes1WineDude there is so much to learn and the more we learn the more we can share.

  6. STEVE!
    I’ve always been surprised that wine carries the prestige that it does. When I was a sommelier, if we went to a party where I didn’t know many people, I would ask my wife not to tell folks I was a sommelier. “Tell them I’m a waiter,” I’d say, “no one wants to ask questions about being a waiter.” I felt pretty much how you describe your feelings here. Yes, I knew more about wine than probably anyone in the room, but I was always strongly aware of how little I actually knew. Isn’t that the sign of wisdom? You know you know a lot when you realize you don’t know much at all.

    And, as a corollary, I don’t think I’m funny either. But at least on that point there is general agreement.

  7. I do see the irony in my comment and others who agree. . . your article seems to have convinced several people to talk about themselves. Through the filter of the internet though, your inhibitions seems to fade a tad.

  8. doug wilder says:

    It took a few years after getting into the business of wine, but at the time I learned I needed to develop mechanisms to deal with those unexpected comments that I felt put me on a pedestal that I neither felt like I wanted or deserved. So I came up with the following:

    When I would get a call from someone who told me their friend suggested I was a great resource for wines that nobody had heard about, my answer usually was “Are you sure they are talking about me?”. Or when an email recommendation to clients resulted in my store selling a pallet of wine, I would answer “Great wine sells itself.” when a broker or vintner called to say thanks.

    That was a long time ago, I realize that I am no longer as anonymous as I once was, but still I’m a mere pebble in the stream of wine opinion. Vintners who take the time to sit down with me, or send samples expect their wines to treated professionally and subscribers who now pay to read what I write want information they are not getting elsewhere. Still, I do my best to keep my professional life ‘between the lines’ as they say in baseball. I’m there to do a job based on a developed set of skills that I happen to do reasonably well. So if I get recognized for that within the confines of the genre that is OK by me. The difficult part is marking the line between work and non work when you are in the wine business as more often than not being tabbed as the wine guy especially around food or entertaining can put you on the spot.

  9. This is Great Steve. When I started my career as a Sommelier in Pittsburgh, Pa of all places – everyone would ask me if I was in school for some other more meaningful profession. I came out here 15 years ago and worked at various restaurants, most notably Moose’s in North Beach and the job became some kind of glam attraction. People took me out to dinner, I was put into a book of notable Sommeliers in the U.S. It all seemed rather weird to me, as I’m more of a blue collar sommelier. I know that I don’t know much. I’m not saving anyone’s life here nor is my job really necessary if the world goes to hell (you know those desperation movies).

    A buddy of mine always tells people that I am a somm. and the tune changes, sometimes for the better and sometimes it is this pedestal that makes me uncomfortable.

    I love the business and the fun relaxed style that surrounds it, but it always blows me away when I hear a speaker talk about it like they’ve got a secret that no one else can know, or they say things that aren’t actually true and lay them down like they are facts. I think ‘chill out – it’s just wine’.

  10. I can relate. Even tho I make wine all day at my job, it still feels weird when somebody asks me my job, and I have to respond by saying, “I’m a winemaker”. Steve Doerner is a winemaker. Russ Raney is a winemaker. I’m just a dude that is lucky enough to get paid for moving wine from one container to another.

    Steve, I don’t know a lot about wine critics, but you should feel well justified in calling yourself a wine writer. I read a lot about wine, and your stuff is some of the best. For what it’s worth…

  11. Gabe: thanks very much.

  12. rew, Moose’s must have been great in the 1990s! I went there a few times (never with Herb Caen though) and I remember one booze-fueled night where Billy Getty picked up the tab for everyone. We just ordered anything we wanted off the list. Maybe you were the somm!

  13. I have a standard response when someone says something nice about my wine writing.

    I say “Thank you”.

    I never feel like an imposter. I have earned whatever spurs I own. I can’t imagine being concerned about anyone knowing what I do. For goodness sake, it is what I do.

    Sure, we all know how much we don’t know, but so what. If not knowing everything were a disqualifier, none of us who write about wine could have made a living at it.

    And it is not hubris to think this way or to say it. Quite frankly, if I were not proud of the way I have made a living for the past several decades, I would done something else.

  14. Inverse humility.

  15. Not sure whether the comment above is directed at Steve or at me.

    But, the humility in our business comes in the way we approach the wines we review. It is in the education about wine that we constantly seek. It is in the care that we take; it is in the rigor of our methodology; it is in the belief that we don’t know as much as we do know.

    Ultimately, it is in the way we measure our words. We take care to be honest and direct, but only after we have taken care to know as much about each wine as our knowledge lets us know.

    If we came to the writing end of the evaluation process with no self-belief, we would be pretty piss-poor examples of critics. The key is how one gets to that point–and that is where humility must be part of the equation.

  16. at Steve. A clue: I , I , I, me, me , me.

  17. When someone commends you, it is simply incorrect to play the “I’m humble” routine. It embarrasses the person giving the compliment and has nothing to do with your knowledge. The trick is steer the conversation to the person. A compliment isn’t asking for a life story, at least not yours.
    This isn’t just a wine thing. It happens in any genre with any expert.
    I had lunch on Sunday with someone who knows more about non-warfare aid in Afghanistan than pretty much anyone. His trick: anecdotes about the people he is with to move the conversation to what you (I) think and really want to ask. I could have talked (and mostly listened) all night.
    As they say on the stage, leave them wanting more.

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