The Democratization of Wine

As the internet has matured, it seems to me we have entered an era of the democratization of wine. CellarTracker is a great example of this. In the ‘old’ days, the regal critic had regular appearances before His subjects to divine which wines were good and which wines were bad. The subjects dutifully listened, took the scriptures to the wine store, and bought the wines the Royal recommended.

Those days are waning rapidly. The problem with the Royal’s pronouncements, among others, was that they were a single data point in time (or two if you count barrel tastings). With the democratization have come many data points, on a wine’s evolution over time as people taste the wine in real time.

Skeptics of this democratization present arguments such as “I don’t trust anonymous palates;” akin to “beware of the unwashed masses.” But if ‘regular people’ are so unreliable, then ultimately, it calls into question whether there really is a fair way to evaluate wine. After all, if only the Royals, plus the ordained few (let’s call them The Elders) can judge a wine’s quality, of what relevance is it to everyone else?

Francois Mauss, of The Grand Jury Europeen, once told me (paraphrasing): “I want some regular wine enthusiasts on the GJE and not just people in the business, because I want the regular drinker’s opinions reflected in our judgments.” I thought this was a great point. After all, most of us do not drink our wines in the way a critic tastes–critics taste either up to 75 wines in a day (which favors the bold fruit bombs), or in the winery cellar with the winemaker commenting as they taste, or in an office setting with a bevy of dozens of wines in front of them. This is how The Royals taste, but not us.

It seems to me the democratization of wine is a great thing, and its something to celebrate.

The old guard doesn’t like it, because we’re about to see the destruction of Versailles. But I think its a force that can’t be stopped, and I think its terrific.

What does everyone else think?

The primary advantages the old guard had were, imo, time and access. Both of these are dwarfed by the collective efforts of many. One always had to be careful in determining whom to trust - that part of the paradigm for the consumer remains the same. This is one example of the positive power of the internet.

The old guard doesn’t like it, because we’re about to see the destruction of Versailles. But I think its a force that can’t be stopped, and I think its terrific.

Off with his head.
The problem with the “palate” is that he tastes the wines in oak and then in bottle. Although he estimates the time needed to maturity, those are only educated guesses that are not always right. With some wine regions, there are rarely progress reports on the professional wine sites. That is where CT can be helpful so long as you understand that you may disagree with the posters at that point of time in the wine’s development. Many wine drinkers enjoy wines much younger than I do, so I have been forced to trust my instincts and my history with drinking the wines I typically enjoy before opening them.

I agree but still think the critics will be very important to the casual wine fan who knows who the critics are and will hit a wine shop looking at the shelf talkers or with a few recommendations from the critics in hand. These folks don’t peruse the chat boards, cellartracker, etc., but they do subscribe to Wine Spectator or even The Wine Advocate - or at least know who they are…so when they see a shelf talker with a 92 or a 95 or whatever score, it will appeal to them.

For the serious wine geek, ie, most of us, the critics become less important. At least that’s what I find happening to me. I let my subscription to WA lapse for the first time in 6 years or so b/c I just don’t really care. I get to taste a lot of wine and make purchasing decisions based upon my palate. Additionally,European wines that I am interested in, many posters on these boards have tasted at the wineries and if I trust their palates, then I may pull the trigger on something.

Now, my biggest gripe with “scores” on sites like CellarTracker are the overly enthusiastic scoring ranges. It seems no one really wants their wine to be below 88 pts so you do have people with notes like: overly hot, disjointed, plummy fruit…90 pts. So for the most part, when investigating a wine I pay particularly close attention to the notes and only cursory attention to the scores.

I do wish post people that assign scores to their notes read, reread and reread again the description of the scoring ranges prior to posting scores.

Nice posts. Timely and thought-provoking. Between the economic meltdown, new media, new thrift, and anti-bling trends, the ‘old wine world order’ seems to be in for quite a ride.

A wine tasting in NYC of Greek wines last week sure confirmed that there’s fine juice out there for much less than $20 per. Some of us still infer that several wine bubbles seem to have burst recently. The PR machines will be cranking to keep things in check.

Reactions from my non-wine nut friends indicate that this conversation is more engaging among wine nuts impassioned by ‘the hunt.’

Gary Vaynerchuk taking on the “Royal” Howard Stern seems apropos also." onclick=";return false;

Thanks for the thread.

Critics will always be around, they serve a purpose for novices and they do sell wine. That said, for people who take the time and reads boards like this, the critic’s role and influence is certainly diminishing. And in some cases diminishing quickly. For me personally, and I’m sure for others on boards like this, I know which critics I may pat attention to and which I completely ignore. In the case where a dozen geeks on a board agree on a wine it is becoming more and more important.


I don’t think the problem is with critics so much as with INCOMPETENT critics.

RMP is not such a bad taster - if you’ve calibrated your palate to his [which isn’t all that hard], then, generally speaking, you know right away what sort of a profile an RMP-pointy wine is gonna present.

And he is remarkably consistent in what he likes.

As is Tanzer, for that matter.

[By and large, I don’t care all that much for Parkerized or Tanzerized wines, but at least when I taste them, I immediately understand why they appealed to Parker or to Tanzer.]

And while I didn’t know their red wine reviews very well, as whites went, Rovani was a darned good taster, and I even thought that Per-Henrik Mansson did a very good job with Chablis & Côte de Beaune blancs.

But some of these other guys - Suckling, Laube, Steiman, Miller, Raynolds - they couldn’t taste their way out of a paper bag if you held a gun to their heads.

I mean, there is so much grotesque incompetence in high-end wine tasting that most of the published notes & scores are simply useless.

You know, the true “Democratization of Wine” may be in these internet forums which allow us to point out that, by and large, most professional wine tasters really are incompetent [and, quite often, have profoundly BAD taste in wine].

This came up in the recent Australian thread, but just in the last week alone, I have tried Australian wines, with big points from Miller or Steiman, which proved to be just shy of nauseating.

PS: The older I get, the more I agree with the chick from Skadden Arps who said that tasting notes shouldn’t concentrate on flavor perception but rather should concentrate on mouthfeel perception.

I have come to find that if a note doesn’t describe mouthfeel, then it’s just useless to me.

PPS: Maybe the problem with many of these guys is that they are writers first [i.e. professional journalists], and TASTERS second.

To his credit, RMP has said that the most prodigious taster in the world is a woman he knows who works as a dentist in Bordeaux.

In other words, maybe the ability to be employed as a professional wine journalist - working your way up through all the political BS until you have finally [after decades in the political BS trenches] gotten to the point where your job is to meet a monthly journal’s publication deadline every few weeks - maybe that ability just doesn’t correlate very well with being able to taste worth a damn.

Or maybe these guys could taste pretty well years and years and years ago, but 100,000 [or 250,000] wines later, their tastebuds & nasal cavities & throats are just completely shot.

Which gets back to a vocabulary question I asked in the other thread:

Blind is to seeing as deaf is to hearing as __________ is to tasting.

How do you fill in the blank there?

Maybe I should add: I can’t afford ANY of the stuff that Allen Meadows writes about, so I have never bothered to follow Burghound.

[Although Burgheads do seem to think that he knows what he’s talking about. And I did like that 2005 Cristom Eileen which he recommended.]

Originally posted by Nathan Smyth:

To his credit, RMP has said that the most prodigious taster in the world is a woman he knows who works as a dentist in Bordeaux.

I had an interesting conversation with a young wine “instructor” at a Greek wine tasting last week. When I suggested that I wondered whether females might have better palates in general he proceeded to scientifically launch into why this might be evolutionarily selected for. All I can say is that my GF’s palate has put mine to shame time and again.

Not to mention that female wine growers such as those at Spottswoode, Viader, Haut Bailly, etc. as well as innumerable female chefs make wonderful food products… Go girls !

It shocked me when I first heard this [I didn’t want to believe it], but my understanding is that, in general [and on average], women can taste something like an order of magnitude better than men.

So that if a typical man can taste flaw-ish molecules on the order of, say, tens of parts per billion [i.e 10 to 99 parts per billion], then the typical woman can taste flaw-ish molecules on the order of single digits per billion [i.e. 0 to 9 parts per billion].

It does beg the question though of why so few women are wine phreaks.

Women just don’t seem to get the “tunnel vision” [or obsession or whatever] that guys do when it comes to these kinds of hobbies [or professions].

And I know several girls who are such super tasters that alcohol tastes terrible to them - they can’t even put it in their mouths.


I totally agree that most critics are journalists first and critics second. I mean, to sell a publication, you have to sell the writing–the more enthusiastic the critic, the more excited the reader, and the more people clamor to subscribe. A very astute point, I think, that eludes many subscribers to the publications.

I have no problem with critics being journalist first. I read the magazines or the blogs to get info on wines, vintages, and lastly tasting notes. Points come last to me. So for most of the things I look for in articles, it’s best done by a writer/journalist than a pure critic.

Oh course, point hounds may have a different opinion!

I agree that it can be good for the industry to have professional journalists who are doing the “rah rah go team” routine so as to attract “noobs” to the product , but after you get a few years out of the noob phase, and you start to take the thing a little more seriously, then you notice that many of these professional journalists have really lousy palates.

Dear Nathan;

I was a “noob” in 1973! [smack.gif] How about you? I still look to Suckling, Molesworth, etc., to give me updated info on vintages and wines. Sorry, I haven’t been to Bdx since 03, and the Rhone since 01. When was the last time you where there? So I need these guys to tell me if I need to be buying futures or lying low. If I had your money and could go to all the difference places in the world pre-release, guess I might not need the journalist either. I will be back in the WV this summer and might not need Harvey S. for 07’s and 08’s, but his overall coverage is still better than mine.

Sounds like to me you need to take your noobs or this that snoobs remarks to the wine critics blog!

I agree with the general theme, but worry that the next step will be to try to 'game the system" with something like Cellar Tracker notes. While CT was small, you could safely assume that the notes were genuine. I see more and more blogs in other areas that appear to be nothing but thinly veiled ads for products - how long before savvy producers start to try to stuff CT with favorable reviews of their wines?


It’s already happening! Eric is just in denial!

Show me. Point out a note. Point out a user. Anyone on the community can report when they think a note is in violation. I am not in denial. I know this is coming. But with 500,000 eyes per month on my site I am yet to have a single person point out a shill review in 5 years. That is not denial but rather fact. Don’t you worry though, I know this is an inevitable arms race, and I have weapons to help and many more coming. I dare you though, point out a note. Find me a shill. I will act.

Interesting thread. Think the post Parker world will be quite interesting. Looking into the crystal ball, can imagine seeing . . .

  1. A different “Parker or small group of mini-Parkers” emerge at some point. Think people associate well with an individual and their palate, and someone who has an extensive tasting background, is independent and articulate will take his place eventually. Hard to say if this person will come from WA or some other place? What I could see happening is WA working into its website a home grown CT sort of model where BB folks also post tasting notes. There would be links to official WA notes, and then community notes. The official WA notes might be a small panel of reviewers groomed for the role.

  2. There is a place for CT type ratings, and think they will become more valuable in time. People that take the time to review wines and post on the web generally have a palate above the average person. Anyone who is posting about 47 Cheval Blanc is not likely to be a novice? Think we self screen pretty well. We all know the language of wine and when someone says, sweet yummy grapy taste, 99 points, it is easy to disregard. 100 to 1000 points/notes on any given wine is meaningful information. Sure, there will be folks posting to up the rating on their wine, but most will be subtle about it. Average is 80, so the hidden agenda type ratings will +/- 5 points. Anyone who says 99 to the same wine automatically raises red flags.

  3. Retailer and Blog ratings are likely to be close to meaningless in my view. Sure, there will be a few targeted folks people enjoy and respect, but do not see either being a predominent driving factor in the wine world like a Parker. Think the independence of ratings is key, as is the number of followers. It certainly takes serious money to drink the volume of wine required to have an extensive database of ratings/notes. WA or CT are currently positioned well for the future.

Will be interesting to see how everything shakes out in time . . . [cheers.gif]

Wine critics remind me of sports journalists.

Now there’s an excellent analogy: Greasy little jock-strap-sniffing weasels, who, if handed an actual ball, on an actual field of play, and told to actually throw it, would throw it like a girl [which, in many instances, might actually be an insult to the fair sex] - if they could even throw it at all.

PS: Erin Andrews is welcome to throw like a girl at me all day long.

PPS: And Jennie Finch is welcome to throw at me like Nolan F-ing Ryan.