By Neile Wolfe
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre between treasure hunter Fred C. Dobbs (played by Humphrey Bogart) and Mexican bandit Gold Hat (played by character actor Alfonso Bedoya). The exchange goes as follows.
Dobbs: “If you're the police where are your badges”
Gold Hat: “Badges? We ain't got no badges. We don't need no badges! I don't have to show you any stinkin' badges!”
This same basic exchange occurred recently between Matt Kramer of the Wine Spectatorand the wine blogsphere. In the October 15, 2009 edition of the Wine Spectator, Kramer basically laid down the gauntlet when he asked the blogsphere to present their Bona fides. The wine blogosphere collectively responded with the position that they don’t need to show Kramer "no stinkin’ Bona fides".
As in many endeavors, the tension between who has the authority to speak and who speaks with authority creates discord between disparate groups. Matt Kramer has spent years reaching his level of expertise and rightly feels that he has earned the right to speak with authority. His frustration at seeing individuals with less training (or in some cases, no training) de facto claiming the same authority is understandable. However, the wine blogosphere reads the tasting notes in Wine Spectator and sees no special difference between their evaluation of a wine and the Wine Spectator’s evaluation, so they believe no functional difference exists.
This issue of competency in tasting is addressed by Kramer. He presents it as a straw man argument, which he then knocks down by stating that mere competency in tasting is not enough. The problem for Kramer is that for almost all people who read wine tasting notes, mere competency is certainly enough. For most of us, one informed tasting note is just as good as another informed tasting note. In addition, the ability of the writer to recognize distinctions becomes unimportant if those distinctions are not reported, which they are not in basic wine reviews. Basic wine reviews are the raison d’etre for the existence of the Wine Spectator. Leave out the wine tasting notes in the back of the magazine and most of us stop subscribing.
Kramer’s problem can be illuminated by an experience I had 30 years ago. A local museum was hosting a lecture by a stained glass artist and I was invited to attend. In the lecture the artist revealed that at one time he had been a painter, but had changed to stained glass. During the Q&A the artist was asked why he had made the change. His answer was something like this. The size of the market for people who really understand modern painting is about 5,000 individuals world wide. Everybody on some level really understands stained glass.
Kramer has the same problem as the artist. The world wide audience for individuals who could understand and put into context, based upon their own personal tasting experience, everything that Kramer might tell them about a wine is only a small fraction of the people who are interested in wine. Since, no basic wine reviews on Wine Spectator go into that kind of depth all of Kramer’s accumulated knowledge becomes superfluous to the issue of a competent opinion.
In fact, the tasting notes by the Wine Spectator and the tasting notes by any number of tasters on CellarTracker are virtually indistinguishable. Below are tasting notes from the Wine Spectator and CellarTracker on two different wines. See if you can determine which review is from the Wine Spectator and which is from CellarTracker.
Fresh, fragrant lemon-lime and citrus scents pick up subtle pear, fig and apple flavors that are sleek and refined. Gains richness on the finish, yet remains impeccably elegant. (93)
Cloudy yellow color. Tropical fruit nose. Tastes of melon, apple and pear. Well balanced. Some noticeable oak that with time will integrate very nicely. Long, elegant finish. (92)
Showing lots of earthy cassis and cherry fruit on the nose, this has a subtle herbacous note that comes out more with air. The palate is medium bodied with plenty of acidity to go along with rich fruit, nice underlying structure, balance and length. Streamlined and tight at the moment. (89)
Aromas of plum and meat follow through to a full-bodied palate, with soft tannins and a fresh, clean finish. Merlot, Syrah and Sangiovese. (88)
Kramer wants to reserve the authority to write tasting notes and make comments about wine to those who are “experts”. However, as demonstrated above, informed tasting notes about wine do not require that level of expertise. This is why the wine blogosphere and CellarTracker are going to continue to expand and gain readership, Kramer’s laments not withstanding.
So, Mr. Kramer, if “your talkin’ to me” it just won’t do much good. What you and the informed part of the wine blogosphere are going to say about any particular wine is essentially the same. And that is all that most people care about.
THE WINES - WIne A used for comparison was the 2006 Aubert Chardonnay Ritchie Vineyard. The first review listed was from the Wine Spectator by James Laube. The second review was from CellarTracker by kstoddard. The second wine used for comparison was the 2005 Ca' Marcanda (Gaja) Promis Toscana IGT. In this case the first review was from CellarTracker by jdunnuck. The second review was from the Wine Spectator by James Suckling