There was a time in wine, not that long ago, when just a few people were considered to be the ultimate arbiters of taste. At the beginning of this century, if you wanted to evaluate a bottle of wine, you likely would rely on the rankings of a limited number of tasting experts who would give a score to the wines they had tasted in flights at various wineries.
Wine Spectator, the Wine Enthusiast and, most importantly, Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate, could make or break a wine simply by scoring either side of, say, 90 points. Never mind that most people, even oenophiles, had little to no idea what the criteria used to reach that number was. Though each ranker had a 100-point system (often slightly different from the others), the only thing that mattered to the vast majority of consumers was that this cabernet sauvignon from Napa was scored two points lower than that cab from Bordeaux. There was little context.
While the 100-point scale has remained the standard, digital media has dramatically changed the way we learn about wine in general and how we find out the specifics of an individual wine in particular. In the past decade, as is the case in just about any other topic of study, there has been a revolution in the availability of information about wine on digital platforms.
Today, if you want to find out about a wine, all you have to do is Google it. Instead of relying on one man’s opinion — and yes, back in the day, 95% of these “arbiters of taste” were men — you can find and read the opinions of a multitude of tasters, most of whom are tasting those wines in their own kitchens, living rooms or backyards. It is the democratization of wine recommendations, if you will.
I heard one sommelier say recently, “Social media is the new Parker.” He was referring to the effect that digital reviews can have on the success of a single wine today versus those days when a Robert Parker decree of quality was the single thing that could move markets.
And, of course, that is nothing but a good thing. The only caveat being that the “everyone is a critic” age means that a lot of uninformed and often biased opinions can find their way into the ether. The trick is to find experts you trust and sites that are interesting to you.
Recently there has been an explosion of sites that both sell wines and provide great reading. That is to say they have developed digital platforms that are commercial storefronts and wrapped them in educational and entertaining info sites.
Every day I get emails from a number of these sites that not only tell me of their wines on offer, but also tell me stories about those wines. Most often someone from the site has visited the wineries and can introduce me to the winemaker in intimate portraits, describe the soils as if I had a spade in hand, and tell me about the pairings in a way that makes me feel that I can taste both the wine and the meals.
Is this wine journalism? Well, not exactly. After all, the point of the pieces is to get me to either buy that bottle online or join that site’s wine club. But it doesn’t necessarily mean that the fix is in either. Many of the sites are populated by experts and, just as importantly, passionate wine folk who are discovering new ways to make a profitable life in wine by sharing, not just the bottles, but also their love of the wines.
And the writing can be great. Sergio Esposito, who runs the Italian Wine Merchants, a high-end wine shop specializing in the gems of the boot, crafts incredibly complex paragraphs about the wines on offer. Esposito’s emails paint a picture of the wines for sale that make you want to A) buy them, and B) rush to Italy to meet the maker yourself.
Basically this is part of a pair of new paradigms. First, in wine the future is in “Direct To Consumer” marketing. Winemakers want to sell to you personally. And second is in how we receive information, not just about wine but really about anything. The digital delivery of information and the creative use of platforms have blurred the line between commerce and education. Oftentimes in this digital age it is both in the same words.
While the old adage “let the buyer beware” certainly still applies, it is time to look at the new instead of the old.
Kelly J. Hayes lives in the soon-to-be-designated appellation of Old Snowmass. He can be reached at [email protected].