The Crime of Expertise

A friend forwarded me this article from the Connoisseur's Guide webpage today. You should read what Stephen Eliot had to say about wine expertise before moving forward with this post.

I was impressed with a number of points in this article because, as someone with a decent amount of readership who is in a relative position of authority, I get a lot of blowback. It's not something that surprises me, or even angers me at this point, because I was once one of these frustrated egoists. If I read an article about music that I disagreed with, I immediately wanted to tell my friends why the author didn't know anything. If there was a "top ten movies of the year" list in a magazine, I would scour the selections, secretly judging the critic's sense of taste by scoffing at what he or she thought "good" cinema was. But, of course, I was eighteen years old at the time. You'd hope most people would grow out of that phase as they got older—that desire to argue, point out mistakes, and be the real voice of authority—but many do not. The internet has only allowed that type of behavior to fester; especially since one can attack and remain anonymous while doing so.

Even though Eliot's article is about wine writing, you can easily replace the word "wine" with "whiskey" and the opinion would be just as accurate. I mean, this is just so utterly true about booze:

"there is a decidedly adversarial edge to so much wine writing these days. Somewhere along the line, an 'us versus them' mentality has insidiously worked its way into much of wine conversation, and generations seem to have been set against one and other."

There's an "adversarial edge" to alcohol appreciation, in my opinion, because we live in an age where no one wants to appear weak. No one wants to be the one asking a question. No one wants to be the guy who doesn't know about Bourbon. No one wants to admit that they're a novice—at anything! People want to talk, not listen. People want to tell, not be told. People want to educate, not be educated. Anyone who attempts to do otherwise will be called out or verbally abused. You think you know something? Well, you don't.

And, of course, wine appreciation is often seen as a very snooty thing. All that swirling, smelling, those ridiculous tasting notes, and the fancy food pairing. What a bunch of poseurs, right?

"David, I know what I like, and that's all I need to know!" someone emailed me randomly a while back.

That's great. For some people, knowing what they like is enough. But, as Eliot points out, knowing what you like and knowing about wine are two different things. Why serious wine or whiskey appreciation angers people is a multi-facted phenomenon. Some people get mad because they're insecure and they feel insignificant in the face of expertise. Other folks have a giant chip on their shoulder and are constantly looking to prove themselves. Whatever the reason, there is indeed a new tone in the modern era of alcohol appreciation and it's aggressively antagonistic.

My favorite line from Eliot was this one:

"I cannot feel but that the rush to 'demystify' wines and break down perceived snobbism has sadly tainted and unjustly devalued authentic expertise."

That's an interesting thought. When you taste wine and spirits every single day, year after year, you do indeed gain a certain level of insight. It would be sad if all that work didn't count for something.

-David Driscoll

David Driscoll