Experts: Ad Infinitum
Recently, a long-time friend and contentious collaborator stopped me mid-sentence—amid the fervor of one of my rants—and said: “Are you ever going to stop talking about ‘empowering experts’?”
When I first started thinking about this whole thing, over a decade ago—it was Aspen Food & Wine, 1998, where Jimmy Yeager, Steven Olson, Ron Cooper and I became friends—things were much different. At the time, I was in the old publishing world, having recently purchased the most trusted, independent name in American wine magazines: the Underground Wine Journal. It was the first time that I had seen Olson speak publicly—which happened to be at Jimmy’s Restaurant, talking about agave-based spirits (which happened to feature Cooper’s Del Maguey Single Village Mezcal). Olson had effortlessly woven a timeless tapestry of geography, geology, history, world culture and a myriad of sciences. I was dumbfounded; never having seen anything like it. A far cry from my press junkets, programmed visits to wineries and distilleries, and manufactured lunches with marketers.
It became increasingly alarming to me that in a hundred-plus-billion-dollar industry, so much power lay in the hands of a few corruptible people. No fault to them as individuals—among them phenomenal minds and palates—but something as basic as a single human interaction with organic elements is a fragile and slippery slope. The ability to make or break families and communities—never mind their products—based on vacillating oligarchic whims and trends, seemed entirely unjust. Moreover, it seemed completely contrary to this beautiful thing of libations—rooted in the ethos of sharing and mutual celebration—that which unites farmers and tycoons. On these junkets, as a journalist, I would study my colleagues, their behaviors and methodologies, often skeptical about their integrity and motives.
Then, in great contrast, there was this invigorated, passionate community of professionals that I was getting to know. I began looking at educators and consultants as essential counterparts to the famed quixotic winemakers and impassioned importers; sommeliers and bartenders as the ground forces—buyers and salespeople, making it all possible.
Every tasting panel that I organized thereafter would include at least one professional—ideally several. Whether producers, sommeliers, small restaurant beverage managers, or buyers for high-end chains, their insight was inevitably crucial and distinctive. It became increasingly disturbing to me that this community had limited reach and little-to-no direct interaction with consumers; this immense wealth of knowledge and insight was being overlooked.
Shortly thereafter, the internet bubble—and within it, some early adopters from the wine-space made big splashes, spent millions of dollars and earned fabled reputations. The story of Wine.com alone is the stuff of Greek tragedies. And, the problems that affected this convergence then are still the greatest failings of today. The internet is chiefly comprised of two types of wine & spirit sites: those driven by techies who know nothing of wine & spirits and those of wine & spirit people who know nothing about technology. There are, of course, a few exceptions—which are largely irrelevant for other reasons.
Enter web 2.0 and the dawning of anonymous, unqualified user-generated-content—aka the Cult of Amateur. The vast investment into the internet-wine space over the past few years is unprecedented, as are the names flocking to the space—among them some of the biggest and brightest in venture capital and finance. How some of these companies got funding—particularly the social networking copy-cats—is beyond my grasp. The most distinctive commonality is that they all overlook the most credible, accountable and appropriate community in the world of wine & spirits: industry professionals, aka experts. Simultaneously, the two chief traditional power-brokers of the print-world are coming under constant attack—as is their fragile credibility—from the growing online constituents, in great part, led by the bloggers.
Lest we merely mention Yelp—one of the most dangerous websites alive today (for just how long, nobody knows). It should be noted that I was among the early adopters—when the community was dominated by foodies whose opinion actually meant something. Also before they started blackmailing proprietors. Their SEO has done very well for them—but their lack of credible, qualified content will be their ultimate undoing. Aside from the fact that unqualified commenters—who are conveniently hiding behind pedestrian handles—are swaying public opinion, the company has impure intentions.
Having aggressively invested in this space over the past five-plus-years, the challenges facing a wine-web revolution are fairly obvious. The VC firms follow trends, having ignored the mantra “change or die” the first time around, they’re primarily focused on two proven models: UGC-based social networking plays and Ecommerce. The idea of empowering a community of professionals, while noble and perhaps just, doesn’t even cross their radar, fit in one of their boxes. They will, of course, also challenge the ‘relevance’ and interest of the professional community; to this I say: compare wine & spirit industry professionals’ activity and following on Facebook today to where it was a year ago. We went from three über-connected content providers (who had something to sell), to hundreds of tastemakers, celebrating products, places, ideas and each other. Moreover, some of the movers and shakers—the more garish of whom shall remain nameless—have become trailblazers, not only for wine & spirits, but for web 2.0, as master manipulators of social media.
There are obvious inherent complications with the current VC approach—to include the backlash dubbed Revenge of the Experts, in which consumers are aggressively seeking professional knowledge, and the complete saturation of the ecommerce-space, where we have two looming behemoths: new entrant (again), Amazon.com and trail-blazers-turned-whistle-blowers, Wine.com, somehow still in the game. Neither seems to have a grasp. Meanwhile wine-clubs are sprouting up in every direction—Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Zagat, et al—some of whom are generating serious revenues. But, where are the experts?
Somewhere in between, we see incomplete offerings like Nirvino, Snooth and WineZap; coupled with the looming vitality of direct-shipping companies. Online wine sales continue to grow at inspiring rates, all the while; though as buying decisions become more crucial, expert guidance will inherently become a more valuable commodity. One might imagine that it would be a lot easier to trust the collective opinion of a few dozen professionals, rather than buy whatever’s being sold by someone who is in the business of Ecommerce.
Every time a new wine & spirits-related site pops-up, and it seems to happen a few times a week, of late—to the tune of well over a hundred during the past year alone—the same thing happens. I immediately rush to find out who is involved—or try to, anyway. Inevitably, any site possessing of a half-way decent user-interface is devoid of serious authority. Accordingly, sites posing serious wine & spirits authorities are technologically challenged; moreover, they are individualistic and have scarce chances of ever reaching critical mass. The challenge is in finding an expert community with the breadth and resources to cover the span of consumer needs in a real-time, organic environment.
The answer: an independent, unbiased panel comprised of industry professionals—uncontrolled by hidden agendas or thinly-veiled self-interest. Rather than depend upon a single passing judgment—from one single person—an on-going organic body that discovers, shares and discusses wine and spirits, evolving collectively, naturally. There is a need for an environment which encourages consumers to actively empower and collaborate with the professional community, and which supports professionals who genuinely practice the art of sharing. These two worlds are often separated by misconceptions and intentional mechanisms. Taste is solely subjective, while its collective representation is truly democratic—the wisdom of crowds cannot be swayed. Especially when they’re experts.
So, will I ever stop talking about empowering experts? Not any time soon.