When is Wine Info Reliable?

What is "reliable" information?

This question might take on more significance when discussing matters of life or death, the value of your home or information upon which you are going to base business decisions. With regard to wine and our passion for the beverage I’m not sure it’s nearly as important. After all, if someone tells you, "This is the best wine in the universe" and it turns out not to be…big deal.

But it still remains something we should all keep in mind as we peruse blogs like this one, the various wine magazines, as we listen to wine experts and as we take in the various wine-related political riffs that folks like myself and other bloggers and writers indulge in from time to time.

How then does one determine if the information we suck up is reliable? There are some basic rules that deserve repeating.

Is a source cited?
When you read or hear that X did or said Y, can you get to that source? The fact that blogs and increasingly non-blog but Internet-housed information does this quite well generally is an overlooked asset to the blog format. We tend to link. The other day I ranted a bit about what appeared to be a web site that stereotyped gays. And I linked to the site. That allowed a number of folks to look at the site and offer their opposite impressions. Look for citations.

Know who is Doing the Talking
These days if I can’t know the name and the affiliation or background of the person making the claims or doing the commenting I simply won’t spend time at that website. It’s a matter of putting one’s name behind something. Increasingly, I won’t give much time to a blog or website that doesn’t give me a way to contact the person doing the writing outside the comment section. If they feel the need to be detached from their reader, I don’t feel the need to be their reader.

It seems a diminishing commodity these days, but given the amount of biased (celebratory bias?) one is exposed to these days, a source that self consciously tries to be a genuinely unbiased source is a real treasure. In the wine world there are a few of those sources: Wine Business Monthly, Wine Market Report, Wines & Vines, Practical Winery & Vineyard, Vineyard & Winery Management. What all these have in common is they serve the trade…business. They attempt to be sources of information that others can use to run a business. Those behind these publications surely have biases. But they rarely come out in the news and research they report.

The entertainment an lifestyle publications are biased. In fact you want them to be if you are looking for a good, provocative, interesting read. The reviews of wines are by definition the source of bias. What else could they be. And, the editors and writers bring to the table a solid idea of what they believe is a compelling story. There is no way to do this without using one’s bias. If a reader knows this, they can get a great deal more out of the wine publications.

I’m looking for experts. I’m looking for folks that have been around the wine business long enough that they’ve seen and heard a lot. I expect them have a bias, but I also have a great deal more respect for these folks. They’ve tasted widely, talked to more folks, including others like themselves and, importantly, they’ve seen trends come and go. These folks may not give us unbiased information, but that is different than unreliable information. My experience is that the information I get from those that have been around this business for 20 years or more is going to be of a higher caliber, better filtered, more contextual.

More and more I’m thinking about what’s reliable information and what’s not. I’ve not been burned of late by relying on bad information. But of late I’ve seen more opportunity to be burned.

6 Responses

  1. Dr. Debs - November 2, 2007

    An interesting post, Tom. I am concerned about a few things in it, however. First, about “knowing who is doing the talking.” I publish my blog under a pseudonym. There is an excellent reason for this: Google. As someone who actually makes a living writing something else, it is not practical nor desirable for me to have my wine writing and my other, very different writing linked via Google. Does writing under a pseudonym mean I’m unreliable? I don’t think so. Would knowing about my degrees, awards, honors, employment history, and distinctions in something other than wine make me more “reliable?” Again, I don’t think so.
    You also state that you are increasingly looking for “experts.” That’s your prerogative. But many of us read blogs precisely because they AREN’T written by experts. This, once again, doesn’t mean the blogs (or the people who write them) are unreliable. It means that we bring a different perspective to the issues than than the excellent writers already contributing to the wine world in the publications that you mention.

  2. Tom Wark - November 2, 2007

    Debs, you make good points. A person writing anonymously can get our attention and can be considered reliable. But I think the hurdle is higher because of the anonymity.
    Where “experts are concerned” I’d agree that reading someone’s impressions of a wine requires no demand on my part for expertise in the subject of wine. You like it. You don’t. And here’s why.
    However, if I’m reading about the fermentation process, the politics of wine in Nova Scotia, the changes over time in the way winemakers tend to treat phenolics in wine or the evolution of a wine growing region, then I am more comfortable with someone with perspective, expertise, etc.

  3. Mark V Marino - November 2, 2007

    Hey Tom,
    I have to say I agree 100% I have seen 1000’s taste wine and the one thing I think this industry does wrong is ratings and descriptions.
    I do wine tours with people from everywhere and the one thing I have noticed is people’s tastes vary widely. My approach is to start with what they like, usually they are not sure, then take them where they might like, observe listen, talk and try and zero in on their perferences. I have seen again and again tasting rooms intimadate clients with too many flavor words cherries, vanilla, leather, wood. This influences and confuses. Ratings are great for the taster writing the rating that’s it! We need to get the people drinking and evaluating themselves!
    Changes over time? I was born in Napa when Italians took abuse for drinking wine and everyone in my family drank it and made it. Not for money but for the love of the drink and would fight over whose was better out of pride of the making. That was the 1950’s, things have changed many ways since then,wine making has become big business. Experts have sprung up it beat the drum. Wine making has become mysterious, when it is really quite simple. I could write several books.
    The place has changed a lot I am still searching for that fantastic fermentation just over the next hill! Everyday is a new adventure.

  4. Pamela - November 2, 2007

    In today’s technology world, everyone can easily create a site and talk about a gamut of subjects, so it’s important that we scrutinize the source. If you can’t find information about the author/publisher, or contact the author through an email or other means, I, like Tom will not waste my time on that site. Bias also plays an important point; the site should present several authoritative viewpoints on the subject and not just one person’s opinion. I won’t waste my time on biased information. Credentials are also equally important; case in point – if I want to read an article about sulfites in wine I would rely on research from the fine folks at U.C. Davis; if I want to read about global warming and the impacts on the wine industry, I might rely on an authoritative source like Pancho Campo (Wine Academy of Spain). If I come across a site that debunks Campo’s claim, my immediate response would be to look for the author’s credentials (e.g. find a “contact” or “about” page). If this information non-existent and they are not willing to identify themselves, the site (and its research) has no meaning to me. There is no advantage of gathering information from non-experts.
    On the other hand, when it comes to wine reviews, we all know this is a very personal experience. Just because I say a wine is out of this world doesn’t mean that the guy sitting next to me will agree. I think most reviewers obtain a following after a reader tastes a wine the reviewer wrote and the reader agrees with the commentary – essentially reviewers build a trust factor with their readers. Case in point – some may love the wines that Robert Parker reviews – others may not.
    You don’t have to have 20 years in the industry to build a trust factor with your readers; you simply have to build trust. It’s simply up to the reader to decide which reviewer they want to follow.

  5. Tish - November 3, 2007

    All of these comments make sense, which is further proof that wine — perhaps more so than any widely used product on earth — simply defies reviewability. Given the subjectivity of taste, the imprecision of words to communicate nuances, and above all the importance of context to one’s enjoyment of wine, this crazy fermented beverage is inescapably a greased pig.
    Of course it always comes back to trust. We all have to decide whose opinions we deign worth following. But in the process, we need to remember that opinions are never absolute.

  6. Arthur - November 5, 2007

    So how does someone who knows their stuff, and is dilligent in ensuring their informationis true and accurate gain credibility when they do not have a lengthy reume to post in their “about us” section?

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