Wine Diarist

A Worthwhile Canadian Initiative? The CBC Takes a Swipe at Wine Experts

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) aired a documentary last Thursday titled “The Trouble With Experts.” Written, directed, and produced by veteran filmmaker Josh Freed, who doubles as a humor columnist for the Montreal Gazette, the program took aim at “experts” across a broad range of fields: politics, art, finance, health, etc. I haven’t watched the entire show, but from what I gather, Freed’s message was that these people are all basically full of it. That was certainly the message conveyed by the segment devoted to wine experts, which I did see. For someone intent on debunking the idea of expertise, there is obviously no juicier target—no lower-hanging fruit—than wine gurus. Wine reeks of pretension, arrogance, and bogus authority, right? Get two bottles, one pricey and one cheap, swap the contents of each, and watch the oeno-fools humiliate themselves.

And that’s exactly what happened in the CBC documentary. Freed teamed up with Frédéric Brochet, a French cognitive psychologist who has done research into how expectations influence our perceptions of wines, to do a tasting in Paris involving some 50 so-called wine experts (who they were, and how much knowledge they truly possessed, we are not told).  Brochet swapped a $30 Burgundy—it was identified in the program as a Château de Chamirey, which presumably means it was Mercurey—for a $500 Nuits-St.-Georges (I could see from the label that it was from Domaine Leroy, which would account for the, um, extravagant price), and vice versa. Although the narrator doesn’t say, it is clear that the tasting was not done blind—the participants at least knew the names and appellations of the wines, if not the prices. At any rate, the experts ended up with oeuf on their faces, expressing a preference for what they believed was the more expensive and prestigious wine, the Nuits-St.-Georges, but which in fact was the Chamirey.

Interestingly, viewers were also shown the reaction of a young woman who was identified as a non-expert and who took part in the tasting, as well. She gave her vote to what she thought was the Chamirey, but which was, of course, the Leroy. It seems to me that her verdict complicated the story in a way that Freed and Brochet surely didn’t intend. Their aim was obviously not just to expose the experts as poseurs, but also to demonstrate that pricey wines aren’t worth the money—that quality is not commensurate with cost, that all these knuckleheads paying $500 for the Leroy could be drinking a better wine for $30.  Early in the segment, Brochet tells us that experts are predisposed to like wines that carry a hefty price tag. The experts in this case behaved according to expectation and embarrassed themselves. Yet, the woman with no expertise preferred the Leroy, which could be taken as an indication that it was, in fact, the finer wine. So the lesson here is that some wine  professionals are too beholden to labels (paging Francois Mauss!); the conclusion that can’t be drawn is that price bears no relationship to quality, and this was the other message that Freed and Brochet clearly wished to convey (the issue isn’t whether the Leroy Nuits-St.-Georges is worth $500; it’s whether it deserves to be more expensive than the Chamirey).

But Freed, in an interview last week with the Montreal Gazette, was triumphant. “Not one expert—the guys who intimidate us—got it right,” he said. “In blind tastings, they’re no better than we are. The only one who got it right was not an expert. She just knew what she liked. We discovered that your opinion is as valid as, if not more valid than, the experts.”Now here’s where I say that Freed is full of it. Who exactly are these “guys” doing the intimidating? As far as I can see, most wine experts go to enormous lengths to make wine as unintimidating as possible. Every other wine book promises to “demystify” the subject in some way. It could be argued that wine discourse has been completely dumbed down because wine writers and educators are so fearful of scaring away novitiates, so intent on making wine seem warm and cuddly. And Freed’s last line is a gem. Did he really mean to suggest that the less you know about wine, the better you are at judging it—that knowledge and experience corrupt taste? I realize he’s a humor writer, but that’s truly silly. Yes, the non-expert in the Paris tasting outperformed the “pros”, but to use this one, trivial example to question the wisdom of wine wisdom is asinine. Possessing wine knowledge may not spare you from humiliation every time someone secretly switches the labels or refills a pricey bottle with rotgut, but in general, a more informed taster is a superior taster.

That said, some of the reaction to the Freed/Brochet stunt has been overwrought. So a few wine geeks were made to look like idiots on Canadian television—big deal. I doubt that thousands of our northern neighbors went out and burned their copies of Wine for Dummies after watching the show (although that would make for an awesome headline, no?)  There is an insatiable appetite for wine information these days, and while CBC viewers were surely amused by the Paris tasting, I suspect that very few of them concluded from the documentary that there is absolutely no value to mastering the intricacies of wine, or that all wine  connoisseurs are charlatans. For this reason—and here I’m channeling Michael Kinsley—I am fairly confident that we can categorize Freed’s broadside against wine experts as a failed Canadian initiative.