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

2011 October 3
by Mike

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.

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  6. Bill Klapp permalink
    October 5, 2011

    “Bud Carlos
    October 4, 2011
    In the alternative, as the lawyers like to say, maybe the Leroy was sourced from Hardy Rodenstock.”

    Good point, Bud. “Party Hardy!”, as Parker, Robinson and Broadbent always say…

  7. mauss permalink
    October 5, 2011

    Now maybe you will understand why, at GJE tatings, we taste always in the blind method.

    Meanwhile, to get an other point of view, as written here by Jeremy, read carefully the article referenced in his post.

    And, if we want to go deep in this discussion, we must consider a fair discussion about the real influence of the label on your “pleasure level”.

    You see 2 paintings, same views. One is signed Van Gogh, the second one, no signature, though – as proven later – a real Van Gogh. What will be your first reactions ?

  8. Bud Carlos permalink
    October 4, 2011

    In the alternative, as the lawyers like to say, maybe the Leroy was sourced from Hardy Rodenstock.

  9. Bud Carlos permalink
    October 4, 2011

    Maybe the Mercurey was the better wine. Maybe the Leroy was corked, oxydized, too damn oaky.
    We’re presenting ourselves as bozos if we assume the Leroy was tops just because we know Leroy.

  10. J Westcott permalink
    October 4, 2011

    not to be lost in all of this portion of the (as stated)”insatiable” desire for wine information should be that this entire exercise was one of psychological experimentation of behavoir and perception, not a search for more Wine Truths. on an experimental basis, I would have preferred a 2-out-of-3 situation, but the multiple subject exercise was certainly already complex enough I have to think. is it time yet for a perfect pour of Guiness?

  11. David S. permalink
    October 4, 2011

    Regarding blind tasting vs. tasting “labels.” In the clip, the “experts” tasted labels. They thought they knew what was being poured and were biased accordingly. On the other hand, it is quite possible that the “novice” woman was in reality tasting blind. Portrayed as a non-wine person, she presumably would have had no idea who or what Leroy was. If price had not been revealed to her, then she truly was tasting blind because she did not really know the difference between the two wines poured. For her, the only difference between the wines was taste, and she chose the wine that would be expected to be better. It seems therefore that there were two tasting experiments occuring, one to stump the experts with a trick and a separate blind tasting for the “novice.”

  12. John permalink
    October 4, 2011

    Woo Wine Girl, I think the more interesting sub-point they’re making is that experts are not possible. They’re saying experts are worthless because they’re frauds, which means that one simply cannot gain genuine true knowledge of something that’s any better than the lay person. Once you strip away the polemics, they’re making a classic epistemological argument, however wrong it may be. That people can’t actually gain knowledge on a topic and become experts is a load of bunk but is a different argument.

  13. Woo Wine Girl permalink
    October 4, 2011

    The whole idea of experts being worthless, regardless of the field, is in fact asinine. Should we all just aim to know as little as possible? And while I certainly agree that people should just drink what they enjoy, I also believe that greater wine knowledge enhances the experience.

  14. Jeremy Seysses permalink
    October 4, 2011

    One person who attended felt that the documentary producers were coming at it with a definite angle and hypothesis they wanted to see validated, loading the dice shamelessly. You can read his account here:

  15. Lee Newby permalink
    October 3, 2011

    That is the CBC for you they will go for the sensational angle and ignore everything else. They should have taken an equal number of “experts” and poured the wines blind and seen the result, if they could not tell which was the better wine (even if it was young and from a lesser year) they were not “experts”.
    In my recent WSET Diploma exam we were pour blind a flight with these three wines to rank for quality, it was easy for me but I’m no “expert”.

    St-Joseph ‘Les Combaud” 2007
    Crozes-Hermitage ‘Les Hauts de Pavières’ 2008
    Hermitage ‘Monier de la Sizeranne’ 2007

    With the “experts” seeing the bottle and if they thought the Domaine Leroy was just a tight 2005 not ready for drinking when it was the much simpler Chamirey, they were just a group of French friends of the producers out for a night of free wine.

  16. John permalink
    October 3, 2011

    I was going to comment that Heimoff beat you to the story, but your article was much more level-headed, as you allude to. His writing is often overwraught and under-thought. Anyway…

    I like your analysis. I think as a subtext there’s also an attack on lay people who act like experts. I think people react to being made to feel ignorant by aggressive amateurs and some experts by conflating the two groups and then saying they don’t know what they’re talking about, look at what bozos these experts are! I guess my point is that jackass amateurs should be taking the flak a lot of well-meaning experts get. People who write on wine professionally try, as you mention, to include rather than exclude novices. It’s folks at parties or dinners or tastings or sitting in front of the wine list at a restaurant who will often exclude others by being pompous and critical. They are doing wine professionals and wine in general a disservice by portraying supposed expertise so negatively.

  17. October 3, 2011

    Hmmm. I have spent almost 30 years telling people who ask what I think of a certain wine, I tell them “I’m not sure, I’m not sure I have tasted that wine, besides, did you like it? Cause that’s all that matters”. I have found people want a certain verification that a wine is good from a so called “expert” which profess to Not be. I have tasted hundreds and hundreds of wine over the years and still don’t know a thing about wine. That’s why I love it so much ;0)

  18. rick permalink
    October 3, 2011

    “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. ”

    He should stick to humor since, presuming your description of the test is correct, he’s clueless on how do do a study. The test wasn’t blind if the participants could see the labels.

  19. October 3, 2011

    Your reaction to the “attack” on experts is much more poignant than Heimoff’s. I feel that he missed the points you make here (and I try to make in his comment section).

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