I’ve been wondering a lot lately whether I have anything to say. There are plenty of words at my disposal, of course. These can be employed to vibrate the atmosphere in plenty of new or old – mostly old – permutations. I can represent plenty of opinions, make plenty of guesses, render plenty of judgments, pass plenty of time. But something to say? That’s rare.

The more useful moments are usually the quieter ones, but we all, writers or not, trick ourselves continually into equating more words with more utility. Regret is often the retrospective recognition that a group of words were gasoline on a fire.

I am the two-billionth person to assert that the flames have only been fanned higher by social media and constant digital companionship. The excess of words has grown not just noisy, but exhausting and anxious. Many of us wish the Internet would simply die.

It’s that wish, I think, that is behind a number of recent essays decrying the devaluation of expertise in a number of aesthetic-critical realms. At issue is what I’ll call the “horizontalization” of value: an endgame, democratic in intent if not effect, in which judgment slips its tether to experience and insight, anyone weighing in carries simultaneously equal weight and no weight at all, and comment melds into a falsely uniform mush.

There is no one alive today with a more legitimate claim to being a wine expert than Jancis Robinson, a Master of Wine whose many books, essays and articles are models of erudition, curiosity and open-minded insight. She renders her expertise three-dimensionally, seeking to describe the lived reality of a wine or region rather than merely its quantifiable components.

Robinson wrote an essay for The Financial Times in September, excerpted on her website under the title “What Future for Expertise?” that calls out the TripAdvisor-like topography of the contemporary wine landscape. Apps such as Vivino and Delectable, websites such as CellarTracker, and innumerable SEO-maximized blogs and feeds offer infinite claims to inform or guide.


A few of them deliver. Especially if you’re looking for a quick capsule of info en route to choosing a wine to buy, the better free online resources – a Delectable poster whose opinions you’ve shared in the past, or a tweet that got favorited by a sommelier at a restaurant you like – can be of service.

Yet almost none provides the gravitas, the sense of human toil, training, attention, interest – the whole 10,000 hours thing – at which more traditionally minded resources excel.

I’m not beholden to paper. Robinson’s years-long collaboration with Julia Harding, the newest edition of “The Oxford Companion to Wine,” is extraordinary, but so are Peter Liem’s champagneguide.net, Allen Meadows’ burghound.com, Antonio Galloni’s vinous.com, Levi Dalton’s “I’ll Drink to That” podcast and many more. It is essential to note that to gain the insights provided in these, you usually must pay: actual money, for actual information, perspective, passion.

By the way, you are not paying for “objectivity.” Robinson is quick to point out that she, unlike the brilliant but irritating über-expert Robert Parker, does not attempt to pass an “objective” judgment on any wine. We find ourselves trapped between a sour fetishization of objectivity – “This is the best wine and best-ness matters” – and a childish primacy of subjectivity – “I will impress upon you the awesomeness of this vino with my hyperbolic enthusiasm.”

Amid this largely unacknowledged metaphysical battle, Robinson groans, “I have gone from being a unique provider of information to having to fight for attention.”

And risk appearing gross in the bargain. In The New York Times a couple of weeks ago, that paper’s chief film critic, A.O. Scott, wrote an etymology and defense of “snobbery” as a call to salvage attention and respect for the person in the room who actually knows what he’s talking about. Scott recognizes that his is an unpopular plea given the current culture’s warped anti-authoritarianism.


The “great leveling force” of “the Yelp score, the Amazon algorithm and the Facebook thumb,” he writes, “is … a Utopian zone in which everyone is a critic and nobody is a snob because nobody’s taste can be better than anyone else’s.”

I’ve known insufferable snobs (I think I’ve been one at times), and I’ve known brilliant, thrilling snobs whose perspectives helped me grow and learn. How can one refine one’s taste, question assumptions, explore the unfamiliar, approach the summits, without becoming estranged from those (the majority) whose travels take different paths at different paces? Especially when, as with the topic I write on (as opposed to, say, film), the more refined, challenging and flat-out more interesting wines usually cost more.

“We have so much stuff to choose from,” Scott writes, “but each of us knows that some of it is more worthwhile than the rest, that there are standards and canons and serious arguments lurking in the pleasant meadows where we graze and browse.” Our efforts go toward discerning entertaining tunes among the constant noise, while just beyond us a dog whistle of higher quality pierces the airspace at an inaccessible pitch.

My value as an employee at a retail wine shop hinges on how much wine I sell at what prices, yet I die a bit every time a customer buys a middling $35 Super Tuscan when it could have been a $25 Etna rosso, or a $20 New Zealand sauvignon blanc over a $15 Soave. That’s the petty, distorted agony of the self-encircled wine snob.

I hope to be of use without writing buyers’ guides. Honestly, if you’re reading this column because you want one, you have so many better options at your physical and/or digital disposal. Subscribe to a magazine or website, whittle your Delectable network, go to a (my?) shop. Go to the shopping experts.

Most writing on wine, especially in newspapers, is “service journalism” with a practical bent, but I’m going to leave the “Best Autumn White Wines Under $15” articles to the experts of that particular genre. My genre is the ongoing account of someone who loves wine, loves it enough to not care so much how palatable his loving is.


I wrote something in this space several weeks ago that yielded me widespread appreciation from many readers, while several people whom I’d label experts – journalists, winemakers – quite rightly tore it apart. I’d attempted to bring an expertise I think I do have (I know how to love wine and how to communicate that love) to a realm in which I’m at best a curious amateur (wine economics).

“I like my pleasures slow and difficult,” Scott writes. The inherent worth of slowness and difficulty is irrelevant. What is crucial in that formulation is that he names it – that Scott, in effect, brings an objective perspective to his inescapable subjectivity.

That move, much more than anything having to do directly with wine, is the expertise I seek to hone. Maybe the better word is “excellence,” by which I mean not “the best” but something closer to honesty, clarity, accuracy at whatever level and toward whatever goal. I hope to bring objectivity to my own subjectivity, acceptance of my own limitations, and – perhaps, in our current cultural climate, most radically – a sense of quiet, a disregard for notice.

Jancis Robinson hesitates to bemoan the metastasizing amateurization of criticism when “I have spent my entire working life trying to arm consumers with as much information as possible so that they can make up their own minds about individual wines.”

The most relevant expertise, then, might be one that seeks to cultivate each reader’s capacity for becoming an expert on herself. Wine is not possible to master, but even if it were, the endeavor wouldn’t ultimately be worthwhile. What seems more relevant to me – both materially and psychologically – is developing a frame of mind that might use the expertise of others to deepen one’s own self-expertise, self-insight.

I stand in awe of those who can clearly describe the character of a wine and explain why it stands out. But my particular aim is not telling you which wines to drink, although I sometimes say I’m doing just that. I’m telling you which lenses to try on, and then asking you to describe for yourself (no one else) what you see.


The digitized 21st-century flood of accessible information carries two sorts of energy: the drowning kind, and the floating kind; death and liberation. A wealth of opinions, seasoned or not, does not a buoy make, but knowing how to use what’s at your disposal might.

In my own flailing swims through the information stream, I find myself most desperately reaching for that sort of spiritual pragmatism. Without it, a natural inclination just to keep my head above water overwhelms the quiet, laborious task of peeling back layers and speaking truthfully, and a more ancient and sacred form of expertise is lost.

Joe Appel is the wine buyer at Rosemont Market. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]

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