Dynamo Penny Richards has reported for the BBC, negotiated with the Taliban, and worked for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Now she's shaking things up at the Institute of Masters of Wine. She spoke to Robert Joseph.
The death of the experts
Friday, 19. May 2017 - 9:15
President Trump doesn’t have much time for experts. “The experts are terrible… They say, ‘Donald Trump needs a foreign policy adviser.’ Supposing I didn’t have one…” he asked a pre-election audience in Wisconsin, “would it be worse than what we’re doing now?” The new leader of the free world has several soulmates on both sides of the Atlantic. Early last year, the leading pro-Brexit British politician Michael Gove responded to a barrage of data from economists and academics suggesting that leaving the EU would be bad for the UK economy by declaring that “people… have had enough of experts”. His comment was greeted with derision, but as with Trump, it was Gove and the Brexiteers who had the last laugh when the referendum votes were tallied. Six months later, on BBC radio, Gove contrasted the views of “those who call themselves experts in fields like economics and the social sciences” with the “reliable wisdom of crowds”.
There is nothing new in politicians relying on crowds, but most commercial businesses have traditionally been dependent on experts – think of the carefully nurtured relationship that has long existed between travel, food and wine businesses and critics. However, all that is changing very quickly. It is a rare hotelier today who’d rather have a major review in a glossy magazine than a TripAdvisor Travelers’ Choice award. An increasing number of hotels prompt customers to post reviews by stapling TripAdvisor cards to their bills.
The closest wine equivalent to TripAdvisor is Vivino, whose 22m users have collectively posted over 3.5m reviews. Wine producers who previously looked no further than a review from a print media critic or blogger now increasingly talk about their Vivino ratings, some of which vary quite widely from the ‘experts’. Over 30,000 Vivino users gave a Napa blend called The Prisoner 4.3 points out of 5. Lettie Teague of The Wall Street Journal, by contrast, described it as a “ripe… pricey dud”.
One high-profile critic, Robert Parker’s former associate Antonio Galloni, acknowledged the power of peer reviews last December by buying an app called Delectable, which is used by 120,000 people every month to scan bottles of wine and review their contents.
The under-reported part of Galloni’s purchase was an associated business called Banquet that came with it. Launched in 2015, Banquet enables wine drinkers to purchase wines directly from top independent retailers like Kermit Lynch, simply by using their phones.
Historically, wine writers and wine publications have balked at the idea of facilitating sales. But purist critics are increasingly struggling to make money from their words. Paul Mabray, the US vinous social media consultant, recently estimated that there are now fewer than 25 ‘super-critics’ with an audience of 100 or more people. Mabray’s professional experience at Vintank involves tracking online conversations, so his apparently conservative figure deserves respect. Lettie Teague is an exception in being able to make a living directly from wine criticism. Most of her colleagues rely on public speaking and initiatives such as charging producers and distributors for the use of their ratings.
These fees, however, are chicken feed when set against the kind of return Galloni and the owners of Vivino might hope to get from their investments, as they eye the $74m profit pocketed by TripAdvisor and its subsidiary brands derived in 2015 from accommodation, restaurant, and tour bookings by some 350m consumers.
Platforms exclusively focused on wine will never rake in the sort of money available to their counterparts in the travel sector, but just as the music platform Spotify makes a profit from the sale of concert tickets, as well as advertising, digital downloads and subscriptions, there are various income streams to explore. Wine companies that once channelled sizeable budgets towards glad-handing wine writers without any clear idea of the likely return on that investment may be very happy to reallocate those funds towards businesses that offer a direct line to potential buyers.
Vivino already makes regular wine offers to its users, and users of Antonio Galloni’s Banquet app have access to 20,000 different wines. How many other ‘experts’ are considering ways of putting their toes into the waters of retail commerce? With or without the help of crowd-sourced wisdom?