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Voting Wine Democratic

Posted: May 9, 2000

Voting (Wine) Democratic

By Matt Kramer, columnist

Recently, I was asked to conduct a wine tasting in front of a good-sized group of wine lovers. Now, these men and women were not what pollsters call "representative." Rather, they were into wine. They drink wine frequently, squirrel away yet more wine in cellars or closets and generally view wine as their life's best friend.

Knowing this, I asked the host of the tasting if he would ensure that a microphone was available for audience participation. "But they came to hear you," he protested. "Well, that's flattering," I replied. "God knows, I like hearing myself, but I want to hear from them, too."

You see, the business of wine knowledge has changed. In every wine-interested audience I've ever addressed, the room is truffled with folks who know at least as much as I do, and often more.

This, I hasten to add, is not some newfound modesty on my part. No one's ever accused me of that. Rather, it's simply a fact of modern wine life.

In the old days -- which is to say, just 25 years ago -- there really was a difference between consumers and so-called wine experts. The difference was access to knowledge. The gap was huge.

For starters, only folks who worked in the wine trade could visit wineries and talk to winemakers or owners. European wineries were largely closed to anyone outside the trade. Information was a restricted commodity. Relatively few American retailers actually went to Europe themselves, as it took time, money and language skills. In effect, only a handful of importers really knew wine from the terroirup.

At the same time, the information available to consumers by way of books or periodicals was scant. Wine Spectator,for example, wasn't founded until 1976. Wine newsletters were rare. Wine books were somewhat more abundant, but hardly prolific. Everything was filtered through designated "experts."

Now, compare that to today's wine audience. Talk about the information age. Anybody can visit almost any winery anywhere. Sure, there are a handful that are closed to visitors, but even then, you can usually elbow your way in, if expensively, by joining a special wine-touring group. This is rare, though. Most wineries welcome everyone.

California invented democratic wine-touring. Local wineries flung open their doors to -- gasp! -- everyone. This was radical. Old-time wine merchants harrumphed that their customers neededtheir expertise. It was paternalistic at best, downright snobbish at worst.

Want to talk to a winemaker? Jeez, you can't get 'em to shut up these days. (Just kidding.) The old days, when only a select few could go to the source for detailed knowledge, are kaput.

Winemaker dinners abound in every burg. In smaller wineries, it's often the winemaker him- or herself who shows you around. And if you write a letter or send an e-mail with a serious question, you're sure to get the answer you seek.

As for wine tasting -- once the exclusive perquisite of "experts" -- well, we all know how that's exploded. It's incredible how many wines some so-called amateurs have tasted. The opportunities to taste (and, not least, to buy) are simply astounding. Once, you had to live in a really big city to get the good stuff -- or even know about it. Now, not only do we know about it, but we can actually get our mitts on it.

You want to do a vertical tasting of, say, Trimbach Clos Ste.-Hune Riesling? No problem. Just show up with money. Today, between auctions in America and Europe, an ever-increasing number of retail Web sites and even the wine shop around the corner, you can get what you want. This, believe me, is new.

Everything I've just described is access, pure and simple. And it's changed wine absolutely. The new experts are ... you.

But don't some people know more than others? Of course they do. Professionals put in more time and effort than all but the most impassioned amateurs. Experience does count. But now you can judge their expertise for yourself.

You can find out everything in exactly the same way and from the same sources as any professional. The old line -- barrier, really -- has been erased.

We're seeing what will soon be wine's greatest democracy. I'm voting for it early and often.

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This column, Unfiltered, Unfined, features the opinionated inside scoop on the latest and greatest in the world of wine, brought to you each Tuesday by a different Wine Spectator editor. To read past Unfiltered, Unfined columns, go to the archives.

(And for an archive of senior editor James Laube's columns written just for the Web, visit Laube on Wine.)

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