Human beings are tribal animals. History tell us, anthropology tells us, archaeology tells us, folklore tells us, and everyday experience confirms it. Political parties? Tribes. The Kiwanis Club? Clan. Panthers, Seahawks, Cornhuskers fans? Cliques. Towns and cities? Clustering. Nations? Moreso. The basic unit is family and we expand outward from that start, constantly seeking companionship, belonging, togetherness. That’s us: we like to gather together, to connect, to feel a part of Something Larger than ourselves. The exceptions to that principle are fairly rare and can be either positive and wisdom-seeking in nature (ala Dick Proenneke) or malignant and twisted (The UniBomber). We enshrine the impulse in our literature – “From Many, One“, “There’s strength in numbers“, “No man is an island“, etc. etc. And none of this is a bad thing…until it is.
One of the major downsides to the profound benefits that we all derive from our pre-and-post-millennial technological explosion is the universal and omnipresent nature of internet opinion; that deep-seated ego-stroke that comes from seeing our names posted somewhere in public, for anyone who cares to look and see. Before there was an internet, those of us seeking that sort of notoriety pontificated from atop barstools and in town hall meetings or in the Letters To The Editor sections of our local newspapers. As a former newspaper writer, I vividly remember the first time, back in 1968, in Chicago, when I first saw a byline in a printed publication that read, “Steve Body, special to The Chicago Eye”. It was exhilarating, intoxicating…addictive, and I didn’t get past that romance of the byline and start to see journalism for the daily grind it actually is for a good ten – twelve years after that. And every newspaper Letters section in the world will, upon thorough inspection, reveal that many of the names attached to those letters appear over and over and over again, on different topics, sometimes for decades. People have always craved that sense of validation that comes from being publicly recognized, even in such a small and borderline pathetic way.
But, now, anybody who can afford a computer – or walk to their public library and sign onto one – can go online, find a public forum of some description, and post whatever pops into their head. There is no hiring process, no prerequisite experience required, no editorial review, no fact-checking of what being written, none of the usual gauntlet writers used to have to stumble through to get that pulpit. Boot up, sign in, speak out, sign off.
I want to caution everyone who reads this about one basic assumption that anyone with a working brain and any claim to credibility really should think about before writing anything, from a Facebook reply to a post on your website: the idea that, just because you and a bunch of your closest friends agree on something, that makes it true and/or The Last Word. It does not. Six, eight, ten, forty-six people clustered into a group, feeding off the incestuous “wisdom” of only that group, can be totally – and embarrassingly – wrong just as easily as any one of us, thinking alone. In fact, groups can be far more misled and deluded because of our natural tribalism, a grouping whose first and greatest virtue is the granting of Trust. People don’t cluster with those they can’t trust or, at a minimum, they can’t agree with. We tend to believe those we trust far more rapidly and deeply than those we do not. We obey this bedrock human impulse in ways both conscious, as with aligning with a political party, and unconscious, as when we participate in a public forum and begin to agree with those who agree with us and flame those who don’t. This guy here says things that I like and that resonate with me, while that guy over there pisses me off, the snotty so’n’so!
The problem is…sometimes the snotty guy is right.
You and six or eight of your friends, who all travel together to breweries or wineries or craft distilleries and discuss what you tasted, deep into the night and all day on weekends, are NOT the ultimate authority on what you experienced. Your collective wisdom is just that; YOUR collective wisdom; a mental and philosophical circle-jerk that admits no dissent or outside thinking. It can easily be based on bogus “facts” and faulty assumptions or even something one of you made up to impress the others. It can be – and almost always is – heavily influenced by your common tastes and shared prejudices. A perfect example of rampant group-think is the forum section of the website, beeradvocate.com, a place which was set up, ostensibly, to provide a forum for beer fans to share and trade information about beers available locally and those some of them may never even see. But, as with the forums on winespectator.com and ratebeer.com (to a far lesser extent), and hundreds of other websites, there will be people who drop in occasionally and those who practically live there. The BeerAdvocate forums have become a clubhouse and soapbox for a largeish group of beer pedants who feel that they know everything about beer and brewing and woe be unto anyone who disagrees. It’s notorious for its clannishness and distrust of “outsiders” and I’ve been banned from it twice because nothing quite provokes me like reading half-baked statements of “fact” from those whose prejudices and self-delusion walk twelve feet in front of them. I have a nickname there, of which I am irrationally proud: “Arrogant Prick“. I earned that sobriquet by daring to call out some of the more clueless denizens on shaggy dog stories passed off as wisdom and then pushed it far enough to see what I’d have to do before being banned. The banning was more ceremonial than anything else; rejoin under another screenname and go about your business. I still have a working account there but rarely use it, because…there are more idiots than there are Steves and when I do drop back in, it’s the same ol’ shit, different day.
But what that group-think generates is a skewed perspective on the culture and character of beer. Because the denizens of BA are so dominantly younger fan-boy types, the only beers that become respectably rated on BA are those that the group has anointed. IPA, the Imperial (Triple, Quad) IPA, Barrel-aged beers, Imperial Stouts, Sour/Brett ales, Barleywines (to a much lesser degree), and Belgian-style ales are the current faves, while entire strata of beers get relegated to weak sister status. Ambers, Pale ales, Pilsners, ESBs, Porters, Brown ales…all these, according to the BA crowd, are Lesser Brewing. It’s absurd, of course, but the notion of judging some Euro-lager purely on its own merits as a beverage and scoring it accordingly is a foreign concept for folks who derive their identity from the membership in that group. I once gave a 95-point score to Ninkasi “Imperiale”, a particularly well-made Stout from that exceptional Eugene, Oregon, brewery, and was promptly taken to task the next time I dropped in at the BA Forums. As one little lemming wrote, “You gave a 95 to THAT stuff? We already said what we think of that crap in this forum!”
And that kind of hive mentality is not confined to just Average Joe reader reviews. I and many other people in the wine trade have believed for years that an insidious, pervasive, and probably – to be fair – totally subconscious group-think influences the blind tasting panels that Wine Spectator uses to evaluate wines. The incidence of wines and wineries that those of us in the trade regard as questionable being given gaudy scores, on a regular basis, by WS, defies statistical probability. Can experienced, veteran wine critics or beer scribes be swayed by the opinions of their peers? Absolutely. Robert Parker, for me, was like a lingering disease. I deliberately stopped reading The Wine Advocate after starting The Pour Fool because I didn’t want my reviews to be nudged, one way or the other, by the critic I found most credible. I’m suggestible, just like everybody else and I fight a daily battle to stay away from the ideas of other writers. For that same reason, I can’t hang in taprooms and barrel rooms with my buds. I go alone or with my gorgeous Domestic Partner and I hesitate to solicit even her thoughts. Group-think, by strict definition, can occur in a group of two…
The dynamic that creates that sort of isolationist group-think is not at all confined to the internet. Nobody enjoys thinking that what they learned from a trusted friend may be nonsense. We would hate that, right? We TRUST our friend, right? Our friend wouldn’t give us bogus info, right? And, in 99% of all cases, the friend is NOT issuing bad info. They, too, are passing along something they learned from their trusted friend. And they would hate to think…
More than any time in our societal history, we here in the year 2016 are deluged, daily, by the loud and frequently unverified opinions of people whose only claim to credibility is computer ownership. Coupled with the unshackling of all those people who used to keep their hateful, judgmental viewpoints to themselves by the antics of Donald Trump and Ted Cruz and Carly Fiorina and the rest of the Republican Clown Car – who not only made it okay but fashionable to be a racist and a bigot and a flaming irrational idiot – the personal freedom of the internet has resulted in a historic wave of nonsense and lies and delusion presented as hard fact and given a credibility and gravitas that it in no way deserves. Politics is still the primary cesspool of this climate of “because I believe it, it MUST be true!” but Everything Else is a close second and beverages are a real Contender. And this carries off the screen and into taprooms and winery tasting rooms and restaurants and any other place where people congregate. Intense and irrational arguments are commonplace, these days, and the type of misinformation that has plagued wine writers for decades – the myth of the “white Zinfandel grape” and “the perfect wine glass” and “dirty Chilean wines” and “Australian wines are all fruit bombs” and “sulfites give you headaches” and “the grape called Chianti” – is now generating itself in the uber-fertile soil of the craft beer boom and the rise of the nation’s wave of artisan distilleries.
And the damned thing is…one of the richest and most rewarding personal experiences we can have as homo sapiens is to find a smallish group of like-minded individuals who are more motivated by erudition and the precision of verifiable knowledge than by ego issues and spiritual bravado. I once belonged to a loose group of hyper-intellectual twits in Greensboro, NC, who would meet in a now-defunct tavern called The Fabulous Pickwick and discuss anything under the sun, most nights of the week, and routinely challenge each other to offer incontrovertible proof of their assertions. I eventually left Greensboro and was crushed to find that this sort of tableaux was not only not found everywhere but hardly found anywhere. I labored for a solid thirty years to recreate that kind of balls-to-the-wall intellectual brinksmanship, where one could be summarily leveled by another’s argument and then buy a round and forget about it. That particular warping of space and time seems, to my limited experience, to be peculiar to that one small, dingy bar room and then to have been waived out of existence by a fickle God or fate or my own shoddy karma. If I could pop the hood on my own brain and show gangs of roving beer geeks what immersion in that depth of intellectual curiosity feels like, many of those people would begin to enjoy questioning the factiods that float their way, delight in either confirming them or blowing holes in them you could drive a Hummer through. The freedom of that sort of non-judgmental atmosphere remains one of the greatest highs of my life and, if I were ever to choose to be addicted to anything, that snapshot of a well-spent twenties would be it.
BEWARE – be very aware! – of repeating facts about anything you drink if you haven’t taken that pearl of wisdom you heard from your buddy who once visited Russian River Brewing(!) and run it through a thorough internet search to verify that it contains any truth at all. I run into this problem daily and have to spend hours, every week, just fact-checking what’s going to appear here in The Pour Fool. I get it wrong, sometimes; mercifully, not that often. But, far more often, I’ll get an email from someone who has read something I wrote here and says, “You’re wrong about that. My friend says so.” Again…oy vey. “My friend” is not a compelling argument. Study and research and independent sources are. If I have a question about wine or beer and I can’t find a definitive answer, I call a brewer or a winemaker and ask. And there’s nothing stopping anyone else from doing exactly that. The fact that you may not write a blog about beverages makes no difference. 99% of all winemakers, distillers, and brewers will give you the time it takes to answer your questions and respond. And then, you can sally forth into the online forum fray armed with unshakable knowledge; facts that can be presented as “According to _____ at Little Rooster Winery…” and watch your dissenters wither from the thread. Nothing succeeds like knowledge but knowledge is a product of effort. You can put the girl next door who likes to wear make-up into a room with two dozen hookers and most people will think she’s a hooker. In taprooms, online, and with your buds, check before you deliver that fact. Temper your opinions with the understanding that they are NOTHING more than your opinions and the thirty people around you all have their own, based on exactly the same thing yours are: your personal tastes. Being wrong – or being disagreed with – is not the end of your world. Being stupid…just might be.