Generalists versus specialists

For those of us making a living writing about wine, there’s a choice we have to make. Do we position ourselves as experts or generalists? Do we specialize in just a few areas, going deep, or do we try to maintain a global focus, covering all regions more generally?

For anyone starting out, I’d say focus on the former, but don’t neglect the latter.
You want to become the go-to writer on a few areas of expertise. That’s the way to get work. There are just too many wine writers and not enough work for all (even all the good ones), so you have to have a point of difference, as well as being an excellent taster and writer.

There are real dangers with the generalist approach. If you try to cover the whole world of wine you’ll be spreading yourself too thin, and any serious attempt to cover every significant region will leave you a sleepless workaholic.
Having said this, the best approach is to specialize on the platform of a strong general knowledge. You have to put the work in to gain the sort of context where you can do ‘specialist’ well. If you want to be a really useful specialist, you need to benchmark with the classics; to have an understanding of what the aesthetic system of fine wine considers to be ‘great wine’.

Consider the wines of a new world country. You’d expect that the best source of knowledge on these wines would be a local writer – someone on the ground in the midst of the action. But if they don’t have access to wines from around the world, and in particular the established old world classics, then they are lacking the context that would make them an even more useful authority. A critic from outside that country might have the advantage of better context, but then they have the disadvantage of distance, without the easy access a local wine writer might have.

So my answer. If you are starting out now, in a crowded field, work hardest at being a niche player, but in order to do this well, you need to make an effort developing general context.

6 comments to Generalists versus specialists

  • And of course, if there are already recognised specialists in the areas you want to focus on it will be difficult to get established.

    Champagne, Alsace and New Zealand would probably be my (relative) specialities.

  • keith prothero

    Very good article. Thee is no question in South Africa at least,that some of the professional wine writers/journalists, have very little exposure to high quality fine wine from other countries,and certainly lack the context which would be helpful in making a judgement on local wine.
    This is of course true of many winemakers,although at least most of the good ones have worked vintages overseas,and do make an attempt as often as they can,too educate their palates by tasting other countries fine wine.

  • You raise a very good point about the in country specialist not knowing and understanding the wines of the world. This is especially true in Chile, I have met very good wine makers who have never travelled outside of Chile and never tasted a gamay or garnacha based wine, which for me is very odd……..

  • patric

    and what are you…

  • Very good points made. I started out and still try to specialize in an area (a United States state in my case) but understand that I also need to venture out to other areas too. That also is one reason why we joined a wine club from a local winery who fortunately provides wines from around the world.

  • Thanks for the post, I’m starting a new blog, and to make it a bit more difficult in a new country, what better way to learn a new one than to just move right in, I lived in Ontario now I’m based in Argentina. I do speak spanish but I’m not from Argentina, so i think it takes a bit longer for people to trust you, since I’m not “establish” yet. And all that you said makes a good point.

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