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Empowering consumers

Empowerment. Very much a 90s concept, but still an important one. And one of the keys to empowerment is information. Take healthcare provision as an example. 30 years ago your medical records were the property of your doctor; you weren't allowed to see them. Information was in the hands of the experts -- after all, they knew best. Fortunately, things have moved on a long way since then, and the medical profession now realises that the more information they can give to patients the better. Having access to knowledge about their condition or disease, and feeling that they have some input in the choice of treatment option, is incredibly important for most patients.

It seems a little flippant to draw an analogy here with buying wine, but one exists. Wine is an incredibly complex, information-rich subject. And in order for consumers to be able to make a good choice, they need to be empowered by means of information. As Andrew Jefford once pointed out, being a consumer is like any other activity: you can do it well, or do it badly. There are good wines out there, and bad ones. Because there are so many to choose from, people need help if they are going to be good consumers. I think that in most cases, the wine critics who are currently the main source of help are failing them.

Why? Because they're happy telling punters which wines to buy, but they aren't empowering them by giving them enough information about these wines. Most newspaper wine columns look like shopping lists: they consist of a selection of bottles, with perhaps a brief description, in some cases a score, and details of where to buy them. That's your lot. Rarely, if ever, is there space for a discussion of why these wines are interesting, or some context to put them into. This may partly be due to space restrictions or the specific directions of the section editor, but it's an unsatisfactory state of affairs. It creates an unhealthy dependency on the part of the consumer towards the wine critic in question. And a vital educational opportunity is lost with each bottle drunk.

Of course, not all consumers want to learn about wine. These individuals may be looking for nothing more than something inexpensive that tastes good enough. But I'd have thought that anyone motivated enough to read a wine column in a newspaper or to log on to a website for recommendations is a little more motivated than this. And these people deserve to be empowered by being given enough contextual information about each wine, so that when they drink a bottle it is a learning experience. Surely this is where the real fun is in drinking wine? Scores and shopping-list-style wine columns are fine for beginners, but people do need to be gradually weaned off them until they reach the point where they understand enough about their own palates and have sufficient information that they can begin to have confidence in their own judgments. This is my goal with wineanorak. I want it to be accessible to newbies, but I'm really not interested in cultivating this old-fashioned critic/consumer relationship (akin to the old fashioned unbreachable doctor/patient divide); rather, people need to be empowered by giving them the sort of information they need to get them to the place where they can make their own decisions. In wine buying, as in other spheres of lif, expert advice is important, but its correct place is in informing the decision-making process: the decision itself should remain in the hands of the consumer.

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