A Sommelier Argues Himself Out of a Job

snobbish sommelierI feel for the restaurant sommelier. Vilified for being snobbish and condescending, and blamed for making wine too intimidating for the uninitiated, in this world of open access they now have to bend over backwards to be approachable and down to earth.

But sometimes they bend over backwards so far they lose their balance.

Master Sommelier Richard Betts’ recent Huffpo interview is an example of the genre:

Interviewer: People can be both attracted to and repelled by the so-called rules of wine. Why do you think we sometimes find it easier to be told what wines are good, rather than decide for ourselves?

Betts: It can be an intimidating thing. Anything new to us, you look for instruction. And wine heretofore has been the domain of the snotty old white dude in a tuxedo looking down his nose at you. That’s intimidating and it’s also wrong. It’s not how it’s supposed to work. Once we realize that we can just knock it off its pedestal and that it’s totally democratic, then you empower yourself to make your own decisions and you have much more fun with it.

You know what? You can have a cheeseburger and a chardonnay. No one tells you who to vote for, right? You decide who you vote for, you decide which flavored floss they’re going to use on you at the dentist or what you’re going to have for dinner or how to take your coffee. You decide all of that, so feel empowered to do the same with your wine. There are no mistakes, there’s only new learning and enjoyment.

Follow the Rules vs. Anything Goes? You decide vs. let someone decide for you?  In the reasoning business we call this  a false dilemma.  There is plenty of middle ground between the two extremes.

Betts is right that our wine-drinking choices should not be limited by excessive adherence to rules—how boring! But it doesn’t follow that learning what experts say is utterly without merit. Rules are summaries of a consensus among experts. They may not coincide with your own particular tastes. But you don’t know that until you test the rule. Rules about tastes are made to be broken, but breaking a rule is more satisfying and leads to an increase in knowledge if you know what the rule is and why it exists.

The quickest route to broadening your own taste horizons is allowing your subjective impressions to be challenged by experts. Systematic learning is more effective than random experimentation.

If wine drinkers should just drink what they like and pay no heed to expert knowledge, then why pay a sommelier?

A touch of humility is more attractive than snobbish condescension but faux humility and populist posturing is just misleading.

5 comments

  1. I agree with your conclusion, wholeheartedly. But I can’t help wondering whether Mr. Betts was misquoted, or perhaps some editor cut out crucial sentences to make the story fit its allotted dimensions.

    I was interviewed once after I had taught a poetry-writing course to a class of definitely-not-college-bound high school students, (the administration had separated them out and dumbed down the requirements). I was the poet-in-residence for 2 weeks, and the teachers were amazed by what these supposedly dumber students began producing. My technique was to tell the students during the inspiration and first draft phases, to forget about spelling, grammar and punctuation and just write whatever came into their heads (stuff can be fixed during the re-write, right?)

    I was quoted in the newspaper as having said, “Anyone can write poetry. You don’t need to know how to spell or write a grammatical sentence in order to write poetry.” Of course that’s rubbish, but there it was, in print, making me look like a ditzy populist. First of all, what I said is that anyone can enjoy poetry. And I discovered that the entire process of writing poetry (if extensive, thoughtful revision is part of that process), with it’s persnickety attention to every syllable, is a very good tool for getting young people to thoughtfully examine their spelling, punctuation, and grammar.

    P.S. I think the sentence “systematic learning is more effective than random experimentation” deserves it’s own article. Maybe it’s own book.

    1. Wow. That was some misquotation that you suffered–a really dishonest journalist.

      But you’re right. It happens all the time and, perhaps with more context, Betts’ quote would not seem so wrongheaded.

      1. I was really bummed–but I got over it by telling myself it was more a case of an inexperienced journalist who wasn’t very bright (and also not a good listener). I think her intentions were good, she was attempting to praise my efforts, it seemed.

  2. This is a great article.

    Yes, wine is subject to different degrees of perceptual and conceptual knowledge. The skill of the wine expert matters, as it does in any other discipline.

    Sensual perceptions are not exempt from principles of systematic knowledge accumulation.

    The egalitarian proposition that wine is a fully subjective field, immune to learning, declares the impossibility to connect with the nature of reality, suggesting that we all remain equally in the fog of guesswork.

    It is a wide-spread and harmful attempt to attack the virtues of achievement and knowledge, and has major implications beyond wine.

    That’s why this discussion is philosophically important.

    1. Thanks Joey. As Tracy noted in her comment, perhaps he was misquoted. It is strange for a top-notch sommelier to be so cavalier about expertise.

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