I 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.