The Wine World’s Culture of Expertise

wine scholarFor everyone who thinks wine expertise is bullshit, that there is really no difference between everyday wine and fine wine, and nothing worth knowing about wine that can’t be learned from a $6 bottle of Chianti and a pizza, you should go read Noelle Harman’s post about her experiences studying for her WSET diploma. Noelle spent ten years as a tax attorney before getting the wine bug and she compares her experiences  studying for the bar exam with her new pursuit of a wine education. The bottom line:

The day of the bar exam, I remember being a bit nervous. But I also knew that I’d studied as best I could to prepare for it: 3 years of school, a couple of legal internships, an intense bar review course, and hours of self study. Any jitters I had went away once the exam started – because my confidence kicked in. I wrote my heart out (hardly anybody typed their exams back then!) and I didn’t second guess myself.

You don’t see what your “grade” is on the bar exam, just pass or fail. I passed. And I practiced tax law for almost 10 years.

So far, my Diploma exams have been a different experience. And no, I’m not just talking about the tasting portion (which unfortunately WASN’T part of the bar exam).  My confidence level simply isn’t as high – I second guess whether I’ve studied enough, or studied the right things. During my exams, I’m jittery to the point of uncontrollable hand shaking (seriously!). And when I’m finished, I worry whether I’ve answered the questions as thoroughly as possible.

As she points out, in law school you have to read lots of cases. But all of those cases are subject to a fairly standard analysis. Find the fact pattern, identify the issue, choose the appropriate rule that governs that fact pattern, analyze how the rule applies given the precedents, and draw your conclusion. Rinse and repeat. The law is complex but highly specialized. Since law students haven’t chosen a specialty and because a bar exam couldn’t possibly cover the details of all areas of the law, the focus is on learning how to do legal analysis regardless of specialty. Passing the bar is hard—I watched my son bust his but to do it—but it is a focused domain covered by an analytical procedure. If you do the prep work you will know what you have to do on the exam.

The wine world is organized differently. The facts are diverse and don’t always fall into a pattern. Rules, general principles, are sometimes applicable but there are always many exceptions and special cases with new precedents arising with every shift in the weather or clonal variation. The wine world is made up of a vast number of particular facts about varietals, chemical compounds, soil types, regions, vineyards, viticultural and winemaking techniques, and individual winemaking styles. The only way to know it is to memorize those particular facts. The wine world doesn’t lend itself to a standardized procedure.  And on the advanced certification exams you’re expected to know it all. You never feel confident that you have your arms around it.

The people who have mastered it have mastered something of enormous complexity. Thus, the heart of the wine world is an impressive intellectual culture that constitutes genuine expertise.

The cynic might ask whether any of this knowledge sells wine.  The vast majority of wine consumers know nothing of this intellectual culture and couldn’t care less. But that’s the wrong question to ask. It’s like asking whether literature students made Danielle Steel rich. Obviously not. It’s about culture, not business. But when wine sales continue to plummet and prices retreat because consumers have moved on to some other hot product, it will be that culture that keeps the wine flame burning and the quality producers afloat.

One comment

  1. Thanks so much for the mention! One of the things I love (and hate!) most about the wine world is that it’s constantly changing. Just when I think I know the Bordeaux varieties – they introduce new ones to the mix. Sweetness levels in Chianti might be revised. And don’t even get me started on China’s evolving wine market! One can never master learning about wine . . . and that’s part of the appeal. For me at least. 😉

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