I got into wine rather late in life but once bitten by the wine bug I just plunged into it and I’ve devoted a considerable amount of time over the past 20 years learning and writing about wine. In all of that time I don’t think I’ve ever thought wine needed to be simplified or “demystified”. Wine is rich and fascinating and it’s that richness and complexity that has always attracted me to it. I also must say that since getting into wine I have not encountered many people who were snobbish and unapproachable or who thought of their wine knowledge as something to be hoarded and doled out only to the worthy. There are of course jerks in any endeavor but my experience with wine people from retailers to educators to sommeliers to winemakers has been overwhelmingly positive and when I began to learn about wine almost everyone I encountered was willing and eager to share their knowledge.
And so I am always deeply puzzled when I read commentary like Tom Wark’s interview with Elizabeth Schneider, who recently published a book called Wine for Normal People. She reports on a negative experience she had with an employee of a winery:
With that incident as an apt example, you note to your readers, “Wine is one of the few subjects I know of in which many people in the industry discourage you from learning yet put you down for not knowing stuff.
She goes on to respond to Tom’s prompt:
When I first got started in wine there was a wave of people who were trying to make wine more approachable. It was great. But then the dreaded certification craze began and I think that brought back the snobbery and the information hoarding that I experienced when I first became interested in wine. Movies like Somm just perpetuated the idea that wine people were some other form of life (what so many consider a higher form, which is so ridiculous), and that created a bigger gap between regular drinkers and wine industry insiders.
I don’t want to dispute Ms. Schneider’s experience. It’s her experience and I’m sure she’s reporting it honestly. But “information hoarding”? I can count on one hand the times I’ve encountered someone interested in hoarding information. In the wine world we’re overwhelmed by information and people willing to share it. Then she goes on to raise a different issue:
The wine intelligentsia is never happy with wines that are palate pleasing, it seems. And they are extremely judgmental of what other people like. Recently I was at an event with a Master Sommelier, and she declared New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc was a vile starter wine that she would never present to her customers. I was so disgusted but then remembered that this is normal for the industry.
Mencia is great, but there’s a reason Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot remain popular: they are tasty to most wine lovers. I will never understand why it’s popular to shun Bordeaux because it’s passé, or something people like or have heard of.
So now I’m just confused. If wine educators are pointing out to novices newly interested in wine that there is more to wine that Merlot and Cabernet, they’re what? Snobs? Or “information hoarders? It seems they are giving information, not hoarding it. They are explaining what makes wine fascinating. Furthermore, why on earth would we expect people who have engaged in a deep study of wine to be satisfied drinking or talking about entry level New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc? If that Master Somm’s customers were experienced wine drinkers who aspired to get beyond what’s available at the supermarket, why would she present them Oyster Bay?
Of course you have to know your audience. If they’re unfamiliar with “starter wines” then you begin there. I’ve been an educator for many decades. If there is one thing I’ve learned it’s that you have to start with where people are. But you also have to take them on a journey. Flattering their current habits or parroting what they already know is not education—it’s a rip off. And the students know they’re being ripped off.
I’m increasingly fed up with this pandering that treats wine appreciation as snobbish and elitist. The constant refrain that people are intimidated and confused about wine is simplistic nonsense and it’s not doing the wine industry any good. It’s exploring the endless variations of wine that makes it fascinating and if you “dumb it down” you will kill whatever spark of inspiration brings people to wine in the first place. Complexity, authenticity, and a sense of place can be appreciated only through experience and education. There are no short cuts, no easy way to master it despite what these “populists” would have you believe.
Of course not everyone who drinks wine will be so curious as to want to explore it. That’s fine. People have different interests and limited resources. Not everyone has the time, attention, or money to take an interest in wine. These are the barriers, not snobbish somms, information hoarders, or timid, confused consumers quaking with fear that someone will disapprove of their taste.
There are many levels of wine knowledge and people will naturally find the level at which they are comfortable. But this discourse that assumes you can gain genuine expertise by reading a book that “demystifies” while sharing entry level wine among friends is an insult to people with genuine expertise.