Learning about wine can be fun and enlightening, but we must never lose sight of wine's true purpose: providing pleasure.
I shall try to be discreet on the issue of wine education.
More education is generally better than less education. The bumper sticker "If you think education is expensive, try ignorance" has more meaning than ever these days.
In the world of wine, where there is so much to know, and the subject at hand is a dynamic and (pardon the double meaning) fluid subject, it is easy for anyone to feel left behind or out of the loop. Wine classes seem like a fun and rather pleasurable way to gain new insights into wine.
For example, taking a wine class to learn about the different grape varieties that go into our favorite wines is something every wine consumer can do for the fun of it and for the experience of tasting new things. Additionally, everyone who is interested can sit in on tastings and seminars focusing on the classic wines of the world, beginning with those of France, Italy, Spain, Portugal and Germany.
These exercises will open up new worlds of flavors and aromas, and endless possibilities to enhance one's life with wines he or she might never have experienced without such an experience.
Learning about wine has always been fascinating to me, even the history of how wars and geography and culture influenced what we drink today. Originally, I was curious about wine itself. What did a Beaujolais taste like? Or a Pouilly-Fuissé? Or a Zinfandel? After perusing a few wine stores I began to wonder what made a $100 bottle so special? Was it ten times more wonderful than a $10 bottle? And I wondered what it tasted like. Obsessively, sometimes.
I began to read everything I could find on the subject of wine. In those pre-internet, pre-Wine Spectator days, there were few resources available besides a wine encyclopedia, a few books by British authors, some wine newsletters and an occasional article by a travel writer or a food writer in the newspaper. Through it all, my curiosity about wine brought me into contact with people with similar curiosity, and their wines.
Later on I fell into some questionable company in the wine business who had a particular interest in deciding not only which Chardonnay was best, but which Chardonnay was best with the roast chicken we were about to eat.
My interest finally led me to change careers and take up the wine business, which in turn brought travel opportunities abroad which taught me more thoroughly how to appreciate wine. And through the decades since, it has introduced me to many people who take serious interest in particular wines and their favorite wineries. Some of these people, it turned out, were even more obsessive than me.
Eager to Pursue Wine Education
Now that wine has been firmly embedded into America's mainstream culinary and cultural experience during the past forty years, there are floods of people eager to pursue their wine educations far beyond the kind of experiential tastings we offer at The Wine Country.
Since Jason Wise's first Somm movie (and I recommend everyone see it, and its followup film Somm II Into the Bottle), the interest in taking formal wine instruction, such as the WSET series, has exploded. Those in and out of the restaurant business have taken up the challenge to learn as much as they can about the wines of the world, their flavors, aromas and textures, how vintages and aging affect their flavors. They also learn about history and context and how that helps one to discover how certain wines came to be, and all the other tidbits and esoterica that go into a Master Sommelier's or Master of Wine's quiver of knowledge.
But knowledge without wisdom can take people into rabbit holes where the main purpose of wine is lost, and all that matters is passing another test.
Losing the Purpose
What is the purpose of wine, anyway? Importer Kermit Lynch, author of the landmark wine book Adventures on the Wine Route, has often written that the purpose of wine is pleasure, a subject Americans still struggle with after centuries of Puritanism, denial of gratification, and Prohibition.
That bears a moment of reflection. Isn't pleasure the real reason we choose wine instead of other beverages? Isn't that the Alpha and the Omega of wine appreciation? All the book learning and mastery of vintage charts, and endless nit-picking over wine is secondary to its noble purpose. In fact, too much stressful evaluation can be an impediment--and even a turnoff--to fulfilling that purpose.
Then there are advocates for what I call wine fads. For example, I take issue with some in the "natural wine" movement where process is more important than the end result.
"Natural wine" guru Alice Feiring, seems to have gone off the deep end with a declaration in her book Naked Wine that she would prefer drinking a flawed wine she knew was naturally made than drink a wine that had been "manipulated".
"Not all natural wines are delicious," she wrote. "Like other wines, there are the good, the bad, and the indifferent. However, I will dare to say that those of us who love natural do indeed have a greater tolerance (as well as thirst) for more irregularity and for differnt styles of wine within the category: orange, wispy, concentrated, and, yes, oxidative."
Well, if she got pleasure drinking stinky and cloudy wine, bully for her. I, on the other hand, don't. And I think paying good money for bad wine because of an ideology, is just foolish.
A little tweak here and there to avoid stinky wine, or wine that doesn't hold up to aging on a retailer's shelf is preferable to the alternative.
Pleasure Gets Complicated
One can argue that it is impossible to determine universal standards in wine when so much of its interpretation is made by individuals with far-flung experiences, tastes, perceptions and tolerances. There are some, like me, who are sensitive to the bitterness in some wines, finding unpleasurable flavors in wines others don't. How do you get objective about that?
Others have less tolerance for sweetness in wine. Some find wines I love to drink to be too "sour" for them.
Context may have a profoundly mitigating effect on one's perception of wine. How many of you have been drinking a perfectly fine Chardonnay at a restaurant only to have its taste change for the worse after the first bite of food? Or conversely, how many have been indifferent to a wine until food brought out attractive characteristics that were covered up before?
And how many of you simply don't care about all that. Shut up, Mr. Wine Merchant, and just find me a bottle of wine I'll like.
Knowing how to identify a Furmint from a Grüner Veltliner, or a Loire Sauvignon Blanc from a New Zealand version is a challenge some take pleasure in mastering. Isn't that part of wine's pleasure as well?
How about the wealthy collector who scores a rare bottle coveted by his wealthy collector friends? Isn't that part of wine's pleasure?
Or sharing a glass with another person. Isn't that part of wine's pleasure, too?
Pleasure shouldn't be so complicated; it should just be.
More Pain than Pleasure
Getting back to the movie Somm, the Master Sommelier candidates profiled in the film seemed to be going through more pain than pleasure as they studied for their exams. Knowledge is good, and high achievement is also good. But to what end?
One of the main characters in Somm eventually earned his Master Sommelier designation which brought him the credentials to work for the prestigious Krug Champagne house in a seemingly glamorous job. It turned out it was a job most Master Somms would find hopelessly tedious. Repeating the same talking points over and over, while entertaining fat cats with same three or four wines night after night instead of exploring the array of wines available to any one of our customers wandering into The Wine Country is, to me at least, more pain than pleasure.
So what does it all mean? If the pursuit of knowledge is so obsessive that one loses sight of the beauty and transcendence of wine and the pleasures that bound forth, then at the very least, one must pause, take a long breath and get back the feeling that drew one to wine in the first place. I'll bet it wasn't oechsle minimums in Rheingau Spätlese.
Interest in Wine Classes
Still, I believe people can greatly benefit from gaining more exposure to different wines from different parts of the world. That exposure may come from traveling, from dining out, from a shared bottle or from attending wine tastings, seminars and classes.
For many years I hosted a Basics of Wine class at our store. They were usually sold out because in those days there was a real (dare I say?) thirst for knowledge among our customers.
Ever since, I've wondered whether a new generation of curious wine consumers would want to explore the basics of wine, and perhaps progress to a more structured introduction to the world's classic wine regions, such as Burgundy, Bordeaux, Rhone, Alsace, Loire, Rioja, Sherry, Tuscany, Piedmont, Mosel and Porto.
If so, I'd be happy to get our crack staff together to compile even more educational and pleasurable tastings designed to expand interest in and appreciation of this fascinating subject we call wine.