The fundamental problem with most “wine education,” as it is currently practiced, is that it worships false gods and wants the students to do the same.
No one should attempt to create wine “experts.” While there is certainly expertise at various levels, there is no such creature as a wine expert. What there actually are, and what we should be inculcating, are ever more absorbed and curious wine students. Whatever level of expertise someone may possess is only a means of giving depth of context to each new encounter with wine. In other words, expertise enables you to ask constantly more interesting questions.
Neither should we drill into the heads of our hapless wine students that “mastery” is a goal they should strive for. I have unqualified respect for many Masters Of Wine and Master Sommeliers, but the word “master” is really appalling in a wine context. I don’t know an MW who would declaim, “I have mastered wine.” My son is an HVAC tech, and he’s moved up through successive levels of licensing whereby he shows his mastery of that craft. But wines are not machines. Mastery is not only a chimera; its pursuit will take you farther and farther away from the things you really ought to strive for: absorption, wonder, love and gratitude.
The goal of wine education should be to make people comfortable both with wine itself and also with their own positions in relation to it. Most beginners approach wine from a place of apology and inadequacy. The first order of business has to be to enable these people to relax, to show them that they can taste, can consider what they’re tasting, and can jot down a few words to help them remember their impressions. If you insist that they won’t be “experts” until they know every wine in creation, they will do nothing but cower in fear. If, alternately, you convey your own love of wine, you can show them how to hold hands while they walk with wine.
I’ve already acknowledged that people learn differently, according to their habits of thinking and other irreducible elements of temperament. People who are intellectually greedy will find the approach I’m about to suggest too plodding and deliberate. And there are plenty of teachers who will set about cramming them with futile information by which they will enact a facile and meaningless virtuosity over wine. They’ll learn the notes, every damn one. My approach would show them the music.
You need three things: a reference book, possibly more than one, but not too many at first. You need a method, and you need to train those eager students to be patient. One gentleman who commented on part-1 of this screed anticipated my own approach when he proposed teaching in what I’d call narrow and deep rather than shallow and wide. But let’s talk about references.
In my view the single wine book that is indispensible and great is the World Atlas Of Wine by Jancis Robinson and Hugh Johnson. You could manage with this book alone if you had to. Apart from its wealth of information (and the elegance and charm with which it is presented) the book is also a feast for the eyes. As a guide for people starting out, it’s a wonderfully reassuring friend. But that being said, a second book (or books) can be helpful simply to offer alternate views.
And I think Karen MacNeil’s Wine Bible is another hugely valuable companion, by one of the wine world’s truly great educators. She is also a vibrantly imaginative writer, and reading her is a powerfully necessary reinforcement of the idea that we must bring our imaginations and creativity to wine if we are to engage with it joyfully and affectionately.
There are more books aimed at beginners: Oz Clarke (a most engaging writer) has a few, Aldo Sohm has a helpful recent contribution – among others. They await the interested student. That student should be advised to avoid books with these words in
their titles: “made simple” “for dummies” “demystifying,” not because these are bad books written by evil monster authors, but because they begin by apologizing that wine really is just too complicated. Of course it’s complicated! The world is large and there are tons of different wines, but “complicated” is part of the reason we love wine, and instead of showing how to banish all that inconvenient intricacy, we’d do better to show how to turn it into a friend.
Let’s return to that sad phenomenon, what is one supposed to be tasting. That question needs to be shot, buried, dug up and shot again, because it is useless and it consigns the taster to a fundamental inadequacy. Am I tasting what I should be tasting? Help! Am I doing it right????
There is only one time this question is apropos, and then it really does need to be asked and answered. It pertains to signature flavors, general tendencies of taste whereby a family of wines may be generally understood and identified. Yet even then it has its limits, because if we say “pyrazine” for Sauvignon Blanc there are people who can’t detect pyrazine, and if we say “pepper” (or rotundone) for Grüner Veltliner there are people who can’t detect that either. All you can do in those instances is make two suggestions: one, take my word for it, and two, Find your own descriptors and try to apply them consistently. It can become part of a larger value wherein we encourage people to use their imaginations and trust their spontaneous impulses.
But unfettered imagination risks incoherence, and that is where a method (or a syllabus) is helpful.
My every instinct is to “teach” wine in large, deliberate blocs, that the student immerses in and learns deeply, before moving to the next one. Put another way, it makes more sense to taste ten wines deeply than to taste a hundred shallowly. That impulse is reasonable, to show beginners the “infinite and wonderful variety of wines!” but those beginners are likely to become less enlightened but more bewildered than they were when they sat down.
Another element that’s too seldom addressed are what I call orders of salience. That is, which wines are the most important, which the next-most, and so on. A certain kind of person hates that approach. It’s anti-egalitarian. But wine itself isn’t egalitarian; it is intrinsically and fundamentally hierarchal, and those hierarchies need to be explicated before we can examine the questions of greatness or profundity in wine.
….Which will be tackled in part-3!