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WHAT’S WRONG WITH “WINE EDUCATION”

My old friend Richard Betts – who was responsible for getting me the drunkest I have ever been in my life – is saying a lot of smart things recently. One of them pertains to my topic here (from the NY Times):


“Lately, [Betts] said, the [Master Sommelier] organization has focused less on education and more on accreditation, which can propel people’s careers in the wine industry.


“The organization seemed to care more about preserving the integrity of the credential,” he said. “The world doesn’t need credentials. We need education and caring.””


Betts may have meant education in general as a means of coming to terms with societal ills needing to be corrected, or he may have meant wine education in particular. I agree with him either way, but today, here, the subject is wine, and the curious ways it is taught, and the ineffective ways it is therefore learned.


The question of how we teach people about wine intersects with a preoccupation of mine, which is the task of using language in service of something to which it doesn’t seem intended. We all know that language is notoriously clumsy in describing flavor, yet when we “teach” wine we enter through a portal of flavor, and so we are already thwarted. Yet wine fledglings continue to want to learn, and someone, somehow needs to help teach them. Into the breach we go.



I like Betts’ use of “caring” in this context. I am not a wine teacher as such. I have been for various reasons a communicator about wine, and I have long believed that helping wine beginners to care, without inhibition, is a finer and more useful task than to cram them with “information.” That said, of course I recognize that people approach wine according to the way they see the world, and their habits of learning. Not everyone was like I was; jazzed, wonderfully shaken, eager to know how this thing could have happened, and motivated to plunge on in. Some people just want to feel more comfortable in a wine store or a restaurant. Others are cultured people in general, and find wine to be a relaxation because it is lovely but you don’t have to care about it. (The same can be said of baseball…)


Most beginners don’t have the advantage I had: I had my WTF moment while living in Germany, and so I could learn about wine directly at some of its sources. Cat Silirie and I lit upon this notion in our chat: the first people we talked with about wine were the people who made it. We saw wine in the fullness of its contexts, not as an object of “study,” but as a being of multiple layers. I had five more years living in Europe, and I made my way around. Wine, for me, was most saliently a citizen of place rather than an aesthetic puzzle or a syllabus I had to master.


Since this advantage isn’t available to most of us, what then do we do?


One thing I always notice is that many people are insecure with their ability to taste, let alone to discern what they may be tasting. And so before we can get them rifling through a miasmic brume of wines, we need to make them comfortable with themselves. I once wrote that a helpful exercise would be to take something everyone’s familiar with – chips, say, tortilla or potato – and assemble four of five different brands, and let our eager tasters taste through them, and answer two simple questions: Which was your favorite, and why? And describe in a few simple words the differences among them. Nearly everyone will be able to do this. No one will feel bashful, inadequate; no one will be scared they’ll say the “wrong” thing. Their homework from lesson-1 will be to repeat the exercise at home, using variations on any theme they want – milk chocolate, brands of “English Breakfast” tea, you name it.


The point is to show them that they are already tasters. Wine does not need to bully or terrorize them.


But our hypothetical group of wine students have already self-selected to come to terms with wine; do they need this little game with the chips? I think they do. Even people interested in wine are still overawed by its sheer incorrigible muchness. Anything we can do to scrape away whatever vestigial worry they (probably) have is both helpful and humane.


As a rule I have tasted with people either in the business or else willing to spend money and time attending a “tasting.” They know stuff, a little or a lot. They are not naïfs. And yet almost every single time I have led tastings, someone has raised a hand and asked “I get [xyzxyz] in this wine: is that right?” And my answer is always “YES! And you know why it’s right? Because it literally can’t be wrong.” Now I’ve got everyone’s most definite attention. I continue, “Who am I to stand up here and say No, it’s impossible, there’s no way you can be tasting [xyzxyz] in that wine. If you think you taste it, you TASTE it.”


But is it what I’m supposed to be tasting, comes the response? “Supposed?” According to whom? Well, I mean, the experts….


“Expert” is a word I really really hate. I want my dry cleaner to be an expert in removing stains, but a “wine expert” is a pathetic thing to aspire to be. And there is Thing-1 that’s wrong with wine education. Its frame of reference is unfriendly, even hostile. If I were a wine teacher, I’d want to make people comfortable with wine by first being comfortable with themselves as receivers of flavor and texture, so that their ordinary happiness with wine can flow unimpeded.


I’d continue with my guy who’s worried he’s tasting the “wrong” thing. I’d ask, are you writing down what you’re tasting? Yes. Are you going to show what you’ve written to anybody else? I wasn’t planning to. Okay then! You write those few words as a way of remembering what you tasted, and they are your words, they tell what happened in the little universe of that wine and you, and the other thing those words do is to invite you to concentrate on what you’re tasting. And if you keep doing that, tasting attentively and jotting a few things down, eventually it’ll become second-nature and you’ll find your mind is starting to organize all those impressions in a way that came naturally to you, not one that I or anyone imposed on you.


That sets the stage for the real work to begin. Of course we need guides, maps, some way through the big hulking glom of wines. Where they come from. What flavor “families” they belong to. The best books to be reading. How to create a natural-feeling method by which to navigate it all.


Please stay tuned for part-2, where your humble blogger will continue trying to make the wine world safe from bad education.

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