Yesterday evening, towards the end of our shift, I was discussing my previous blog post with a colleague. He's much less brash than I am and he doesn't always understand why I feel the need to "blow the whistle" on things when I write. I thought that was a funny way of looking at it. The frustrations I experienced as a teacher and grad student are much the same as the ones I experience now as a wine store clerk. Both academia and the wine industry are full of people who think their education means more than it does. In fact, they think education means they're capable of more than they actually are. They think their academic accomplishments make them more capable of deciphering quality, of formulating an opinion, and of demanding the respect of others. However, one of the biggest lessons I learned in life was that getting an "A" in film class doesn't mean you can actually make a film.
Yesterday's post was a hodge-podge of various examples that I feel illustrate this mindset perfectly (hence, the American Idol contestant who justified his terrible singing by referring to his grades in choir). Why the need to actually write a blog post about this phenomenon? Because when I first started in the wine business I was intimidated by these types of people. I thought these people knew what they were talking about. I deferred to them, questioned my own opinion, felt they knew more than me, and tried to emulate them as a result. Eventually, I realized they didn't know half as much as they thought they did and that I was the fool for believing them. My hope in "blowing the whistle" on this type of behavior is to prevent other enthusiasts from going down the same path. You don't have to have a certificate to know about booze or to appreciate it more.
Of course, there are some jobs that require specialized education, like doctors or lawyers, but with booze the point of education is enjoyment. It's not about pedantry. I like to learn more about whisky because it helps me appreciate each sip a little bit more. I have a master's degree in German, yet I am far from fluent in actually speaking the language. How is that possible? Because having a master's degree doesn't mean you know anything. It means you can pass a class. It means you can look at a set of tasks and do what's required for that specific requirement. In the real world, it doesn't translate into anything other than that. I learned how to speak better German by actually living in Germany and doing it. School, private tutors, extra lessons are all helpful, but they don't replace experience.
There are PhDs and MAs in the booze world. People can become Masters of Wine or Certified Sommeliers by passing various courses and attaining certificates. I've done some of them myself. They were helpful in organizing important information and for motivating me to actually buckle down and read more material. However, what bothers me about any degree or title is that people use them to add credence or credibility to their opinions. If you read that link I posted about the wine buyer at Costco, you'll notice a flurry of arguing in the comment field below. You'll know exactly what I'm talking about if you read through a few of those. For some reason educational accomplishments are referenced when determining another person's capabilities or intelligence, as in "He went to Berkeley," or "She went to Stanford." That's nice, but what does that really mean?
If you asked me to name five texts that best represented deutsche Sturm und Drang, I could give you an answer. However, if you want me to translate an actual German conversation for you, I probably won't be able to help. What's the goal of education? Is it to prove to other people you're smart or talented? Is it to impress other people or is to learn how to actually do something? Ultimately, people are impressed by ability. If your education helped you build a rocket to the moon, or cure a deadly disease, then people are going to be impressed. However, just because you got an "A" in wine class doesn't mean you have good taste in wine. It doesn't mean anything. It means you knew how to pass a class. There's no way anyone can learn in a six month course what K&L guys like Jim Barr and Ralph Sands have learned over decades of working in the industry.
So what's the point? Don't be intimidated by wine "experts." Don't let yourself be browbeaten by whisky "professionals." You'll never see John Hansell touting his credentials as a "certified whisky specialist." He's just a guy who's been drinking single malt for a very long time, yet his reviews carry more weight than anyone else in the industry. If you want to be the next editor of the Whisky Advocate, writing reviews that thousands of people read and respect, getting a credential or certificate won't do the trick. You need time, experience, passion and ability and those are things that cannot be taught.