The spirits blog is a funny thing—the more I write about new products, the more I hear from readers that there's not enough opinion. Yet the more opinion I offer, the more agitated my customers get because they really want to learn about new products. This past week has been a series of op-eds focused on snobbery, expertise, expectations, and what happens to a genre when its purpose becomes something other than enjoyment. I think about these topics almost every day, so I enjoy writing about them when I get the chance, and I particularly enjoy it when people send me an email with a response or counterpoint.
One reader sent me this article in response to yesterday's post: a report about the science of tasting, and how many experts cannot decipher the differences between wines when forced to do so blindly. I get a kick out of blind tastings because of the sheer anxiety it causes people; no one wants to be the person who completely bombs the assessment (and someone always will). However, as we've learned this week from the buzz surrounding the Daily Beast MGP article, many enthusiasts and aficionados are interested in more than just flavor. Flavor is just one part of what makes alcohol fun.
When I started the master's degree program for German back in 2005 my initial hope was to "master" the German language. What I soon learned, however, is that grammar and linguistics were only a teeny-tiny part of the master's degree program. It was mostly about literature and philosophy. I can tell you right now that my German is incredibly poor compared to many other second-language German speakers, despite the fact that I have a fancy piece of paper.
"How come you're not totally fluent? Don't you have a master's degree in German?" someone might ask me.
Good question. However, being a master of German isn't really about fluency. Just like being a master of wine isn't really about identifying a wine or its character while wearing a blindfold. I don't know nearly as much about the history of wine and the various French chateaux as many of my colleagues do. If you want to know what the best Bordeaux vintages are, or which are the most-beloved vineyard sites in Burgundy, I can spout off a few, but I'm no match for Gary Westby or Ralph Sands. However, I am very, very good—if you don't mind me saying—at helping customers find something they like. Someone might ask me, "Do you have any older Bordeaux that are drinking well now?" or "I need a gift for someone who likes Sancerre," and I'll nail those requests. And I can do it for any country in the world, and any type of wine.
So when someone says, "Wow, that guy David knows a lot about wine because he always finds me something I like," that's really just one type of wine knowledge—I understand how to match up a description with a product. But there are guys who work here who actually know about viticulture and the production of wine, which is something I know nothing about (Ryan Woodhouse used to work at Testarossa and Bonny Doon, and Mike Barber makes the Mr. Beast wines). There are historians who work here; Jeff Garneau can tell you about the evolution of Chateau Lafite over the last one hundred years, or why certain grapes are no longer grown in the Italian region of Alto Adige. And what about putting a cellar together? I have no idea how certain wines will taste in 10-20 years because I haven't drunk enough older wines, but Jim Barr has had every California vintage over the last three decades. He's the guy you want to ask.
I was thinking about the quote from yesterday's post concerning "demystifying wine," which is something I originally wanted to do for consumers. I wanted to take complicated subjects—concepts concerning wine and whiskey that intimidated people—and break them down into analogies that were easy to understand. As a former teacher, it's always been something I've enjoyed doing, whether it's math, literature, or booze. However, my point in doing so was never to expose the experts as naked emperors, or clueless pedants with a penchant for snobbery. It was to show people that a just a little bit of understanding could turn what was already a fun activity into something so much more interesting and rewarding. Alcohol appreciation isn't a bunch of baloney—it's just often presented that way.
It's that very viewpoint that I always lead with when I work with customers. This hobby is supposed to be a fun use of our time! No matter how passionate we are, the appreciation of wine and whiskey shouldn't be stressful or annoying. No matter how wrong someone is about their information, it's not always our job to set them straight. No matter how intimidated we feel, we shouldn't seek to knock others off of their perch. There will always be people who use their knowledge about a certain subject to feel secure or superior—and they will always give intellectualism a bad rap—but we can't let them get to us. There will always be producers or brands that seek to use a consumer's naivete against them, but we can't save everyone.
We can only help people who want to be helped—that goes for me, bloggers, writers, and those who work on behalf of consumers. And we should enjoy helping each other.