I considered myself an academic at one point, but I fell out of it when I realized that my professors couldn't provide me with the knowledge I was looking for. That's not to say that they didn't know anything (because I learned a lot about German literature in graduate school), but rather they didn't have the answers I personally wanted. That was my shortcoming, however, not theirs. My expectations were way out of whack. They were teaching me the lessons I needed to become a scholar; I was looking for definitiveness. I was naive in a way – I wanted to read Herman Hesse and learn the truth. They could only tell me their opinions. There was no one true answer to their questions, despite what I thought. It was up to me to come with my own truth. Ultimately, that was the biggest lesson I learned in my brief tenancy as an academic and it might be the most important thing I've learned in the past ten years.
There are no definitive truths in the booze world – especially if you're relying on the people in the industry for your information. 100% of the producers in Cognac will tell you they don't use caramel coloring or any kind of sweetener additive. 99% of them are lying – to your face, no less. Yet, a new generation of drinkers wants certainty, definiteness, and clear cut answers to their drinking. We want to know:
- what's good and what's bad?
- what's authentic and what's designer?
- what's the considered the best and what's considered tacky?
- where do the best spirits come from and why?
- how did this producer make such a good spirit and why did this other producer not?
So the people in the booze business come up with answers:
- it's the terroir
- it's hand-crafted
- it's made in small batches
- it's craft
- it's organic
- it's our heritage.
That's why, silly! Don't you understand now?
I remember sitting in film class during a lecture with Jean-Pierre Gorin (a former Godard colleague who had no problem telling us we were full of shit) after watching Scorsese's Mean Streets. He was going on about the scene (in his thick, cigarette-weakened accent) where DeNiro gets on top of the pool table and begins swinging a cue at his would-be attackers, calling his movements "serpent-like, a snake, a demonic transformation." We all took notes. The next week, when we all came back to present our "original" papers in front of the class, every single student referred to the "serpent-like" DeNiro "transforming into a demon" in the pool hall. Gorin buried his head in his hands. "You're just repeating what I told you!" he screamed furiously. "Did anyone come up with their own observation?"
Later on, as a teacher, I always remembered that moment when I watched a student simply repeat my opinion back to me, rather than think deeply to derive one of their own. I would tell them: "That sounds good, but what do you really think?" Lately, as a booze professional, I've been thinking about that experience when confronted with representatives who are tasked with teaching me about their products. I feel like they're simply repeating buzz words they've been told, rather than actually teaching me something important (or even true!) about their booze. "Our gin tastes this way because we've been making it in small batches for decades." But who knows what the answers actually might be? Not me. I know what I've been told, obviously, but as a friend in the industry told me years ago: "Assume everyone is lying to you."
Despite the advice I was given, I'm not pessimistic enough to think you can't believe anything you read or hear. It just means you have to use your brain. Wine and spirits are fascinating products with rich histories and inspiring legacies. It's only human to be captivated by the vast scope of all there is to know. I wake up everyday, bursting with excitement at the fact that I get to learn more about alcohol when I go to work. But it's important to actually learn something rather than just repeat what other people say. It's important to listen to what the experts tell you, but then do your own research on the side. There's nothing more annoying than a serial contrarian, but a close second would be an insistent fanboy. You've gotta land somewhere in the middle.
If I were to open a booze school it would have one lesson: always make your own judgements, rather than simply mimic the actions and opinions of others.
That's what Gorin was trying to teach us about film as well.