Here, I’m addressing some questionable comments made about wine tasting, including the oft-proffered advice, ‘like what you like.’
The first is that the trade is full of wine snobs. Usually, these wine snobs tend to be older males. This is not my experience at all. I travel a lot and I hang out with wine people in many cities. Most of them are younger than me, often by quite a lot, and I’d say the majority are female. And they aren’t snobs. I generally find these people curious about wine, and eager to help others discover interesting things. They usually have better palates than some of the famous critics, too.
The wine snob may not be completely dead, but he’s living in a care home on life support and doesn’t get out all that often these days, so you are unlikely to run into him. Mostly, when he is invoked, it is as a straw man by one of the wine populists, who – eager to win some argument – feels the need to control both sides of the debate. This way these populists can be right even quicker.
The second annoying thing is that people assume that if you have any wine expertise, you no longer have the ability to understand how normal people experience wine. This effectively sidelines the experts and leaves the field open for the populists. No doubt there are some people who are so absorbed in their field of interest that they are out of touch with ‘normal’ people, but it is vastly irritating when people make the assumption that this applies to me and all my peers who actually know quite a bit about wine.
In my case, I didn’t develop an interest in wine until I was 25, and I was married to someone who had no particular interest in wine (apart from drinking it) for 23 years, and all of our friends were non-wine geeks. Trust me: I have a lot of experience of how non-wine-geeks (non-involved consumers, to use the jargon) approach the wine category. I also interact with lots of non-wine product categories on a non-expert basis, and it doesn’t take much to use this experience to have some understanding of what wine must be like for normal people.
The third thing is where any criticism of wine is ruled illegitimate because it is rubbishing the taste of those who enjoy that wine. Stated like this, it sounds a silly thing to say, but it’s a surprisingly widely held viewpoint, especially by wine populists. This is the like what you like position.
One way the argument works is this. A particular wine sells millions of bottles a year. The populist says that because so many people enjoy this wine, therefore it is wrong of you to criticise it, because you are criticising the taste of normal people. If they like the wine, isn’t that all that matters? Another way the argument works is that a presenter will stand in front of consumers at a tasting. Eager to dispel the fear that these consumers feel about getting it wrong when it comes to wine (more on this later), they tell them: like what you like! There is no right and wrong when it comes to wine; it’s just what you like. And don’t let those wine snobs tell you that you are wrong in your tastes!
I have some sympathy with this position, but the problem with it is that it’s confused. Stated like this, the two viewpoints render all criticism illegitimate. Criticism isn’t illegitimate, of course, it’s just that there’s a problem with the underlying theoretical basis of these positions.
First, there’s a difference between personal preference and aesthetic appraisal. In the wine trade we compare our views on wine all the time, and we discuss our experiences and also give quality ratings. If what we were doing was merely to express our own hedonics (how much we liked the wine), it would be a little pointless. Then it’s just autobiography, and it’s not really relevant to anyone other than ourselves. Instead, in this context, our judgement is expected to have wider application: we think of it as being somewhat normative. That is, when I describe and rate a wine, I’m practising aesthetic appraisal. I am suggesting that my experience of the wine may have some relevance to you, the reader. If we sit down with a wine together we may talk about it, and as well as trying to describe its characteristics, we are assessing its merits. Personal preference and aesthetic appraisal are very different, and shouldn’t be confused, but often they are.
Say I sit down with you and there are three wines in front of us. The first is YellowTail Chardonnay; the second a Droin Premier Cru Chablis; the third a Kumeu River Chardonnay. We taste together. You state a preference for the YellowTail Chardonnay. If that’s all you are doing, then you are perfectly within your rights to prefer that wine to the others, and I would leave it there: I’d never suggest to you that you are ‘wrong’, or try to educate you, or rubbish your tastes. But if you had come to me as a student of wine, or had you expressed an interest in developing your understanding of wine, then we’d have a different discussion. Aside of your personal palate preferences at that time, we might discuss why the second wine is regarded to be a very fine expression of Chablis, and why the third was regarded to be one of the top Chardonnays from New Zealand. Then we might explore why the wines tasted the way they did given where they came from. And we could compare this with how the Yellowtail Chardonnay is made (including the scale of its production and how it gets the flavours it does). That is a very different conversation.
And it is perfectly legitimate to criticize something that is popular. We must also remember that just because millions of people purchase and consume a product, it doesn’t mean they enjoy it, and that they wouldn’t enjoy something else more. If I drive a certain car, it doesn’t mean that that is my preferred car – other factors influence my choice, not least of all economics. When it comes to wine, consumers can only buy what is in front of them, and fearful of making a poor choice they might settle for a brand that gives them a merely adequate experience. Remember also that for many people, wine is simply a commodity, and the pleasure comes from the consumption occasion, and the fact that it contains alcohol (a bit of self-medication perhaps?). The actual wine that is consumed is, for many, completely substitutable.
Now, let’s go back to the fear factor. It is true: if you bring a bunch of normal people into a room and give them six different wines to taste, then quite often they will express a fear of getting it wrong. Populists blame this fear on the wine trade, for not making wine accessible enough, and planting seeds of fear in the hearts of consumers that may one day germinate into a hatred of wine. It is of course, experts like me who are to blame, for not recommending their familiar brands in my column, and for saying that some wines are bad while others are good. It is said that the same consumers don’t have the same fear about beer or spirits. It’s the wine trade that is to blame.
This is all ridiculous. First of all, wine is a complicated product category. It’s vastly complicated and even wine professionals can feel a little intimidated at times. There’s nothing that can be done about it. And for most people in most situations, this isn’t a problem. They are happy ordering a glass of Chardonnay in a pub without any fear, or navigating the wine list in a bistro and picking a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc, just as they might order a beer or a gin and tonic. But the situation where we see this fear emerge is a very unusual one: they are in a wine tasting! It’s an artificial situation. If you put me in a coffee tasting (a product category I have little real knowledge of) then I’d feel the same: I’d be afraid of getting it wrong, even though I wasn’t being tested. Yet we extrapolate from seeing the way non-involved consumers behave in a wine tasting in some village hall in the home counties, and think that therefore everyone is scared of the wine category, and it’s all the fault of the wine experts.
Thus we are all being urged to ride this wave of wine populism, where the very essence of what makes wine interesting and attractive has to be eliminated (or at least well hidden) and the people who help people on their journey into wine (the experts – sommeliers, buyers and writers) are cast as the baddies and ruled to be illegitimate. It’s crazy.