I’d like to venture a potentially controversial opinion: There is no such thing as having bad taste in wine. I’ve said this a few times now and met with mixed reactions, most commonly disbelief but occasionally a little hostility. It’s something I believe to be true, though, and I’ve decided to have a ramble about it.
As wine means so many things to so many different people, it’s hard to write an article about ‘taste’ without upsetting someone. The thing is, wine has a tendency to divide people between those who believe they don’t know very much about it, to those who believe they know quite a lot about it. Note that key word, ‘believe’, here, as you’ll find a lot of people speaking with confidence about wine, regardless of how much they actually understand the industry. You’re probably thinking I mean that in a negative way but actually, the whole point of this post is to encourage people to speak more openly about wine, without fear of somehow being ‘wrong’. If we all waited until we had impressive initials after our names or decades working with wine before daring to venture an opinion, the world would be an incredibly boring place and I think the same could be said for a great many pursuits.
This is a bit of a funny one. On one hand I believe very strongly that wine can be analysed to a high level objectively, ie: a wine can be analysed to a great level of detail in terms of structure, flavour/aroma components and inherent quality. On the other hand, I also believe that this has very little meaning to 95% of wine consumers in the world and that the ‘quality’ I spoke of is far less important to most consumers than the style of the wine. What do I mean by that? Well, think of it this way: You can take a beautiful bottle of Montrachet (White, Grand Cru Burgundy made from the Chardonnay grape) for several hundred euros, and a simple bottle of Argentinian Malbec for less than 10 euros, and serve them to the same person. I would bet that, 9 times out of 10, if that person generally prefers red wine to white wine, he/she will choose the Malbec over the Montrachet, regardless of the fact that the Montrachet Grand Cru is renowned for routinely producing some of the worlds most stunning and complex white wines.
Take it a step further. If one person prefers soft, plummy red wines over acidic, high toned and vibrant wines then they are still likely to prefer that 10 euro bottle of Malbec over, say, a 150 euro bottle of Barolo from a world class producer, and you know what? That doesn’t mean that person has bad taste. It just means that they have a stylistic preference at this particular point in their life and that should be respected. Over time, if they continue to drink, their horizons will broaden and their tastes will change. Mine did and I bet yours has as well.
As you learn more about the industry, how grapes are grown, wine is made, marketed, sold, consumed and everything that goes with it, you’ll find your appreciation grows and therefore your chances of trying new regions, grapes and even countries. I’ve heard some pretty sweeping statements in my relatively short time studying wine that I expect those same people would wince to hear if it is brought up 5 years down the line. I started my experience with wine by drinking a lot of heavy, oaky extracted wines made from cheap blends that I can’t finish a glass of now. In 5 years no doubt I will be drinking wines that, right now, aren’t my preferred choice. At what point do I have ‘Good taste’? Will I ever? Who cares. The more I learn about wine the more I see ‘good taste’ as a mark of snobbishness, of a dangerous blend of knowledge and ego.
I believe this last part is particularly key to the future of the industry. There is often a lot of thought about how to make wine more accessible. How to make it less scary. How to engage new customers without resorting to extreme measures; I’m looking at you, blue wine. I believe it starts with how we approach the stuff, and that follows through to how we talk about it, whether it be formally as part of a profession or casually with our friends. If I give a tasting, a class or just talk about wine at a party and I somehow make other people feel that their choices in wine are somehow lesser than mine, I do one of two things:
I alienate that person and make them less interested in learning about wine in general. I certainly wouldn’t be as interested in scuba diving if the first time I had an issue with my tank and had to come up for air, my instructor made me feel small about it. We all start somewhere.
I’ll still alienate that person and make them want to know more, just so they aren’t in that situation again. Effectively, I’m breeding future snobbishness as I’ve now turned knowledge about wine into a competition of some sort (a particularly Western trait).
If we can encourage people to drink more wine, it’s very likely that they will fall in love with it the same way so many of us have. People do get curious after a while and try new things and there is an awful lot of material out there, whether it be printed or online, to pique curiosity and offer new suggestions. That doesn’t mean we have to go to the other extreme, the now more common ‘Get it down yer’ neck!’ style of approach that simply treats wine as a way to get pissed and looks upon any sort of understanding or pursuit of knowledge as inherently elitist and unnecessary. It’s about taking people from point A to point B, to nurture curiosity and introduce concepts and information without making it intimidating.
The key for anyone in a customer-facing role is to facilitate that change, not block it and that starts by acknowledging that we all work in a very subjective industry, where quality is supremely hard to define. If we can offer support and encouragement, teach without condescension and make wine fun instead of snobbish, well, I believe that’s the key to unlocking future growth and changing the image of wine, from an elitist pursuit to what I believe it to be; the most delicious, interesting and refreshing beverage on the planet.