Thoughts on: Defining Wine Expertise

Trying to learn the world of wine is a daunting task, as there’s not only thousands of years of history, production methods, tradition, legal and cultural factors to learn but like every modern industry it’s constantly changing and evolving. This has never been more true than today, when every year it appears that there are more regions being explored, more indigenous grapes being discovered and more different wine-making techniques being used. Like every industry in the world there is a whole network of unseen roles and responsibilities, often unglamorous and overlooked, that make it tick. Buying, selling, serving, educating, making, presenting, marketing and everything in between. When I wrote my 3,000 word essay on the bulk transportation of wine for my WSET Diploma, an entire sector of the wine industry became known to me that I had never considered before; the logistics of transporting and bottling wine without compromising quality. The scope is enormous and that leads me to my question; if it’s entirely obvious that the world of wine can’t be fully understood and mastered, what then is wine expertise all about?

The most popular expression of wine expertise in modern wine culture is, without a doubt, the sommelier; an old fashioned French word meaning “wine steward’. Thanks to the glorification of chefs and the restaurant industry, this previously uncelebrated role has now risen to fame and created a whole new culture of wine appreciation, mostly in major cities throughout the world. The key role of a sommelier is to understand, and potentially build, a wine list that offers good value, interesting wines that pair well with the cuisine of the restaurant and turns a decent profit for the owner. The practical job is then to take care of your customers, make sure they can choose a wine that suits the food they’ve ordered and is within budget, whilst adding to the overall dining experience. The word ‘sommelier’ has now become almost synonymous with most young wine professionals, much to the chagrin of experienced sommeliers working in restaurants, and has done much to create excitement around the industry as a whole. On the off-chance you haven’t seen the documentary SOMM, make sure you take an hour to watch it as it was a turning point for the profession and for wine education programs, particularly in North America.

Having said that, it seems that most sommeliers seem keen to improve their knowledge, education and skillset with the intention of moving away from working the floor, with the most desirable jobs including the purchase of wines for restaurants, hotels and retail stores. This seems counter-intuitive to me, especially as most train through the CMS program that is specifically designed to teach you how to be a good floor sommelier, but clearly shows that being a sommelier is considered a stepping stone to greater things. Wine buying is a position of great responsibility, as not only does it require an extensive wine knowledge but also a strong understanding of the realities of the trade. Wine buyers are treated like royalty for obvious reasons; they are the single most important link between wineries and their customers, especially in an increasingly consolidated market-place. Unfortunately, due to this smaller market there are understandably fewer wine buyers than ever before. The other reality of being a wine buyer is that wine is often diminished to a commodity; after all, the reality of your job is to turn a profit and sell what you think people will buy, not necessarily what you’d want them to.

Another highly visible position within the world of wine is working as a wine critic, either for an established magazine/institution or for yourself, if you manage to build a large enough following. This, however, is incredibly hard to define and ends up coming around seemingly by accident more than anything else. Think of the people who work as a wine critic and the same names tend to crop up; Jancis Robinson, Robert Parker, Oz Clarke… the list is relatively short. The problem is, with very few exceptions they tend to work in a variety of different fields. Jancis Robinson is better known for her wine-writing, particularly her work on the essential Oxford Companion to Wine and The World Atlas of Wine. Oz Clarke is as much a wine personality as a critic, appearing at various conferences and even television programs around the world, and Robert Parker is very much on his way out, having handed over the majority of his responsibilities to his underlings. Newer critics coming into the field tend to be wine-writers of some description, who happen to get the occasional gig on more established platforms. It’s commonly accepted that wine-writing is an over-saturated business and that most consumers are valuing applications such as Vivino and Cellartracker, where consumers leave their own scores and notes en masse, over the opinions of individual critics, no matter how respected.

Ultimately, I suppose how wine expertise is defined and pursued is down to the individual more than anything else. I’m still at a stage where there is so much of the world to learn, I can’t yet fathom the concept of mastering even a single part of it, let alone the whole thing. The further you research a topic, the more you realise how little you know, and it seemingly never ends. It’s a wonderful, maddening and absolutely delightful feeling all at the same time. So far I am mainly concentrating on perfecting the private tastings I organise, as well as honing my skills as a tour guide for Devour Barcelona and their excellent wine and tapas tour. However, I most certainly intend to start working in wine education as a WSET educator within a year, and I would definitely like to start judging wine competitions more regularly as well. I’ve been clear in my ambitions to become a Master of Wine but where the industry will take me commercially is still something of an unknown quantity to me. All I know is that I’m deeply enjoying all the different experiences I’ve been exposed to so far, and long may it continue!

So, my question to you is; how do you define wine expertise? What’s your ambition in learning the world of wine, the subtle nuances and great wonders of it all? You might find it as tricky to answer as I have, but it’s a question worth thinking about!

Thoughts on: Modern Wine Culture

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‘Wine Culture’ is a pretty difficult thing to define, especially in our constantly changing, modern, technology-driven world. When we think of wine culture, we tend to romanticize a little and think about a family somewhere, probably in Southern Europe, sharing a bottle or two of good wine over a table heavily laden with stunning fresh produce, preferably overlooking an area of natural beauty. Or a group of friends sat on a terrace in the middle of Paris or Barcelona, passing glasses around to be refilled during a quiet summer evening; if you have no imagination, fear not for a Google image search yields almost exactly this! However, when it comes to wine consumption Europe isn’t necessarily the pace-setter anymore and according to this article by Decanter, the USA is now the largest consumer of wine in the world and to add to that, they’re also the worlds largest importer of wine. It’s therefore pretty easy to see that the world of wine is changing in more than just production methods and grape varieties around the world; the consumer base is shifting quite drastically as well. This is also true for age groups, with the younger generations tapping into wine at an early age and making something of a splash when it comes to purchasing habits.

A while ago I read this article on the WSJ, which gave me a lot to think about with regards to how I see wine consumption within Spain itself. I interact with a real mix of people in the wine tastings I organise in Barcelona; from the younger ‘millenial’ generation all the way through to people in their 70’s, from all over the world. Is there a difference in their buying patterns and preferences; the what and the why? Absolutely. Is there a difference in styles and priorities in wine? Yep. Have we both at some point fallen for the trap of clever marketing, just in different guises? Unfortunately, I think so. People give the older generations a hard time due to their supposed reliance on expert opinion and wine scores but I believe my generation is just as gullible — we’ve simply traded scores and wildly bombastic tasting notes for cute narratives and forcefully expressed opinions that happen to coincide with our own way of looking at the world. It’s been expressed many times, and I believe it to be true, that this is largely in part to the ”classics’ of the wine world now being so outrageously expensive that they’re no longer affordable to the vast majority of consumers, especially for younger people and so other options are being sought as alternatives.

Technology has been a huge factor in this, with more blogs, videos and websites dedicated to the love of wine than ever before. Instead of subscribing to magazines, mailing-lists and conferences/fairs, it’s far easier to access the wisdom of thousands through websites and applications such as Cellar Tracker and Vivino. Wine Folly has also been hugely successful with its easy to digest infographics and aesthetically pleasing presentation, although sadly hamstrung by a lot of misleading and incorrect information along the way. There’s been a lot of talk recently about the recent shift in wine-writing or how the ‘old guard’ is changing and that there isn’t really an obvious replacement in this now very convoluted space. Is this an inherent problem? No, in fact I would say that diversifying opinions and challenging long held conventions has not only allowed people to explore the world of wine more easily but also encouraged the industry to move into the 21st century, at least from a marketing standpoint. This in turn has made wine more attractive to younger drinkers who then invest time and money into engaging with it, albeit at the expense of making an already confusing industry all that much more so.

However, with technology and fashion moving at a far faster pace than wine, this has led to a potentially worrying shift in priorities for younger drinkers. Instead of starting with the basics of viticulture, vinification and ‘benchmark’ wines from countries and regions with centuries of high-quality production, more and more people are jumping into wine at the ‘cool’ end of the spectrum. In Barcelona alone, there are 3–4 bars in the old part of the town that cater to only ‘natural’ and organic wines exclusively, all of which have sprung up in the last decade or so. Whilst there’s no inherent problem with this, it’s marginally worrying that certain narratives are becoming so strong amongst the younger generation of wine drinkers, most of which have very little to do with the quality of the drink itself. This is worrying because as the narrative grows stronger, so does the opportunity for marketing and manipulation rather than people choosing a wine because they truly enjoy drinking it and have the confidence to choose it, which is the goal of wine based education across the world.

Fortunately most of these trends are, like all things that are very loud in media, followed by quite a small minority (although here is an interesting report on the true market value of ‘natural’ wines) and even so, is it so bad? If wine-makers are finding that their audience places value in long term environmental solutions, so what? This has to be good for the industry as a whole and frankly, the narrative of the wine is also important; I give wine tastings for a living, I would be crazy to deny this. What we need to strike is a balance. Wine, like all things, is more enjoyable when properly understood, even at a very basic level. Buying a bottle after hearing a story about a monastery that produces a nearly extinct grape variety in India and contributes all profits to the ‘Before it was cool’ association is not understanding wine, it’s buying a story. The same way that people bought the story of the ’99 point’ wine that had ‘a tactile sense of seemingly schistic, crushed stone impingement’ do not understand wine, they are buying a story as well, just in different , and often very amusing, words.

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As wine starts to redefine itself in modern culture, education will need to work hard to keep up. In fact, it seems that the general level of wine education is increasing, particularly amongst younger people and that is a real cause for celebration. Ultimately, it’s down to us how we interact with wine — we have the potential to take wine to the next level and open more doors for more people. Conversely, we could screw it all up and go back to the hostile, inaccessible mess it was before. As I said in a previous article, anyone who works with wine becomes an ambassador whether they realise it or not; it’s part and parcel of the social nature of the industry we’re in.

I’ll finish by quoting Lettie Teague, author of the aforementioned WSJ article, who sums it up rather succinctly:“Will millennials in the end “revolutionize” wine — or banking or dining, for that matter? Will they render wine scores obsolete and classic wines like Bordeaux and Burgundy mere runners up to…Slovenian Chardonnay? Perhaps. They’ve certainly done their part to promote small producers creating interesting wines in odd corners of the globe. But to truly claim their position as the most powerful consumers in the world, they’ll need to develop a broader context and a deeper understanding of the entire world of wine — and not just an appreciation of a good story or a few obscure grapes.”

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