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!

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