On Wine Expertise

background: this is the fourth part of a mini-series around the reasons people hate wine. I have set out this premise in my introductory piece “Why do they hate wine so much?” and I have also discussed the perception of wine professionals and hobbyists as snobs. This week I am discussing the concept of wine expertise.

A few years back I was referred to a consultant who asked me to bring my blood test results from the past few years. I duly did; the doctor went over them in less than a minute, asked me a couple of questions, and sent me happily on my way. On returning home I found out that, due to my family’s communal approach to filing and my chronic inability of doing anything before the very last minute, I had presented the man with four years’ worth of my results — and two years of my sister’s.

There is, obviously, only one reasonable conclusion one can draw from this episode: medicine is a fraud, doctors are faking it, and we would all be much better saving our time and money, and just do what feels right to us. Or not?

Yes, wine is not medicine¹, but few things get as hard a time as wine appreciation. A surprisingly large number of people think that it is all an illusion, a swindle on the gullible, a pantomime for the pompous. Nor is this perception confined to ale-swigging Albion and bourbon-slugging Dixie. You’re every bit as likely to encounter deniers of wine expertise in places with a long association with the vine, from California to Greece. Many will be drinking wine regularly, perhaps even too much. Some will even claim to be making it².

So, what is expertise with regard to wine appreciation and drinking? Does it even exist?

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There is a primary level of wine connoisseurship that even its biggest detractors would concede: knowledge of objective facts. In this, wine can be fascinating, even daunting, as it spans geography, biology, history, sociology, law, and business. Just about any aspect turns into a multi-disciplinary discourse. Say you want to drink a Tuscan red. Tuscany is famous for producing red wines made primarily from a genetically distinct grape variety indigenous to central Italy, where it’s probably been cultivated since Roman times. It is known as Sangiovese (a corruption of the Latin phrase for “Blood of Jupiter”), but referred to as Brunello (“Brownish”) in the area around the Montalcino hills near Sienna. Italian law defines in great detail the requirements for labels to bear certain geographical marks such as IGT, DOC, and DOCG. This applies not only to the area of origin, but also the grape: Brunello di Montalcino, for example, has to be 100% Sangiovese. It was also Italy’s first wine to be awarded the coveted DOCG title, which is intended to indicate not only origin and adherence to tradition, but also guarantee a minimum quality. Chianti, on the other hand, can be a blend; it is also often associated with a flask-type bottle, inside a straw pocket, a design icon particularly popular in the ’60s and ’70s. The wine industry is important to the region, even more so for its synergies with tourism, a major pillar of Tuscan economy; the 2008 “Brunello-gate” (Brunellopoli) became a matter of national discussion.

This is all before discussing producers, labels, and vintages. One could talk about when Sassicaia was first released, the equivalent of a Man Utd fan thinking back to when Eric Cantona first sported the Red Devil. Or maybe the 1990 Case Basse, the way your music geek friend would tell you that, sure Sticky Fingers did have Brown Sugar and Wild Horses, but oh man, have you ever really listened to You Gotta Move? Unlike music or football though, the wine world has expanded considerably the past three decades: a trained wine expert is expected to have a working knowledge of the aspects of our Tuscan example from Seattle to Otago, Kent to Patagonia. In the age of Wikipedia and smartphones, the importance of this knowledge might be open to debate; personally, I think there is something to be said for the understanding and insight that the digestion of complex interrelated information breeds, as opposed to the retrieval of a context-less response to a query. But what is undeniable is that knowledge of objective facts related to wine can and does exist.

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There is little in the public imagination of wine expertise to rival blind tasting. It is the wine world’s equivalent of chess masters playing games without a board, musicians with perfect pitch, footballers juggling the ball. It is also the bête noire of the deniers, like the person that once told me triumphantly that the brandy scene in Goldfinger is actually impossible for a human³. Every now and then, the urban legend of the tricked wine expert resurfaces, with all the elegance of a Sun headline. Once the label is taken off these so-called experts cannot tell champagne from prosecco, red from white, Latour from vodka-Ribena⁴. No other aspect of wine connoisseurship is more misunderstood.

The introductory aspect of appreciating wine does not even have to do with tasting blind, but tasting itself. The first thing a novice art student realises is that he has never seen, but only looked. A novice music student has never listened to music, but only heard it. Here, our sensory vocabulary works against us, as everyone drinks. Perhaps we could say that most people never imbibe wine, but simply take in the liquid. The entry point of wine knowledge is if one understands what the act of drinking can be and the complexity it entails.

Once this has been established, a big part of wine expertise involves identifying certain characteristics and matching them to specific areas and styles. Most are relatively clearly defined: certain areas, grapes, and winemaking techniques result in specific colours, aromas, and flavours. It is somewhat peculiar that people who take for granted that there can be a skill of recognising a good play in football or a particularly challenging guitar solo, refuse to believe that one can learn to identify aromas and flavours.

Quality is more elusive. It is identified via some broad, commonly agreed characteristics, which work (to an extent) within a close framework, and range from relative objectivity to style and aesthetics. But that’s not different from pretty much everything else: for ’90s kids like me, Michael Jordan is the GOAT. A strong case can be made for LeBron, and an even stronger for Kareem, but how do you even compare? But we all agree it’s not Tom Gugliotta — and that expertise in basketball exists.

The biggest confusion with blind tasting seems to be with regard to what outsiders think wine experts actually claim. It is true that there are some wine critics, usually American, that at times do appear to flirt with the comical in their writings⁵. But for the most part, wine experts are very moderate in their claims and rather measured in the importance they assign to it. A certain threshold is expected, as it shows ability and is an almost inescapable by-product of involvement, but is hardly the be-all and end-all of wine expertise. Spinning a basketball around one’s finger comes easily to someone who has developed strong ball-handling skills, but there is a reason the Harlem Globetrotters usually do not make it to the NBA. Perfect pitch is useful, but many great musicians don’t have it.

It should also be mentioned that skill does not imply perfection. The northern Rhone has a distinct style of wine, but one can find wines from California to South Africa that would trick the local winemakers themselves. The expertise there does not lie in identifying where the wine was produced, but in identifying that this style is typical of the northern Rhone. Yes, no one can play quite like Bill Evans at the Village Vanguard recordings, but there are quite a few that can make a passable imitation of Bill at his less stellar. Plus, tasting skills are not some sort of always-on Spider-Sense: they work in varying degrees, and when one is paying full attention. One of the first anecdotes one learns about wine is that of the great connoisseur who, when asked if he had ever mistaken Bordeaux for Burgundy⁶ answered “not since lunch”.

I will say this though: if football experts, be it pundits or players, had the predictive abilities of wine experts, there would be far fewer Paddy Power stores on your high street.

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The ultimate refuge of the denier, if he could be bothered to elucidate it⁷, would go something like this: the sole purpose of wine is to give joy to the drinker. As the drinker is the only one who gets to judge if a wine gives him joy, wine expertise becomes, if not outright logically impossible, at the very least meaningless⁸. Put more simply, your 10-year old Bandol might work for you, but if my Super-Tasty-Pokemon Californian Merlot works for me, and we are both equally happy with it, how can expertise exist except as a cult? If it is possible to demonstrate scientifically that more dopamine is released in my brain when I drink my £5 bottle of Chateau Sains-Bury, than in yours when you disappointedly sip your 2014 Isole e Olena, who is the expert?

At its philosophical core, this is a post-modern argument and grants the bearer the logical invincibility that comes with being willing to accept Foucault as one’s Lord and Saviour⁹. There is little to respond, except point out that this rabbit hole of a worldview does come with its fair share of consequences¹⁰.

There is a milder version of this view, which keeps Up as Up and Down as Down, and to which I am much more sympathetic. This recognises expertise, but is agnostic of its value. It doesn’t care much about wine to begin with; if wine connoisseurship has any worth, it seems like it takes too much time, effort — and money. So, is wine boring? And how much should you care about wine? This is what we will be exploring next.

You can follow me on Twitter at @peter_pharos

footnotes

1. At least it shouldn’t be. If it is, you’re doing it wrong. No, seriously.

2. Well, they do make something. It is possibly intended for drinking, though its primary purpose appears to be a justification for the existence of 100 points in the Parker scale.

3. I replied that he is going to be even more disappointed when he finds out what the pulling power of someone on a civil servant’s salary really is.

4. The most plausible origin of this urban legend, if one is even needed, can be traced back to a French paper from the early noughties. If you are that keen to find out why that non-experiment proves nothing related to wine expertise, go to the nearest university campus and ask the friendly resident chemist to explain. If she is not there, ask the significantly less friendly resident microeconomist¹¹. In a pinch, even the psychologist might be able to do it. Or a witch doctor.

5. The sort of person that starts phrases with “every time I drink the ’71 Cristal…” Really? Like, every time? Does it happen to you only after heavy exercise or also when at rest? Are you taking something for it?

6. In music terms, Beethoven and Mozart.

7. Though he usually can’t. He much prefers going “it’s all a load of bollocks innit” and consider he landed a rhetorical blow worthy of Lysias at his finest.

8. A variant of this argument comes from the business part of the wine world. It can be summarised as “what do I do with your so-called expertise if it ain’t making me any money buddy?”

9. The business variant similarly deifies Jordan Belfort. You know. The “Sell me this pen” guy.

10. Such as being ecstatic with Trump as POTUS. And Tom Gugliotta as the GOAT.

11. It is unfortunate, but the microeconomist cannot afford to be friendly. He has neoliberalism and microfoundations to defend. It is not an easy life. Cut the guy some slack.