An Open Letter to Wine: Matt Kramer, Can You Hear Me Way Up There?

William Whelan
Feb 23, 2016 · 6 min read

Dearly beloved wine,

In the March 31 issue of Wine Spectator, Matt Kramer, columnist and magazine contributor since 1995, dropped a column that had wine professionals buzzing.

As in, it made many of us drink to deal with what he laid out, being an opinion that those who strive for credentials in the world of wine are partaking in a trivial pursuit, as no formal training within the realm of wine academia could be, essentially, worth a damn.

This is an opinion to which I, as a nothing more than a humble wine program director and lover of all things vitis vinifera, take exception.

Kramer describes the development of “an undesirable class differentiation for a subject that neither needs nor deserves one,” due to the “credentialization” of wine. Now, I may not have gone to his “small college that had an intellectual bent,” — I’m just a lowly graduate of a public university known more for its propensity for pot smoking than its intellectual bent — but perhaps that is the exact reason why Mr. Kramer comes off so hell-bent on shooting down the emergence of those hoping to further their wine education through organized avenues and promoting his own class differentiation.

When putting comparative tasting (a tactic used by academic candidates…and wine buyers at every establishment selling wine in the country) against simply drinking wine for enjoyment over the course of one’s life, he states that the latter is, “like living with a painting as opposed to gazing at one for 30 seconds in a museum.” Purporting to know what, say, the Court of Master Sommeliers track is all about, he says that it standardizes “a kind of professionalism that has less to do with the benefits of an education and more to do with jumping through hoops held by others in order to acquire a diploma of some kind.”

At best, Mr. Kramer is simply having one of his “old man yells at cloud” moments as he labors to find a way for his column to stay relevant amid news that millennials are driving the wine business like never before and not buying the range of wines that he and those who think like him want to push on the public as being the ones worth their time and money. At worst, Mr. Kramer is standing on the pulpit given to him in order to tell people how they are supposed to learn about wine and, most sinister of all, how they’re supposed to drink it.

When faced with a generation that is tired of its elders telling them how anything is supposed to be or be done, Mr. Kramer is perpetuating the kind of snobbery that makes many young drinkers choose craft beer or craft spirits over similarly produced and similarly priced wine. I’d rather buy and drink beer from a 35-year-old hippie who hasn’t showered in three weeks and wants to braid me a hemp necklace — who, also, isn’t telling me how to do a damn thing — than a glass of Bordeaux from someone trying to convince me that there’s a right way to learn or enjoy wine. But, who am I? Just the 28-year-old consumer that will dictate industry trends for the next 30 years…that’s it.

Mr. Kramer’s class differentiation continues as he claims, with absolutely no factual backing let alone common sensical backing, that:

“Indeed, in many restaurants a good number patrons know more about wine appreciation — as opposed to wine trivia — than their credentialed server, if only because they’ve had more years to explore fine wine, often in the relaxed setting of a leisurely dinner.”

First of all, what is a good number? Perhaps it has been too long since Mr. Kramer stepped outside the world of Michelin-dining (and even then, no, just no), but I’d invite him to spend a week at any restaurant I’ve ever worked in, or even that my friends have worked in, and leave with the same claim — a claim that, by the way, relies on those with the ability to knock out flash cards being unable to actually enjoy wine. Second of all, and this is the one that gets me, is he suggesting that someone, say around the age of 55, who has opened up a bottle of wine with every dinner they’ve ever eaten is inherently more adept to enjoy wine than me? This is, essentially, a claim that young wine drinkers can’t enjoy fine wine because we haven’t been around long enough to enjoy it — which is absurd on its face.

The Court of Master Sommeliers does not provide a hoop through which I’m hoping to jump; rather, they are accomplished individuals who exemplify what many young wine industry professionals aspire to be. Coming from Boulder, Colorado I looked up to professionals like Brett Zimmerman and Bobby Stuckey, both of whom have done their fair share for the local community, in terms of both wine and just being decent people who represent my hometown well.

The Court of Master Sommeliers is just that, a court, a collection of like minded people who have gotten together to improve the industry that they have all come up in, an industry that took in one-time college dropouts like myself in the toughest of economic times. The tests administered by this organization do indeed bring professional benefit, of that there is no denial. My question to you is, would you hire me to do your job if I had no experience? Would you hire me to work as a wine evaluator for Wine Spectator if I listed no qualifications other than: “I drink wine at dinner every night so, like, I know my shit?” Of course you wouldn’t, no one would. The tests themselves and the pins issued to those who pass them are not the diplomas that you speak of, but simply mile-markers. I would imagine that those young MS candidates that your column dismissed wouldn’t claim that the pieces of paper given to them after passing such tests were anything different; I would imagine that they’d acknowledge that, while it is an accomplishment — one to be celebrated, not belittled — their pursuit of knowledge and enjoyment of wine is far from over. In fact, that it will never be over.

Studying for these tests is not just about becoming the best wine steward that I can be, so that when I have someone come in to my store or restaurant and ask for wines from the Republic of Georgia because their distant aunt is visiting New York from there, I can direct them towards Saperavi, even if I don’t have it in my establishment. The knowledge that I gain from studying for these tests helps get the young clientele of my East Williamsburg wine shop interested in wine. It creates new Wine Spectator subscribers, new winery visitors, and new party hosts who ask their friends, “Want to know what the guy at the shop told me about this wine?”

I apologize to you, Mr. Kramer: for not being being raised in a household that explored the world through wine. For not being exposed to fine wine, as you call or define it, for much of my personal and professional life. For not having the chance to try 1er Cru Burgundy until a study session for my Certified Sommelier exam, one of many study sessions that introduced me to people who not only think about wine in a variety of ways, but have become dear friends in the process. For wanting to push myself intellectually and physically with goals and schedules — for having the gall to do that with wine. For finding a path that has encouraged me to learn more about climate, weather, geology, geography, and human history.

For getting excited about wine, but not in the way you approve.

However, I will commend you for something. By brushing off industry people like me for the way we manifest our love of wine and our desires to learn more, you’ve actually accomplished something quite impressive.

You’ve found a way to make a bunch of suit-wearing wine geeks look like the least pretentious people in the room, for once.

Signed your humble devotee,

William Whelan

Yes, Chef

You, your food, your drinks, and your most submissive…

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