Wine’s a funny thing…it means completely different things to different people, depending upon a myriad of factors. And I’m not merely talking about taste, which is completely subjective, despite an entirely fictitious ‘point system’. Before the consumer gets around to tasting a wine, they grapple with their perception of wine, which is often shaded by a plethora of influences, such as cultural and family history, food & diet preferences, income and educational levels, and social settings, among others.
To many, especially in centuries old wine producing cultures, wine is a simple thing; available, inexpensive…normal. Listening to a critic’s opinion or debating at what point in the wine’s cellaring it would be optimal to drink is generally not done. That would be silly. Wine is the beverage that is consumed with every meal and while there might be discussions as to which wine should be served with lunch rather than dinner, it’s largely acknowledged that the local wine, from the local grapes, grown in the local vineyards, is what’s on the table.
Here is the US, which has a wine culture in its infancy, and in Great Britain (which has none to speak of), the reverse is true. The wine market is rife with uncertainty, bias, snobbery and unfounded (and counterfactual) opinions. Since every US state is now producing wine, wine tourism has become big business. And repeat wine tourists have appropriated an aura of expertise for themselves. Amazingly, many wine tourists buy wines directly from a winery (for far more money, plus the cost of shipping) although the same wine is readily available at their local wine shop, because its inferred that the wine is ‘unavailable’. ‘Collectors’ will buy wines that they don’t really like very much because a critic gives it a high ‘score’. Bragging rights are often more important than flavor, weight or context.
Since actual wine knowledge in the US is quite limited (although, many consumers equate awareness of a few brands and a subscription to a wine magazine as the same as actual learning), the outsourcing of wine decisions is quite prevalent. Many consumers (especially men) are uncomfortable selecting wines based upon their own preferences; they seem to require some external validation. Ergo, a veritable industry of fake wine experts has emerged, led by critics, newspaper columnists, radio commentators and restaurant servers. With a scant amount of knowledge, they nonetheless enforce several inane wine ‘rules’ (Rose in the summer! Whites are not age worthy! Fruity reds are complex!). The fearful make these ‘rules’ their own, repeating them endlessly with wavering yet loudly expressed confidence.
It doesn’t really have to be that way. Yes, wine is endlessly complex (the factors that can determine the resulting wine are beyond the ken of even the most curious amateur) so eliciting advice is not the worst thing one can do. But, it’s also amazing simple…one really doesn’t need to know the exact soil composition of the plot where 20% of the grapes where grown to enjoy the wine. If you’ve found that you’ve enjoyed a wine from a particular place and grape, you’ll probably enjoy it again, as well as the same grape from the same place made by a different producer. And if you don’t, so what? Try something else.
Wine is interesting and enjoyable. The fact that its an intoxicant certainly adds to its enjoyment for many. Having some wine knowledge might make wine more interesting, but it’s unlikely that any wine will taste any better (or worse) due to increased knowledge. Here’s what wine is not: It’s not a sport. Not a competition. Not a beauty contest. Nor an IQ test. Cultural benchmark? Nah. Its merely wine.