Welcome back to Wes Hagen’s J. Wilkes Wines blog. Please make yourself comfortable and if possible pour yourself a nice glass of wine. I’m a strong believer that wine education should always be accompanied by vino in our glass. Would we study literature without a book?
Which reminds me!
In college I was privileged to have an incredible professor named Dr. Bill McDonald at the University of Redlands. Dr. Bill cemented my great love for literature, and would open the discussion of a new book by bringing in a first edition of wonderful old tomes, some from the 19th Century, and insist that we open the book, feel the pages, and even smell the slightly musty aroma of old pages. We considered the men and women that held the book, the craft that went into producing it in an older and simpler world. Dr. McDonald reminded us that a book is also an object–something that has weight and tactile presence, and I’ve never forgotten the feel and smell of those old books.
Why would i bring up literature in a blog post about wine? First Dr. Bill also taught an undergrad class on Opera and Wine, and was well known for having mature students over to his house to taste and discuss wine. His ability to teach without losing the ‘soul’ of a subject was (and is) profound. I will come back to Dr. Bill at the end of this post, but for now let’s move to a wine classroom and see what we can learn about the study of wine.
Q: Can studying wine negatively impact the joy of drinking it?
A: Absolutely! I think of a story I heard in the wine biz a few years ago about the sons of a famous importer who refuse to drink domestic wine and prefer only to allow Grand Cru or First Growth whites, red and Champagne touch their lips. Their experience of being in an elite wine family has both blessed their cellars and robbed them of some of the most interesting, esoteric and expressive wines on the planet. My first rule of wine is that there is no first rule of wine. Human beings have been playing with and consuming alcoholic beverages far longer than the 100,000 years we have been homo sapien. The study of wine is much, much newer and can easily be traced back to a single scientist: Louis Pasteur. Pasteur was the first human being to see the kinetics and nature of alcoholic fermentation under a microscope, and his study revolutionized not only the study of beer and wine, but also changed how foods are made safe and sterile for market, and his observations led to ‘Germ Theory’ which still drives most clinical medicine to this day.
But how does studying wine actually reduce the pleasure of drinking it? By no means does learning about wine automatically turn us into snobs. Wine education has taken a sincere swerve towards a personalized and hedonistic model. Educators like Deborah Parker Wong and Leslie Sbroco (and sometimes even me!) keep the study of wine serious but fun. My experience with wine judges, wine professionals and drinkers that suck the fun out of wine usually fall into two camps: fault-finding and fundamental rejection of some wine styles.
Fault-finders are best represented by an odd fellow that used to attend Santa Barbara County Vintners’ events, walk from table to table and declare that at least one wine on each table was suffering from cork taint. The irony, of course, is the guy (who actually wore a black cowboy hat) didn’t know what TCA smelled like, and was declaring perfectly sound wines to be flawed in front of waiting customers. He was there to show off his wine-geek cred, but didn’t know everyone was making fun of him the moment he went to the next table. Some less experienced pourers at the festivals would take his criticism to heart and pour out good wine and open new bottles. Fault-finders are common in professional wine-criticism circles, and I encourage wine judges I sit with to keep their fault-finding to a minimum, look for the positive attributes of a wine, and give good wines medals. I also reject the idea that wine has to be fault-free. I find a tiny bit of rusticity charming in wine, and the few wines I’ve tasted that are 95+ points are generally uninteresting in the way an exotic dancer is boring: hard to look away, but don’t expect much of a conversation.
Style/varietal snobs are the type of people who bravely announce: “Oh, no. I don’t drink Chardonnay. Ever.” Really? You are going to reject the most noble white varietal on the planet because a few Napa wineries went overboard on oak and malolactic? No Chablis? No Weissburgunder? No Sta Rita Hills? You’ll never taste Montrachet or Solomon Hills? This is the moment I will make a stunning admission: I love a glass of Beringer White Zinfandel with my Spicy Tuna Roll. It’s a perfect match and it makes me happy. Yes, I have my Level 3 WSET certifiaction, have been a pro wine judge for 20+ years and have a great palate. But I also know when to allow myself to be ‘pedestrian’ for the sake of my own pleasure. It’s the equivalent of being a Formula-1 racer who is spotted on a moped. But I don’t care.
Q: Does studying wine increase the pleasure of drinking it?
A: It sure can if you use your education to further your enjoyment. I have been very busy the last few months studying and taking my tests for Levels One and Two for the Wine and Spirits Education Trust (WSET). They require a very specific and detailed protocol in the way they taste and take notes on wine, and it caused me to change the way I evaluate wine. I don’t plan to go for my level 4 (diplomate), so I am generally done with WSET, and plan to move to Court of Master Sommelier for my Certified Sommelier (CS).
So my hope is to extract protocol from all educational wine systems, wallow in them and engage fully, and then take what I find compelling and integrate those ideas and philosophy into a Grand Unified Wes Theory of Wine. I will also prioritize pleasure and fun in the way I teach wine, but not at the expense of accuracy. We learn about wine like a golfer practices their swing: so when we are on the course (or at table) we don’t have to think or talk about our swing/wine, we just sip and smile and swing (glass or club) and have a great time.
How studying wine can increase enjoyment:
- Allowing us to understand global wine styles, flavors of place and winemaking techniques which become transparent as we taste and consider.
- Understanding the relationship of food and wine pairing to make sure we put complimentary flavors on the same table.
- Making wine-drinking friends with a tasting group that allows a special and safe place to talk about wine, take chances, and drink unfamiliar wines.
- Anticipating how a wine will age and change and using that knowledge to cellar wines to drink at their peak, however your palate defines that moment.
In my estimation, those that feel compelled to talk about every wine they taste (outside of an educational setting) are missing the point of wine: great wine should lead to a conversation about everything except itself.
Remember the lessons of Dr. McDonald: focus on the text/wine and the pleasure of consuming it. If your education guides you to greater appreciation, you had excellent teachers!
Have a great Holiday Season with plenty of great wine and delicious food. And remember you don’t have to define/deconstruct a wine to enjoy it. Let the wine take you on a journey–it’s the only time machine that works!