Map of Bordeaux. If you think this is complex, you should see Burgundy.
Wine is mind-bogglingly complex, there’s no question about it. Hundreds of grape varieties, thousands of appellations, and tens of thousands of producers world-wide make for a a subject that is impossible to master. It’s not surprise, then, that those who set themselves up as wine experts often try to simplify it, or avoid its complexities all-together.
I can’t stand this approach, because in robbing from wine it’s complexity, you are also taking away the very thing that makes wine special. If wine was simple, easy to explain, and homogeneous, then not only would there be little to talk about when it came to wine, but one of wine’s most alluring qualities – it’s uniqueness- would be missing.
One of the great joys of wine is exploring its seemingly endless horizon. No matter how many wines you taste, from no matter how many countries, there are always more to discover, and always another vintage with a new set of finds, each one of them different, unique from the rest.
It has been said that the biggest lie in wine is that “If you like it, it’s good.” By not taking the effort to explain why the wine is good, (or why it isn’t), as proponent of wines we prematurely close off the line of questioning that turns a wine drinker into a wine lover. By making the drinker the authority on the wine, we’re not empowering them, we’re cutting them off from the uncomfortable but richer truth: that none of us are truly authorities on wine, and that all of us, from Master Sommelier to wine neophyte, are still learning, and on that road of discovery.
Wine Tasting Wheel
The appreciation of wine is a series of questions: Why do I like this? What makes it different? What is the combination of climate, soil, fruit, and wine-making that produces this wine? By introducing these questions in others heads, we can take wine drinkers and turn them into wine enthusiasts.
In addition to denying the joys of wine to others by not sharing it’s complexities, it only reinforces the perception that wine is only for the elite, that it’s complexities make it incomprehensible to the average person. Instead some wine experts keep their knowledge shrouded behind the curtain, either offering patronizing explanations that don’t explore the true depth of the subject, or speaking in terms that they know the lay-person won’t understand in a paean to their own self importance.
What, then, is the answer if wine’s complexity is both it’s barrier to entry and it’s reward? As I do more and more tastings with the public, I’ve grappled with this question, and I think I’ve found an answer: Embrace complexity with no assumption of prior knowledge.
Every wine educator has a wealth of knowledge in their head, but too often we forget to share that information. We know why high-altitude impacts grapes, how oak imparts flavor to wine, why irrigation affects flavor concentration in grapes, but if we don’t communicate these concepts, then all of our talk about terroir is meaningless.
To others that love wine, and who want to share that love with others, I can only offer my own experience, which is that wine is made richer by it’s details, and that our ability to communicate those details is more important than we think.