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Life's Too Short For One Wine: In Defense of Wine Education and Wine Adventures

Every so often, I encounter criticism or good natured teasing from some of my friends, who find it enjoyable to poke fun at me for being a "wine snob." Granted, this has become far more infrequent over the past several years, but when I was a 21-year old fraternity president who preferred Chardonnay to Keystone Light, I was the epitome of an easy target for the barbs of many of my friends. 

My personality is such that I want to be educated and knowledgeable in everything I do, and this desire is made even more manifest when it comes to my passions. As a four-year old baseball fanatic, I memorized the uniform numbers, and nearly every relevant statistic for the Boston Red Sox starting lineup. I would wear my oversized Red Sox jersey everywhere, imagined Fenway Park existed both in my backyard and in our house, and would excitedly watch every game I was allowed to stay up for with my dad. I wanted to know as much about the Red Sox as I could, wanted to be the most knowledgeable Red Sox fan, and wanted to eventually make it to the major leagues and play for the Red Sox. When it came to school, I was no different. My parents taught me from an early age that my studies were important, and I applied myself accordingly. I'm fairly confident that I'm one of the only first graders in history who cried on the bus because I received a "check," as opposed to a "check plus" on a math test, and then went home and hid the test in my sock drawer.

My determination to be educated and knowledgeable served me well, and landed me at a great college, where I spent four fantastic years that I would describe as some of the best of my life. Unfortunately, that same drive and passion did not land me on the Red Sox. My baseball career peaked with a spot on the American Legion State All Star team, in my sophmore year of high school. Soon after that, I developed elbow problems, and by my sophmore year of college, I was recovering from reconstructive elbow surgery, and resigning myself to the fact that I'd have to be content with hitting home runs in intramural softball games for the foreseeable future. However, in that same summer, I turned 21, and really began to discover the wonders of wine for the first time.

I must admit that my early experiences with wine were marked by trips to the New Hampshire state liquor store to purchase inexpensive Pinot Grigio, or moderately expensive Champagne. At the outset, I didn't really care what I purchased. I was buying wine mostly to exercise my newfound privilege of being able to purchase alcohol, and to use the wine and champagne as a status symbol that would set me apart as a sophisticated drinker. However, after my first few unguided trips, I realized that there was a side to wine that I wasn't exploring, when a friend asked me what was the difference between grape varietals, and I found myself at a loss for words.

I immediately set out to make myself a more knowledgeable wine consumer. At the very least, I told myself, by learning about wine, I would be spending my money more wisely. After all, if two bottles cost the same amount, and one was thought to be better than the other, didn't it make sense to purchase that bottle? 

My early wine education was comprised of reading reviews in Robert Parker's The Wine Advocate, and a few basic primers on wine that I found at the local bookstore. As I quickly devoured the contents of these books and reviews, and moved on to other sources of wine literature, I found that there was a history and romanticism associated with wine that was not found in other beverages. I loved the nostalgia that was associated with great vintages, and I loved the fact that wine incorporated so many different facets of society, from the agrarian aspects of the vineyards, to the chemical and scientific side of the winemaking process, to wine's place in gastronomic and epicurean circles. Lastly, as a history major, I found myself entranced by the histories and stories of wine producing regions, wine estates, and the winemakers themselves. Although I had set out to learn about wine because of a desire to be a more economically savvy consumer, my thirst for knowledge had quickly turned me into the proverbial "wine snob" that was so often the subject of ridicule.

Over time, as my friends came to realize that wine was a genuine passion of mine, the derision over my being a "wine snob" subsided. Many of them have come to view me as a resource for all things wine related. However, this doesn't mean that I don't have problems discussing wine from time to time. Despite the fact that it's my passion, I still run into people who believe that wine should simply be consumed, and not discussed. At other times, I find myself having to bite my tongue when I'm talking with people who consider themselves to be wine experts, and refuse to listen to other points of view when discussing wine. We've all encountered situations where people become sensitive when wine becomes the subject of conversation. Some become emboldened, and dominate the conversation, eager to demonstrate their wine knowledge, or to extol the virtues of what they deem to be the "best" wines. Others become shy, reticent and intimidated. Still more take the opportunity to rail against a perception of an "aristocracy" and "wine snobs" when the subject of fine wine is brought up. "Why can't people just be happy with a ten-dollar bottle of wine?" is a phrase I've heard enter many a wine related conversation. "Why won't you just drink a beer?" is another. Generally, the vast majority of these phrases are uttered in an attempt to reduce wine to its most simplistic form; a beverage to be enjoyed. We all drink wine to enjoy it, but when wine is simplified to the extent that there is no appreciation for the history or story associated with the grape, a large component of wine's true intrinsic value is lost.

Probably the best recent example of "wine-upsmanship," as I've come to call it, was at a recent wine tasting at a local wine shop. (I'll refrain from using names in this instance.) I arrived about 15 minutes before the tasting ended, and for five minutes, my friends and I were the only ones in the shop. Suddenly, a rather heavy set woman barged through the door, and began ordering the wine shop proprietor around, with a complete disregard for the fact that my friends and I were still enjoying the tasting. The woman insisted on tasting the wines out of order (reds before whites), and soon informed my friends and I that although these wines were "okay," they didn't at all compare to the wines of St. Augustine, Florida. The Muscadine wines from that region, she told us, were "the best wines," qualifying that she had "been to a lot of vineyards," and was a "wine conoisseur." My friends and I nodded knowingly, and then watched as the woman belabored the store owner with questions, didn't pay attention to his answers, and proceeded to leave.

Although admittedly, this was a most extreme example, wine fuels interactions like this in our society everyday. The wines of St. Augustine, Florida are not well renowned, but her praise for those wines was not what left such a sour taste in my mouth following my interaction with the woman at that tasting. It was her complete and utter insistence on belaboring everyone in the room with her beliefs, as opposed to having a civil discussion about wine. I don't begrudge anyone their particular taste preferences, but I am always somewhat saddened when people feel the need to assign some level of superiority to their taste preferences to validate their personal consumption habits. Often times, trying to discuss wine with someone who so staunchly believes that they are a "wine conoisseur," is like trying to discuss religion with an evangelist, or politics with a spin doctor for a political party. At the end of the day, it always becomes a frustrating, one-sided conversation.

Yet at the end of the day, those "wine conoisseurs" who are unwilling to admit that all types of wine have potential, are the ones who give rise to the much maligned image of the "wine snob." Sadly, these self proclaimed "wine conoisseurs" often don't take the time to educate themselves about wine, beyond a cursory recollection of wine myths that they have encountered along their journey. When something doesn't fit with their preconceived notion of wine, it is dismissed as being of lesser quality. If Côtes du Rhône is the best wine region in the world, then all other regions be damned, Bordeaux and Burgundy included. Try to refute that assertion with well-argued, fact based evidence, and you're labeled a "wine snob." However, ironically, by limiting civil discourse on the topic of wine, and making it subject that people are reluctant to discuss, the so-called "wine conoisseurs" continue to restrict the accessibility of wine, and ensuring that a culture where wine lovers can be labeled "wine snobs," will continue to thrive.

Unfortunately, somewhere along the line in the evolution of American culture, wine became a symbol of wealth, culture, knowledge and prestige. People judge others, and in turn, are judged themselves, based on the wines they drink, how they talk about wine, and what they know about wine. It's no surprise then, to see people recoil, become defensive, pretensious, or a adopt a host of other socially undesirable traits when the subject of wine is brought up. No one likes to have their reputation sullied, or to have their world views questioned, and for some reason our society has closely aligned wine with both reputation and world view. In many cases, trying to educate someone about wine is akin to Galileo trying to convince the Catholic Church of the merits of a heliocentric solar system. New ways of thinking about wine are often dismissed simply because they threaten the status quo.

What is frustrating, is that wine doesn't have to be this way. People love to label wine writers and wine critics as "wine snobs," because they use flowerly language, and adhere to time honored traditions when it comes to wine consumption. Yet, although the language of wine writers and wine critics is varied, and may be archaic at times, the best writers and critics are simply passionate, educated wine consumers. In my experience, these writers and critics are not trying to demean or belittle one style of wine to the benefit of another. Rather, they are advocates for wine as a beverage, and are constantly trying to introduce consumers to something new, whether it be a new grape varietal, new wine region, or new style of production. As a passionate advocate of wine, I always find it a little funny when I meet a new acquaintance, and my wine writing and wine education comes up as a subject of conversation. Invariably, the person to whom I am talking will adopt a sly smile, and say "Really? What's your favorite wine?"

I am never sure whether these questions are a test of my wine knowledge, or if they are a genuine request for a new wine recommendation, but I feel as though I always leave the questioners disappointed when I tell them that I don't have a favorite wine. As a wine lover, I have several favorite wines, and what I might prefer on a given day is affected by the weather, what I'm eating, my overall mood, and a host of other factors. I also am constantly in search of new favorite wines, and I relish the opportunity to try something that I haven't experienced before. One of my favorite phrases is: "Life is too short for one wine."

As much as I might be a proponent of this phrase, the number of people who insist on drinking only one type of wine is striking. The levels of unformity in wine consumption are varied, but there is a sizable amount of the population for whom some sort of uniform consumption pattern exists. In some cases, it is as broad as drinking only red wine, in others it is as narrow as drinking only a particular brand of a particular varietal. For those in the narrow subset, it doesn't matter that there are thousands of producers making wine from Cabernet Sauvigon, all that matters is that they are comfortable with their chosen brand, and they aren't going to deviate from their comfort zone. Try to suggest a new wine to someone in this crowd, and you'll likely get a less than favorable reaction. 

What is sad, is that with thousands of wine producers, and over 10,000 unique grape varietals worldwide, life really is too short for one wine. Imagine getting up every morning, eating toast and orange juice, going to work, eating lunch at Subway, and having dinner at Denny's. On top of that, imagine eating the same sub, and the same meal at Denny's everyday. Sounds pretty boring, right? Why is it that the same mentality doesn't apply to wine? I'm certainly in favor of comfort and familiarity when it comes to wine, but when people aren't able to step outside that comfort zone to try something new, they deprive themselves of the opportunity to derive pleasure from some of the other 6,500+ bottles of wine available in the American wine market. With a such a broad spectrum of choices, one would think that wine education, and wine criticism would be readily accepted. Yet strangely, wine is one of the only consumer products for which criticism and informed consumerism is itself criticized. Think about it. Of the traditional rules of consumerism, few of them apply to wine. Suggestions from food critics of new foods or restaurants to try are generally welcomed by the public. When going to an art museum, guidance and commentary from a scholar versed in the history of the pieces and the period in which they were produced is generally viewed as a welcome addition that enhances the overall experience. Yet guidance from well educated wine advocates eager to share their knowledge and passion is derided as wine snobbery. 

Sports columnist Bill Simmons likes to say that some of the most dangerous words that can be uttered as a policy defense are "that's the way we've always done it," because it allows for the continued propagation of systems that, while functional, are not optimized for success. Sadly, this phrase can accurately describe the mindsets of a good number of wine drinkers today. Some consumers find a wine (or wines) that they are comfortable with and cling to it, and balk at any suggestions that might upset their everyday routine. Yet, where would we be as a society if people didn't try new things, or experiment every once in a while? There would be no innovation, and no evolution. We'd live in a world of wines unexciting and so similar, that selecting a wine with dinner would be almost the same as ordering a soft drink. New York Times wine writer Eric Asimov once wrote that "the enemy isn’t obscure wines or challenging lists. It’s fear of wine." 

We live in a world where globalization has presented the American consumer with more choices than ever before. In the face of such a broad range of choices, it's easy to fall back on old standards, and relegate yourself to a consistent regimen of a favorite wine that's always available at the supermarket. I'm not saying that such an attitude is wrong, but if everyone adopted that behavior, eventually, the only wines available in the market place would be mass-produced wines from giant corporations. Gone would be the small production wines, the esoteric grapes, the wines that are made because their producers are passionate about them. Some people say that wine is art, while others say that the only people who say that wine is art are those who don't care if they make money from their wines. There may be truth in that statement, there may not be. All I know is that I'd rather drink a wine that was made by someone who felt that they were creating a piece of art, than a wine produced on an assembly line by a corporate conglomerate. Yet, in order for small production wines to succeed, they need a public that is willing to experiment, and knowledgeable wine consumers to champion these "works of art," and educate the public on their merits.

The next time your dinner companion starts enthusiastically discussing the history of Austrian wines, and explaining why Zweigelt might be a good choice of wine to have with dinner, don't dismiss them as a "wine snob." Think of them as a historian, or an art enthusiast, and be thankful for their passion. True wine advocates aren't trying to belittle anyone, they're merely attempting to share their love of wine with the rest of the world. Ask them questions, engage in dialogue, challenge assertions, and utilize their knowledge. Like any form of art, wine has a history that needs to shared, and an appreciation for its artistry that needs to be cultivated. It's easy to slosh back a bottle of wine, and describe it as "smooth," but that attitude doesn't always do justice to the effort that the winemaker put into making the wine, or to the history of the estate or region from where the wine came. It also doesn't help consumers connect underlying patterns in wines that can help them determine other wines that they make like in the future, due to their being from the same winemaker, the same grape, or the same region. So give "wine snobs" a break. After all, if all wine was meant to be treated equally, we might as well reduce wine consumption to a debate similar to that of Coke versus Pepsi. Thankfully, with over 10,000 different grape varietals in the world, and more than 6,500 wines available to U.S. consumers, the odds of that happening any time soon seem low. And if that amount of wine seems like more than you want to explore, don't despair. Just ask a "wine snob." They probably aren't anywhere close to sampling even half of that number of grapes, or that number of wines, but they have started on their journey. Chances are, they'd be more than happy to help you start one of your own. 

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