Said the somm to the wine drinker: When I think about you I...
...well, I don't exactly touch myself, in the infamous words of the Divinyls. Not me, personally, at least.
But, a lot of wine people do just that, and nothing else, when thinking about the average wine consumer and trying to talk to them about wine. It's all about me, and less about you. And if I'm being truly honest with myself, I am probably no less guilty than then next sommie-somm of masturbatory babble in trying to get through to a would-be wino.
We've all seen this one before. Or felt it. And it's not just sommeliers doing it. It's the script that the person pouring wine for you in a tasting room memorizes and recites, too:
"And here we have our estate Pinot Noir with notes of strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, bumbleberries, gojiberries, chuckberries, halleberries, and a touch of spice."
Yep. Gotta love those halleberries.
And now for the sommelier version:
"I JUST F#*^ING LOVE RIESLINNNNNGGGGG! ESPECIALLY ORANGE RIESLINNNGGGGG!!!!"
Alright, alright. Calm down, crazy. Do you think we could talk a little bit about me when we're done talking about you?
I'm revisiting a theme that I've discussed before: To consider how the wine industry as a whole is doing at talking to consumers about, well, you guessed it: wine.
It helps to start by analyzing the various points of contact where a consumer interacts with wine sales & marketing. Wine sales & marketing, for our purposes, would qualify as anything outside of the actual liquid wine itself. This includes the glass bottle. The price. The label. The representation in a given market. The positioning of it in a liquor store. The pitch they receive from a representative of the wine. The recommendation they receive from a restaurant server. The glass into which the wine is poured. The endorsement they receive from a friend. The spiel they get in the tasting room at the winery.
Some of these elements, if not many of them, are out of the control of the wine industry. Nobody can prevent the right-wing, conservative, evangelical verbal onslaught that Uncle Jerry is going to deliver while you try to enjoy that funky Grenache blend from Paso Robles that you spent $34 on. Many of these elements, however, are firmly within the grasp of wine producers, wine agents, label designers, educators, and hospitality professionals to control.
So, who's doing the talking? And what are they saying?
Because I've spent a fair amount of time in wineries' tasting rooms recently as a consumer, let's start there. First of all, this is a challenging job, and I want to be clear here that I am not throwing any shade to anyone who works in a tasting room. I think it's noble work, and I am grateful for everyone who does it. The shade that's coming here might instead be thrown at producers and their willingness (or lack thereof) to take their communication with the consumer seriously and consider it carefully.
The script. The tasting note on the back of the label and those little laminated tasting cards on the bar. I get it. There's pressure to say something about the wine. But, to me, these tasting notes and scripts delivered by the wine hosts are like the FAQ page on a website. They never really answer the question in enough detail. They're mostly generic, at best. They give the illusion of an answer, without providing any substance or opportunity for learning.
Most wine people who come up with these tasting notes and scripts are, knowingly or unknowingly, attempting to bend the consumer to the will of the WSET Global tasting grid, or the Court of Master Sommeliers' tasting protocol. Fine and dandy if every student wants to take their education to that level and learn to understand the full context of what each descriptor entails and what is meant by them. Last I checked though, tasting rooms were simply the best place for normal wine consuming people to come and explore without the risk of purchasing a bottle that they might not enjoy.
The tasting room gives consumers an opportunity to fumble around with their palate, their lingo, have a little fun, get a tiny buzz on, and potentially have their minds opened.
A person who steps into a tasting room is fertile ground. A lot of things can grow in that fertile ground, including an open-minded approach, which ultimately would benefit the entire wine industry as well as this individual's sense of enjoyment in a much wider variety of settings. An open-minded approach would make this person more dependent on their own knowledge, and more spongey when it comes to listening to others and learning from them. And open-minded approach is going to lead this person to be comfortable with answers that aren't straightforward, or in other words, every good answer they are ever going to get about anything to do with wine.
And on this fertile ground, most wine hosts sprinkle a seed that looks like this:
"Here's our Merlot with notes of cherry, cedar, and a little smokey note."
Guess what grows on that fertile ground? A burning cedar that bears cherries. Where's Moses? And this poor, malleable wine drinker now has it in their mind that this description is the right answer when discussing this wine. Slightly limiting, if you ask me. These good-natured people, if they like this wine, are now going to go around asking wine professionals in restaurants and liquor stores if they have any wines that tasting like blazing evergreen rainiers.
I've been thinking about this a lot, because I hate those articles that criticize something to death and then turn around and say, "Well, I personally do not know what the solution is, but something should really be done here." Thanks, angry white dudes.
I do in fact have a couple of ideas. And I've started to play around with them.
It's time to flip the script.
What if the staff in tasting rooms started learning about the wines from the consumers who were tasting them? What if we normalized descriptions from amateur wine consumers? What if we were to learn how to ask guiding, calibrated questions that got consumers thinking for themselves and made them feel comfortable and empowered while talking about wine?"
I tried this with my sister yesterday after recommending a Chardonnay to her from across the country, her living in Toronto and me living in Vancouver. She has a taste for white Burgundy, even though she has limited wine experience and interest, but she was on a budget on this particular occasion. I recommended a Chardonnay I'd never tasted from South Africa, namely because I've seen multiple sommeliers (myself included) trip up and mistake sub-$20 Stellenbosch chardy for Pouilly-Fuissé in blind tastings. Oops. But also, hit me up with some more of that juice.
She texted me when she cracked it. Unprompted, she said it was awesome and that she loved it. So I asked her to describe it to me.
"Ok I’m not sure what to say. You get all the great flavour and richness RIGHT AWAY.
And ur not left with any sort of after taste.
It’s just like delicious and juicy."
Say more, says me.
"I guess I will reinstate that it doesn’t get harder to drink over time.
Like it just keeps being full and enjoyable??
And doesn’t veer off into bitter tart white wine categories."
I asked her what it did NOT taste like.
"Ooooh shoot I finished the bottle. But I have another one!"
Lmfao. Good sign.
"It doesn't taste like bananas I'm pretty sure. But actually not 100% sure."
Interesting. I asked if she could tell me something that it 100%, for sure, no doubts, did not taste like.
"Is there a joke here that I'm missing? It realllllllyyy doesn't taste like piña coladas and getting caught in the rain, if that's what you're asking."
I loved this interaction. It makes sense. It was humorous. It was personalized. It was truly unique. There's a lot of power in letting the consumer speak for themselves and not inundating them with the answer. Because there are few clear answers in wine, despite our best efforts to create them.
I asked her if it tasted anything like beef tenderloin. She said "WHOA noooo."
But that's the idea. I didn't sprinkle seeds of "this wine has notes of sugar, spice and liquor over ice" into her impression of it. She then, trusting me, would have just looked for that and felt unsure if she didn't pick up those characteristics. Instead, I sprinkled seeds of, "you got this, start here and work your way back to the wine on your own two feet."
The next time she tastes wine, she'll be equipped with a sense of agency to figure out how to bridge her tastes to her brain and subsequently her language. On her own. Wine tastes better when the brain is stimulated by it. Or, at least I think it does.
I'm a lover of the creative and humorous collision of wine and cultural references, especially when it comes to tasting notes. To get a consumer to compare a wine to piña coladas and getting caught in the rain is music to my ears, literally. Those are the intangible nuances of wine appreciation that lead to laughs, smiles, and good moods, which subsequently lead to memorable experiences and calls to open another bottle and pour another glass.
If we briefly take stock of the forces of influence on the bendable, impressionable, and untapped minds of most wine consumers, we see that there is a great chasm between two peaks. At the summit on one side of this canyon are the big, corporate wine companies. These are the types of people that produce and market wines like Apothic & YellowTail. These companies genuinely are concerned with business first, wine quality second. And the thing they do extremely well is speak the language of the masses. In fact, their entire goal is to reach YOU.
On the other peak are sommeliers and educators. These people sometimes work for the corporations, but more often than not, they run restaurants and teach wine courses under the umbrella of WSET or other certification programs. Some work at wineries. And the thing they do extremely well is speak the language of each other.
If you want to hang with this crowd, it's best you try to learn their language. It's like traveling to Paris and trying to chat up your cab driver with your Arkansas drawl. Good luck.
Non-corporate wine professionals also really like to rip on the corporations for selling wines that possess few genuine qualities of the nature that makes even a simple wine a bargain at any price. There's no vineyard to point to. There's no barrel to romance over. There's no terroir to taste.
But somehow, people still love it. This pisses sommeliers off. It disappoints them. They love few things more than opening somebody's eyes and weening them off the over-manipulated, produced-for-the-bottom-line types of wines. This being said, most highly educated wine people that I meet are mainly talking to each other and snickering at the consumer in addition to these corporations behind closed doors.
And what is the result of this? The people who have the most knowledge, and arguably the greatest degree of oenological integrity simply aren't sharing it with the consumers in a way that they can easily understand or relate to. At least, not often enough. Why is this important? It's important because for each open-minded consumer out there who really sees the magic of authentic wine production, another wine producer who feels that all they have to do is be authentic and truthful to their land and their process is allowed to exist. We want producers like that.
Big wine companies ride the market, which evolves in front of them but is also simultaneously influenced by them. If a big wine company thinks that Cabernet Sauvignon is what the consumer wants, and by bottling Cabernet Sauvignon, their company will make more money, then dammit, they're going to produce a Cabernet Sauvignon. Before you know it, an independent startup winery is sitting in front of a piece of land, thinking to themselves, "Hey, Grenache & Syrah would do great here," but then thinking, "Too bad that we'll lose $10 or more on our retail price per bottle if we do that. Better plant Bordeaux varietals because we know people want them." That's the kind of pressure that a consumer base educated by corporations and marketing departments creates.
If we as wine educators could somehow band together to make it clear to a large number of consumers that just because a wine isn't self-identified as "iconic" or "inspired by Bordeaux & Napa & Burgundy" does not mean that it is A.) Less delicious, and B.) Less valuable, our industry would have more room to breathe and would be able to evolve more organically without the throttle of misinformation and bad ideas that so often strangle an already razor-thin margin that independednt wineries survive on.
If our technique to win consumers as an industry wasn't just, "This wine is a lot like this other popular and expensive wine!" and something along the lines of "We know you're ready to discover the tasty secrets of our unique wine grown in a unique place," I think we'd be better off, and I think the wine industry as a whole would be more diverse and more exciting.
The problem, in my opinion, is that consumers are taught by the wrong people from the beginning. We need to drop the status of the grape varietal. We need to drop frivolous and hyperbolic comparisons to Burgundy, Bordeaux, and Tuscany. We need to drop the idea that the number of points Robert Parker gave something matters. It doesn't.
How do we do that? We need more independent, free-thinking wine professionals to spread the word and connect with these consumers. We need to show them the way by letting them feel comfortable drinking wine in their early days of doing so. By letting them find their own descriptions. By asking them calibrated questions and debunking the marketing trends for them (Pop Critic scores, heavy corporate marketing, over-manipulative winemaking, clever-yet-misleading branding, tasting notes in general). We have to set a better example for them by sharing our processes and ideas with them.
Don't force-feed them your ideas about why Cornas is so breathtaking. Just cook them a delicious meal and pour it generously. They'll tell you how good it is on their own.
We need to sprinkle their fertile minds with the idea that they can learn to think critically and for themselves. Let's build that space so that those good seeds that we plant in these fertile minds can one day produce worthy fruit.
Instead of a bad photo copy of somebody else's tasting note.