The Ignorance of Mastery: Breaking Away from the Herd

"I've never thought of it that way before."

I hear this all the time. And it's not just from beginners. In fact, half the time, it's from people who are seasoned in their fields. What does this reflect?

I'll get right out there and say what it says to me: herd mentality.

First of all, there is nothing necessarily wrong with being part of the herd. In fact, if you don't want to be part of the herd, may I suggest you do a little digging into the work of Mr. Theodore J. Kaczynski, ditch your iPhone, iPad, Netflix account, Crave account, Amazon account, Facebook, Instagram, Tik-Tok, online "articles"....should I go on?

What I find amazing, though, is the immediate acceptance of the methods and practices of various institutions and professional communities, not just on the part of students or clients, but also on the part of the members of these professional communities. I notice this regularly in my own field of wine, but I notice it everywhere else, as well. This came to my attention in a more pronounced way when I was reading Ashlee Vance's book on Elon Musk. Mr. Musk, at one point an intern at The Bank of Nova Scotia, formulated beliefs that most bankers were rich & dumb. Vance references an opportunity to purchase South American debt that Musk uncovered as an intern that could have generated billions for the bank, but ultimately the opportunity was rejected by senior execs because they had been burned by South American investment recently and didn't want to get involved, even though Musk described the opportunity as possessing little-to-no risk. He comments that the industry was one in which everyone simply followed what everyone else was doing. If a group of banks were knowingly or unknowingly marching themselves off a cliff, the others would simply follow to stay with the herd.

Examples like these are all over the place. Here's another one.

I have a friend who happens to be in the wine business but probably loses more sleep over his golf swing. He sent me a video of his swing the other day and asked how he could get it to look less unconventional and resemble positions that he felt were more classic. Before I answered, I asked him how he was hitting the ball.

"I've honestly never hit it better in my life."

So, why would you want to make a change? I asked him. Silence. He may never become a professional or elite-level amateur, but somehow, at the top of his personal accomplishment, he thinks he should change so he can "look" like someone else, rather than continue to hit the ball better than he ever has in his life, as he is currently doing via his own ability and work.

Three people I've spoken to recently have provided enlightening perspective on this topic for me, albeit in completely different forms. They spoke on the subject of wine tasting notes, a topic that if you've been following me for a while, you'll know I find to be contentious.

The first person was a fellow wine professional. She told me that early on, she had a really hard time understanding the tasting notes that other wine producers & instructors were utilizing, so she said she used to memorize what they said, accept it, and carry on with it until it started to make sense to her. I found this shocking, because my thought would be, why would you pretend to smell or taste something that you don't? But, I understand it.

There's pressure to conform, especially when you're new and keen to be part of a community. There's also something to the idea of blindly embracing something new: how could you critique it if you haven't lived it? Let's save that for another day.

The second person was a beverage enthusiast that I work with on my podcast. He's been struggling to identify tasting notes he reads on the back of the labels of the wines he purchases. I find this one interesting. Because it's on the wine, coming from the wine producer, he feels like those aromas and flavours must exist, and that he must identify them in the wine. Again, pressure to conform to these tasting notes that are everywhere, however ridiculous they might get sometimes. He then related the value of tasting notes to Scotch, and mentioned that he'd be able to identify different Scotch based on the different notes one gets from them. I stopped him there.

Yes, wines and other drinks do have qualities. Is it raspberry reduction and leather-coated toffee? Or is it the exact character of that individual beverage which would be best described by naming the actual beverage. Of course, these characteristics come from somewhere: the place the ingredients were grown, how they were grown, the vintage in which they were grown, how they were treated, which vessels they were stored in, and basically everything that goes into the making of the drink itself. My Scotch-guzzling pal above (props, not disrespect) can identify regional styles of Scotch because he has had them before and paid attention to the differences in their character. He doesn't need the language to identify them. Just the attention to his own senses absorbing the information present in the drink.

The third person was actually two people simultaneously: my hairstylist and the salon secretary. Pre-COVID, I remember talking with them about wine briefly, and they were kind of bashfully speaking about how they found all these tasting notes impossible to understand. Most wine just smelled At least to them. Funnily enough, that's still how it appears to me.

I gave them the spiel that you're getting right now. They almost exhaled with relief. They seemed validated. And what a concept it is: wine tastes and smells more like wine than anything else.

Let's be clear: I am NOT saying that all wine smells alike. I AM saying that each wine resembles NOTHING more than it resembles its own essence.

This is too obvious for some people. But here's where certain industry mavericks prove that this an effective way to experience wine.

Fred Dame. I do not know him personally, but if you listen to people talk about in all those SOMM movies, you can figure out his superpower pretty quickly. He's said to be maybe the greatest blind taster of all time. And the way this is described, in stark contrast to what the SOMM movies portray, is that he sticks his face in the glass and calls out the exact wine & vintage instinctually. Cut to the rest of the Master Sommelier candidates, and they are off waxing about fresh-cut garden hose. The ignorance of "mastery".

The moral of this story is that I believe that too many people are following the herd of a group of authoritative figures that got to where they are by following the herd of people who followed the herd. It's nice that the herd forms, generation after generation, but how do we create room for those who don't understand what the hell the herd is going on about and why they are going on about it? I don't mean in a blindly defiant sense. I mean in a "hey, I see what you're saying, but have you ever thought about it this way?" sense.

It takes renegade thinkers who don't resonate with the herd mentality to provide new solutions for the world that we haven't come up with yet. That's Elon Musk. It's Bill Gates. It's Steve Jobs. And on smaller scales, these renegades can be hugely important as well. It's every niche that exists. It's the company that created stretchy jeans that were also stylish. It's the first person to implement the heated seat in a vehicle after being so cold at the beginning of their commute. It's the person who invented the little knob that you stick on the back of your phone so you don't drop it in your face. It's the shape of a toilet. It's a pride parade. Think about it.

Innovation comes when someone deviates from the herd and creates a new one. One where others who felt isolated in the existing herd feel more welcome and understood in a new iteration of community.

So, yeah, I'm breaking off from the herd in the way I talk about and teach wine. And I'm not working to undermine the experience and knowledge that traditional wine education can offer somebody, but I do realize that there are those out there who might not feel like that particular course of action is for them. The more options, niches, and tangent herds we create, the more we eventually come together at the end, unified by the same goal:

To drink better wine, more often, and to enjoy that wine as much as we possibly can.

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