Many people are afraid to give me their opinion about a wine. Uncertainty, insecurity, fear – I know these feelings well. They are my constant companions when I travel around the world; they are there every day when I wake up to my kids and the unknowable world of parenting or when I have to deal with multi-country tax regulations. I feel like a dope. Like I’ll never ‘get it.’
Most people don’t give much consideration to what they’re drinking beyond its functionality as an alcoholic beverage (remarkable, when you consider that the world consumes around 24 billion litres of wine a year) but for those who do want to know more, the world of wine can feel like an impenetrable bubble, rigged with booby traps waiting to expose you as the imposter you believe you are. Varieties, vintages, domaines, VDLP, IGT, AOP, DOC DOCG. BA, TBA. Even once you’re ushered inside the wine world’s hallowed halls there’s still something Hogwarts School about its moving staircases and vanishing doors.
Take, for example, the lexicon of the wine elite. In my opinion, wine descriptors and wine ‘speak’ can be a serious barrier, leaving many consumers feeling disempowered and afraid to comment. When we hear people bleating on about typicity, terroir and ‘brett’ (no, not Murray’s brother) our ego’s leap to the rescue, telling us that it’s all just nonsense (but to zip our lips nonetheless!)
But think about it this way: When you don’t comment, or you make a bland or safe statement about a wine, it’s akin to talking about the weather or saying (about your ageing Labrador) “Buddy is a real family dog.” It’s conversational Dullsville and terminates any possibility that you’ll ever know more than you already do.
On the other hand, I love it when I hear a consumer say they taste or smell ‘wet pavement’ or ‘bird guano’ in a wine. I collect these terms and with them, a new vignette of that wine and consumer – both of which broaden and enrich my appreciation of wine.
“Easy for you to say, you’re a Master of Wine,” I hear you sigh. Yes, but I was (and still am) a student and a consumer like everyone else – sniffing about for tidbits of knowledge and the chance to expand my wine experience. However, I am renowned for asking ‘silly questions’; for sticking my neck out with contentious comments, and I credit this habit – of ignoring my fear – with much of my personal and professional success today. Ignoring my fear allowed me to travel to cyclone-torn Philippines at age 20 years, opening my eyes to the precious gift of life without all the material adornments. It also shoved me in the path of my now wife, who admits the only reason she talked to me was she couldn’t believe my audacity in approaching her at a restaurant. Without a healthy dose of fear-management, I might never have studied for the Master of Wine qualification, or left the safety of a secure job to go out on my own as a winemaking consultant (with little profile and no clients).
Yes, wine is an immense subject. It can feel like we’re always just grazing the surface. But when we accept that this is most people’s experience – even the so-called experts — then the question becomes ‘what are you missing out on because of fear?’
When we approach wine bravely, we break down barriers and create wonderful opportunities to learn more than we ever could by playing it safe.