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Being a Good Wine Citizen

July 29th, 2015

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The world is booming with more and more individuals who want to learn a bit more about wine. Some of these persons even aspire to be in the wine trade, which is to say that they desire to make their living wages through working with a product that has provided them with a great deal of stimulation. Many appear to drastically over-romanticize what it means to work as a “wine professional,” but that is a subject for a different essay. This post aims to discuss what it means to be a good wine “citizen”

Serious professional interest in wine appears to have risen significantly in recent years, as has the interest of persons who wish to not necessarily work in the wine trade, but who wish to establish it as a more-than-casual hobby. What does it take to accomplish these goals? Some conventional (albeit slightly vague) responses are a good palate and knowledge about winemaking and wine styles. The question then becomes, how do we come to possess these things?

Even I can’t be sure of what it means to have a “good palate,” but I will assume it refers to someone who possesses a talent for pinpointing particular flavors “present” in a glass of wine, as well as someone who can offer up a detailed description of the wine and some information about the region from where it comes, as well as some of the vinification methods used to produce it. A quality taster should be able to provide some substantive comments on these issues regardless of whether he or she had a hand in crafting the wine. The “nature vs. nurture” debate is ongoing with respect to many issues in our world, the wine world not being excluded. Though I have heard some express opinions that truly talented tasters possess some physiological capabilities that classify them as objectively more talented than others with respect to tasting, I can’t bring myself to believe that these “innate” abilities outweigh the benefits of informed practice. In this case, practice refers to tasting a lot of different wines, all with an open mind.

Knowledge is also openly advertised as a requirement for being into wine. As is the case with many subjects, possessing some knowledge about the wines you drink can do little else but provide you with some useful context through which to experience the wines you drink, and if it is your goal, to evaluate them. Although knowledge pertaining to the wines we drink seems to be a beneficial characteristic to possess, I also feel that we have allowed ourselves to become misguided as to just the sort of knowledge you should acquire in order to be content with where you are situated as a wine enthusiast. Some of you may have watched a film like Somm and observed that one has not yet entered a world of real wine interest unless he or she has compiled a respectable stack of flashcards, detailing general and specific information about the world’s wine regions, important (and not-so-consequential) grape varieties, and similar esoteric items. Of course, this is not meant to belittle the interest and discipline it takes to be successful in a professional credential program such as the Institute of Masters of Wine or the Court of Master Sommeliers. These programs produce some of the world’s leading vinous experts, and the work they do to train themselves for their positions within the professional world of wine should be applauded.

But what about us? How are we supposed to navigate the world of wine in order to fulfill our goals? As someone who occasionally writes and lectures on wine, how am I to approach the subject? What about my grandmother, who enjoys her mass-produced California Sauvignon Blanc in a glass filled with ice? Should she feel obligated to purchase the latest edition of the Oxford Companion? Surely, you should approach wine however you see fit. If you wish to be a wine professional, it will not be difficult for you to strategize a study regiment that one day may allow you to perform successfully on a certification exam from one of the previously mentioned organizations. But if you desire, rather, to be casual yet informed about wine, perhaps some other tactics might work for you. If this describes you, perhaps you should think of yourself as I think about myself: a wine citizen.

Being a wine citizen means being cognizant of what you are reading. More specifically, think about the utility of what you are reading with respect to your goals. I used to spend the majority of my time “in” wine reading study guides and compendium entries produced by the Guild of Sommeliers, and supplemented these queries by seeking out individual entries in the Oxford Companion to Wine. In-depth exploration of these materials was all in effort to achieve some sort of professional certification. However, when my aims became directed elsewhere, I shifted my attentions to other works, but still kept focus on the world of wine. As wine became more a hobby than a career aspiration, I stopped logging in to the Guild of Sommeliers website on a daily basis, and instead began buying magazines and collections of personal narrative essays about wine and wine drinking. I started out with magazines like The Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast, but lately have shifted over to Decanter, the content in which aligns more closely with my tastes.

Although the sort of information you encounter in a trade publication might be a bit less technical and less useful for exam study compared to what you might find in more technical materials, I have realized that regularly reading these materials allows one to be involved in contemporary conversations. Rather than study a particular region with almost religious fanaticism in order to answer a potential exam question, good magazines allow you to enter a world of discovery of new trends and insights related to the world of wine. One of my latest wine fascinations is with dry Australian Rieslings from Clare Valley and Eden Valley. I’m not so sure I would have been drawn to these styles if I had read about them in an encyclopedia entry, compared to the ways their appeals were described so vividly in an article in last month’s Decanter.

The next step to being a good wine citizen is to taste with an open mind. As someone who has spent the better part of the past five years in the wine trade, I have learned a thing or two about the sorts of wines I enjoy and those I do not. The wines I enjoy drinking at this moment scantly resemble those I enjoyed drinking when I first began developing an interest in wine. I’ve been lucky. Lucky with respect to the programs in which I found myself that allowed me to taste an assortment of different wines that stretched the stylistic gamut. I take pride in having developed affections for certain wines (and a distaste for others) through a process marked by a willingness to try anything that comes my way.

Finally, being a good wine citizen means having open and honest conversations with others. This doesn’t necessarily mean you need to engage in thirty minute conversations about the latest appellation you discovered, but it does mean you should be willing to discuss the wines you like and don’t like with others, and be open to the reasons they enjoy what they do. In my experience, you just never know when someone might turn you on to a stellar wine you might not have discovered on your own.

-Brent Bracamontes