We’re at a funny time in this country where wine expertise is concerned. A handful of once-powerful wine tastemakers are now much less powerful. Wine drinkers today are more self-assured than ever, and less reliant on point scores.
And yet, in a way, we’ve just exchanged one sort of fetishism with another. The cult of the all-knowing critic was replaced by different cult of personality—one dominated in recent years by sommeliers, who were encouraged to follow the path of celebrity chefdom. This provided a different point of view, but it didn’t necessarily resolve the structural problems with expertise. Wine experts still came across as slightly elitist, too wrapped up in their own very particular world.
A couple of years ago, I began to wonder: What can an expert offer? I looked around and saw too many entry-level wine books that read like holdovers from an earlier era, or that treated wine lovers like they were basic. But the old ways of wine are fading into the distance. A new generation of drinkers has arrived, one with little interest in the fear and pomposity of the past. The blossoming sphere of natural wine has complicated old discussions about quality. And both wine journalism and wine discourse have been transformed—although not entirely for the better. We’ve thankfully lost a fair amount of imperiousness and talking-down. But we’ve also unearthed a lot of faux-egalitarian BS and first-person preening.
It became clear that I, too, had been hiding behind my expertise, and if I wanted to offer something more distinctly useful, I needed to step outside that sphere. My new book, The New Wine Rules, was born out of the belief that there was a way to bridge that knowledge gap, in a way that respected today’s wine lovers, who are ever smarter.
The more I thought about it, the more I had to acknowledge that our current fascination with expertise has actually made it harder to enjoy wine. Wine needs experts, of course, like any other pursuit. But rather than democratize wine, we’ve traded out reductivism for an infatuation with the mechanics and mystique of expertise. We’re dazzled by tales of blind-tasting La Tâche and sabering Champagne, because they’re good clickbait and they sex up what otherwise could be a dowdy topic. But they’re parlor games, as is the obsessive memorization that some experts swear by. It all merely enhances a myth of expertise—namely that to understand wine, you must engage in a furtive, Masonic quest for truth. I’ve seen too many wine experts consumed by details that have almost zero bearing on how the rest of us live our lives.
Don’t get me wrong: Expertise can be valuable. For more than 15 years, I’ve written about and critiqued wine professionally for major publications, including a long stint as the wine critic for a top newspaper. Each year, I’ve tasted thousands of wines, and I’ve visited thousands of wineries over the years. I don’t doubt that my opinions about wine are better-informed than most, even if I’m still the junior wine nerd in our household, seeing as my wife sells some of the world’s best wines.
But both of us have concluded that wine isn’t something you need to learn in classes or by chasing a pin or a diploma. Wine is something that becomes a part of your life in gradual, almost invisible, steps. And when it enters your life in that way, it’s all the more meaningful.
To me, then, the road to expertise is meandering, filled with trial and error. It’s spending a lot of time in wine shops and dining out, asking questions and seeking good advice. If you’re lucky, as I have been, you’ll also get to ask a lot of questions to people who actually make the wine. It’s a lot of tasting and drinking—there’s no way to shortcut that part. And yes, you’ll need to commit a lot of knowledge to memory, although that’s easier if you learn in context, over time, instead of via wholesale memorization. You’ll strive to understand what you like, and you’ll also have to spend time learning about things you don’t like. That’s part of having context.
As you do all these things, I think, you discover that wine isn’t a thing to be fetishized. Its cultural value comes from the traditions surrounding its long history, and the improvements upon those traditions. Its prices have more to do with rarity, and ego, than innate quality.
We can still appreciate experts without putting them on pedestals. For those of us who are experts, we might all be well-served to work on injecting a bit more humility into our work. A bit less Insta-bragging. A bit more acknowledging our relatively boring lives, and the many ho-hum wines that occupy them. This can only help to humanize wine.
While we’re at it, let’s poke at a few other flaws with expertise. First? There’s a big difference between education and certification. If you like drinking wine, you absolutely need to be learning about it, just as you’d bother to learn about the food you eat. But education comes in a lot of forms. In my case, I was incredibly lucky in that I grew up with wine around the house. It was a semi-professional interest of my father and I learned about it from him more or less osmotically, the way other kids might learn about baseball. I never had a grand moment of enlightenment. I never wanted to be a sommelier and I never got an official blessing to be an expert. Wine just became part of my life. For the vast majority of people, that’s a perfectly good way to make wine a part of your life, too.
The next bit of advice comes from a classic mistake I made early in my career, when I lacked confidence: Don’t pretend to know more than you do. I did that a lot, actually, which for a time made me the worst of all things—a wine snob. Once I rejected a bottle of barbera with my pizza because it was “way too tannic.” (Barbera is actually known for having almost no tannins, and it’s a great pizza wine.) I resisted the need to admit what I didn’t know, in part because a lot of wine experts—then, as now—like to buff their egos by belittling those who know less. I spent too much time being dazzled by wines that were allegedly important because other people said they were, without asking myself whether they in any way spoke to me.
Of course, none of that means that all tastes are equal. For sure, even good experts can make lots of mistakes, and I’ve received tons of bad advice from them. (And saved one or two from embarrassing themselves in print.) But more often than not, they do know better. And simply because one day you decide to be into wine doesn’t mean your opinions about taste hold equal weight. That comes with time and experience. But you can be confident in what you know, and curious about what you don’t. Rather than obsess about jargon, use a few well-understood words (fruity, spicy, mineral) to convey what you mean. The fruit-salad cascade of flavors can come later, if you want. Figure out how to identify the specific elements you like in a wine. That will allow you to explore your tastes rather than succumb to what a lot of big wine companies want, which is to keep you insecure enough that you keep buying the same few wines.
Through all this, don’t forget: Now is the best time in history to be drinking wine. Good winemaking skills are now found the world over. Yes, there can be industrial overkill—commercial yeasts and by-the-numbers winemaking that yields boring wine—but truly bad wine is ever harder to find. The Rousseauist vision of the uncultured vigneron has largely been relegated to fiction. (Although media today can’t resist any version of that myth.) We all are benefitting from the market power of an emerging generation of drinkers that’s curious and eager to upturn the preferences of the generation that started drinking nearly 40 years ago—their parents, basically. And, thank goodness, wine today doesn’t fit into neat and narrow boxes; the sheer diversity of flavors and styles and places and grapes is astonishing. Wine has largely freed itself from the weight of a myopic mercantile history. (At the same time, it has again embraced many of its crucial traditions.)
Frankly, we can embrace this complex world and still appreciate experts, without putting them on pedestals. For those of us who are experts, we might all be well-served to work on injecting a bit more humility into our work. Talking to everyone, not just our peers, like they’re grownups. A bit less Insta-bragging. A bit more acknowledging our relatively boring lives, and the many ho-hum wines that occupy them. This can only help to humanize wine, and that in turn will help to build a strong, diverse wine culture for the future.
Parts of this story have been reprinted with permission from The New Wine Rules: A Genuinely Helpful Guide to Everything You Need to Know by Jon Bonné, copyright © 2017. Published Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.