Food & Wine Thursdays: What’s More Important When Learning About Wine?

(There’s about three-quarters of a thesis here and no doubt some errata. I apologize and feel free to castigate.)

I was tasting wine with a colleague of mine who is a wine director of significant esteem for several restaurants of equally significant esteem. She’s been studying diligently for her Master Sommelier Certification, a distinction which, unlike most lesser certificates, actually requires a lot of work, knowledge and is very difficult to get. We were discussing her studies and talking about more esoteric wines and I found myself becoming surprised at how technical the Court of Master Sommeliers examination is.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: Of course it’s technical, it’s the goddamn Court of Master Sommeliers final examination. Well, sure. No doubt. But it seems overly technical at the expense of being substantive.

For instance, we were talking about all the various quality designations for wine from the Dao region of Portugal; meaning, there are terms for different levels of wine from the same producer depending on production method. Apparently there are quite a few of them. But in my travels in the Dao and years of working with Portuguese wines, this was never a topic of consequence for wine makers I’ve spoken to. Also, I’ve never seen any designations on Dao wine labels other than “Colheita Seleccionada” (selected harvest) and “Reserva.”

Unfortunately I loaned both my World Atlas of Wine and Food and Wine of Portugal books to a colleague so I don’t have them handy for reference, but my guess is that those overly formal quality distinctions are holdovers from the Salazar dictatorship, when the government tried to turn the Dao into Portugal’s great showpiece wine, its Bordeaux or Rioja. The government installed numerous protocols for quality wine production but slipped up in one crucial way: it mandated that wine making take place at a handful of state-run cooperatives, where poorly trained wine makers and unhygienic wineries produced the exact opposite of the intended product, no matter how high quality the grapes. But that’s just a guess.

I apologize for that overly geeky detour, let me get to the point. The question is, why is this meaningless (in a practical sense) ephemera important for the CMS examination? And in general, why is it important for individuals who want to become experts in the formal service of wine to memorize technical details that are relevant only for grape growers and wine makers? Not to mention this technical knowledge is now literally at our fingertips thanks to our iPhones and Blackberries.

I’ve always found the social history of wine to be much more fascinating and much more important as a point of entry to teaching and learning about wine than the minute details of regional designations or which regions allow chaptalization and which don’t. For instance, that aforementioned bit about Salazar-era wine making in the Dao. Or how about that the puttonyos system of grading Hungarian Tokaji originates from the number of baskets of botrytisized grapes (puttonyos) that go into one barrel of wine? Or that California became the heart of European-style wine making in America not for lack of trying on the East Coast but simply because California didn’t have a pesky little root-devouring louse to deal with?

But instead we teach wine in a way so as to gather and trade technical facts like so many Yu Gi Oh! cards. Does the ability to distinguish French from American oak in wine actually matter to the wine taster? Not in any sense beyond the pleasure one gets from a correct answer in pub trivia, the same pleasure I get from knowing that that it was the ironclad USS Monitor that fought the Merrimack (and that the Merrimack was its Federal name, changed to the CSS Virginia). And naturally, the pleasure is increased when I’m the only one in the room that knows that. But does knowing that fact alone indicate any substantive, critical knowledge of the American Civil War? No. And neither does simply knowing the 500+ lieux-dits of Burgundy inherently show any critical knowledge of French wine. It’s a parlor trick, akin to that kid at summer camp who could sing the entire Animaniacs Nations of the World song at talent night.

(Dahomey? Really? You couldn’t rhyme Benin?)

Obviously it doesn’t hurt to know as many technical details about wine and wine making, but without a personal connection to what is interesting about wine, it exists as facts with no purpose. And more malevolently, it exists as a barrier of entry for a lot of people who like wine but are intimidated to engage with it because of the seeming tower of knowledge required for initiation into that rarefied realm of the wine cognoscenti. But in fact, to be an expert-in-training on wine you need to be curious, read a few books and taste a lot of wine.

Clearly, anyone who is pursuing the final level of the CMS has a personal connection to wine and nothing at that level is facts without purpose, but this busywork is taught at the earliest stages of the CMS, WSET and CSW examinations, probably because facts are easy to objectively teach. As a result, you have Certified Wine Educators who might know all the grapes in Madeira wine and the chemical process of Madeirization without knowing the wine’s accidental origins and the important role it played in American Independence. We’re teaching to the test, making sure that No Aspiring Wine Educator is Left Behind.

"Now class, what are the principal Bordeaux varietals? Duquan?"

I don’t mean to disparage the various bodies that certify wine knowledge, their exorbitant fees do enough to self-disparage, but it’s frustrating to see well-intentioned people spending a thousand dollars on coursework when better results could be achieved by reading a couple books and tasting a couple hundred wines.

But there is a nice certificate at the end, I suppose.

About David D.

I'm a wine professional. Like a real one who makes most of his living in wine and have for most of my adult life. I also write, but you can see that.
This entry was posted in Armchair Philosophy, Dispatches From Academia, Home of the Bizarre Rant, Wine & Cheese and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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