Wineducation: Choosing Wine 1: Know Thyself

There’s an assumption being made here: If you are reading this, you may be wanting to increase your understanding about wine. There’s no guarantee that at the end of this article I will have done anything to advance that position, given the complexities of the subject. Indeed the subjectiveness of the subject makes that a virtual certainty.

However, there are, amid the tangled, garbled threads some revelations and attempts at insights, which I hope will unravel some of the often subconcious elements behind why individuals do what they do, and relate this to the (oft pontificated) subject of Fine Wine.

This is not a finished work. It evolves and grows and I return to it to hone it every few months as my perspective disctates.

How do you choose wine?

An easy question to ask? Not really.

It’s actually rather more difficult than one might think to elicit a straight, emotion-free response from anyone. Even for me; a wine buyer and merchant. You see, it’s not an exact science. Though science plays an important part, as we’ll find out over this series of posts.

You will either step forward into growth or you will step back into safety. Abraham Maslow

Below are 6 wines. They could be on a shelf, in a shop, side by side. Assuming you were shopping or browsing, How would you choose a wine?

Would you pick them up? Are you comfortable handling them? Do you fear them? Do you look for specific elements in the name, label, weight? Do you flap about for a while then pick the cheapest, or second cheapest, or the pretty looking one? All of those are real circumstances or certainly real experiences related back to me in conversation. Do you know before any exercise how you will go about it: and more importantly, Why you select the method you do?

Cabernet!

6 succulent cabernets; which to choose?

How you might choose between these bottles (assuming you do), and more importantly, if you can uncover why you adopt your own particular strategies is a fascinating subject…well it is for me, anyway.

I am interested in the paradox created, that the buying and discussing wine actually creates within many of the people who like to drink it. I must admit here, that I too have an emotional response to the answers I get (and always have) when I make these almost  intrusive enquires about strangers’ personal preferences. Not so professional you might think, that I can’t be objective about it, and you’d be right. And that’s also my point: I am human. Being human creates complexity and these complex human responses play a pivotal, in some cases, unknowable role in our decision-making.

Many of the responses I receive are really quite negative: a nerve pricked, and I’d like to look at why.

A simple assumption concerning negative responses might be that that folks feel they are revealing too much about themselves. Or possibly, that it’s just simply embarrassing not to know which wine to choose, and why.

In this series of articles I will explore why wine is a such tricky little bugger to understand, why it is so troublesome to communicate about and above all why it often leaves folks feeling a little (or a lot) intimidated causing them to perpetuate a vicious circle of drinking lesser wines.

Sometimes, when I ask folks, “How do you choose wine?” I get a surprisingly diverse range of replies. they might range from frank reposts to misleading answers; snooty aloof brush-offs to desperate lies: and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Asking the question has now become more of a gentle faux, a masquerade in order not to push too many buttons. At times I have  stopped asking altogether, just for an easier life.

yucky wine ladyever happened to you?

“I don’t like white wine.” or “I don’t like red wine.” or “I don’t like wine.” statements confuse, but ultimately don’t surprise me. I am never quite sure what to say though. With such finality in the meaning, I feel my comments are unwelcome in helping that person to move forward. You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink wine.

Throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

These types of comments, do knock me off balance a little, for fairly obvious reasons. I love wine. I embrace the multidimensionality, the successes and disappointments; the challenge. There are times when I don’t want wine or taste a wine I don’t like; but to categorically demand that I don’t like wine would be like saying I don’t like Thursdays. It makes no sense: it’s not Thursday’s fault. A Thursday can have no intrinsic fault, yet how Thursday might be arranged and experience because of exterior motivations and influences, might cause Thursday to be dreaded (or treasured) The same Thursday: And so it is with wine…

Although I sense a deeper psychology that has nothing to do with Thursday or wine. Sure, learning about wine can seem infuriating and difficult. That’s true of most things that require a deeper involvement, comprehension, mastery. It’s all about trusting that the upside to hard work translated into a boundless pleasure of experiences that outweigh the limited downside of incomprehension, but more likely the reason folks often do not take on new challenges: fear of failure. It’s about emotional security.

Case in point: I don’t like cider. My emotional response to talking about it is moot to those who like (and drink) cider. Mine comes from a physical response I had when I was much younger. So, I can understand the ‘abject yuckiness’ response borne out of a well remembered and hard learned sickness; but wines, importantly, differ from cider, by having variation of style. Pretty much, cider always tastes the same (or is within a narrow flavour/consistency profile) so it’s hard to avoid those sensory triggers that remind the brain of past mishaps.

Wine is different to most other drinks; many beers, vodkas and whisk(e)y, juices, milkshakes, anything I can think of really, because it is crafted and it is so completely ‘variational‘. Romantically speaking, wine is an artisan product constructed at the meeting place of water, sun and earth and tended by hands and hearts over time for one purpose; pleasure.

But in practical terms, that confluence of factors means that (factory-farming aside) wine has variety of outcome built in. I guess it’s more like tea, in many ways. There are many many varieties and many, many factors affecting how it turns out. As well as our personal interaction with it.

What’s behind these types of responses?

“It’s all a con!” some red-faced gent exclaims who I imagine has never find true love or romance, or perhaps did and had it torn apart by some pitiful creature. That tone might also, of course, be code speak for ‘I don’t understand anything about it’. It could be seen as a cry for help. Laced with ‘devils advocacy’.

I am reminded of leading a horse to water…and that I am not a Psychologist.

Comic misdirection : Who is your inner voice?

Assuming I haven’t come a cropper by getting floored by one of those irrational responses, if I were to pursue the issue, I might enjoy more reasoned (as I see it) responses, but often the more I delve the more I get to question the validity or honesty. Just can’t help myself….Here’s a few of what I mean. Some are quite hilarious to me.

Me: “So tell me. How do you choose wine?”

“I follow recommendations, like Robert Parker’s.” (This can be a great place to start, but not for too long.)

“It depends on the occasion….Am I paying?” (That’s true, it does; but it needn’t be a reason for a guarded response. Let’s engage.)

“I keep notes and have them with me when I shop.” (sounds very promising, but really?)

“I buy whatever wine Chuck Norris tells me.” (or any other Guru- because it’s easier in the end. I just put that one in for laughs – apologies.)

I think what is particularly interesting, is how an open ended question generates a succession of closed answers, that seem to raise mostly questions about human fears and insecurities than they offer practical solutions. Here I am, trying to help people get a step up (while making an honest buck in the process) and I am confronted by idiosyncrasies outside my training. Really makes you empathise. Of course some don’t want empathy. They want to be told what to do. I just as easily might end up in hot water for asking a question that might improve their wine experience. Drives me bonkers. Here’s some more. Most are real.

“I can never remember which wine I liked.” and “I don’t understand the labels.” (a system is required and some patience perhaps)

“I don’t read reviews. I buy the wines I like the look of.” (reminds me of Wile Coyote)

“I read reviews, but buy others that are not reviewed, perhaps ‘on offer’.”(I wonder if it works as a methodology)

“First, I choose the food, then the wine.” (nicely considered, but really? always?)

“I just love Italians. That’s all” (passionate, yet potentially limiting unless the rest of the world adopts that style and even then the outcome would be limiting)

“Never heard of this one but it looks cool, so I might try it.” (a butterfly: maybe a happy journey but is it worth the repeated risk)

“I feel the punt (hole) in the base of the bottle to get a clue.” (practical, yes, better as part of a broader ritual)

“I always buy the 2nd cheapest on any list.” (sounds cleverer than it is: yet, as price bears no relation to what a person likes to taste little; passive-aggression & obstinacy?)

“I go to a merchant and ask for their advice before I buy.” (Superb answer an you need to find those guys who ‘get‘ your palate. It’s even possible to find educators who will ‘get your palate‘ long before you do)

“Can I get a discount?” (usually a free-loader, embarrassing  humour, right off the bat, but meaning it really, which makes me cringe, but smile)

“I am willing to try anything once with an open mind.” (without a plan or a record keeping system it’s meaningless, educationally)

So, it’s not that pretty a picture from my vantage point. Sometimes I go for months without popping the question to anyone. Why is it I can’t get a straight answer when I do? Or at least get a better handle on people, so that I can better help them avoid confidence sapping mistakes. I know a lot of valid reasons are there, in amongst the psychology.

must I choose one over the other?

Wine Labels can be infuriating for some people, like maps are for my wife. Snobbishness is an associative element of one-upmanship and potential for derision is there, in wine snobbery. But there’s surely the same potentiality for social malaise amid the world of cars, phones or even holiday choices?

Maybe I get het up about it because I sell wine, adore it obsessively, worship it, almost.

And still I have a nagging suspicion that I can unlock the codes hidden inside the answers I am being given.

I can clearly sense the discomfort in others when they tell me these things: The teacher in me wants to elicit change and a positive outcome for the ‘student’.

And so I keep at it, investigating like a social-worker viticulture detective. The sixth sense always digging away in every conversation as I seek to grasp their ‘wine type’, their palate, their nature and how they got to where they are.

It’s not all doom and gloom though. I do have customers who are genuinely on a road of discovery with wine.

It’s invigorating to me; getting excited about the flavours they are coming across, learning new names, asking questions and storing away new found facts like rare gems. Unafraid. They are the exception, however.

Negative responses

There are more worryingly far too many deeply negatively charged responses knocking around out there. Have you heard any of these?

“Don’t know but much but I know what I like.” (‘I do not want to be disappointed’ or ‘end of conversation’)

“A.B.C. (anything but Chardonnay).” (I had a bad reaction once so that’s that)

“I get my husband/wife to choose for me.” (…so it wont be my fault!)

“Get the cheapest, every time. You know how much we drink. It’s so expensive” (I drink it to get drunk; we get drunk a lot; who cares what it tastes like?)

“You know me: I just get the same ol’, same ol’.” (It has one purpose…)

Did I ever say things like those?

The tone of some of those responses raises some interesting questions about freedom, ethics or even personal esteem. There is certainly an element of fear pervading the world of wine when these are the prevailing rhythms of debate. I wondered just how far down into the chalk I wanted to mine (the viticultural-themed proverbial rabbit-hole) to find out why…

I have been on a strange course of late. I feel I have the best job in the world (and when I don’t feel like a salesman, but instead an Ambassador of Wine) I am in my element. Robust, Passionate, Animated. Relevant.

And yet I see in the faces of so many of my would-be customers, oozing distrust, disquiet, even fear and loathing.

I am not talking about beer and cocktail drinkers. More the folks who choose wine, just like me. Yet they do not have the same demeanour as me when talking about consuming it.

There’s a palpable level of confrontational anger between friends, acquaintances and strangers I come into contact with, when a conversation turns to wine and I think it comes largely from frustration caused by exclusion, power politics and a mirage of envy.

a birthplace of abundance

There are ways to tackle inner disharmony. As with any blockage, techniques exist to move us forward, often starting by looking into the virtual mirror at who we are now and how we got to be the way we are. I am no guru, but in my time I have been to a few self help seminars, heard rags to riches motivational speakers; seen a few dvd’s, documentaries; even read a few books: and the messages are often clear, concise and remarkably consistent.

“There are two kinds of people in this world: those who want to get things done, and those who don’t want to make mistakes.”                                                                                      John Maxwell

Sure Fire Methods

Under the mirth I do have some sure fire methods that have been passed to me, for getting hold of some decent wine, cited by friends and customers over the years.

  • Try new things
  • Find a buddy to share the experience
  • Take a lesson to gain awareness
  • Explore ideas behind the headlines
  • Read reviews to broaden understanding
  • Ask questions to unlock mysteries
  • Learn about it as you go
  • Find what appeals to you
  • Surround yourself with ‘clever’ people
  • Be fiscally prudent
  • Take some risks in unfamiliar territory
  • Mimic others
  • Join a like-minded group to share experiences and learn from
  • Celebrate when you succeed
  • Keep at it when you stumble

Read that list again and you might notice it is no different from a list of key points for working towards developing an understanding in any field. It includes the same methods that personal motivators, life coaches or self empowerment seminars might recommend you adopt.

It is precisely how you dealt with your move to Shanghai and how you have been coming to grips with this city. It is how you traversed puberty and dating, if you can remember that far back. It is how you might progress your career, your relationships and your hobbies. And it is how you will develop your palate, your vocabulary and your knowledge of wines.

What’s particularly brilliant is that you can adopt those methodologies, often used to acquire prowess in a mundane pursuit for one that harbingers wonderful pleasures.

Brilliant! Wine education just the same as anything else. To seek results you desire, you put in as much energy and effort as you want: Isn’t it great when things are simple. It’s all about desire. It comes down to making choices…

“Life is change. Growth is optional. Choose wisely.” Karen Kaiser Clark

If you would like to improve how you select wines for your increased pleasure (and why wouldn’t you?) we will have a look at some hints to get you started next time.
The Wine Man

November 2011 (‘polished’ along the way, Jan 2013)

Next time: we’ll look at our relationship with the exterior of a wine bottle.

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