by Charlie Leary

The Liberal Arts of Wine

The first time someone in authority takes your fingerprints is among life’s tiny transitional moments. I wasn’t under arrest, thank goodness; I’d just applied for a state liquor license. But I knew that I was now “in the system” forever. This changes one’s perspective. At the age of 28, my life had got more serious. Indeed, the ritual of black ink and white cards was part of opening a small New Orleans restaurant with three other people, where I would “direct” the “wine program,” my qualification being that I liked wine and drank a lot of it. I knew, in retrospect, next to nothing. The four of us were in business.

That was in 1995. I had no certifications, no training as a sommelier, and mostly bought wine from the supermarket aisle. I had grown up in wine regions — the Willamette Valley, Santa Barbara, the Finger Lakes — and gone on a few tasting tours. But that was it. Planning the wine list, my technique was to continue to drink a lot of wine, partly taking advantage of free samples from wine distributors. My task was to create a limited collection for our diner clients – and to make money. I also possessed a good, general, liberal education that I put to use.

It worked out mostly okay. A few months later, the 1996 article from the Times-Picayune’s incognito restaurant reviewer referred to an “idiosyncratic wine list in transition.” I had apparently decided that diversity was the key to success. “Recent selections include bottlings from California, Texas, New York State and even Nova Scotia, priced from the teens to the mid-20s.”

Those were different times. The reviewer documented: “Duckhorn Vineyards, in California’s Napa Valley, supplies a chewy, full-bodied 1993 proprietary blend called Blind Decoy Migration Red for $4.75 a glass and $20 a bottle. From a little further north in Mendocino County comes Bonterra’s refreshing organic Chardonnay from the 1994 vintage, at $4 a glass. Service is a little haphazard. The cafe may run short of stemware on some nights, which means mix-and-match wine glasses for the table.” My fledgling restaurant, nevertheless, received “4 beans” out of five for food and wine. (The Times-Picayune awarded “beans” rather than stars owing to a local culinary tradition: red beans and rice). At that time, Bonterra was the only wine from organic grapes I could find. I sold so much of it that they sent me gifts all the way from California.

The point of this trip down memory lane is to discuss the need, or not, for “wine education.” It requires, many people think, some substantial adjustment. That’s the conclusion of Robert Joseph and sommelier Priscilla Hennekam, among many others. I tend to agree, but there is no single solution. A split inevitably exists between the “wine ed” aimed at consumers (which is marketing) and that aimed at training members of the wine trade.

From my start as a wide-eyed and overly optimistic “wine director” in 1995, I didn’t take a real wine course until 2016, and that was online.I learned by doing, tasting and drinking while trying to turn a profit.

My feeling is learning by doing is better. Joseph, too, writes that: “All the wine industry needs, I keep hearing, is ‘education’, presumably of the kind that would ensure that more people are informed of . . . basic vinous facts,” such as “that Chablis is made from Chardonnay.” Rejecting this approach, Joseph concludes: “We need to stop banging on about education and start to talk about fascination and seduction.” Rather than “wine education” the wine industry, writ large, should provide “vinous experiences” for people “that, to use a quaint old Victorian expression, ‘catch their fancy’.” That’s the consumer orientation (from someone, in Joseph’s case, who produces and sells wine).

Priscilla Hennekam finds that “most wine professionals are focused on EDUCATION”, not business. “Their primary driver is to learn more and more, and often, because this is their primary goal, they give off a sense of arrogance, that anyone who knows less is ignorant, and that they therefore do not ‘deserve’ to drink this wine that they are too ignorant to be able to fully appreciate.” She has a perspective I appreciate, coming from Argentina but now working in Australia helping to market Brazilian wine. She just recently received the WSET diploma. “Obtaining your wine education has become extremely difficult. It is expensive, arduous and has a deliberately low pass rate,” she states. That’s the wine trade for you.

We need to define who we are seeking to educate (market segmentation, if you like).  Wine educators, which as Hennekam points out, are often businesses or appendages of the “wine trade,” haven’t necessarily done a good job of this. Consumers want “fascination and seduction.” Wine professionals need knowledge, but less rote memorisation of “vinous facts.”

Joseph also wrote something I agree with, which could help both consumers and professionals. “The best teachers some of us were lucky enough to have were the ones who didn’t say ‘this is what you have to know to pass your exams’ but said and did things that ignited flames that live on in the work we happily do, or the hobbies we pursue as adults.”

This gets to the crux of the problem. My analysis, as someone educated in the “liberal arts”, is that a major structural problem exists in “wine ed.” The major institutions of wine education — the Court of Master Sommeliers (CMS), WSET, and the venerable Institute of Masters of Wine — all grew out of the British wine trade connected to Vintners’ Hall. This curriculum is mostly about “vinous facts” with little attention given to how these integrate into a wider culture. That’s the one hand. In 20th century academia, on the other hand, studying wine focused on technical viticulture and oenology, followed much later by “wine MBAs.” Despite all its connections to Western civilisation (and Eastern as well), and its pivotal importance in international commerce (stretching back to the Phoenicians if not earlier), wine is generally absent from taught subjects such as literature, history, philosophy, and even biology and chemistry — the liberal arts.

So, for the consumer, wine education should be less about vinous facts or tasting analytics and more about how wine fits into general culture, now a diverse but still global culture. Wine ed should be accessible and interesting, possibly even fascinating and seductive. The wine professional requires less emphasis on memorising which grape varieties are authorised in AOC Bordeaux or the major soil types of the Napa Valley. All these vinous facts can be easily summoned and appropriately interpreted by people who understand, and can think critically about, wine’s place in human civilisation, past and present. The wine industry should invest more in integrating “wine studies” into general university education, not just viticulture, oenology, or Wine MBA programs. Make wine relevant to the daily lives of more people. Most universities would be happy to receive small grants from wine trade donors that assure that aspects of “wine in human civilisation” receive some mention in undergrad or MBA courses.

Peruse a few wine industry job ads and it’s clear that wine certifications — like those from CMS, WSET, and the Society for Wine Education —  have become the norm. My method of jumping in, haplessly devoid of “vinous facts” to manage wine in a restaurant is not possible for most people. Certification courses are expensive, probably boring, and perhaps ineffectual. Hennekam writes: “I struggled so much in Argentina to pay for my first wine course; I am not from a rich family.” Recently receiving her WSET diploma did not prepare her for the realities of business. It seems it prepared her to talk about wine with other people who already know about wine, resulting in an elitist perspective and attitude. “My own eyes were opened . . . when I stepped outside the [wine education] bubble and started my own business.” For me, that was the fingerprinting moment, too, combining a love of wine with the need to make money.

Wine education is too fractured, too focused on memorising facts or learning technical aspects, and lacks a broader experiential component (beyond analytical wine tasting) for both consumers and professionals. There are some bright spots, including universities where “wine studies,” as either a major or a minor, form part of a liberal arts curriculum designed for future business leaders, but they are way too few and far between.

Photo by Saud Ansari on istock

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