Every art form we humans enjoy has opinionated experts ready to guide and train others in that art’s appreciation. We find it with movies, food, music, books, and yes, particularly wine.
Benjamin Franklin wrote in Poor Richard’s Almanack: “Beauty, like supreme dominion, is but supported by opinion.” Catchy, especially for our ambassador to France and a guy who palled around with wine aficionado Thomas Jefferson. More to the point, it helps explain good, bad, expectations, and opinions in art taste.
Order ice tea in Pennsylvania, and you will get unsweet tea and sugar packets. Order ice tea in Georgia, and the spoon will stand up without ice. The opinion makes one good or bad for your taste, and the location sets up the expectation. Ordering the fish off the menu and having it arrive sushi raw or blackened to a crisp will not meet most people’s expectations. A popular food critic will know their audience well enough not to insult their social opinions en-masse but will be confident enough to point out actual flaws and mislabeling. If you want to avoid being confused, offended, or are seeking confirmation about your art opinion, it is entirely up to you to find and follow a critic that has similar tastes to yours. And so it is with wine.
Firstly, you need to understand that wine is art. There are faster ways to get drunk and cheaper ways to drink all night. Boone’s Farm, Arbor Mist, and Barefoot are good examples of mass-produced reprints or pop-music. They sell. Whether these wines are any good is subject to opinion. That these wines maybe don’t represent the epitome of artistic expression is not snobbery so much as a common expectation of “you get what you pay for.”
Sommeliers are thus wine art critics, and as an organization, they specifically cater to those affluent enough to be looking to dabble in something special. Think of them as safari guides to wealthy unicorn hunters. Some are excellent teachers and can guide us to wonderful discoveries about wine. Others will talk down to us like an idiot. Seek out the former in your wine journeys, because until we increase our salaries x10, the latter won’t have much time for us.
Understand those sommelier organizations do not exist to uplift the wine world for the common consumer. They exist to help sell high dollar wine in 5-star restaurants and resorts. If it helps, try to remember that “sommelier” to the old French court meant “napkin-holder” and the “supply train.”
So how do you connect with knowledgeable sommeliers? Well, the good ones have already connected with you, before your introduction. Let me explain, using music.
Sommeliers are like classical music conductors. It helps if they can all speak the same language and use the same descriptors, to do their jobs of selling. So conductors learn to read music notation well. When they step up to the podium, they get everyone on the same page.
Conductors know every instrument in the symphony by heart. They not only know who First Chair is, but they can also often name every other musician. They intimately know the difference between the viola and the violin’s mood and effect in the piece and can tease it out for everyone to hear. After the concert, they will schmooze with the big donors, and tell stories about the original composer. Finally, at home afterward, they can play parts of the performance back from memory because they remember the music that well.
You, however, can walk into this concert hall and be completely moved to tears by the music and never know any of that. And THAT is where you and a good conductor have already connected. You share a deeper love of music in the first place.
So find in your sommelier someone who likes what you like, even if it’s only in print or a blog, and let them teach you with a shared passion. You are joining a welcoming social art form that wants to include your opinion. You are joining a herd. Set aside, for now, those critics who recommend what you know you don’t like, understanding your artistic choices may or may not change one day to make them more alluring. And realize if you really want to rub elbows with the biggest stars, you’re going to have to move up on the donor’s list to get noticed. The lion snobs will insist you to spend a fortune on a bottle, but the good sommeliers will recognize your budget and recommend an excellent wine to fit.
The good ones can share their love of wine with yours.