You should drink whatever wine you like!
All that matters is what you like!
The most important part of drinking wine is that you enjoy it!
There isn’t a wine professional alive who hasn’t uttered these words to a consumer. And all of these statements, to an extent, are lies.
On one hand, we tell people that the only thing that matters is whether or not they personally like the wine—and they should never feel embarrassed or question their choices. That’s a good rule to live by, no matter the topic. On the other hand, while we are assuaging people’s wine fears, we are also dumbing down wine, and stripping away the very things that make us love wine in the first place—all the elements that a single vineyard, from a single year, from a particular type of fruit, influenced by specific weather patterns, and tended to by loving stewards of the land, can so articulately express in such a small form.
So … why do we wine professionals tell people these things? Is it so we’re not the wine bad guy? Is it because we’re just grateful people have put down their Cosmopolitan martinis and are drinking wine, no matter what it is?
What’s equally as problematic is the underlying suggestion that wine professionals would rather have people drink what they know they like, as opposed to trying something new. I mean, heaven forbid someone tries something and doesn’t like it! That would go against all that matters!
Yes, of course I want people to drink what they like. I don’t think there’s a sommelier or “wine expert” who wants to deny people the innate joy of drinking their favorite bottle of wine. After all, wine’s very existence is rooted in pleasure, and it’s meant to enhance life. This is part of what makes wine so wonderful. I will also contend that enjoying a glass of wine shouldn’t always require a scholarly effort in order to understand what’s in the glass. Sometimes, a wine’s greatest gift can be the sheer gulp-ability of it. But it’s important not to confuse a pleasurable wine with a quality wine, or conflate the notion that our own perception of the wine is the only one that matters.
When I was studying for my advanced sommelier exam, I had the privilege of tasting with a master. As I began to analyze the first wine—swirling, sniffing and tasting—he asked me to tell him about it. I proceeded to say, “I like it.”
That’s when the flogging began. He looked me dead in the eye and said: “Katie, I don’t give a (expletive) what YOU think about this wine. Your opinion of it doesn’t matter. I asked you to tell me about it. Identify its qualities. Is it balanced? Concentrated? Seamless across your palate? Does it have a sense of place, and does it show typicity?” These were the important factors in determining the wine’s quality: Regardless of personal preference, these are the universal elements that designate a wine’s caliber. I wasn’t tasting the wine for my own pleasure; I was looking for its place among all the other wines. It was my job to look for and identify what the average wine consumer can’t see.
Once I learned to take myself out of the equation, I was able to be an advocate for wine-lovers to discover new gems they didn’t know existed—wines of great quality and value. I would be able to help change preconceived notions that just because one wine tastes a certain way, that does not mean all wine tastes that way.
I recently offended someone by writing in a newsletter that I gained immense satisfaction and joy from introducing someone to a wine that surprised them—something this person unexpectedly enjoyed when the person previously thought it was a grape or region for which he or she didn’t care. I couldn’t understand how this could possibly be offensive, and the look on my face prompted my victim to further explain his outrage. He proceeded to tell me that he should be able to drink whatever he likes without some “wine know-it-all” trying to change his mind.
Yes, I whole-heartedly agree. Just like I would never try to convince a Pepsi drinker to switch to Coke, or explain to a skeptic that the Grand Canyon is more than just a big hole in the ground, I would never want to make wine overly important to someone who merely sees it as an alcoholic beverage.
When it comes to simply selecting a wine du jour, there are plenty from which to choose. Every grocery store and big-box wine retailer is stocked floor to ceiling with wines that are crafted and manipulated to be void of regionality and varietal correctness. Most wine today is made in a homogeneous style, meant to be crowd-pleasing, without any discernible features or identifiable traits: These wines are often ripe, luscious and drinkable, with ample alcohol and just enough sugar to be detectable without being “too sweet.” These are the wine equivalents of Stepford wives. No pontificating or analyzing required—it’s just a pleasant, nondescript glass of wine.
I’ll end with this: I’m not here to judge you or your wine preferences. I never want to offend anyone. It’s not anyone’s job to use wine as a weapon to bludgeon someone for choices or for some sort of perceived inferior wine knowledge. But I’m also not here to tell you what you want to hear. I will never tell you that just because you love a big Napa cabernet, it will make a fine pairing with that hamachi hand roll. I will never tell you to only drink what you know you like.
I am here to make wine more enjoyable for those who care to know. I believe that learning the history and story of where the wine comes from can lead to a more-satisfying experience. I believe that we should constantly be tasting new and different wines—and that by doing that, we can discover more about what we like and don’t like.
It’s my job to show you there’s a whole world of wine out there. You just have to want to see it.
Katie Finn is a certified sommelier and certified specialist of wine with two decades in the wine industry. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.