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Is It Finally Time For A New Wine Education?
The tide is already shifting, and how we learn about wine needs to shift too.
Some friends recently gave me a wine book called Are You My Wine?—a parody of the classic children’s book Are You My Mother? Someone had gifted this to Blair and Melissa and now they re-gifted it to me, and we all had a chuckle as we drank wine on their balcony and flipped through the pages. Are You My Wine (published in 2021) is not high-level parody. For starters, the author is “Reese Ling” (which I assume is a pseudonym, though I could be wrong). The tent poles of this narrative are groaners like this.
The book follows the story of Penguin, who leaves his office job at 5 o’clock and goes to a wine bar where his friends are hanging out, “but Penguin did not know much about wine.” Still, Penguin declares that “Tonight’s the night. I will go and look for my wine!” (There is a high ratio of exclamation points in this narrative).
At the wine bar, Penguin’s friends take turns explaining their favorite wines. He meets Hummingbird drinking Champagne, Mouse tasting pinot grigio (and cheese), Bunny sipping sauvignon blanc, the Koala twins enjoying two very different chardonnays, the German-speaking Cat tossing back riesling, Flamingo quaffing rosé, Monkey meditating on pinot noir, Wolf swigging merlot, Hippo guzzling zinfandel, Panda holding forth on cabernet sauvignon, Gorilla pairing a rack of ribs with malbec, Elephant explaining the elegance of syrah, and Bear (inexplicably wearing a robe in the wine bar) ending the evening with Port. I’ll let you discuss and debate the choices of species and genders representing which wines. (In my book, Cat’s wine would be sauvignon blanc, for instance). I won’t spoil the plot, but Penguin is slurring his words by the time he finds his wine.
It’s all semi-cute. Or maybe too cute. But even a children’s book parody teaching people about wine still can’t seem to avoid the inevitable awkwardness of wine education. Take, for instance, this scene:
Penguin plopped down next to Panda. “What’s up, Panda? What’s that red wine? What’s it like? Is that my wine? Can I have some?”
Amused by Penguin’s gleeful entrance, Panda served him a heavy pour and expounded, “This is a full-bodied Cabernet Sauvignon. It’s heavy, but not the heaviest. You can taste fruits like cherry and currant, but also savory hints of black pepper and bell pepper.”
“I see,” said Penguin, taking a gulp.
“In fact 100% Cabernet Sauvignon wines are very rare. You’ll probably find them mixed with other varietals,” continued Panda.
“Interesting,” said Penguin taking another gulp. “What is a varietal?”
“Varietals are the different types of grapes. Sometimes winemakers will mix varietals. Bordeaux blends are famous for combining the Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot grapes.”
“Who knew I was imbibing so many different grapes?” Penguin took the last swig from his glass and stood to leave. “And with that, I thank you, good sir. You are a gentleman…and a scholar.”
To be clear, Penguin is a sympathetic character in this interaction. We have all been Penguin.
Are You My Wine? is perhaps an absurd example, but let’s be honest: How much different is it than most consumer-facing wine “education”? It checks nearly all the boxes: The forced frivolity, the corny attempts at making wine “less scary,” the infantilizing of adults who simply don’t happen to know a lot about wine, the misuse of the word varietal. Above all, its presentation of ten grapes (along with Champagne, Port and rosé) as representing the universe of wine in the 2020s feels in line with the folly of conventional wine education.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what passes for wine education, both for consumers and professionals. My thinking has grown especially acute as I visit a wide array of bars and restaurants in smaller cities and towns with interesting wine lists, such as in Dedalus Wine Bar or Paradiso in Burlington, Vermont, Bar Rollins or Stems & Skins in Charleston, South Carolina, Microclimate or Anorah in Geneva, New York, Swan Dive or Good Luck in Rochester, New York, or Versi Vino in Maple Shade, New Jersey. I’m just picking five towns and nine places from recent experiences. Wine lists like these exist in places all over the U.S.
Based on his wine education, poor Penguin would be seriously confused by what he’d find on menus at places like these. He’d find very little pinot grigio, zinfandel, or cabernet sauvignon. But he’d find a lot of Austrian varieties, such as grüner veltliner or blaufränkisch, Mediterranean varieties such as carignan or grenache blanc, skin contact wines made from chenin blanc, tocai friulano, or ciliegiolo, Portuguese varieties like encruzado or baga. Or any number of grapes and places we write about at Everyday Drinking that do not appear in most conventional wine education.
Many of these new-wave wine lists redefine how wines are categorized. On a basic level, most good wine bars now list rosé and orange wines together as Skin Contact. Dedalus, on its very curated menu, has its bottles listed under new categories such as “New” Spain (trepat from Conca de Barberà, mencía from Ribeira Sacra, etc.) Mountain Wines (altesse from Savoie, poulsard from Jura, etc.), Mineral Solutions (chenin blanc from Saumur, verdicchio from Le Marche) and Gamay Gamut (with a half-dozen bottles from around France). Delaney Oyster House in Charleston splits its red wines under two categories, “Chilled” and “Not Chilled.”
These are just a few examples. Anyone who goes to wine bars and restaurants understands how wine lists are changing. It’s so obvious to anyone paying attention that we’re in the middle of a huge tide change, a paradigm shift in how wine is presented and consumed in America. These are the wines that wine drinkers under the age of 55 are curious about. They’re the prestige wines for people under the age of 40. Over the next decade, the super premium wine buyer (who spends over $20 a bottle) and the ultra premium wine buyer (who spends over $30 a bottle) will move further and further away from the wines they learn about in conventional wine education.
I can already hear certain Wine People dismissing these wine lists as “natural” or “obscure” or “your weird little wines from unknown grapes and places.” I want to be very clear: I’m not talking specifically about “natural wine” or “orange wine” or any of the other things that scare old wine people. Most of the bars and restaurants I mention are not necessarily “natural wine bars” even if they do have a few natural wines. And anyway, who cares? The natural wine movement is a positive thing, despite what gatekeepers tell you. Credit the improved quality of farming practices and less intervention in the cellar with improving the overall quality of wine worldwide.
The old guard of wine educators and wine influencers still tries to dismiss the point I’m making with this facile argument: “Well, maybe that works at hipster bars in Brooklyn or the Lower East Side. But everywhere else, people want traditional wines.” Maybe that was true a decade ago, back when I started the research and writing for Godforsaken Grapes. But it’s definitely not true anymore. Maple Shade, New Jersey, may only be 90 miles from Bushwick, but it may as well be another planet. Yet I can still find similar wines like Chilean pais, Canary Islands listan negro, Loire grolleau noir, and plenty of others on the wine list at Versi Vino.
What I don’t understand is why wine media, professional training certifications, and wine education in general still follows the same curriculum. In every other realm of culture, the canon has been questioned and often blown up. Visual art has not been governed by The Academy for more than a century. We don’t read solely the Dead White Males in lit class anymore.
Maybe to put this in more simple pop-culture terms. I’m old enough to remember that, in the 1990s, Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Smashing Pumpkins and their ilk were considered “alternative” rock. They were the alternative to “classic” rock like Led Zeppelin, The Who, Bad Company, Boston…whatever 1970s bands my generation was force fed on the era’s classic-rock radio. Eventually, the tide turned, and now what was once was alternative has become mainstream and old hat. I think we all understand how this happened. The same thing is happening now in wine.
To meet the current moment, I believe we need to envision what a new wine education looks like. It’s not about throwing away what’s “classic.” But it’s also about accepting that the alternative is becoming the mainstream. Part of the problem is language—what do we call these new categories? And part of the problem is curation—what of the newly popular wines are worth learning about and what’s a fad. These are questions worth trying to answer, rather than ignoring them.
What these wine bars are doing individually in cities and towns across the country, educating their customers one by one, is wonderful. But it needs to happen on a macro level throughout the industry, as well.