What are the words that come to mind when you think about wine people?
Yep. They are out there. Wine jerks. The type of people to put you down for not knowing the difference between a 2014 and 2015 Medoc. Eww.
It’s such a shame this epic global industry, the wine industry, has such a standoffish reputation. It’s such a shame that countless people have been turned off of wine, or haven’t wanted to give wine a go because of the perception of its people. Sticking with what you know, what you are comfortable with, is the easy choice. I get it. At the end of a long work day, the last thing you want is to feel less than going into the wine store and finding yourself overwhelmed and embarrassed about you lack of wine knowledge. When you are out to dinner and the somm isn’t listening, rather telling you their preferred drop (which you think sounds yuck), beer or a cocktail sounds much more appealing. Shame shame shame.
Here is the thing. It’s not the wine that is making these people jerks. They are just jerks. Full stop. Take me back a year and I was afraid of these pretentious interactions. Talking with wine people basically felt like a necessary evil. Something I had to do to earn the sweet sweet stuff. So, I did it. But then, a little lightning bolt hit me. What if instead of pretending to understand what wine jerks were talking about, I owned the fact that I knew nothing. Boom. With that decision, everything changed.
There is something freeing about admitting ignorance. It is as though the slate is clean and you are ready to learn. All expectations are out the window, and all pressure along with it. There is just a change in the air and things feel easy. Why is that? Perhaps it’s because by claiming your lack of knowledge, you are signalling to the “more knowledgeable” wine person that your weapon is down, on the floor and you are not going to fire. You are saying “I come in peace. Please don’t hurt me”. Now, they are comfortable. You have let them know what they are dealing with. You never know, they could have been worried that you were the wine jerk. Keep in mind that a conversation is a two way street. Remember, you don’t go to the wine store with the intention of picking a “who knows more” kind of fight, you just really really want a tasty bottle. Now, intentions are clear and the conversation can begin.
When I first fessed up to knowing very little about wine, I felt that an old, unnecessary stigma fell away. I was worried that I would feel stupid, or that I would feel ill informed. For some reason I had it in my head that knowing the least about wine in the conversation was some kind of social suicide. I could not have been more wrong! In fact, each time I have openly kicked off a conversation with “I know nothing about wine, but would love to learn”, the next twenty minutes or so have been very memorable. See, a genuine conversation can start as soon as you open yourself to the position of student, and the wine person, as teacher. It’s some kind of wine industry magic. When a wine person hears that you are keen to learn, boy do they want to teach. That’s the real gold! I find few things more exciting than learning from a winemaker, wine bar server, or anyone who knows about wine. If you have ever seen me in that situation, you know what I mean. I go into full wine geek mode*.
This technique is especially useful on solo missions. Throughout the past year, I have been to more wine bars, wineries and wine stores on my own than I ever could have imagined. At first this was a little intimidating, especially since they have largely been in foreign language environments. But after the first few awkward encounters and mistakenly paying too much for wine (wow, wine is so much more affordable in Europe), I have begun to really enjoy the experience. A few of these moments have even become unforgettable.
The somm I have mentioned in Galway is one example. We started our conversation in terms of wine teacher and wine student, and ended with sharing life lessons. It was beautiful. I am lucky enough to have had similar experiences in Berlin and Cologne recently. On both occasions, I walked into the wine bar and opened with “Hi, I am so happy to be here. I am just starting to study wine and would love to learn a little bit about your list. I really have very little clue, but would love to try what is new in, or what is local…” The server took it from there. By the end of both wine bar experiences, I had learned something new and had been introduced to a selection of exciting grapes. Have you ever heard of Medina, or portugieser wine? Neither had I, but I am so glad I asked. They are both fantastic!
At the end of the day, it’s all about a conversation. Get rid of your fear and just start talking. It’s a very 2020 thing to do. Bonne courage!
*Thank you for not stopping me and for still loving me.