Consumers: “Give us knowledge”
I gave a little talk last night to a group of wine consumers at a fancy San Francisco restaurant. The topic I was asked to speak about was mountain viticulture, especially as it compares to valley viticulture, with respect to the Alexander Valley side of the Mayacamas Mountains. Now, this is a fairly technical topic, about which I claim to have no special knowledge. But then, I probably know more about it than most consumers, and so can keep one or two steps ahead.
When I’m speaking about myself — as, for example, at a book signing, or at a forum on social media — I seldom if ever have written notes. I wing it. I can become animated, using my arms a lot. I sometimes remind myself of the comedian Richard Lewis, with shades of Kramer and Woody Allen. It’s easy to get expressive when you’re talking about yourself. But mountain viticulture is not a topic I would talk about off the top of my head. So I prepared my notes — 20 minutes worth of spiel — and also brought along a copy of my “A Wine Journey along the Russian River,” from which I read some relevant passages.
My talk, I feared, was dry as dust. Dull, scholarly, one-dimensional. After apologizing for reading instead of speaking extemporaneously, I tried to inject some expressiveness into it, but that’s not so easy when you’re talking about cold soaks, or 40 years of the history of a vineyard. Occasionally, I would try to establish eye contact with various people around the room, an old speaker’s trick. One looks for listeners’ facial expressions to see if one is getting through, or instead if one is putting the crowd to sleep. It was hard to tell, in this case. People seemed to be listening. Fortunately, I was speaking before the first dinner course was served, even before the bread was brought out. The guests had had, at most, a glass of Sauvignon Blanc; they therefore weren’t in that semi-somnolent, bibulous state in which public speaking is most perilous.
After my talk was finished, they gave me a light smattering of applause, and then the other speaker, a winemaker, took over, to talk about the wines we would be drinking that night. Graham Weerts is a South African, a good-looking, funny, energetic guy who also uses a lot of body English when he’s talking. Americans love accents; we delight in Aussie twang, and Graham’s Afrikaans-inflected English was, to my ears and I’m sure to everyone else’s, pure music. Graham made people laugh. They asked him lots of questions, which he happily answered in detail. He told funny stories. He was a hit. I’ve seen endless winemakers speak in public. Some of them are pretty bad at it. They hem and haw and get overly technical, or they mumble and lose their audience. Not Graham. He had them in the palm of his hand.
I was glad for him, but I have to confess it made me wish I was a more magnetic or charismatic speaker. Oh well, I thought, on to enjoying the wines and my short ribs of beef. And enjoy them, I thoroughly did. When Graham was finished, he sat down at his place, next to mine, and we talked about wine stuff for most of the meal. He asked me about my tasting routine, and when I suggested it was a pretty boring topic, he insisted he was genuinely interested. I asked him his thoughts about single-vineyard wines vs. blends, and he answered (as most winemakers would) that, however good his blends are, he considers his single-vineyard wines his “babies,” and even among them, he has his favorites. I’ve never been prepared to say that a single-vineyard wine is necessarily better than a blend of various vineyards, but I can see why a winemaker would feel he had to rise to a greater challenge to craft one well. Or maybe a better way of saying that is, when the winemaker is working with the fruit of a single great vineyard, he feels most privileged in entering into communion with the Earth and all the mysterious processes that drive the metabolism of a vineyard.
After dinner, when the guests were well-lubricated and began circulating around the room, quite a few came up to me, one by one, to thank me for my talk, and to say how much they’d learned. Whatever fears I’d had that I’d been boring were entirely dispelled. It made me think. Wine consumers — the kind that would pay money to go to a fancy San Francisco wine dinner, anyway — really are starved for knowledge. Yes, they want to laugh and have fun, and they don’t mind looking at an easy-on-the-eyes winemaker with a charming accent. But they also want to understand where the wines they love come from. Why is it a special place? How is it different from the vineyard 200 yards away? What is it precisely that makes for a 96 point wine instead of an 86 point wine? I sometimes get a little cynical when, for example, I happen to be in a winery tasting room and overhear somebody — usually an alpha male at the head of a touring group — demand of the pourer how much new oak is on the wine. That sort of question can seem, not like knowledge-seeking, but egotism. But at this wine dinner, I was happily reminded that there’s another, more common form of curiosity on the part of genuinely intellectual wine consumers. It’s the better form, one that (I dare say) deserves a talk that may be dry as dust, but seeks purely to inform.