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Consumers: “Give us knowledge”

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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.

  1. Ah, so there IS a thirst amongst consumers for getting into the nitty gritty, the nuances of different sites, varieties, and styles, and not just coming back to the same stale benchmarks and talking points.

    An interesting revelation when viewed in the context of the last two posts, Steve! Perhaps California consumers are not just savvy enough to handle it but actually passionate about hearing why a certain wine from a certain site made in a certain way is interesting or profound or meaningful and not just that it’s an 83 and doesn’t measure up to To Kalon Cab.*

    *If I could wink, I would. But I can’t without using an emoticon and I already did that in my post yesterday which was one too many times in my opinion. So, I’ll just have to dryly state that I post my comment in good fun. After all, I’d prefer to avoid another public scolding tomorrow, complete with blue italics.

  2. Corey, as I wrote, there is a demand for knowledge among a certain class of higher income people. And I welcome it! But the vast majority of consumers could care less. We have to cater to both sides.

  3. If I did not have to serve my audience, but only myself, I would still taste thousands of wines per year, but I would only choose to write about a couple of hundred of the greatest. I would love to tell their full stories in five hundred words complete with soils, picking data, comparisons to past vintages of the same wine, discussions of the foods it might go with and why, comments by the winemaker and vineyardist.

    All the rest of those thousand and thousands of wine could then be listed at the end like the “also-rans” in a horse race. There are a few blog sites that pretty much tell those stories, and good for them.

    I think I would prefer to make a living, although as long as we are on the topic of “I wishes”, I wish I had been a three-hundred game-winning left-handed pitcher.

  4. OK, I was there and I was on the edge of my seat when you were speaking. Your words (“scripted” or not) were emotive and aspirational. I ate up every word and became a more educated wine enthusiast (yes, I said it).

  5. I agree, Steve, just giving you a hard time after the vigorous discussion yesterday. Cheers!

  6. The desire for knowledge about the wine they drink grows as consumers get younger. Older people (like me) were raised on a points-based wine world and deference to authority. Younger consumers rely more on their peers. They also consume information differently. We relied on the World Book Encyclopedia for a few paragraphs of information. They use Google, and follow from link to link until they have exhausted the subject. Younger people simply approach information differently, looking for greater depth in anything that interests them.

    I expect that the thirst for information will grow as the millenials become wine consumers.

    At the same time, older consumers are also getting more informed. The wine corner of the internet is not dominated by youngsters. Rather, a very large percentage is of older (over 50) high income readers. Their exploration of the internet has introduced them to the joys of Google and in-depth knowledge. They, too, are no longer satisfied with the voice of authority or a single paragraph, be it from World Book or Wine Enthusiast. Writing the same articles every month, with the pictures and the names changed, followed by page after page of two-sentence tasting notes, will no longer capture their imagination or satisfy their desire to understand the wine from bud break to bottle.

  7. Lorrie S. LeBeaux says:

    Most wine lovers study wine, the crave information to make good wine purchases and to be well informed about wine. You are a teacher; all teachers are not funny, yet they teach. As a student, who wants to learn,and be on the wine honor roll, which would you perfer; a teaher who is funny and does not teach, or a teacher who is pleasant and can teach? Steve, you are okay in my book!

  8. I’m teaching a wine class and the second session is on the development of the French AC system. It, too, can be kind of dry. It never ceases to amaze me how people listen and are interested to technical — and in this case legalistic — stuff, clearly presented. It helps that it’s also punctuated with tastes of different wines, of course, but I think some of the comments here are right: there is a thirst for detail and context.

  9. David,
    You’re right. And there’s no turning back.
    Hats off!

  10. Morton Leslie says:

    I can remember my thirst for wine knowledge as I stood in Frenchy’s Liquors in Woodland looking at hundreds of bottles of wine and dying to know what was in them. I was willing to sit through some pretty boring lectures over the next three years to find out. Maybe instead of reading your talk, just make copies of it and hand them out, then just speak from your heart, about what turns you on, and don’t worry whether you cover everything. It’s almost impossible to read a speech without quite a few people nodding off, but everyone loves it when you make it personal.

  11. Note to Mr. Honig–

    “We are all prisoners of our own device”.

    You might find it instructive to go back and read your own tasting notes before criticizing others.

  12. Millennials, and now some baby boomers, consume information through the internet – but there is oftentimes no replacement for face-to-face learnings and stories told through a live tasting/event and real life *people*. David nailed it. We are a curious people and thirst for info if it is delivered in a consumable form. Kudos to Steve for finding that form.

    Younger and older generations want to know more about the wine they’re drinking; however, as an industry, there is so much information – and we don’t do a good enough job, separating and breaking esoteric topics down into to everyday language people can understand. We are still learning too I guess.

  13. “But the vast majority of consumers could care less.”

    Couldn’t care less. The expression–for logically obvious reasons–is, “Couldn’t care less.” Then again, since the Golden Age of Wine Writing is over, maybe it doesn’t matter.

  14. “he considers his single-vineyard wines his “babies,” and even among them, he has his favorites”

    This was our thinking when we started our Single Vineyard Pinot Noir Club.

  15. Drilling down to facts isn’t bad, Steve. There are facts and there are stories. One remembers the fact when it lies against a story.
    It is essential to give the learner bits of information they weren’t expecting; they can then immediately use it with friends. The result is that they don’t just tell the odd bit but go on to reiterate the content. And the learning sticks – regardless of which generation they are in.

  16. Note to Mr. Olken-

    I’m sorry, but I do not understand. I do not believe that anything I wrote here was critical of anybody. I fear I do not understand the comment. Feel free to contact me directly if I have somehow offended.

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