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Putting myself in the consumer’s shoes

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I saw Inside Llewyn Davis, the new Coen brothers film, the other day, and I frankly couldn’t tell if I liked it or not. Afterwards, when Marilyn asked what I thought, all I could say was, “I don’t know.” I wanted to Google it and see what the reviewers and other moviegoers thought.

Which is exactly what I did when I got home. It turned out that lots of folks were as puzzled as I was, but the point of this post is that, by myself, I just didn’t know what to think, and needed to know how others felt before making up my own mind.

Which is pretty odd, because usually I know if I like a movie or not. So I had to wonder why it was that I felt the need to know how others reacted, before coming to my own conclusion–and then it hit me. That’s pretty much the situation lots of consumers have when it comes to wine. They don’t know what to think (i.e., what to buy), and so they turn to the opinions of others for guidance.

It’s only natural, I suppose. Sometimes we know precisely how we feel about things, for or against. Other times, though, we’re kind of in the middle, and need a nudge, one way or the other, to arrive at a conclusion. I’m not sure why some things are clear to us while others aren’t. In matters of taste (gustation), things are usually pretty simple. You like sea urchin; I don’t, and that’s that.

But wine can be trickier than food. For one thing, wine is more complex than most food. While it can be a simple pleasure (and for most of the world, that’s all it is), at the higher levels wine requires the consumer to bring something to the table. It’s like art in that respect. It’s hard for the average person to appreciate, say, Keith Haring, without an understanding of his context: New York City of the 1980s, street art/graffiti, AIDS, the Studio 54 scene, break dancing, cocaine, a certain anti-”high art” attitude.. If you have some knowledge of those phenomena, then a Haring piece becomes much more than the cartoon it can appear to be to the uninitiated.

Haring

There are, I suppose, two kinds of people: those who aren’t interested in expanding their perspectives, and those who are. The latter are curious about things, especially things that seem to be important to others. In the Jewish tradition, there is the story, told during the Passover seder, of the Four Sons: the simple son (too lazy to wonder about anything), the wicked son (who believes in little except himself), the son who doesn’t know enough to ask (his ignorance is his limiting factor) and the wise son (who inquires into the nature of things). The implication of this tale, of course, is that we should be like the wise son: inquisitive, open to expanding our knowledge, curious to increase our understanding of the world.

It was this curiosity to understand Inside Llewyn Davis that drove me to Google it. I can’t claim to have a proper understanding of it even now, but my little expedition online made me think. And the more I think about Inside Llewyn Davis and what the Coen Brothers and the actors were trying to do, the more interesting I find the movie in retrospect. Because it challenged me, it forced the limits of my mind to expand a little bit. And opening my mind to new concepts has always been a great pleasure to me.

So we return to wine. There are two kinds of people with regard to wine, too: those who like it and like to drink it, but have little or no curiosity about learning anything about it. And then there are those who are willing to take steps to understand wine. These begin with small, simple steps: Why are some wines white, some red, and some rosé? Why are some wines sweet while others aren’t? Why do wines of the same variety differ so widely in price? These are perfectly good, logical questions for the beginner to ask–and from there, you can branch out wherever you want, even into things like what the chalk of Chablis contributes to Chardonnay.

It’s in that area–the branching out, the effort to understand what doesn’t come easily to the mind, to penetrate more deeply into the heart of a topic–that people need guidance. I needed guidance to help me understand Inside Llewyn Davis. And the curious wine consumer–the “wise son” (and daughter)–needs guidance to help her understand wine.

There are many reasons why wine so often is so challenging for so many people. Maybe I’ll try to analyze that in depth someday. But for now, I want to say the answer to wine’s complexity is not to become one of those people who says he or she is in the business of “demystifying wine” or “making wine simple” or “taking the snobbery out of wine.” All such boasts should be seen for what they are: transparent attempts to take advantage of people’s insecurity in order to make money.

  1. People use wine critics’ opinions to assist in purchase decisions. I don’t think many people drink a wine and then refer to Wine Enthusiast’s buying Guide to decide if the enjoyed it, if you rated it highly.

    I suppose one could argue that wine consumers may utilize reference guides and critical tasting notes to discern flavors or other complexities they were trying identify, or to confirm a suspicion. Sure, some people may also change their mind or lie about their opinion of a wine if another person (especially an”expert”) has a different opinion. But I think your example of consumer guidance is not quite appropriate for wine. Now only if you had used a review to choose a movie…

  2. “All such boasts should be seen for what they are: transparent attempts to take advantage of people’s insecurity in order to make money.”

    I couldn’t agree more. Wine cannot be at the same time infinitely intriguing and worthy of years of study and also simple. It is anything but simple and people who argue that it is are trying to mislead.

    And I think Steve is onto something. I almost always read reviews of films after I see them. I can’t learn much from a review until after I’ve experienced the film. The same is true of wine. I’m always curious to know whether my judgment is in conformity to others. It may not get me to change my mind but it is intriguing to know how and why my judgment might differ.

    I wouldn’t be surprised to find this is one of the primary uses of tasting notes by consumers.

  3. Dwight: Exactly. These MWs and MSs spend years getting their certification, and then they write books about demystifying wine! Doesn’t make any sense.

  4. Maybe more people would drink wine if we said this is how simple wine is:
    1. Do you like it?
    2. Is it worth the price?
    If you answer “yes” and “yes”, that’s all you need.

  5. Steve – how is that any different than someone who gets their PHD in a certain subject then, once mastering the topic, wants to teach that topic to college freshman in a 101 type scenario. Aren’t they also attempting to demystify a complex subject for a group of relative novices? Why must that desire to teach insist that they are only attempting to take advantage of insecurities for the sake of making money?

  6. The wine and art analogy is probably the most apposite — they are both topics that can be as simple or as complex as the person engaging in them wants them to be. Steve’s example of Keith Haring is spot-on — my daughter loved his art when she was a 4-year old in the 80′s just because of it’s basic appeal (primary colors, the human form in motion, etc.) I enjoyed his art for all of that but the context (again, reference Steve’s description) made it a deeper and more layered subject for me as an adult.

    Wine is as simple as a fun beverage for most of the world — but for those who want to pursue the mysteries and gain some perspective on the whys, whats, and wherefores, they truly do need a guide (books, tasting seminars, consumer pourings by someone who is able to teach, salient reviews, etc.).

    Those of us who look to educate those folks are not demystifying the subject, we’re attempting to explain the mysteries in such a way for them to gain their own insights and perspectives about wine and what it is about various wines that they like and WHY they do or don’t.

    The whole topic of books/reviews/columns about “demystifying” wine is usually a hook to lure in the apprehensive mass-market wine consumer who is looking for something more in their wine experience. Sometimes, yes — it’s a come-on for those unscrupulous types looking to cash in on ignorance.

  7. So it is the semantics of the word “demystify” that you take issue with? Which, by the way, is defined as “make (a difficult or esoteric subject) clearer and easier to understand”

  8. Ryan,

    I have a Ph.D in philosophy and teach “101″. The last thing I would tell students is that I’m demystifying the subject, and when I simplify I tell them it is an oversimplification. I don’t want them to think it is simple when it isn’t–that would be misleading and in any case would encourage them to take the course for granted.

  9. Thanks for the input Dwight. That was my question, whether it is the term “demystify” that folks have issue with. The definition doesn’t seem to imply “simple” though.

  10. Ryan,

    The word “demystify” connotes some kind of fog obscuring the view that can be swept away by a good wind. It seems to me, the wine world isn’t like that. Gaining an understanding of wine is just a hard slog through endless variation. It takes hard work and some discipline over a long period–there is no secret code for unlocking it. Wine educators should make that clear while also showing the consumer that with a small investment of time (and money) you can make steady progress.

  11. Fair enough Dwight. The word doesn’t hold that additional connotation to me, but I see where you are coming from.

  12. Isn’t the 100-pt system THE “the business of “demystifying wine” or “making wine simple”??”

  13. Kyle, I think that would only be true if you think the premise of the 100-point system is to say “all you need to know about wine is what score this one critic gave it.” Which has never been my understanding of it.

  14. Not is it mine, but I think it is a lot of other people’s. And since scores are more often than not detached from a tasting notes (which one could argue are just as simplistic as points, but I will not), it is how the system is used to reduce the complexity of wine to mere a numerical shorthand.

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