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Talking to an audience with different levels of wine knowledge

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That was part of my challenge last week at a wine dinner I hosted, for Jackson Family Wines, at Ling & Louie’s, a fine Asian-fusion bistro in Scottsdale, Arizona.

Seasoned speakers know it’s helpful to have advance knowledge of who your audience is. (Actually, it’s “whom” your audience is, but that sounds so precious.) The more you know about them—their backgrounds, careers, level of wine knowledge—the better you can tailor your remarks to their interests and desires.

But this advance knowledge isn’t always possible, which is why some speakers will start things off by asking the audience questions. Where are you guys from? Do you work in the wine industry? Are you casual wine drinkers or collectors? Starting on this interrogatory note not only informs the speaker, it’s an ice-breaker that establishes an interactive back-and-forth, drawing the audience in and softening the initial atmosphere, which may be stiff, into one of cordiality and ease.

Sometimes, as I imply in the headline, your guests’ wine knowledge is all over the place. On Friday I had serious collectors as well as folks who couldn’t tell a Zinfandel from a xylophone. In this case, you have to tread a careful middle way. You don’t want to talk down to the true wine geeks, or to go over the heads of the novices. It’s a balancing act, but careful listening and sensitivity will help you hold everyone’s interest.

One thing that commonly happens is that a novice will ask a simple question whose answer the experts already know. You want to help the novice understand, but you don’t want to bore the experts. I’ve found that there are ways to answer the simple questions that will engage even the most knowledgeable people in the room.

For example, on Friday a woman asked me why Burgundy and California Pinot Noir taste so different (she preferred California), since they’re made from the same grape variety. You could see the Burgundy guys roll their eyes. I answered by asking the woman to imagine a globe of the planet. “See the lines of latitude in the northern hemisphere? Find Burgundy, then trace the latitude westward, across the Atlantic and the North American continent to the Pacific coast. Now, where are you?”

Before she could answer, someone (a guy) shouted out “Oregon. Washington.”

“Exactly,” I said. Then I went on, “Now, find Central California on our globe and follow the latitude line eastward, across North America and the Atlantic to Europe. Where are you?”

“Italy,” someone said.

“That’s right,” I said, “and not just Italy, but southern Italy, even Sicily. Now, imagine the difference in climate, and in summer daylight hours, between, say, Portland/Seattle and Sicily. Heat and sun ripen all fruit, including grapes. And that, my dear” (I told the woman, who was a sweet older lady) “is why Burgundy tastes different from California Pinot Noir. California is riper.”

The lady gave me a big smile. “That’s the first time I’ve ever gotten an answer to that question I could understand,” she said. She was happy, and I think I kept the interest of even the hard-core collectors.

Of course, the collectors would have been pleased to get into a detailed rap about Kimmeridgian soil, slopes, winemaking techniques and all that, but that would have been a MEGO moment for everybody else. So we had struck a balance. It’s also fair to point out that people in the audience at events like this have their own responsibility for its success. There’s always a “most knowledgeable guy in the room” who, devoid of manners, will want to drop his expertise just to show off, or perhaps to challenge the speaker. Fortunately, most experts have the awareness and self-control to behave themselves, in order to foster the greater good, which is the audience’s happiness. The experts at my event certainly behaved responsibly, and I made it a point, as best I could, to hang out with them afterward.

I never forget that my guests don’t have to be there. They choose to be there, thereby doing me an honor. The least a host can do is return the honor by respectfully listening and sensitively leading everyone in the same direction.

* * *

Tomorrow is my session at the Unified Wine & Grape Symposium, in the lovely capital of California, Sacramento. Our topic: Content is King: How to Craft and Feature Stories that Stand Out. I’m moderator; fortunately,I have some truly great panelists. It’s amazing how this meme of “the story” has grabbed hold of the wine industry’s marketing and communications people, isn’t it. Anyhow, if you’re there, come on up and say hi.

  1. Actually, “who” is correct because you have a verb (“is”) in the clause following. Think of this: Did you have advance knowledge of whom committed the murder? Wrong. Clearly “who” is correct there too, for the same reason.

  2. Patrick: Hmmm, you might be right. I was thinking in terms of “your audience is whom?”

  3. KCPhillips says:

    To push this further: Who refers to the subject of a sentence/clause. Whom refers to the object of a sentence/clause. But Steve is right to base his usage on a perceived preciousness of language use, or even what is accepted usage in popular culture,whether technically correct or incorrect.

    BTW, your example here about the rhetorical uses of language/narratives illustrates that you’re an English teacher at heart . . .

  4. “One thing that commonly happens is that a novice will ask a simple question whose answer the experts already know. You want to help the novice understand, but you don’t want to bore the experts. I’ve found that there are ways to answer the simple questions that will engage even the most knowledgeable people in the room.”

    An anecdote.

    When I was taking my first wine appreciation course taught by Robert Balzer, wine critic of the Los Angeles Times, he occasionally cited malolactic fermentation and linked it to California Chardonnay, and rarer still California Sauvignon Blanc.

    During the Q & A one night I sheepishly raised my hand and asked the question: “Do any red wines go through malolactic fermentation?”

    After a long pause, Balzer intoned: “Why yes, EVERY red wine . . . if you wish it to be drinkable.”

    It took my “village idiot” question to reveal a practice that was so common that no one talked about it: not the guest speakers from the podium during the course; not the leading wine magazines of the day such as Wine Spectator and Wine Times (later Wine Enthusiast) and The Wine Advocate and Decanter.

    There is no such thing as a “stupid” question.

    But there are stupid answers . . .

  5. Not to be a pedant, but one could edit the sentence thusly:

    “Seasoned speakers know it’s helpful to have advance knowledge of your audience.”

    And the word “advance” should be “advanced.”

    Don’t you just love our “mash-up” English language?

    (It continually amazes me the alacrity that some immigrants to our country pick up our language. And practice it better than native speakers.)

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