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Demystifying wine is a good idea anytime, but especially in tough times


How cool is this? It’s a report out of Tennessee that retailers are courting “unschooled drinkers” through “easy shopability, customer service and the knowledge that the staff has.” The story quotes Tom Wark (Fermentation blog) as explaining that wine stores have been demystifying wine, to make it more consumer friendly.

About time! The last thing we need is to make wine scarier for the average American. The infamous “Wall of Wine” has been freaking people out for years.


I remember, when I was learning about wine, how I’d go into Draper & Esquin, a long-gone snooty wine shop in San Francisco’s Financial District. In my torn bluejeans and sneakers, I guess I didn’t look too upscale, although I was perfectly willing to part with 10 or 15 bucks for a nice Rhinegau or Moulin-a-Vent. But I always had the feeling the staff saw only my clothing and, concluding I wasn’t a big spender, ignored me. Their negative body language eventually persuaded me to bring my business elsewhere.

We in the wine industry tend to forget how overwhelming the wine shopping experience can be. I can go into the wine aisle at Safeway and basically tell you something about nearly every bottle on the shelf. But 99 percent of shoppers experience anxiety and confusion. That’s one of the nice things about the proliferation of wine bars that have opened around the country (and let’s just hope they stay open as this damned recession deepens). The wine bars help people get more comfortable around wine, in a supportive environment, not a debilitating one.

Another way to demystify wine, to bring it out of the realm of snobbery, is to organize around it socially. In Rochester, N.Y., “people are gathering to learn, discover, enjoy” wine, reports the Democrat & Chronicle. Through wine classes, wine clubs, wine tasting parties and wine-centered fundraisers, they’re breaking through the liquid ceiling that long separated expert from the non-expert. (Blogging is part of the same phenomenon.) America is finally developing a real wine drinking culture, and these tough economic times may actually stimulate it, as we find less expensive ways to gather together with friends and have fun.

And this just in…

The hottest food in Britain? Squirrel, according to the New York Times. After all, it’s the perfect recession protein: cheap and plentiful. Can’t afford filet mignon? Just grab your shotgun and head down to the park.


Don’t eat me…PLEASE!

  1. Demystifying walks a precarious line between “making accessible” and “dumbing down”. That represents a crossroads and there are two possible directions our country’s wine culture could go.
    It’s good to see that at the top of the list of Rochester activities are wine classes. One of my med school professors lives in Rochester and from what I understand, that city has a good wine enthusiast movement – perhaps as a result of its proximity to Niagara?

  2. Arthur, you’re right about the precarious line. But everybody has to start somewhere in their wine education, right? So something that seems dumbed down for you and me might be uplifting and educational to a beginner.

  3. There is also the problem that wine shops often aren’t very selective in what they carry. I often feel like they stock by distributor instead of any sense of what they are carrying. And while they may feature specific wines, it reeks of commercial dishonesty – i.e. larger profit margins.

    The only reason I walk into a wine shop is because of the expertise presumably offered. The best shops recognize the $10 bottle is the sweet spot for most people and that this is how you hook people on wine. Especially the young college student who is thinking about wine but drinking beer. But a lot of $10 wines are rotten to the core…

    Combine that with a glut of overpriced wine at the high end, and there is no doubt that there is going to be a huge correction in the market soon.

    As far as the dumbing down of wine, I like the attempts at friendliness in table wines, but often they still feel like a gimmick.

  4. Great Bog Steve,

    I am a beginning winemaker and have worked in the industry for a few years between sales, tasting, and production. Being in my early twenties I can tell you first hand that I relate to your experience at draper and esquin. I can’t tell you how many times I have been given little to know attention in tasting rooms (in my own home appellation for Christ’s sake) because I am not over the age of 40. I find it funny because many times the attention is given to older tasters that are most likely tourists who don’t know jack about what they are tasting.

    The best place to lay blame is to the industry itself. We often try to elevate wine to this place that is just strange to most people (especially young people). There is absolutely nothing wrong with getting back to basics when educating people. We made this lah-tee-da culture around wine, making it so special and now were wondering why young people don’t drink as much pinot as they do pilsner? Bottom line is the more people (old and young) are educated about wine, the better it will be for business, I guarantee it!

  5. Okay so I can’t type, it’s been a long day and it’s only 11:20 cut me some slack!

  6. There’s a “tastes like chicken” joke brewing somewhere. Steve, what do you suggest for such a pernicious rodent? Will squirrel take on food appellations like Hudson Valley Foie Grois or Sonoma Duck? This Saturday at dinner, I will ask my server about their choice cuts of Microsciurus.

  7. Great picture of the Wall of Wine. And yet wineries seem to have a “me too” mindset when it comes to label design.

    I think stores like WineStyles and Vino100 are also attempts at demystification.

  8. Lee, you don’t want those nasty, bony wild squirrels from the country, you want the fat, well-fed ones from the cities. Think of it as squirrel terroir. Squirrels also vary by vintage. The ’07s are eating quite well now from New York’s Central Park.

  9. Vinorojo, The only problem with demystifying wine is that, once the mystique is gone, certain wineries won’t be able to charge as much.

  10. Vino100 Baby!

  11. Steve,

    Your last statement is just sooooo funny, and soooo true!

    I recently taught a class for our local Junior College – Intro to Winemaking. The head of the program had prepared powerpoints from texts, etc. On numerous occassions, I looked up at the board, out at the class (made up of a combo of tasting room employees, those wanting to get into the production side of things, those simply wanting to learn more, and those who want to start their own vyd/winery), back at the board, and simply started laughing . . . I said – NOT NECESSARY – not relevant for this class . . .

    I feel like saying that to a lot of folks in our industry – relevancy is key. Too many wineries and folks in our industry continue to ‘illustrate’ the pompousness that prevents the industry from greater growth and wine from greater acceptance in our country.

    I don’t have all of the answers here – but demystifying is something I do every chance possible – with ALL levels of wine consumers . .


  12. Steve, now that you have ruffled my hackles I am compelled to challenge you to a blind taste-off. Our Lean, minerally mountain grown(terroir at its best) squirrel against any of those over irrigated, over cropped and over fed muni park pretenders. Straight up squirrel, Steve, no marinades or Napa Seasonings. We can rinse between Sciurus Carolinensis tastes with your choice of Rieslings, yes?

  13. Fine. You set up the tasting and, my calendar permitting, I’ll show up. As you probably know, I don’t drive
    after tasting squirrel, so you’ll have to arrange for a limo. Stretch, please.

  14. Amen to this! It’s about time retailers realize that they need to court consumers of all wine backgrounds. It is retail after all. The goal is to sell wine to the people who visit your store, not to judge them on how much or little wine knowledge they might have. Plus, if you like wine enough to make it your job, don’t you want to turn lots of other people onto it as well? At least, that’s always been my motto…

  15. Steve, the mystification of wine and the “smoke in the mirrors” act is most common among charlatans and people who have something to prove in pissing contests (pardon the expression). There are exceptions of course.

    Vinorojo, The next time a person tells you a wine smells like lychee nut, ask him what a lychee nut is.

    It is a short supply, press exposure, and of course quality that bring on astronomical prices. I have a feeling a lot of California wines however will not be fetching those prices in years to come. Seems like Americans think wine is better if it costs more. That kind of ignorance can’t go on for too long with our economy.

  16. Sally
    So on target. If I read another review claiming the wine evokes wet stone or tar, I’ll pop my cork. Years ago, I ran the wine program for a large hotel company and I was based in San Francisco where a syndicated reviewer conducted his interviews in one of my restaurants. Following an interview with a Napa winemaker, he described the wine as having “elastic tannins”. I fell out of my chair. Unbeknownst to the wineries he interviewed, was that he chain smoked before and after the interviews.

    Another peeve are the many wines reviewed by major publications who consistently rate and wax poetic about wines that produce 38 cases or import 6. Who is their audience? Do they honestly believe they are providing a “service” to anyone but their own egos?

  17. Bruce, I can’t promise never to use “wet stone” or “tar” because sometimes wine does smell like that! I try to keep my adjectives and descriptors simple, though. In fact, over the years I’ve worked to make them more streamlined and less over-worked. As for “elastic tannins,” I’ve never heard that, but I can understand it. I’ve called tannins “melted” and perhaps it’s the same thing. Finally, as for reviewing low production wines, I review everything that comes in, whether it’s a million cases or 10. In other words, treat ’em equal. The customer can decide whether or not to hunt something down.

  18. JD in Napa says:

    Bruce, your last paragraph makes a good point, an issue that I’m sure grates on many of us. For example, my wife works for one of the BIG wine companies, which has a well-known Sonoma winemaker produce a line of Chards and Pinots. (she gets a tad antsy when I name names) We’ve enjoyed the standard-issue Pinot, and a saw a nice review recently (not Steve’s) of a vineyard-designate Pinot, production stated around 600 cases, as I recall. I Googled, I Wine-Searched, there wasn’t a hint of it (for the reviewed vintage) anywhere. I encountered a rep of their distributor doing a promo at Costco, who told me he had no idea how or where that particular brand was being distributed – maybe direct to restaurants. Kinda frustrating, as I like to make purchases that support the Mother Ship (if they make sense). Oh, well, plenty (maybe too many) of other Pinots from which to choose.

  19. East Coast winemaker says:

    High-end wineries (and those that aspire to be high-end) and bloggers are very much interested in mystifying wine. Of course, they don’t see it that way and don’t call it as such. The mystifying term just these days is “terroir,” or better yet, “sense of place.” Whose wine is a better representative of terroir? Of course there is no objective criteria, just those who think they have the answer. Bam, instant mystique! Without the government telling us how to make wine, terroir is really only a minor component amongst other viticulture/winemaking practices. It’s a wonder how any American winery can tout terroir with prominent French oak barrel character in their wine.

  20. I’ll certainly have to back Steve up on this – sometimes you smell what you smell – and if it’s wet stone, it’s wet stone. I think it’s a bit unfair to knock people for using these descriptors if that is truly what they smell . . .

    The comment on Lychee Nut is right on target – but only if that person cannot put into words what they mean. I have described wines as smelling or tasting like blackberries – but what if, when growing up, you NEVER tasted blackberries? What does this descriptor mean to you?!?!?!?

    The ‘pompousness’ of tasting notes is only so if one ‘believes’ them blind without seeing for themselves what characteristics a certain wine has. Perhaps you will get EXACTLY what a reviewer, or sommelier, or wine store employee, describes . . . perhaps you won’t.

    I lead a tasting yesterday for someone who works in a nice Steakhouse in Santa Barbara. As a server, he won a contest for selling the most wine within a certain time period – outselling the somms at the establishment! His success story was based on the fact that he listened to his customers, treated them with respect, and made straightforward suggestions that he was willing to back up should they not turn out to be ‘as advertised’ . . . It also helps that this restaurant chain happens to have a ‘progressive wine list’ – something I am very much in favor of in order to ‘demystify’ the ordering process . . .

    Enough rambling this morning . . . .


  21. East Coast winemaker, I pretty much agree. I use the word terroir, but only in a macro sense, i.e., the cool climate along the California coast is good terroir for Pinot Noir. I don’t think anyone would disagree. Where things get sticky, as you point out, is to say that a high-scoring Napa Cabernet made with 100% new French oak is a wine of terroir.

  22. JD, I’ve noticed that wineries will send in a new release to people like me before the wine is in general national release, and well before it has any presence online, even on the winery’s own web site! I’m not sure why this is. It could be that that 600 case Pinot Noir will begin to show up in the next few weeks.

  23. Steve,

    I disagree, On one hand you’re right, demystifying wine will make it less of a… well… mystery, which i’m sure is part of the high price of some wines. But on the other hand, when you educate people about terroir, meso-climates, clonal selections, the art of blending etc. it will help people understand why YOUR wine is so special and why the guy down the street doesn’t offer the same product, thus still having your exclusivity but without being snooty. Wine is not complicated per se (at least not becoming a well informed consumer), it shouldn’t have to be an esoteric entity in order to fetch a high price point.

  24. I actually think wine got demystified a decade ago. People got the idea that wines are impacted by both the grapes they are made from and wehre those grapes are grown. Problem now is not mystique (as in romanticism, inaccessiblity, elitism); it’s the fact that there are too many wines for people to keep track of. We’ve now gone through the Age of Ratings and are entering a new phase: wine by style.

  25. Steve, not comfortable with beating a dead squirrel in the company of such poignant seriousness on demystification and debunking..but I called those nice folks over at P.E.T.A. and they said they would gladly give you a ride. Nuff said.

  26. Tell PETA to call my secretary and set up an appt.

  27. Steve,
    I appreciated this post. In particular, I am always interested in how the “mystery” of wine creates a dichotomy between the knowledge haves and have-nots. It seems as though this somehow makes many wine store employees feel as though they have an excuse to treat the have-nots (or those perceived to be in that category) in a poor fashion. I find it aggravating.
    It will be interesting to see how this long-standing trend plays out over the coming months.
    – Levi

  28. I hope the tanking economy has a good effect on wine store personnel.

  29. Leonard Maran says:

    I never, ever felt that Draper & Esquin was a snoot shop, and I was dressed similarly.


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