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Two ways of knowing wine. One is better [guess which!]


While I was in New York, I had chats with several people who are going for their Master Sommelier and/or Master of Wine certifications. Being curious about what is entailed in these endeavors (neither of which I would ever attempt, nor do I desire to do so), I asked them about how they go about it. One of them said he’s drilled heavily by the M.S. examiners on the legal or technical aspects of wine, such as what percentage of [whatever] varieties are required to label a wine, in every wine country on earth, by an appellation of origin. I’m pretty good at that here in the U.S., but Greece? South Africa? Switzerland? Croatia? Wow. “What is the main variety of Amyndaio and what percent of it is required for the appellation?” (Answers: Xynómavro, 100%). The guy told he he studies off flash cards every chance he gets (even when he’s driving. Memo to self: Stay off the roads when this cat is out there!). I am incredibly impressed by, and respectful of, such prodigious feats of memory as are required to earn these high honors. I couldn’t do it. I have the memory of a doorknob. Going through security yesterday morning at JFK, I left my carry-on bag at the X-ray machine. Just put on my shoes and started walking away, when my companion reminded me, telling me I would have ended up with TSA shutting down the terminal if I didn’t retrieve it. In my defense, my companion was a beautiful woman and I was temporarily mesmerized…but I digress. The point is that my memory isn’t what it used to be, and if an M.S. can memorize megabits of information, I take my hat off to him or her. But I found my mind wandering back to my favorite wine writers, the likes of H. Warner Allen, Professor Saintsbury, even more modern types like Michael Broadbent and Gerald Asher, and I thought, “I don’t know if any of them could have told you the technical details of Hermitage, how many liters per hectare or whatever the metric equivalents are, how long Chianti Classico has to be aged, or even, in the case of a late 19th century or early 20th century writer, what the grape varieties were in Cheval Blanc, but what they wrote was classic and beautiful and wonderful.” Their words live forever, not in some flash book that’s here today and gone tomorrow, and their descriptions get the essence of the wines across more eloquently than anything I would imagine an M.S. or M.W. could ever write. There are exceptions, of course, but an M.S. or M.W., however impressive an achievement it is, is essentially a career move, like an M.B.A., rather than an amateur pursuit of knowledge. Amateur: from Latin via Old French: a person attached to a particular pursuit, study, or science, without pay and often without formal training.

I told the guy [a kid, really, just 24] I’d like to send him my copy of Notes on a Cellar-book, a third edition and one of the pride and joys of my wine library. (I made him promise not to spill coffee or wine on it!] I honestly don’t know if he’ll read it or, if he does, like it. It is not scintillating reading, if you’re into John Grisham. It was for me: when I first read in, in the 1980s, it was breathlessly. I knew who Professor Saintsbury was, but I also was familiar with his milieu [Oxford 1865, university don, highly educated, not aristocratic but of the intellectual English aristocracy], a time I could have related to.  He was a hedonist and a gourmand, and aside and apart from his expertise in French and English literature [with particular expertise in Dryden and Balzac], he turned to wine every chance he got. When I say “turned to” I mean it was with a passion and adoration most of us can only wonder at. Professor Saintsbury was not wealthy, but was lucky enough to live at time when claret, Port, Champagne, Hermitage and Burgundy didn’t cost an arm and a leg; and besides, he was an amusing conversationalist who frequently was invited to dine with wealthier men than he, who gladly pulled out 40 year old Lafite, 60 year old Yquem and 70 year old Vougeot. We should all be so lucky! (Memo to young bloggers: learn the gentle art of conversation, please. Ask others about themselves, instead of telling them about you.)

At any rate, my young M.S.-studying friend said to please send him the book, so I will, and I hope he enjoys it. More than that, I hope he reads it and goes “Wow.” Books and the well sculpted word can have a mystical impact on readers and can change attitudes forever. I hope my friend gets his M.S. and that his career path takes him where he wants to go and, maybe if he’s really lucky, to places he didn’t even know existed. But more than that, I hope he finds instilled in himself an aspiration for writing something far beyond “The Onomasía Proléfseos Anotéras Piótitos appellation is in Ioánnina Prefecture, its main wine is Zítsa, and 100% Debîna is required, with a maximum yield of 1,000 kilograms per stremma.”

  1. Kyle Wilkinson says:

    Nice little story, and obviously a very kind gesture of yours to send him your book. If only we could all be so lucky! You’re right that getting an MS diploma is a career move, but it is one that is guided by passion for wine and for wine service. I would also say that just because someone can name obscure laws and rules regarding appellations and other things required of Master candidates, they can also be just as beautifully passionate and in love with the appreciation and enjoyment of wine as anyone else. The two are certainly not mutually exclusive.

  2. Steve, just when I think I’ll stop visiting your blog, you go and write something great like this; it is humble, mature, and oh so very human, almost pristinely unbiased. This is the stuff that first made your blog worth reading to me.

  3. I suspect this won’t alter your piece at all, but I understand that Michael Broadbent is in fact an MW

  4. I always try to figure out what part of the industry am I most passionate about,or what gives me the most joy. Farming, winemaking, selling, drinking…and apart from loading a truck with wine (which can be very gratifying), I most enjoy the people that we get to know.

  5. In this context you rightly cite excellent wine writers. But as Rod Smith has noted, that is a far different talent, and not necessarily linked, to the act of wine criticism.

  6. Tom Merle, you got that right! Rod is an old friend and long ago he pointed out to me the distinction between fine wine writing [which he does] and wine criticism (which he doesn’t). So you made an excellent point. I guess what I’m saying is, Why can’t wine criticism employ fine writing? (Not that I’m saying my own reviews are any threat to Shakespeare!)

  7. Kurt Burris says:

    Nice column Steve. I went through the UC Davis enology program a few years back, (and was lucky enough to have Gerald Asher conduct a tasting for one of our classes). So, I feel I can claim some degree of wine education. I also would never attempt the MW program. I admire those who do, but the amount of rote memorization involved is a bit much, at least for me. If I’m putting together a list for a Greek restaurant I need to know Greek wines. Selling French and Californian wines, not so much. Seeing how much knowledge I have forgotten once immediate recall was not required in day to day work, I wonder how much obscurity middle aged MWs retain. Especially as opposed to those memories of the really great wines they will have tasted.

  8. Jennifer Stark says:

    This post is timely for me as this is the year I contemplate applying for the MW program. I have a passion for wine, it is not a career move for me as I am alredy middle aged. I think there are a number of ways to “know” wine. I have been in the industry for 20 years, grew up in wine country and have “known” wine in different ways all throught my life.

  9. steve christian says:

    Well said.

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