“There are quite a few wines here I’ve never even heard of.”
“Well, there are a couple of merlots.”
“Yes, but I don’t think merlot means the same here as it does back home. Here I think it’s just a blanket term for a whole range of wines. Not really the same at all.”
A boutique wine shop near San Francisco. A man and a woman in their late 30s, regular customers, ask for some help finding new wines to try. The proprietor offers a well-regarded commodity chardonnay from the south of France, an excellent value.
“Chardonnay? From France? I had no idea they even made chardonnay in France.”
The proprietor sighs inwardly, smiles, and begins to tell this curious couple about a place called Burgundy.
“Me? I like Napa cabernet.”
“Well, what else? What other wines do you enjoy besides cab?”
“Oh, that’s it. Just Napa cabernet. I know this and know that I like it.”
“Well, you know there are hundreds, even thousands, of other wines out there worth exploring.”
“No, that’s not for me. Wine can be so confusing. I’m happy to just stick to what little I know.”
Maybe situations like the ones above are what Alexander Pope had in mind when he suggested “a little learning is a dangerous thing.” Despite the rising tide of wine consumption globally, and the seemingly endless expansion of the American wine market, it’s clear to almost anybody who pays attention that the average U.S. consumer’s level of wine knowledge is low, possibly lower than even words like fundamental or rudimentary might imply. And yet a not unreasonable response to this fact can be summed up in two words: so what?
If numbers are up in various production sectors, if more and more Americans are drinking wine (let’s leave out, for the moment, the annual global inventory surplus), then why should anyone care how much Joe Magnum knows about wine? Money is still being made, sure, but it’s being made by the 50 or 60 biggest wine companies (at that level the term winery hardly applies). Their inventory is moving off the shelves and into shopping carts in stores across America. And the folks pushing those carts seem to be happy. But what about the small and midsize wineries, the boutique shops, the bistros and restaurants that put maximum effort into the wine they produce and offer? A drinking public largely ignorant of wine above the bulk level is detrimental to their sustainability and survival. A little knowledge is indeed a dangerous thing.
There are many questions this situation presents, and the first of these might be what, actually, is wine education? Then, who is responsible for it? Is education more important in the long run than classic sales and marketing strategies for the creation of long-term viability? Doesn’t curiosity have to be cultivated before real education can begin, and, if so, how is that accomplished?
In the next several weeks, I’ll try to answer these questions, and see if status quo is an acceptable condition for the American wine industry in regard to their customers. Or, does the American wine consumer’s knowledge and understanding need to grow in order for the industry itself to thrive. And, if so, what are the best ways for that to happen.
What do you think wine education is? How does one become smarter when it comes to wine? Who is respsonsible for providing the resources in order for this learning to take place? If you have answers to these questions, or comments about this issue, I’d love to hear them.