Wine Education — There’s Work To Be Done

A café in Paris. Four American women fresh from a day of touring, eager for a well-deserved glass of wine, peruse the carte du vin.

“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.

A winery on the Silverado Trail in the heart of the Napa Valley. A staff member chats with a few guests as he pours, asking each of them what they like to drink at home.

“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.

2 thoughts on “Wine Education — There’s Work To Be Done

  1. Sharon Olson

    I am a big believer in educating the consumer. It is difficult and at times, complicated. Let’s use Dan’s example “Chianti”. Yes it is made with Sangiovese but at one point Italian law would not let it be 100% Sangiovese. It even had white grapes approved for use in the blend (if memory serves, it may have been required). It is odd facts like this that make wine education fun and interesting.

    What I have always done is ask and listen. What do they know? What additional information do they need to make decisions. They next time they are in we do the same thing. What did you like what didn’t you like. We build. Tasting with knowledge, what a great pair.

  2. Dan

    Bravo Tom, this is such an important topic! It’s no doubt that the consumer is confused, there are way too many wines and odd grapes out there from all corners of the planet. I think that for a start the wineries could help by having some very basic information on the back label of the bottle. Nothing fancy and with less self promotion, just the the basics like the type of grape, that would be nice. The Europeans are the most guilty in this department. As an example, the Italians assume that everyone knows that a Chianti is made from the Sangiovese grape, not true. German wine labels, we won’t even go there. What about a red Bordeaux, is that a blend of grapes? Most folks don’t know that it’s a blend. In other words, let the label do the talking, why not share the knowledge, and it’s free. Half of the wines that I see out there contain zero information about the wine, talk about a missed opportunity for wine education.

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