Devil's Advocate: Why Wine Needs More Seducers and Fewer Educators

Robert Joseph argues against the belief that the answer to wine's woes lies in spreading more knowledge and expertise among those who drink it

Robert Joseph - the Devil's Advocate
Robert Joseph - the Devil's Advocate

“I probably shouldn’t be asking this, but is Rioja a region or a grape?”

Reading a recent piece by Jancis Robinson, I was reminded of this question that I was once embarrassedly asked by a BBC radio employee as he escorted me to a studio. He was a university graduate in his early 20s – someone who, like most wine people, seemed to imagine this was the kind of thing he really ought to know. Just as countless other people of varying ages and backgrounds ought to know that Chablis is made from Chardonnay.

All the wine industry needs, I keep hearing, is ‘education’, presumably of the kind that would ensure that more people are informed of these basic vinous facts.

But Stephen Browett, owner of Farr Vintners, one of the world’s best-known and most successful fine wine merchants, and the subject of Robinson’s piece, would seem to contradict that argument pretty effectively. Having worked his way up the trade from delivery driver to his current position, Browett, I’m sure, has an encyclopedic knowledge of top Bordeaux and Burgundy, and most probably their Napa Valley counterparts. But, as Robinson reveals, he has never developed a taste for Italian wine. She and her husband and another good friend of mine, David Gleave MW, a UK merchant whose business specialises in every corner of that country, took him to Piedmont in the hope of converting him to Barolo.

You can read Robinson’s piece to discover how far they succeeded in this endeavour, but what struck me more forcibly was Browett’s admission that he’d never learned that Barbera and Dolcetto were grapes. Is that any more or less shocking than the question I was asked about Rioja? I suppose that might depend on one’s feelings about Spanish and Italian wine, but I see the the two knowledge-gaps as pretty comparable, and I’m entirely on Browett’s side.

At school, we are all taught a wide range of things that we forget the morning after the examination in which our ‘learning’ was tested. As adults, however, we are free to pick and choose what we want to know about. For many, that might include sport, or particular types of music or, if fishing has become a hobby, the best bait to use while trying to catch trout or salmon.

One interest among many

Wine is only one of countless areas of interest and fascination – like the beers and spirits, of which many of my wine friends are gloriously and unashamedly ignorant.

And, just as some people become experts on single-malt whiskies without ever learning anything about gin or vodka, it is perfectly reasonable for others to dive deeply and exclusively into one or two regions or styles of wine. Or to happily learn nothing about wine at all – beyond a handful or two of names that will get them a drink they enjoy in a restaurant.

We need to stop banging on about education and start to talk about fascination and seduction. Those of us who wish more people knew more about wine should focus our efforts on introducing as many as we can to vinous experiences that, to use a quaint old Victorian expression, ‘catch their fancy’. We need to remember that the best teachers some of us were lucky enough to have had were the ones who didn’t say “this is what you have to know to pass your exams” but said and did things that ignited flames that live on in the work we happily do, or the hobbies we happily pursue as adults.

No-one will ever ignite a flame of interest as effectively as the person with a real passion for the subject – a passion they more than likely picked up from someone else who became passionate about it before they did. Before mocking those who remain ignorant of the relationship between Chablis and Chardonnay, pause to consider some of the subjects in which your knowledge is similarly shallow. And wonder how different your life might be if someone had turned you onto them.

I love the fact that Stephen Browett has achieved as much as he has without feeling the need to learn about Piedmont. But I also love Robinson and Gleave for making the effort to open his eyes and his palate to that wonderful region.

#WineEducation #WineKnowledge #JancisRobinson



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