How to talk about wine?

(by peter)

Last week, I was walking down an alley in an edgy part of Southwark when two hoodies approached me.

When one of them started eyeing me up slightly aggressively, I thought I’d be parting company with my laptop before long.

‘You that wine fella?’ he said, throwing me completely off guard.

‘Yeah!’ I exclaimed inanely.

‘That rosé you recommended the other Saturday’ said his mate, pausing to raise his hands from his low-slung pockets for added emphasis.

‘That was well dirty.’

Sometimes inspiration comes from the least expected of places. That particular incident made my day. Hoodies and rosé: it’s telling.

It reminded me of something I read recently. According to a survey by Reader’s Digest, one in three Britons admit they have never listened to classical music.

In the opinion of the newspaper columnist who raised the issue (step forward Enda O’Doherty of the Irish Times) this is explained by ‘a combination of uninspired teaching and elitism’. She recommends people ‘forget the posh event, the monkey suit and the Asian babe’ and sit back with a glass of wine until the music (pick from Bach, Haydn, Beethoven, Mozart) ‘seizes you with delight’.

Elitism? Uninspired teaching? It sounds all too familiar in a wine context.

Doing what we do, Susie and I are lucky enough to meet people from all walks of life, some of whom are passionate about their wine and others who find the subject bemusing and intimidating.

It’s undeniable that wine can seem an off-putting and arcane subject. You only need to look at the sheer scale and profusion of the average supermarket wine aisle to relate to the dread it instils in busy shoppers, most of whom don’t have the time or energy to learn about the intricacies of terroir or grape varieties.

All of which is entirely understandable.

I’d love to remedy my ignorance about coffee, tea, chocolate, Picasso, Marcel Proust and Chopin. But you can only shoe-horn so many things into your life at any one time. (The closest we currently get to Chopin are nursery rhymes on loop in the car…)

On the other hand, it’s also clear that more popular than ever are drinking wine – just think of the hoodies.

Wine has been democratised to an astonishing extent over the last few decades in the UK. This has been largely thanks to the New World ushering in an era of clear labelling, broadly appealing wine styles and an unfussy attitude to the product. As a result, the UK wine market has experienced almost continual growth for the best part of two decades, with retail sales currently notching up £5.2 billion per year, according to analysts AC Nielsen.

So it’s clear people are happy to drink the stuff. Research also suggests they’re keen to know more, to help differentiate the bargains from the blatant rip-offs in supermarkets and restaurants.

But there’s also a general lack of time, energy and inclination to get down to learning more about wine.

So what’s the solution?

This is the issue with which many of the wine world’s finest minds are currently grappling. Nowhere is this truer than in the UK, where serious concern is being expressed about the long-term health of the industry in the light of increasingly hostile legislation and taxes, faltering consumer confidence and ruthless price squeezing by the big retailers.

Corporate speak would have it that people need engaging, not educating. Our view is that the solution lies somewhere in the middle (and in altogether less jargon-infested territory).

What we try to do, whether we’re writing, teaching or broadcasting, is encourage people to get to know wine in their own time and their own way. Giving a gentle nudge, in other words, that will hopefully generate the momentum for experimentation, exploration and ultimately passion for this wonderful liquid we call wine.

It may be talking about wine in the context of food – which everyone relates to, and immediately takes the stuffiness and intimidation factor out of wine. Or it can be exploring the world of personal taste, helping people understand how and why they taste and perceive the world like they do.

Equally, it might be adopting the pub-quiz approach to wine, dropping in bizarre, and intriguing factoids to spark an interest in those for whom this kind of thing is appealing. (For example, do you know which wine region specifically prohibits space ships from landing in its territory? Or just how many kids were named Chardonnay in the UK in 2002?*)

Susie and I realise that both being Masters of Wine gives us a great story and advantage. But it also paradoxically means we’re going to need to work twice as hard to stay relevant and engaged.

Nevertheless, getting people passionate about wine is our mission and we are hell-bent on achieving it. We are very lucky to be able to do what we do – and we love our jobs. We’re currently working hard on some exciting new projects in this regard, which we will be unveiling soon.

In the meantime, we’ll keep plugging away with our wine courses, writing, broadcasting and general wine-related fun to keep spreading the word to hoodies and goodies alike.

All the while encouraging people to sit back and let the wine seize them with delight.

*Châteauneuf-du-Pape and 65, respectively.