Earlier this month, I was a guest lecturer at a wine class for undergrads at Drexel University in downtown Philly. The class is taught by Jason Wilson (author of the very entertaining spirits book Boozehound and who somehow Id never met in Philly; it took a chance encounter at one of the Professional Wine Writers Symposium events in Napa for us to become friends)
Talk about flashbacks (but not those kinds of flashback!) – the impressive great court of Drexel’s Main Building and its serpentine staircases leading to the back classrooms reminded me in no small way of trying to find the Philosophy classroom at my alma matter’s (SJU) Barbelin Hall. I got the sense that a lot of 21-year-old students would’ve been very late trying to get to that Drexel class for the first time (and if you can make it back out after tasting ten-or-so wines without spitting… more power to you).
I was there to talk about the wine regions of Australia (which I’d recently visited), and taste the class through a sampling of wines from those locales, the theme of which, as I tried to summarize early in the likely eventuality that I’d completely lose control of the class later, was “in America we tend to treat French wine regions as if they’re continents apart when in reality you can drive between several of them in a couple of hours; but Australia we treat as one big dessert, when in reality their wine regions really are continents apart!”
Jason has published a fun and insightful take on the class – and on wine talk in general – over at Table Matters (a story in which I play the part of a Brett Nazi, though my reaction to the Bretty wine might have been a bit over-emphasized in that tale… or not, I was onto beer by then, so who knows…).
Scanning the faces of those kids (I can call them “kids” now that I’m 40, right?), sitting in two rows against the long side of the cramped rectangular classroom, I got a microcosm of the East Coast wine drinking future. Some stared pretty intently, offering quiet comments when a topic or wine really struck them. Others were yawning (hey, Wine Appreciation is a better elective than “Math Models In Chemistry,” right?). And others were clearly having revelations about their own tastes and the at lovable madness that is the diversity of wine just within Australia itself.
None of them had any fear whatsoever of trying a new region, grape, or blend. None of them had any concern more pressing than the price point of each bottle ($12 and under seemed to be the realistic cut off for future purchases).
And none of them – not a single one – has ever followed the advice of a wine critic…
Personally, even though I should probably be billing myself as a critic of sorts, I was thrilled about that (more on that in a minute).
I asked them directly, “so… do any of you follow any wine critics? For recommendations, or when you’re thinking about buying a bottle at a store?”
The response? Shaking of heads. Glancing at one another. Almost timid voices, practically in unison: “Not really, no.”
Why would I be thrilled about that? Because to me that means many of those kids have bright wine futures ahead of them, a lifetime of exploration of wine and themselves, one in which pleasure takes the front seat instead of blindly following recommendations issues from ivory towers. Following a critic is probably the worst thing that these kids could do before discovering what they themselves most love or loathe about certain wine grapes, styles and regions. In other words, it means they have a good shot at becoming knowledgeable, smart and informed wine consumers.
SO, how do these kids get their wine knowledge, then, if not from the critics?
From friends. From an adventurous and competitive spirit to want to be the cooler kid on the block who turns their friends onto some gem of a wine that nobody in their circle has tried yet. From smartphone wine searches on Google, in which the aggregate of CellarTracker wine reviews appear as 1-5 stars indicating what the crowd thought of that particular vino.
Note that in the search results on Google, you can see that CT aggregation without ever having to click through to CellarTracker.com proper. Witness, my friends, the potential future of wine criticism recommendations (in this case, from the Google search results for one of the wines we picked for the class to represent Clare Valley Riesling, the 2009 Pikes Traditionale Dry Riesling):
It’s not that I don’t see their approach to wine as somewhat limiting; I do, if only because eventually I think it does make sense to follow a critic after you already know that what you like and what that critic tends to rate highly seem to be closely aligned. But that comes a lot later in one’s personal development as a fan of vino. When the class asked me how to “taste” wine, I told them the only thing that they need to be worrying about right now is whether they really, really like a wine or really, really dislike it, and to write down why for each and every wine that they put into their mouths. In other words, worry about discovering yourself and your won tastes; discovering wine, per se, will follow.
For the record, the Margan Family See Saw White 2009 (a nice introduction to steely Hunter Valley Semillon, with a bit of Verdehlo tossed in, likely to soften it up) was a relative hit at about $11 / bottle. Same with the Barossa selection, the Jacob’s Creek Shiraz Reserve 2008.
The wine of the night for me, Leeuwin Estate’s 2006 Prelude Vineyards Chardonnay from Margaret River? Not so much for them. It’s very good, but it’s also $30, which at 21 years old is simply too rich for their blood. At least for now – I’ve got a feeling that some of those “kids” will be eying up more expensive bottles in the not-too-distant future.
But will they be bottles that they bought simply because prominent critics told them they were worth buying? Probably not-so-much. And by then, will today’s prominent critics find that they’re still prominent?