If I told you what it takes
to reach the highest high,
You’d laugh and say
“Nothing’s that simple!”
– from “I’m Free” (Tommy, The Who – 1969)
The following commentary is not an easy one to write, because whenever one talks about something that they do, they run the risk of appearing immodest, or conversely overdoing it on fake amounts of modesty and sounding like a douchebag.
Look, I know that I write reasonably well, because I’ve been told that by other writers whom many consider to write very well. And I know that I taste wine reasonably well, because I’ve been told that by others who are themselves kick-ass tasters. But I do not see the ability to combine those talents as somehow qualifying me to self-proclaim my awesomeness. And I do not see it as somehow unattainable by anyone else, either.
As any fan of the (excellent) book Outliers can tell you, the one thing that most differentiates the well-skilled from the wanna-bes in any given field (including wine) is practice. You spend enough time doing something (like, approaching 10,000 hours – and that figure is not hyperbole), and the odds are very, very good that you will get very, very good at whatever it is you are doing.
I write this because I continue to run into people (all over the world) who are thoroughly impressed with their own ability to taste (and then describe, verbally or in writing) a wine. As in a worship-me-because-I’m-totally-awesome level impressed with themselves. On the other side of that wine appreciation coin, I also run into people (all over the world) who reinforce that view by assuming that they themselves could never accurately describe a wine’s tastes and smells. I have a message for both of those types of people: “Get over it; what wine writing / reviewing peeps do isn’t all that special!”…
Look, I understand that being able to pay attention to a wine and accurately (and compellingly, and entertainingly) describe a it to someone else takes effort. And it takes writing talent. But these are not special gifts about which anyone should overly-applaud themselves.
Think about it: if you can write well, then chances are you write a lot and were probably born with some aptitude for language generally. In my personal example, I may have the writing gift (that’s arguable, by the way!) but I’m also about 5’5” and even if I spent 10,000 hours playing basketball I will probably never be good enough to play pro. So just as I’m not ashamed of my inability to dribble the rock, I’m not ga-ga over myself just because my brain was wired with a predilection towards stringing a few well-written sentences together. Yes, it takes hard work and dedication, but so does anything worth doing well.
As for the wine-tasting-ability portion of this equation: I’m constantly amazed at how many people tell me they could “never” pick out flavors and aromas in wine. It’s like they assume those of us who can write about wine have received some special Reiki attunement, or were visited by witchdoctors, or were born with something special about our noses (aside from its slightly-oversized capacity, in my case). And they assume that they in turn don’t have that ability and therefore could never acquire it. They have already determined it impossible in their minds before even trying it. WTF?!??
The irony, of course, is that it is not that difficult to acquire wine tasting skills. It just takes patience, a lot of focus, and a commitment to taste wines an obscene number of times. That’s it. It’s really that simple, and there really are no shortcuts (but also very few barriers). Very little reasons there for someone to either pull a muscle patting themselves on their back for their awesomeness – and little to fear for those who think the tasting skills are somehow unattainable.
And let’s not even get started on the relative importance of what we do in communicating wine to people; last time that I checked, we are helping people out, for sure, but we are certainly not saving lives here.
So please, peeps, spare the world any of your wine-tasting egos. In fact, banish the damn wine-tasting ego totally, and free up some time and energy for sharing your wine experiences and helping others get more involved in loving wine – there’s more of a spiritual pay-off, it’s more fun, and will fill up your soul with more joy than waxing philosophic about your own tasting abilities ever could.
And if you’re one of the folks who wants to get your head into describing wine but have felt as though it seemed impossible: remember that walking, talking, cutting paper with scissors, and properly writing a lower-case letter “m” seemed impossible to you at one point or another in your life. Suck it up and, in the words of the goddess of competition and oddly-shaped sneakers: just do it!
64 thoughts on “Being Able To Describe A Wine Does NOT Make You Awesome”
Well said! One of the most unfortunate aspect of wine education, is that it almost implies that the ONLY point of tasting wine is to deconstruct it into a list of descriptors.
What happened to enjoying it? How did the wine make you feel? Like a glorious sunset, a buzzer beating 3-pointer, music or love-making, surely we can enjoy the moment without describing it?
Borrowing a maxim from surfing: the best wine-taster is probably the one having the most fun!
Tai-Ran – LOVE that maxim! And if he or she isn't drinking the wine being poured, maybe we should steer clear of that one… ;-). Cheers!
Geez, Joe, and people wonder why I have become an old cynic.
Everything you said in this post is just about spot on (except maybe the part about your writing prowess ;) but especially this:
"So please, peeps, spare the world any of your wine-tasting egos. In fact, banish the damn wine-tasting ego totally, and free up some time and energy for sharing your wine experiences and helping others get more involved in loving wine – there’s more of a spiritual pay-off, it’s more fun, and will fill up your soul with more joy than waxing philosophic about your own tasting abilities ever could."
To which I will add: and stop taking wine as seriously as you should take the issues of life and death–wine isn't a close second. Plus, to all us "wannabe" writers I ask: would it hurt to learn how to spell, punctuate, and construct a sentence???
Great points as usual, Thomas. Regarding my writing abilities, I *did* say that the conclusion was debatable! :)
I couldn't agree more about taking wine less seriously – well, at least not taking ourselves so seriously when it comes to wine (I think the pursuit of the vast topic of wine generally can & should be done seriously, just without taking ourselves too seriously while doing it). As on online wine voice (I forget who it was, I'm afraid) put in her twitter profile (paraphrasing here): "It's fermented grape juice, people, not the ejaculate of Christ!" I loved that statement – crude but sooooo effective! :)
Joe, you're thinking of @CorkTease. She's hilarious.
Karin – YES! Thanks!
Joe – you could play for one of the basketball teams that loses to the Harlem Globetrotters. If you're getting paid, you're still a pro.
Your post made me think of this: "A writer writes not because he is educated but because he is driven by the need to communicate. Behind the need to communicate is the need to share. Behind the need to share is the need to be understood. The writer wants to be understood much more than he wants to be respected or praised or even loved. And that perhaps, is what makes him different from others. "
Hey G.E. – ah, Leo Rosten? I think he also said that Any man who hates dogs and babies can’t be all bad… :). Anyway, once again we see how my 1200 words could be more deftly put into 50!
I feel like it's a few jerks who ruin it for the people who are trying to educate others about wine. The snobs talk down to people and make them afraid to ask what may seem like a bad question. It's cliche, but in my opinion there are no bad questions. Yeah, I'm amazed when someone asks "when do you add the blackberries?" but at least I have the chance to educate them and teach them something they didn't know.
Any interest in wine is better than no interest at all. And if you treat a rookie like crap they're not going to be interested for long.
BCD – Totally agree that any interest trumps no interest, and the wine biz for sure needs interest to continue, and grow. Cheers!
Thanks for this post, Joe. I think we do the wine industry a disservice when we put the wine writer and critic on too much of a pedestal. In my opinion, wine is two things: agriculture (first and foremost) and art. There is a degree of skill associated with doing either well, however both art and farming are very raw, basic human abilities, to which everyone has some degree of aptitude. If we stop taking wine so seriously and start appreciating the gift and miracle of grapes transforming into wine, I think we'd all be better off- and a lot happier!
@italianwinegeek – agriculture and art… LOVE that. I have had that argument (that wine can be an artistic expression) with SO MANY people in the wine biz (basically anyone not making the stuff :).
I play piano, oil paint, am a writer by profession, and have been a winemaker. Yes, wine is agriculture, in so far as without growing grapes you can't make the wine, but making wine is less art than it is craft shaking hands with science.
Thomas – no worries, we expect you to play this role! :) I am not saying it is mostly art, but I am saying that winemaking can be art (there are many who would and do challenge me on this).
Stop trying to be nice; it puts me to sleep :)
Anyway, someone who clocks in at 5 ft 5 makes me feel (at 5 ft 6 1/2) so tall that I don't need encouragement.
Now maybe I should do some work, like the research I need to do for my next book…
Thomas – glad to make you feel special :).
First Bachmann wins in Iowa, the Perry and Romney overshadow Huntsman and now you start sounding like Asimov….. What next? Locust? Fogs from the sky? Parker turns his back on Turley?
There I go again, typing with one hand while holding my baby.
That was meant to read:
"First Bachmann wins in Iowa, then Perry and Romney overshadow Huntsman and now you start sounding like Asimov….. What next? Locust? Frogs from the sky? Parker turns his back on Turley? "
Well, SUAMW, we did have an earthquake and hurricane in the same week here on the Right Coast so none of that sounds crazy to me now…
You need to spend more time on the left coast. It was a long and hard adjustment for me….
SUAMW – :). Lucky for me, as many times as I've been out there I've yet to experience an earthquake there. South America was a different story, though…
I could not agree more with you. I feel like so often "experienced" people tasting wines (specifically in public tastings) will pontificate on the wines and then ask all sorts of random and semi-meaningless questions which are loosly related to the way the wine is made but it's clear they are missing the point of the wine entirely. Then there are the folks that are just getting into wine and they hear the other guy (or gal) talking profusely about the wines and asking obscure questions and they just get more intimidated and walk away. It sucks! It's just wine. You like it or you don't. You'll drink it or you won't. It's not rocket science.
Love to read your posts as always, Joe! The only thing that I would like to highlight (and it is basically summarized in your points about practice, patience, and focus) is that I believe there is indeed a short-cut to becoming a better taster. It involves taking brief notes. Note taking makes you focus, and it gives you a reference point to look back on as you practice. Obviously, if you want to write about wine, you must take notes, but aside from that, one can become an excellent taster with practice and a little note taking. The notes force you to define color, weight, smell, taste, finish, etc. This all helps ingrain these experiences in your head so that next time you are like, "yea, this is typical of a Loire Sauv Blanc", and your friends are like, "whoa, how did you know that!"
Thanks, Bryan – sage advice!
Curious what inspired this post? I get the sense that you run into this a lot, but wondering what got to you enough to be frustrated.
Carinne – I'd say it's more a cumulative effect and not a specific instance or person either way. Having said that, I had dinner with a few folks recently who were on both sides of this coin and I guess those experiences were the straws that broke the backs. Hopefully you weren't expecting me to say "oh, it was So-and-so from Magazine X…." ;-)
No no not at all, no finger pointing for a specific example, just wondering if there was more to it because it seemed you were so suddenly frustrated (straw on the camel's back indeed). It's an interesting topic – personally, feeling mediocre at writing and even less as good at pinpointing wines, it doesn't matter, I still like writing about them. I feel that even if I state "this one I liked, this one I didn't like"… I'm satisfied. I don't expect anyone else to take it to heart, but I think writing about it allows for a shared experience, for someone to completely disagree, for us to discuss – which I do like. So I was just curious about your target.
No worries, carinne. I should stress that I do not discredit pursuit of high levels of proficiency for writing or wine tasting; just the opposite actually! But we all just need to chill out over this stuff generally. Cheers!
Thanks so much for this post! I am one of those who am still trying to learn how to describe the tastes and smells of wine. I can see I've gotten better but when I read descriptions from other people, it's like "what the heck does pine bark taste like???"
Jeff – HA! What, you mean to tell me that you have *never* tasted pine bark??? :)
Well said, Joe. Working in hospitality I would hear the same thing over and over: "I'm not sophisticated/smart/important enough to know what this tastes like." It was honestly one of my favorite moments interacting with customers … a little pep talk, and ensuring them I make up 75% of what I say anyhow, usually got people comfortable enough to try. Wine tasting is not hard. But you do need to practice, and it always helps to have someone to learn from, or to stimulate your imagination and self-confidence. Happy you're helping to enlighten (now there's some modesty for you!) the rest of the world that their tongues are not somehow inadequate.
Thanks, Ryan – you bring up a topic (or remind me of it anyway!) that totally rocks but is seldom discussed: the tasting group!
Joe, my son, you give yourself too little credit. The reason why you are a famous and revered winewriter is down to more than just 10,000 hours of dedication. It is also down to capability. My grandfather, an uneducated immigrant, was a wonderful finish carpenter. No one taught him how to do it. He could just do it. Two of his five sons, including my father, inherited that capability althought they turned out to be an architect and a professor of pathology.
I am not saying that the rest of us cannot wield a saw and hammer but could we turn a balustrade even with 10,000 hours of practice? Not necessarily. The same is true in winetasting. Not everyone can be an expert just by application and effort. But, just as I do not need to be able to do finish carpentry, so too do my well-educated, solidly middle-class neighbors not need to be able to know that the scent they like, or do not like, in their Chardonnay, is the result of malolactic fermentation or new barrels or sur lie aging.
You and I do, but they do not. And, given my long experience in tasting alongside winemakers here in CA, I can tell you that each palate is different regardless of how much time it has put in tasting wine. People do not need to be afraid of wine, and frankly, most of ny neighbors are not, but they also do not need 10,000 hours of application to know enough to differentiate between fruit and oak, between sulfites and grass, between high acid and low acid. I realize that this latter comment is consistent with your message, but it is not immodest on your or my parts to think that we can differentiate more than my neighbors and can explain what we can differentiate. If we cannot, we are in the wrong business.That is why you are famous and I am trying to follow in your footsteps.
Pap Olken – you have it backwards my man, it's *I* who are following in *your* footsteps!!!
I appreciate what you are saying here, I just find myself frequently encountering people who view those talents as all or nothing instead of a continuum of expertise, and so it becomes an excuse and barrier for developing their enjoyment. On the flip side, if people like you or me should feel big-headed about something, it ought to be helping people along that path and not some ego trip over our own levels of expertise on the subject matter of wine.
Of course, you know all of that, but just adding those points for the benefit of people reading the exchange here. I should note that I have MAD levels of respect for people like you, Jancis, Asimov, Tim Hanni, Doug Frost… I mean, you've all been inspirations for me for two reasons: 1) you have the chops (in Doug's case, maybe the world's best chops!), & 2) you never go around flaunting them. It's always about the wine with people like that, and sharing and geeking out over it, it's never about yourselves. It's really wonderful to see and makes all of you so great to hang out with!
Yeah, Joe, and today Charlie has the lamb chops lover at his place.. .http://www.cgcw.com/
Sure, Thomas, make me salivate already before lunch…
So Dude, when ARE you coming over for lunch?? Huh? I can flaunt my chops. BTW my lamb chops are way better than my guitar chops. Oh well.
Yo Tim! Short answer is… I dunno! :) Are you around in mid-October?
Thanks Dude. This is just one more blow to my shakey self esteem. Just another reason I am not awesome. Oh bother..
David – you just need to re-think your awesomeness? :)
Thinking about this idea (and its undercurrent which dismisses the fact that some people ARE better at some things than others, and for the sake of the feelings of those who are not so skilled, or insightful or whatever, we should diminish the abilities of the skilled ones) reminded me of this short play:
HA! Arthur, that was not my intention. It does not mean that simply anyone can become the greatest wine taters in the world. BUt it does mean that developing tasting skills is NOT limited to only those who can.
Knowing you, I know that. it was sort of a philosophical musing. Too often, I think, telling people that becoming a skilled taster (evaluator) is next to impossible establishes a virtual Handicapper General.
And yes. I agree. Most people can learn to taste and assess. It's like juggling, playing an instrument, learning a new language.
But just like juggling, playing an instrument or speaking a new language, the student does not get to make or change the rules. They have to assimilate existing knowledge,facts, skills, terminology etc – not make their own.
Arthur – well said!
David, I have the answer for your awesomeness issues.
The other day, I was over at my son's house as he and his 8-yo daughter were on their ways out to soccer practice. The 8 yo was walking down the steps with me and looked down at her new soccer boots and said, "My shoes are awesome. I'm awesome."
It's simple enough. In your case, get some new Riedels. :-}
I feel like many people that are being introduced to the wine world feel like it is a mystical, magical world that they believe they can never penatrate. I remember reading a post by another wine blogger insisting that if anyone is going to take you seriously in the wine business you have to learn how to speak the lingo. To a certain extent I say to that, "FYC" Joe, I will send you a message and tell you what FYC is.
@mowineforu – After receiving your message on the FYC translation, I am thoroughly LMAO! :)
I agree with your essential point here Joe about ego being unnecessary, about "it's just wine." That perspective is so welcome.
I'll add to it an angle I don't see often enough.
1. I loved watching Gary V dissect wines in real time on his videos. I have a big respect for that talent. People misinterpret that talent to be related to taste. It's not exactly–it's a verbal vocabulary talent primarily, and a talent for sensory memory. It's also an intellectual talent for classifying and categorizing. I think it's a rare and wonderful thing.
2. The whole process of converting the sensory signals in anything and translating them into words is fundamentally a creative talent, the way translating notes on a page of music into a live performance is. Sure, any robot can read music, but it takes talent to bring it to life. Any amateur can write musical notes, but it takes brilliance to create music that moves people. When someone skilled at this tours me through the sensory experience of a wine, I realize just how much I miss and how much you can gain by slowing down and tuning into the sensory joy of anything in life.
As someone who has always been jazzed by people with heightened verbal skills, I never short-sell the talent required to be a great communicator–even if it's just about sensory experiences.
However, nobody likes some man or woman who mistakes their own talents as too important. Narcissus got stuck on his reflection and see what it did for him. At least he didn't have a blog. ;-)
Nick – thanks for that insightful & fantastic comment. That totally gets to the heart of what was behind this post. Cheers!
Happy long weekend, Joe! I need to admit, I find myself navigating two different extremes, especially when meeting wine professionals: one side is in total "Figure Skating at the Olympics" awe of their tasting abilities and how they can place a varietal and vintage and sometimes even a winemaker to a wine with just a few sips and sniffs. The other extreme I swing to asks "Yes, that's nice, and I saw Rain Man too. Exactly what practical benefit does your gift serve when I am a customer in your restaurant?"
I have read some heartbreaking blogs from sommeliers trying to crack the highest levels of achievement in their world (Court of Master Sommeliers; God, even the name sounds foreboding). If these folks were to tell me something along the lines of "The chase is more rewarding than the capture", I would respect that. But even then, I wonder if we are supposed to treat wine like museum pieces; to look at, but never touch (and God forbid you actually swallow!)
ChicagoPinot – nice hearing from you. I am of two minds on this as well, but when in doubt we should opt for enjoyment (the swallow? :) over awe, I think. Cheers!
Cheers from an old band mate and fellow Hawk. While I’ve enjoyed following your writing, you finally poked me into a reply.
You got close here, but let me bring it home for you. The fact is your average “expert” in most fields is a douchebag (present wine writer excluded). Further, the more inconsequential the field at issue, the bigger the douchebag (usually).
Political commentators on cables news…douchebags.
Get the point? They’ve all risen to the top of their fields through practice and dedication to their craft but…
Don’t fret. “Expert” wine writers/tasters are not expected to be immune from the douchebag gene. To the contrary, it takes a certain inner confidence (douchebaggyness, if you will) to ascend to the level of expert in any field. So, what you really meant to write was simply an apology for all those wine goobers out there who look down their nose on those of us who can’t taste those “little hints of vanilla” in that wine we just sipped. And, better yet, just don’t care to try. All we know is that it tastes good and that’s good enough.
Sure, maybe we’re missing beautiful art. Maybe we’re missing one of life’s great pleasures. Or, maybe, we’ve just chosen to focus our energies on enjoying other things on a higher level – like mathematics, or soccer, or Chia Pets. Have you been to my Chia Pet blog?
Embrace the douchebag in you but continue to keep it in its proper place.
By the way, apology accepted.
Chia-man / Joe – Man, it's awesome hearing from you! So many inside jokes I could throw out there right now… "checkoneTWOOOOOO!!!!!" Hope life is treting you well! I soooo want to see the Chia Pet blog now…
On to your awesome comments, in which I will reply attempting to use the word douchebag as much as possible:
The douchebag tendency must be suppressed, but I can't apologize for general wine expert douchebagyness (only for my own!). Not sure I understand why every true expert is also a douchebag to some extent by definition, unless you mean that anyone who explicitly and consistently describes themselves as an expert is at least partially a douchebag (in that case I think I do get it). Totally understand that being knowledgeable in one area doesn't give anyone the right to talk down to someone else about a totaly different subject in which they're more knowledgeable (one of the most awesome wine writers alive – Gerald Asher – sad the same thing at a conference keynote speech, and if that guy isn't being a duochebag then NO wine peeps have the right to be douchebagy!). Cheers!
Check out this Slate article from Mike Steinberger.
(posted June 15, 2007):
“Cherries, Berries, Asphalt, and Jam.
Why wine writers talk that way.”
By Mike Steinberger
“Drink: Wine, beer, and other potent potables” Column
Elaborating on Charlie's comment . . .
". . . given my long experience in tasting alongside winemakers here in CA, I can tell you that each palate is different regardless of how much time it has put in tasting wine. . . ."
. . . see this three-part Slate series by Mike Steinberger.
(updated June 20, 2007):
“Do You Taste What I Taste?;
The physiology of the wine critic.”
[Part 1 of 3]
By Mike Steinberger
Drink: Wine, beer, and other potent potables” Column
(updated June 21, 2007)
“Am I a Supertaster?;
The physiology of the wine critic.”
[Part 2 of 3]
By Mike Steinberger
Drink: Wine, beer, and other potent potables” Column
(updated June 22, 2007)
“Do You Want To Be a Supertaster?
The physiology of the wine critic.”
[Part 3 of 3]
By Mike Steinberger
Drink: Wine, beer, and other potent potables” Column
See W. Blake Gray's wine blog on Master Sommeliers:
And see this Los Angeles Times article on studying to be a Master Sommelier:
Joe, et. al.:
Malcolm Gladwell and Geoff Colvin on putting in the 10,000 hours to attain "true" expertise.
Excerpt from BusinessWeek “Opinion” Section
(December 1, 2008, Page 110):
“10,000 Hours to Greatness;
Malcolm Gladwell dissects the paths of super-achievers
and finds that practice beats intelligence and talent”
Book review by Catherine Arnst
The Story of Success
By Malcolm Gladwell
(Little, Brown; 309 pp.; $27.99)
. . .
What does matter, he [ Gladwell ] says, is the 10,000-hour rule. No one gets to the top unless he or she puts in 10,000 hours of practice in a field . . .
Excerpt from Fortune Magazine “Leadership” Section
(November 24, 2008, Page 160ff):
“Secrets of Their Success;
Malcolm Gladwell on what separates extraordinary achievers
from the rest of us.”
Interview by Jennifer Reingold
. . .
Forbes: What link does practice have to success?
Gladwell: The 10,000-hour rule says that if you look at any kind of cognitively complex field, from playing chess to being a neurosurgeon, we see this incredibly consistent pattern that you cannot be good at that unless you practice for 10,000 hours, which is roughly ten years, if you think about four hours a day.
Excerpt from The Wall Street Journal “Opinion” Section
(October 29, 2008, Page Unknown):
“The Hard Work of Getting Ahead”
Book review by Philip Delves Broughton
Talent Is Overrated
By Geoff Colvin
(Portfolio, 228 pages, $25.95)
This is one of the grimmer messages of Geoff Colvin's excellent "Talent Is Overrated." Mr. Colvin, a writer at Fortune, seeks to explode the notion that the talent contest among human beings ends with their genetic inheritance. Instead, he argues, great performance comes down to one thing more than any other: deliberate practice. . . . He means a disciplined focus on weakness and a relentless effort to improve. Such practice, when it is done right, is "highly demanding" and "isn't much fun." But it is necessary, not least in the world of business.
. . .
What is most useful about Mr. Colvin's book is its candor about the limits of potential. It does not suggest that you can do anything if you try. It says that starting early is a huge advantage in life. Mr. Colvin believes in the 10-year rule, by which it takes 10 years of hard work to achieve excellence in almost any important field. . . .
Bob, thanks, I’d not seen the Colvin stuff before, but it underscores the point pretty well.
Bob, thanks, I'd not seen the Colvin stuff before, but it underscores the point pretty well.
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