Despite working in the industry, I still garner a nervous sweat when approaching a well-crafted wine menu. I clam up at blind tastings. Shoot, I even sink during guided tastings! Anxieties ranging from etiquette woes (am I jerk for dirtying up this glass by wearing lip gloss?) to pronunciation pains (Vacqueryas? Beerenauslese? Rías Baixas? WTF?) zap all the fun from drinking in public. I’m an old maid now, drinking alone with my cats, trapped in the awkward realm between confident expertise and impregnable ignorance. I should know more, yet I don’t. Why do I feel this way? Maybe it’s a self esteem issue; maybe it’s just my anxiety; or maybe I really do need to invest a couple thousand dollars more in my wine education. Or, maybe everyone drinking wine with me is just a snob.
To assuage my viticultural grief, I put my English degree to use and sought out Hemingway as my guide. I believe, for once, that Hemingway comforts me the most in this circumstance: “we thought of wine as something healthy and normal as food and also a great giver of happiness and well-being and delight. Drinking wine was not snobbism nor a sign of sophistication nor a cult; it was as natural as eating and to me as necessary, and I would not have thought of eating a meal without drinking either wine or cider or beer.”
Huh. Drinking wine isn’t snobbism? Since when? Can this Moveable Feast passage please be posted as a disclaimer on every issue of Wine Spectator and printed on every banner welcoming every drinker into American vineyards? Surely readers will trust a Nobel Prize winner, right? Hemingway, an American oft in Europe, understands the fault we have as wine drinkers: we’re snobby. Maybe it’s because we had to fight for global wine recognition, or maybe it’s because we have Mommy issues and fetishize the Old World. Regardless of cause, there’s no other way to put it: American wine drinkers are complete, inexcusable snobs.
So many people fear wine, yet the whole point of wine is for sustenance, enjoyment, and to complement food. As members of a community of practice—from sample girls to sommeliers—it is absolutely our social and professional responsibility to foster a welcoming environment for newbies. Create easy-to-follow wine lists. Use simpler synonyms. Don’t fool yourself that anyone is impressed by your unique knowledge of wine, because you aren’t the first and you won’t be the last to have those ideas. I say this not to kill a spirit of exploration and sharing, but to deconstruct walls and help people (i.e.: me) be less sweaty in our establishments.
There’s this wacky human idea that more knowledge = more formalities, and that more formalities can’t = more fun. None of that makes any sense, unless your idea fun is to be an inaccessible prick (for some that’s true, and I kindly request that you keep your thoughts and opinions to yourself forever and always until you find yourself in a special part of Hell alongside Jeffrey Steingarten). If you have $1300 to spare, dine at Alinea and experience relaxed expertise for yourself. They present some of the most intellectual food out there, yet the service is relaxed and instructional, and, most importantly, fun. The service is, of course, perfected, and is proof that landmark institutions can do better than be assholes. Assholes get $1 tips on $12 cocktails. Authentic interactions from servers who want to share their expertise get 3 Michelin stars.
The wine industry can learn so much from Hemingway, Alinea, and even public schools. A teacher myself, I understand the need to differentiate instruction, scaffold lessons, and act as an encouraging, motivating coach to my students. Public middle schools are the last place where pride is appropriate, and I feel like that’s our best strength: being humble. No matter your industry role, you can use these skills to spread the joys of wine to others. Don’t compare a human’s worth to their knowledge of wine or which certification path they choose. That’s not what it’s about no more than teaching literacy is about “worth.”
For our industry to grow, American wine professionals need to grow too. That might mean visiting France, or it might mean cultivating a new friendship with someone who doesn’t have time for your shit. Either way, I challenge you to find your path and try to not impress a single person for a week. After that week, assess. See what mental mechanisms you used to block or change your rhetoric. Be more forgiving of your patrons for ordering Kim Crawford, and don’t feel the need to emphatically confirm “Chianti” after they’ve said, “shi-NOT-ee.” It just isn’t necessary. Hop on board with the Heming-way, and we’ll be better in the long term for it.