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Don't Know Much About Enology

When it comes to wine, what's better: technical knowledge or on-the-job training?

Posted: Jul 17, 2014 10:50am ET

By Mitch Frank

I'm typing this with one finger. I awoke with a nagging pain in the tip of my right index finger. It will probably go away in a day, with no need for amputation, but it's causing trouble typing, which is a problem, because I make my living writing. It's a bigger problem because I never learned to properly type. I only use two fingers.

There, I've admitted my shame. I have spent my career ignoring eight fingers, simply pecking at the keys with two. I'm pretty fast, but of course I'd be faster if I actually knew what I was doing. With one finger down, my typing efficiency has been slashed 50 percent.

As I sit here pecking away, it reminds me of the difference between formal learning and practical experience. See, I didn't major in journalism in college either; my school didn't offer it. I spent several years working on a collegiate newspaper, learning my craft by doing and failing. My clips got me into the trenches at Time Inc., where I kept training on the job. I learned from some of the best in the business. I also learned from my dumb mistakes.

Wine has its own duality of school of books versus school of real world. Once upon a not-so-long-ago time, most American sommeliers got their jobs because they were the only waiter who actually drank wine. "Like wine, kid?" the owner would ask one day, handing them the list. "You're wine director. Don't screw up."

As diners have grown more thirsty, sommeliers have gone to school. The Court of Master Sommeliers, in particular, has worked to raise standards by making sure more wine people receive proper training. Anyone who saw the documentary Somm knows that the highest level, Master Sommelier, requires intense focus, discipline and a willingness to put your love life on hold while you immerse yourself completely in wine (not literally, sadly).

We've all enjoyed better service because of these efforts. But a fancy pin and initials mean nothing if a sommelier doesn't know how to relate to customers and make their dining experience enjoyable. That takes personality and practice, not flashcards and tasting grids.

On the other side of the supply chain, not so long ago most winemakers learned their craft by listening to their fathers tell them what to do. Wineries were family businesses, handed down through generations who also passed down their wisdom. Dads handed sons pruning shears and said, "You work for me. Don't screw up."

Now even winemakers with a long legacy earn enology degrees. Is that a good thing? Well, it's raised the quality floor for wine—the vast majority of wine made today is technically sound, something you couldn't say 30 years ago.

But almost any winemaker will tell you, wine is varied and unpredictable and the best way to learn is to make the stuff. Vineyards and wineries impart new lessons every vintage to even the most experienced winemakers. Sometimes you just have to peck away and learn on the job.

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