We live in an age of extreme subjectivism. Nothing anymore—or so it seems—is “good” or “bad” or even “mediocre.” The mantra of the moment is that if you like something, then it is by definition good.
Yet fine wine, of all things, tells us differently. The mere existence of the category, which even the most ardent anti-elitist could not deny, informs us that not all wines are created equal. Anybody who has thoughtfully sipped even just a handful of wines knows, as George Orwell so memorably put it in Animal Farm: “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”
So who’s to say which wines are more equal than others? The answer is not, as some put-‘em-up-against-the-wall egalitarians would have you believe, one or another “authoritarian” critic or, ahem, columnist. Rather, the answer lies in the free and democratic realm of “connoisseurship.”
That very word raises hackles. So much so that it’s virtually forbidden in contemporary wine conversation. When was the last time you heard someone called a “connoisseur”? Yet the fact is that this very word, and all it implies, saves us from the dreaded authoritarian critics, or to use the most frequently invoked term, experts.
I have never met a “universal taster.” I have never met someone, no matter how astute or acute, who can taste all wines equally well. It’s simply not possible. You cannot be a connoisseur of all types of wines. To be truly knowing about, say, Sherry, represents a unique realm of knowledge. Could the same person be equally knowledgeable about Barolo? Sure. But it won’t come from a simple transfer of knowledge, like moving your e-mail contacts list from your laptop to your cell phone.
The root of the word connoisseur, the French verb connaître, to know or be familiar with, says it all. Connoisseurs know their particular subject or interest. Because of this, they can choose to dismiss the judgment of one or another so-called expert not merely because they disagree about style—a connoisseur knows better than that—but because they know about what’s real and fundamental and worthwhile about a category of wine.
What connoisseurs have is insight. And that takes time, exposure and careful consideration. Not least, it takes empathy. Simply put, you have to have a feel for certain wines. They have to speak to you. This is why, in my own case, I’ll never be a connoisseur of Sherry (I don’t like oxidation) or Champagne (ditto for bubbles).
How many “realms of knowledge” can you acquire? Can you be a connoisseur in dozens of such realms? Not a chance. Oh sure, you can acquire a good tasting facility. You can—and should—know about such foundational elements as complexity, balance, nuance, finesse and the like. But how these fundamental elements are put together and which of them rings your chimes, as it were, will shape your receptivity and ultimately your insightfulness.
You have a passion for big Barossa Shirazes? Good on ya, mate. But you’ll forgive me if I entertain some doubt about your availability to something more delicate, such as the light-hued Poulsard grape grown in France’s Jura district. Mind you, I’m not saying that we all can’t enjoy a wide variety of wines. I’m talking insight here. I’m talking judgment.
So what should you as an aspiring taster—even as a newbie—do? The first order of business is to recognize that the foundation of connoisseurship is that what you like isn’t necessarily what is good. If you can’t do that, well, you’ll just be a self-indulgent wine taster, fooling yourself daily into thinking that because you like something it therefore is “good.”
That accepted, the next step is what I like to call the delirium of pursuit. You sample, you taste, you buy, you read, you travel, you talk to producers and fellow wine lovers. You immerse yourself in whichever kind of wine excites your passion, all the while navigating past the rocks of I like it/I don’t like it, and steering instead for insight.
And here’s the key: If you don’t get it, say so. Not everything about fine wine is obvious or even that clear. I’ll never forget walking through the vineyards of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti many years ago with Lalou Bize-Leroy, who is a co-owner of the estate and was then co-director.
I was a wine pup and knew exceedingly little of those fabled vineyards, although I had tasted precious sips at several different tastings. As we gazed at the namesake Romanée-Conti vineyard I confessed that, in my limited and decidedly uninformed experience, I really couldn’t see why Romanée-Conti was considered the greatest of them all.
To my immense surprise, Lalou replied, “It took me 20 years to discover why Romanée-Conti is the greatest of them all.”
Now that’s connoisseurship.