"I am always ready to learn, although I do not always like being taught."—Winston Churchill
Every day, it seems, we read or hear about dissatisfactions in American schools, from kindergarten through post-doctoral training. You know the issues as well as I do. Either there's too much emphasis on testing, or too little emphasis on accountability, for teachers and students alike.
Regardless of where you stand on these matters, it's fair to say that how we learn—and how we prefer to learn—is radically different today than it was just a few decades ago.
Wine is not exempt from this. After all, fine-wine appreciation absolutely requires a learning curve. Granted, some fine wines are almost instantly, intuitively understood (Moscato d'Asti) while others require more than a little application and repetition before their particular beauty is grasped (Barolo).
But how we go about acquiring fine-wine appreciation has changed. Our modern attitude about the learning experience has transformed. Time was—and it was not so long ago—that you had so-called "wise men" who spoke from on high about how to understand fine wine.
Typically, these sages were significantly older, grayer, and surely stodgier, than their students. But they did know their stuff, however narrow their field of inquiry. Yet the nature of both their appreciation and the way they transmitted it was very nearly antique. It was classic "top down": They lectured and we dutifully took notes.
As I was showing some Italian friends around Napa Valley last week this memory came back forcefully. Everything about Napa Valley today is really one big learning experience, with not a "wise man" type in sight.
Depending upon your level of interest, you can absorb knowledge from the most basic level—how to hold a wineglass and the best way to smell a wine—at wineries that welcome casual visitors without an appointment. Or you can experience intense, detailed discussions with winegrowers who welcome "wine-serious" visitors by appointment. The entire spectrum of learning is available with not a whiff of old-style teaching.
What's more, the learning hardly begins or ends at the winery door. Fine dining today is as much a wine-education experience as any formal classroom. Sommeliers stand at the ready, if not so much to instruct as to guide, and maybe even nudge a bit should a guest invite that.
And let's not forget, in the same context, the intrinsic "learning experience" of modern glassware. I don't think that any of us can forget—however normal an experience it may now be for many wine-drinkers today—the first time we explored wine through the lens of one or another Riedel glass intended for a specific grape variety or type of wine.
Those glasses were a revelation, a true learning experience, even for the most sophisticated wine lovers. (Robert Mondavi famously confessed that he doubted a wineglass could make such a difference, and willingly, even eagerly, recanted that opinion.) Newcomers to fine wine receive this "instruction" every time they have a fine-dining experience, so ubiquitous are these sorts of wineglasses in good restaurants.
The modern learning experience arrives in ways no one could have predicted a few decades ago. I mean, did anyone really think that they’d be instructed in fine wine while sitting in an airplane? Yet today, especially if you're fortunate enough to be flying business class, you not only are offered an array of fine wines to drink but also given printed information about the particular distinctions of those wines.
And then there's the learning experience of the likes of Eataly in New York, which manages not merely to seduce shoppers into spending eye-opening amounts on artisanal Italian foodstuffs and wines, but also cleverly insinuates a remarkable amount of information about those same items. The education is effortlessly absorbed.
Not least is the overarching presence of the Internet and social media in modern life. Information and, especially, opinions are beamed to us incessantly.
Everyone is his or her own authority, with an electronic lectern from which to opine, instruct or ask questions.
All of this—the popularity of winery touring in many states, not just California; the use of palate-expanding wineglass shapes; the widespread availability of interesting restaurant wine lists; the growing presence of sommeliers or wine-savvy servers; the presence of fine-wine instruction in unlikely places such as airplanes and grocery stores; the ubiquity of websites, message boards and social media in general—has transformed our learning experience.
Although conventional teaching still exists—and still is sought—the fact is that what might be called the Churchillian approach has never been more prevelant than it is today. We now expect to learn more by experience, through a kind of teaching osmosis, than by direct instruction.
Here's the question: Have we lost something as a result?
While the democratization and ease of the modern learning experience is indisputably wonderful, it's not without a certain cost. Has the nature and depth of our wine appreciation become more shallow and less informed as a consequence? Has the ooze of omnipresent opinion and the superficiality of much of the winery-touring experience led to flashier, shallower, instantly understood sorts of wines?
There's no question in my mind that today's wine-learning experience is far more accommodating and supportive than the old school. But make no mistake: A price is paid as well.
Really understanding fine wine is not, in fact, a quick no-need-to-think thing. Granted, it's not that hard. But fine wine is a language of sorts. Acquiring and sifting carefully through its many details and then collating them into an insightful whole is not just a matter of a high self-esteem sip-and-spit.
There's still a place for "wise men and women"—whether professionals or not—don't you think?