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Drinking Out Loud

The Word That Dares Not Speak Its Name

Why connoisseurship must speak up

Matt Kramer
Posted: February 19, 2013

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.

Eric Pottmeyer
Portland, OR USA —  February 19, 2013 6:23pm ET
Amen! The idea of connoisseurship is perhaps the single most important concept one can learn in their pursuit of wine, or whatever else drives you. In my favorite book about wine, one Matt Kramer's Making Sense of Wine, the idea of connoisseurship is made clear and it's importance paramount.

"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.”" This statement is hard for a lot of folks, but is true for everyone who wants to truly enjoy wine.

Eric Pottmeyer

Sec Wines
Brian Adams
Glenview, IL —  February 19, 2013 9:25pm ET
Spot-on again, Mr. Kramer! I may not have the skills to differentiate between the finest Dolcettos, but I sure can tell you which ones go best with thin-crust pizza!
Scott Fitzgerald
Dallas, TX —  February 19, 2013 9:31pm ET
Matt, very well said. Thank you for this insightful article.
Vince Liotta
Elmhurst, Il —  February 20, 2013 4:00pm ET
I see it exactly the opposite. Real "knowledge" implies the ability to step back and see objectively, which should not preclude this ability over various styles and types. Conversely, it is the one who simply "knows what he/she likes", who cannot transcend that typicity and see objectively styles which differ from it.

Reggie Mcconnell
Terre Haute, IN —  February 21, 2013 5:13pm ET
“It took me 20 years to discover why Romanée-Conti is the greatest of them all.”

Hi Matt:

This is analogous to the high-end audio critic who needs the better part of a year to distinguish minute differences between two $50,000 amplifiers. If the differences are so miniscule as to require a year (or 20) to discern then perhaps the “difference” itself is inconsequential to all but the most obsessive/compulsive among us.

In any given year La Tache or Chambertin can eclipse Romanée-Conti and vice versa. Moreover, the difference will probably be so slight as to be rendered irrelevant to anyone but the owner of the vineyard declared "best."

The entire process takes on a certain comedic feature after a time.
Dennis D Bishop
Southeast Michigan, USA —  February 22, 2013 2:49pm ET
We get but one chance to walk by this way... so smell them damn roses! (carefully)
Sciences Po Millesimes
Paris, France —  February 25, 2013 12:12pm ET
Great piece, once again Matt...

I like the idea of realms of knowledge and agree with it as I know that my own current knowledge of wine was built by hanging around with people who are true experts of a specific type of wine or region, they are really the ones you learn from...

But where exactly do you set the frontiers of a given realm of connoisseurship?

Can one drinker be considered a "connoisseur" you if he/she declares him/herself to be a specialist of, say, Pinot Noir?
or does he/she need to reduce the frontiers of the realm to Burgundy, or maybe only Côte-de-Nuits?
Maybe even to a specific village like Vosne-Romanée, or maybe to that one parcel of Romanée-Conti that took Madame Bize-Leroy 20 years to understand, even with easy access to all vintages of the wine she fancied to taste?

I guess the limits of any given realm depend on the appreciation of the taster itself, but also on that of the person they are trying to convince of their connoisseurship...

Best regards from Paris,

Philippe-Alexandre Bernatchez
David Bidwell
Cardiff, CA —  February 26, 2013 11:28am ET
I have to completely disagree with Vince L. above who is confusing knowledge with wisdom/experience. One can have a complete knowledge of a subject but never experience it. The truth of the matter is that wine tasting is an experience requiring the senses in which the mind takes a back seat. What does it taste like to you? Of course ignoring what the critics say. And experience is paramount. Knowledge can help you gain experience faster, but no amount of knowledge can substitute for (personal) experience.
Steve Buck
Pleasanton,CA —  March 3, 2013 1:58pm ET
Bottom line - Wine Spectator scores guide connoisseurship and sales for a lot of people. So do Top #100 lists. I think George Orwell would call the people who blindly follow these scores/rankings to be the "sheep".

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