Connoisseurship

                       The connoisseur tasts does not drink wine, but tastes its secrets.

                                                                                                                                Salvador Dali

The word “connoisseur” appears in many wine publications and in the title of several books, including The Accidental Connoisseur by Lawrence Osborne. This book is subtitled “an irreverent journey through the wine world.” His book is a series of eloquent travel memoires, however his perspective is not as irreverent as the subtitle may suggest. Mr. Osborne seems to be solidly embedded as a member of the old guard, defining taste for future generations, suggesting taste is a French and English invention stemming from the 1700s, and that it requires extensive training and time spent with wine.

Mr. Osborne suggests biological tasting mechanisms are universal, with no one person provided with much more sensory equipment than any other (though some, like Robert Parker Jr. have in fact claimed just that). However, he does state that taste has no subjective truth that can be measured, but can only be developed by actions (drinking wine) which is a form of pleasure itself. A point of which I agree, though he goes on to suggest there are some truths that only experienced wine tasters (connoisseurs) will have access.

So, what are the requirements for connoisseurship or being a connoisseur? I would suggest the following three ideas: experience, reflection, and communication. You have to experience the world of wine, think about it, and be able to share with others what you have learned to be a connoisseur.

Experience seems to be at the forefront of the characteristics necessary for one to be considered a connoisseur. You need to drink a lot of wine to become a connoisseur, but not in the way an alcoholic or vagrant drinks it. As mentioned previously, you must taste wine, not drink it. Experience is required to have sampled enough wine to assemble tasting profiles of various wines, usually so you can identify them in blind tastings. Experience also is associated with travel, visits to famous vineyards and wineries, and meeting other famous wine drinkers.

Reflection is just a fancy word for thinking. I usually refers to thinking about something that has already happened (we don’t reflect on the future). There is no use in having all these wine experiences if we don’t think about them, deeply. There are usually associations with cognition and reflection.

I use the umbrella term communication as a category that includes writing, talking, lecturing, and other modes of sharing ideas. It doesn’t matter if someone has had experiences if they are unable to share them with novice wine drinkers. In fact, an investigation into the various processes of communication is the primary focus of this book. In other words, it is vital to think about how we use words and other modalities to explain what we know about researching, growing, purchasing, and tasting wine.

Jancis Robinson, one of the most respected wine experts in the world (it says so on her book cover) has written a book called The 24-Hour Wine Expert, though I don’t think she believes that is possible in any way to become an expert in 24 hours, but it's a catchy, suggestive title. She asserts that the book will only focus on the essential qualities necessary, concentrating on what really matters.

I think the word expert is used in this instance in much the same way as connoisseur is but it’s not as fancy a term. Though the dictionary definition of connoisseur is “an expert judge in matters of taste,” experts seem to have acquired technical skills, whereas connoisseurs have aesthetic prowess and other more worldly attributes.

Without seemingly blowing my own horn, I am considered an expert on elementary literacy education. Schools and educational institutions regularly invite me to speak to and work with teachers and literacy educators. However, no one refers to me as a connoisseur of literacy education. Maybe in the sciences you are considered an expert, and in the arts are considered a connoisseur.

So how does the critic differ from the expert or connoisseur? A critic is a person that engages in the act of criticism, which seems to have a different connotation than connoisseur. Where a connoisseur lives with a particular phenomenon or subject, a critic passes judgment on these things. However, these definitions do intersect at times, where a connoisseur is described as a person who is especially competent to pass critical judgments in an art or matters of taste.

The term critic too often is seen as someone with more expertise than our own that communicates judgments about things to help us decide whether to experience them or not, for example a movie, play, or book. A deeper look into the word reveals a more educational aspect to the position. A critic should help others, especially less experienced persons, enjoy and understand something, in this case wine.

© Frank Serafini 2019