Getting Started

It is September 2016. I have recently passed the Introductory course of the Court of Master Sommeliers program. I sit here on my couch watching some football, a tad dusty from the previous evening’s celebration of my accomplishment. I have approximately 52 weeks to prepare for the Certified Exam which will be held in Tucson next September 2017. I need to figure out how to order my ideas and where I will find time to write a chapter every week given the responsibilities of my day-job as a professor. I will need to balance my academic writing with my writing on wine. Enjoyment or job performance, tough choice! 

Deciding what to write about each week has its own challenges. Is there a natural order to my ideas? Or, do I simply traipse through various topics like wine lists, accessories, tasting etiquette, labels, terrior, semiotics, or connoisseurship as I wish? I have started a list of topics and have over thirty-five at this point. I am hoping the other fifteen will come to me as I progress throughout the year. As I rummage through the various notes I have written down in preparation for writing my first chapter, one set of notes catches my eye. I have gathered many observations and ideas from the various novels and magazine articles I have been reading that involved wine and travel. I have come to the conclusion that many of the stories I read had a particular symmetry, an essence that when boiled down to its central theme went something like this: 

I am an old, rather wealthy white man and I have been places and tasted wines that many of you have not, or will not. Ever, You won’t even see some of the bottles I have seen, except in wine magazines. Good for me! I have a discerning palate that most of you will never acquire no matter the length of your study or the amount of wines you have consumed. Sorry. Where your wine acumen comes from limited experiences, mine is passed down directly from the wine Gods. I have been blessed in so many ways. Mostly on my tongue and in my sensitive nose, which I have insured with Lloyds of London for gobs of money. I was just in (insert name of secluded vineyard or winery here) when I was lucky enough (or rich enough, or connected enough) to be invited by (insert name of famous, yet hard to reach, vintner or negociant here) when he or she asked me to sample some wines from a vintage that probably won’t be available to the general public… AND, IT CHANGED MY LIFE!

Now this may seem a bit harsh. A hyper-critical way to start a book about something I have come to love so deeply, but one of the major points of this book is to poke a bit of fun at the whole enterprise. So, it seems only fitting to take a swing at some of the stories shared by the most celebrated personalities in the wine industry right off (without mentioning names, of course). I have never met, nor probably won’t ever meet, many of the better-known names in the wine world. The closest I will come is watching them in various documentaries, seeing them on television shows, or listening to them on  podcasts. 

I have listened to countless hours of podcasts and watched most of the better known documentaries and wine series and it seems to me there is always a bit of arrogance that comes with wine knowledge. This realization started in my certification course as mentioned in the introduction, and continues as I delve deeper into the literature and information. Now don’t get me wrong, I believe that some people in fact do know more about things than other people and should be celebrated as experts in their field. In fact, I have made my whole career as a professor on this vary foundation. 

In addition, I am not trying to be snarky on purpose. I am not trying to sound smarter by putting people down that know more about wine than I do. And, there are many, many people that fit into this category. What I am trying to say is that there seems to be a sense of entitlement that comes with being a wine expert that doesn’t seem to come with being, say an expert on dung beetles. The moniker of the “wine snob” seems alive and well and rears its ugly head in the most usual, and unusual, places and times… in wine stores, at wine tastings, at Christmas parties, in the wine class (definitely), and at the vineyard.

Here is a sampling of a wine description found in some wine writing: 

On the palate, the wine begins with peeled Laraha orange skin, fresh lemon zest, dehydrated pineapple, fresh black cherries, dried cranberries, chopped bell pepper, and something like the heart and crema of a good espresso shot combined. A snapshot of damp forest floor, mushrooms, black truffle, and wet rock remain on my palate for quite a while afterwards. 

Really? Specifying the type of orange skin? If this type of writing isn’t begging for some sarcasm, then you should stop reading this book now and start sniffing some Laraha orange skin so you really know what you are talking about. Can my palate ever be delicate enough to discern the type of orange and the orchard it was harvested from? I doubt it. However, I do think I can talk like this if I have to, which brings me to my point of this book. I want to be clear, this book is not actually a book about how to buy wine or about how to drink wine, it is a book about learning how to talk about wine or learning a “discourse of wine.” It is important to define what I mean by the concept discourse of wine. According to noted literacy scholar James Paul Gee, a Discourse (with a big D) is a way of talking, acting, dressing, and communicating that evolves in cultural, political, historical, and social contexts, founded upon the needs, desires, interests, and workings of groups of people. 

Connecting his social theory to wine means that a discourse of wine is a process of learning to talk, act, dress, and communicate like a wine drinker, critic, vintner, retailer, negociant, or collector. It is about becoming a member of a particular community of practice, a group of people connected through shared interests and activities working towards various goals and purposes. In this case, the goal may well be the proliferation and avocation of wine consumption, appreciation, and critical review. 

Observing, analyzing, and developing a discourse of wine is one of the goals of writing this book. I want to learn about wine as much as learn about how people talk about wine. I have set the goal of taking the Certified Sommeliers Exam by September 2017. In order to be successful in this endeavor, I will need to learn the basic theories of wine, how to taste and identify wine varietals, professionally serve wine in a restaurant setting, and most importantly talk about wine in a particular way. In other words, I will have to learn the discourse of wine to be successful.

© Frank Serafini 2019