Breaking the Language Barrier
I was recently asked to write a ‘guest critic’ piece for Harpers Wine & Spirits magazine. It got chopped a little as these things do, so here is the piece in full:
There was a time in my not-so-distant past when my lips had never before uttered the words ‘lees’, or ‘volatile acidity’ or even ‘mouth feel’ or ‘finish’.
Although I lacked a vocabulary for wine, I was passionate about it, and communicated that passion over a glass or two to anyone who would listen.
Five years on and I find myself deeply entrenched in the wine world, scraping a living by communicating with others that very same passion, this time armed with an arsenal of words and phrases deemed appropriate to use when talking about wine. And while I understand a need for a common wine ‘language’, I also can’t help but feel that this ‘insider’ speak often hurts our industry more than it helps it. Considering none of us would even have a career if it weren’t for consumers–the people we rely on to buy the stuff we rattle on about–we’re doing a damn fine job at isolating the lot of them. A short perusal through wine-related Twitter conversations reveals industry folk speaking mostly to each other, engaging in verbal banter decipherable by only the most serious of wine geeks.
I realise that five years in the wine industry is barely a ripple in a pool of fermenting grape juice when compared to many of my colleagues, but I find that the more time I spend in the ‘biz’, the easier it is to get absorbed in what is a fantastic but often insular community (or private members club as it sometimes feels), and to forget who I’m really working for. I have to force myself to remember what it was like not to know or to care about things like ‘malo’ or ‘bret’. But my relative toddler status in this industry does help when I am communicating with consumers, as I try to cast myself back five years when wine was new and exciting, but also incredibly overwhelming; to a time when I was desperate for someone to speak to me on my level–not condescendingly but not over my head–and to assure me my questions weren’t stupid. Most importantly, I wanted someone to make wine fun (this was surprisingly hard to find).
On The Crush, the podcast I co-host with my Los Angeles based colleague, these are the things we strive for; to personalise wines, tell the stories of the people behind them and their unique land. We experiment with pairing wines with songs, or celebrities, or memories. Anything to make it fun and engaging, and to create an environment where there are never any stupid questions. The feedback has been very positive. Our listeners found that, for example, when a Malmsey Madeira was compared to Frank Sinatra’s I’ve Got You Under My Skin, they could suddenly understand the wine. And they wanted to drink it.
Don’t get me wrong, a good heated discussion on the merits of SO2 or the origins of native yeast with my colleagues can be highly fulfilling (for me). And we all feel pretty clever when talking about a wine’s high VA or slight oxidation. But while we’re busy sounding savvy, we’re not engaging the exact people this industry exists for. Let’s start talking to them, in their language.
Harper’s panel discussion about understanding consumers. It’s taking place at the London International Wine Fair on Wednesday 23rd of May at 11:30. Sign up for it HERE. Following that if you really want to overdose on yours truly, I’m co-hosting a masterclass on Lebanese wines with expert Michael Karam at 15:00 the same day. Exciting stuff!