Ordering wine is probably the most awkward moment of any night out. So why can't the people tasked with selling it to you, make the whole experience a lot easier and less stressful for everyone? This is an article I wrote for the Crown Cellars trade website, the wine and spirits arm of Carlsberg, offering some pointers potentially for their customers on how we can all be inspiring when talking about wine if we put our minds and our mouths to it.
It is noticeable the number of famous people, particularly sports stars, who will pick out an old school teacher, or coach, as being the most inspiring person to have helped them get to the top of their professions.
The ability to inspire, to teach, to educate is one of the most powerful skills any of us can possess. But how often do we stop, think and recognise it?
I too can look back at an old school teacher for helping inspire me to go on to become first a journalist and then an editor.
I am sure my old sixth form history teacher would be lost for words if he knew the career I had gone on to follow, because, quite frankly, I was one of the worst writers he had ever come across.
I know this because he used to remind me of the fact every time he handed me back an essay with a worrying number of minus signs on it.
His most inspiring moment came in response to, in his view, a particularly bad answer to a mock A level question: What are the causes of the industrial revolution?
“Siddle. Your writing is like throwing a custard pie at a dartboard. If the dartboard represents the entire industrial revolution, and double top signifies the causes of it, your solution is to throw the entire custard pie at the board, knowing it will hit double top. But crucially, Siddle, it will also hit every other single number on the board. Rendering your answer clueless, unreadable and unmarkable.”
Harsh words indeed, but I have gone on to successfully convince enough publishing companies to pay me for hitting their version of “double tops” ever since.
Wine education: seeing the wood from the trees
But I still struggle to see the wood from the proverbial trees when faced with an entirely new subject or topic. This was particularly the case when I first tried to get my head around wine.
Now I have been a big fan of drinking wine for as long as I can remember being paid enough to go and buy it. But it was only when I took on the editor’s role at Harpers Wine & Spirit back in 2007 that I had to try and actually understand what the world of wine was all about.
In the first instance it meant learning a completely different and new language if you were going to get away with talking about wine in professional circles. Which as editor of Harpers was quite an important skill to master.
I have to admit I did not take to learning about wine quite as easily as I did drinking it. In fact, to be brutally honest, I still find even today talk of minerality, acidity, high tannins, oxidation and reduction can be more than a little overwhelming.
Particularly if it is coming out of the mouth of an esteemed wine producer or internationally famous Master of Wine.
But then there’s the rub. They might all know their stuff, but how often do the very top wine experts hit “double top” when it comes to actually explaining what they know in a way their listener or audience actually genuinely understands? Very rarely in my experience.
Which means I have a bit of a love, hate relationship when it comes to formal wine training and wine education.
Wine is now part of mainstream culture
Now you only need to look at how far wine has come in the last 10 to 15 years to see how wine education and awareness has transformed the way each and every one of us now chooses to buy the wine we do.
Grape varieties such as Pinot Grigio and Sauvignon Blanc are now as easily recognised by the vast majority of drinkers as a pint of lager or gin and tonic. Chardonnay is even one of the most popular girl names in the UK.
The lowest common denominator when it comes to wine has moved up a fair few notches since the days when Paul Masson, Piat D’Or and Liebfraumilch were the UK’s top sellers.
Formal wine education has also helped transform the skills and experience of hospitality teams the length and breadth of the country. Which in turn has helped educate the wider public in better understanding and having more confidence in the wine choices they make.
The Wine & Spirit Education Trust, the main wine education body not just in the UK but now around the world, has been at the centre of this cultural change in the way we now talk and understand wine. It deserves enormous credit for the work it does.
Make wine education personal to you
But education is only part of the answer when it comes to our overall understanding of any given topic.
It is how we as individuals interpret that education, that training, and make it personal to ourselves that will help us truly understand what it means. But far more importantly it will also then help us go on and explain and talk about, for example, wine to people who have not benefited from that level of wine training in a way they can understand.
For me it is always about going back to the days when you drank wine in the same way you might do a pint of lager. Without any analysis or interpretation. Purely because you like how it tastes.
Through formal wine education you might now have a number of different words and phrases you can use to describe any given wine. But when you do, please pick the ones, or better still, think of other ways of describing a wine that really mean something to you. You will be surprised at how effective this will be when talking to someone with potentially less wine knowledge than you.
It also means the reams of wine statistics and information you have diligently learnt will all sound, fresh, original and be so much more memorable than simply regurgitating lines we have all learnt from a training book.
But he is also, along with Oz Clarke, the stand out wine personality who can describe wine in a way that is unique to him, but allows anyone of any wine ability to understand what he is talking about.
For example, his description of an unbalanced wine, which let’s face it is quite a hard concept to get across to a wine novice, is “like putting a piece of lego in your mouth”.
If only all wine educators could have, literally, his gift of the gab.
Learning about wine is a particularly powerful skill to have because we are all in our own way, whether we admit it or not, a little scared of it.
It means, like the school teachers and coaches of our youth, we have the ability and the opportunity to inspire our customers, our friends and even our family about wine in a way they have never been inspired before.
So however you get there can I urge you all to try and hit your own personal “double top” when it comes to talking about and explaining wine to your next customer.