Monday, January 20, 2020

Intimidation and shame are holding wine back

Helen Rosner, food correspondent for the New Yorker, stirred up the wine Twitterverse last week by complaining about a page on a wine list.

Her actual complaint, which wasn't clear from her first tweet, wasn't that she couldn't understand the list. Instead, she is irritated when she calls a wine something (i.e., "the Benoît Ente") and the server responds by calling it something else ("Oh, you mean the Aligoté.")

Let's put the reach of this tweet, and all wine Twitter, in perspective. This was, for wine Twitter, an enormous tweet. She got 2900 likes (as of Saturday). Also in my Twitter feed as I write this, Congressman Ted Lieu got 191,000 likes for telling Devin Nunes to shove it. (Not enough likes.) The Hill got 7,100 likes for announcing that Donald Trump was repealing Michelle Obama's school lunch rules on her birthday. (People like that?) And Professor Snape (@_Snape_) got 2600 likes for posting, "Recent studies show I hate everything." Wine Twitter is still a fishbowl.

That said, Rosner took a blender to the fishbowl with her tweet, and her subsequent aggressive stance in arguing about it. It is the latter that strikes me.

Rosner is no shrinking violet. She's fully capable of having a conversation with a sommelier, obviously, because she's willing to argue with dozens of people simultaneously. What bothers her is that she doesn't want to experience in person, however briefly, the feeling of a server correcting her.

The problem, one could argue, is hers. I get that sort of "correction" all the time too. I hadn't thought of it until her tweet. But sure, I order, "the Syrah" and get corrected to "you mean the Wind Gap?", or vice versa, all the time. I just say yes and get the wine, and I'm not offended.

But people are different in how willing they are to be embarrassed in public, and how much it takes to embarrass them. In this case, Rosner is speaking for a huge, silent population of people who don't like being shown up in restaurants.

Rosner is a food professional. She knows something about wine. She's obviously not going to have her own confidence shaken by anything a server says to her about chashu pork or grilled brassicas. But there's something special about wine, and not always in a good way.

Why is wine so intimidating? Why do people care about how strangers rate our wine knowledge?

People who aren't reading this post, I mean. Many wine professionals are willing to admit the gaps in our knowledge. (The ones who are not are insufferable and should be avoided.)

I haven't tried any of the 20 wines listed in Rosner's tweet and I don't know what I'd order from that list. And I'm not ashamed to admit it. I have some clues, sure. But I don't have any idea what grape variety the three wines from Alsace are, and I'm not ashamed to say it. Very unashamed, because I could have looked them up on Wine Searcher in less time than it took to write this paragraph. The shame, or lack thereof, is the point. Why should I feel shame in asking, "What grape variety is that?" But people do. Even an obviously confident, knowledgeable food professional.

If Rosner feels shame, even for a moment, imagine the intimidation and shame felt by the average diner. This is why, if you read the comments on practically any Eric Asimov or Dave McIntyre story, several people will say, "I just drink beer." They want to shift the conversation in a way that makes them feel in control again.

These are not new observations. Many smart people who sell wine, and write about wine, are aware that as a whole, the wine industry needs to be less intimidating. But we still aren't very good at it.

I often wonder whether the emphasis on formal wine education is a good thing. Nobody takes classes to learn about what kind of beer or vodka to drink; they just order. Wine is a good deal more complicated, sure, but I wonder if we're telling people that you can't just order something if you don't know what it is.

With wine sales in the U.S. actually dropping for the first time in 25 years, and millennials not buying into wine as much as previous generations, people on the front lines of selling wine need to think about intimidation and shame. They should thank Rosner for saying something that thousands of possible wine consumers are likely thinking. What do I call this wine? How do I pronounce it?

The idea that "people should just talk to the sommelier" is misguided.

I love talking to the sommelier! Because I am confident in my level of wine knowledge, but the sommelier knows more about her wines, and that doesn't intimidate me in the slightest. I am unusual and I know it. I have plenty of friends who are not in the wine business who would prefer not to consult with a sommelier because of intimidation and possible shame. It's best to gradually disabuse them of that notion by being approachable, as most sommeliers are.

But there are many dining circumstances when nobody at the table wants to show that they are not a wine expert. On a date, or a business dinner, or even when dining alone, it's not necessarily that somebody needs to show off that they know wine. It's that they don't want to be exposed as not knowing wine -- and they fear talking to the sommelier will show that, because it kind of does. This is why so many non-wine sites recommend simple strategies for dealing with a wine list that have nothing to do with the wine and certainly nothing to do with the sommelier; i.e., order the second-cheapest bottle.

A good wine list should give enough information so that no conversation is necessary -- at least about entry-level wines. Wines by the glass should have brief descriptions. Some of the bottles should too, so people who don't want to feel exposed can feel confident in ordering something. If a restaurant has a 200-bottle list, it doesn't need descriptions for all of them. But it should put, say, 25 bottles that are friendly to the cuisine up front with brief descriptions. This is friendly to many diners who otherwise might just order beer.

And let's listen to Rosner on this. Why not put in bold text how the wine should be referred to? Like Ridge Geyserville (Zinfandel-based field blend). And train servers to use it: if I order the Geyserville because it's in bold, don't say, "You mean the Ridge?"

Rosner irritated some people with her tweet, but it's possible those are the people who most need to hear it. Those of us who aren't easily intimidated about wine knowledge should be more aware of how unusual we are, and more accommodating to everyone else.

Follow me on Twitter: @wblakegray and Instagram @wblakegray and like The Gray Report on Facebook.


Bob Rossi said...

Unless it's unclear which wine the diner ordered, the server should not do what the server did here. So if someone ordered the Chateau de Beru, the server should ask which one, since there are 2. But otherwise, there are no wines that could cause confusion unless the diner grossly mispronounces the name.

AustinBeeman said...

The correct response from a server in most situations is, "Oh the *complete name?* Wonderful choice. You'll love it."

tercero wines said...

Great post and one that illustrates a real problem with wine being able to attract new customers. But let's make it even simpler - go to a nice wine bar or restaurant and ask for a glass of white zin. Not only is there a good chance that they won't have it, but they might make you feel 'wrong' for asking for it, and other consumers most likely will as well.

At the end of the day, why does our industry 'push' wines on folks rather than letting them find what they like? And why do we feel that some wines are 'below' us and therefore we need to let others know this?


MichaelRobb said...

There is a lot of intimidation and fear for many when ordering from a wine list. As a sommelier guilty of this I would add sometimes it’s just a verification of the wine ordered since many times I can’t see what page the guest is ordering from. Not that the guest ordered “incorrectly.” Agree with AustinBeeman that repeating back the complete name would be the best way, though some may perceive that as a “correction” as well.

JES said...

Spot on! Let me take this a step further. We have had a tasting room for 30 years...people who come are already going to drink and choose wine. I have seen everything from the wine geeks who want to know clones, soil type, etc to the everyday person who just wants to try it. And I have seen the everyday person who is INTIMIDATED because they can't pronounce a variety correctly so they won't order....or they think they should like the reserve because it costs more!

My answer has always been that the beauty of wine is that there is no wrong answer! You like what you like. The depth of the your article is a whole other level...but the title of the blog is what we really need to get a grip on...."intimidation and Shame"! The 10% of discerning wine drinkers can geek out and go into depth. The rest of the consumers just need to feel comfortable in drinking wine and we need to NOT drive them away!

Doug Charles said...

I am a wine professional and have been for over 40 years. Bravo Blake! If there is one thing I HATE about this business, is the feeling that some have that fermented grapes are somehow more special than fermented cabbage. It isn't. The recent rush for professional accreditation (the little letters after a wine geek's name), has not helped matters. It seems that too many wine professionals in restaurants and retail want to prove how much smarter they are, rather than help. Is writing a 'curated' wine list, which is too confusing for seasoned diners really the right way to sell wine? Not in my book. Wine sales may be down in this country, but not in my shop. We just had the best year in the nearly 20 years we have been open. Maybe it is because my staff speaks to our customers like human beings, not as if they are some holier than thou purveyor of some exalted beverage, who must demean themselves to actually help the folks who want to give us money. If wineries and restaurants see their sales lagging, maybe it is time for an attitude adjustment.

tercero wines said...


Great post - and thanks for doing so. I am not a fan of 'curated' wine lists by those 'pushing an agenda' such as only Croation wines with wineries ending in the letter R - to me, this is distancing our industry from potential customers rather than embrace them.

Here's the reality - the more info you put forth on the wine list, the less you need to 'depend' upon your staff to hand sell and the more 'ammo' customers will have to order what they may actually want.

Keep on posting!


Paul Wagner said...

Nice column, Blake. Keep it up!

Unknown said...

There are no words for how much I love this piece. THANK YOU.

Douglas Trapasso said...

>>>I often wonder whether the emphasis on formal wine education is a good thing. Nobody takes >>>classes to learn about what kind of beer or vodka to drink; they just order. Wine is a good >>>deal more complicated, sure, but I wonder if we're telling people that you can't just order >>>something if you don't know what it is.

I blame The Movie. I'm sure Jason Wise is a cool dude, and there are other docs he has made (such as the one about Rose Marie), that I would love to see. But The Movie just kicked into overdrive the insecurity so many of us feel when we encounter wine or anyone associated with the industry. I know I'm an outlier here, but I am convinced the Conventional Wisdom (TM) within the wine community is going to turn in the next couple of years and more industry folks will acknowledge that The Movie was a net negative for them.

Mine Lamps said...

I'm more in the camp to tell Ted Lieu to shove it. I digress.

Just like one has to ruin a great wine subject with one's own soapbox.

W. Blake Gray said...

Mine Lamps: It's my blog. There are exit doors all around. Please use one.