Wine-speak is gradually falling into the hands of those who seek to demystify or de-ritualise it
Magandeep Singh, the country's first French-certified sommelier, who I heard speak informally to a wine-loving audience the other day, got me thinking about the changing face of the wine professional. For years, someone such as Michael Broadbent, the hugely influential former director of the Christies wine department, exemplified the expert — tastefully (if somewhat starchily) upper class, refined in manner and opinion, earnest in expression, and orthodox about the rituals and the customs of the wine world.
With his studded ears, his tattoos, and his casually chic manner, Magan (as he likes to be known) is nothing like your regulation stodgy wine connoisseur. If anything, he represents a growing band of wine experts who are changing the way wine is spoken about and, in turn, altering attitudes towards it. In his talk, Magan set out to expose some wine myths — or some authoritatively settled dogmas — about how it should be drunk. Example: ‘Is it all right to put ice into your wine on a hot day in order to cool it?' Abbreviated answer: ‘Why not? Sangria is drunk with ice all the time.' Or more controversially: ‘If a bottle of red you have bought is oppressively tannic, is it kosher to blend a little white in to make it more agreeable? Abbreviated answer: ‘Sure it is. After all, Chianti was traditionally made by blending Sangiovese with a couple of Italian white varietals.'
Agree or no, wine-speak is gradually falling into the hands of those who seek to demystify (or de-ritualise) it. The most successful (and possibly most controversial) advocate of this unpretentious, unbuttoned approach to wine appreciation is easily Gary Vaynerchuk, whose video blog (www.tv.winelibrary.com) has a massive cult following and whose Twitter feed boasts of almost a million followers. Vaynerchuk positions himself as an anti-wine snob and his calculated unattractive ways are designed to reach out to as many people as possible (not just your posh upper-class Petrus-quaffing toff.)
He makes scatological sounds as he swirls the wine noisily in his mouth, uses a tacky New York Jets bucket as a spittoon, and has been known to liken the nose of a wine (as he did on the Conan O' Brien talk show) to a “sheep's butt”. Often, his tasting notes (if this is the right expression for them) sound anything but pretty. If he detects a hint of cigar, sweaty sock, or dirt in a wine — which he routinely does — he is likely to persuade you to have a nibble to understand how the wine tastes.
Vaynerchuk is a big advocate of cheaper wines and, in the process, overturns received opinion by strongly pitching for say a moderately priced glass of American bubbly over a Moet & Chandon. He is big on Portugal for value-for-money just as he is (and quite rightly) on those from the Rhone, which are far better priced than their cousins in Bordeaux or Burgundy. The ascendance of wine experts such as Vaynerchuk is paralleled by a major change in the pattern of wine consumption, away from a small band of crusty wine snobs to an emerging group of down-to-earth budget-conscious wine drinkers. These are people who are shifting from such things as beer and whiskey, neophytes who are comfortable with his laid back (and often clownish and outrageous) approach to wine.
Vaynerchuk is an extreme example, but he is also part of a process towards the universalisation of wine that began some four decades ago. The 1976 Judgment of Paris, which saw Californian wines best famous Bordeauxs and Burgundies in a blind tasting, showed that excellent wines could be made outside France. Even critics such as Robert Parker — who began rating wines on a 100 point quality scale to the indignation of wine conservatives — are a part of the process of change, a process of making wine more comprehensible and accessible to the consumer. The influential American critic sees himself as a “farmboy from Monkton” tearing away at the “caste system” created by French elites.
As Magan reminded us, wine doesn't have to be arcane or high-brow. Wine snobs are becoming increasingly passé. If anything, its okay to be a bit of a wine slob instead.