I didn’t know I was opening a pandora’s box.
Last week’s newsletter essay (if you don’t get them, please sign up) was about the upcoming Cold Climate Grape conference, and how I was encouraging everybody to consider going to the grand tasting on Friday 2/11 to learn more about the new varieties that have been developed, and the strides in quality, that have been made regarding these wines. (See the full email with links and stuff here).
Here is a sampling of replies I found in my inbox:
“Hey Jason – I know you don’t usually write about Minnesota wines, so thank you for the heads up on the tasting. I’ve been enjoying more and more of our ‘local product’ and even poured them exclusively at Thanksgiving, trying to be more local-focused on my wine as well as food. Everybody at the table enjoyed them.”
“Are you really promoting MN wines? Why would you do that knowing there is far better wines out there for half the price from real regions of the world. MN wines are crap sandwiches.” (note from Jason: “crap sandwich” is now one of my favorite terms to use in mixed company! ;))
“I got served a Vermont wine made from the Marquette grape at a blind tasting. It was odd, didn’t smell or taste like anything I’ve had before, but I kept going back to it. Reminded me of when I first got into wine because it was obviously not something I’d seek out normally and I kinda liked that.”
“The worst wines I’ve ever had are our so-called ‘Minnesota wines’ which don’t deserve to use the word ‘wine’ in the name. They have nothing to do with the real thing and I can’t believe you wrote this. Please remove me from your email list.”
At the same time as these responses were coming in, my friend Ryan Opaz, wine writer and consultant based in Portugal, published an article at Medium.com that buzzed through the wine circles quickly. Called “On Wine. A Tragedy” focusing on the idea, as Ryan put in within the comments on the article (emphasis is mine):
“When people want knowledge they can get it. When they need it it is there. The point is that you can enjoy wine without knowledge. Sure if you don’t like something you can ask millions of wine geeks what might be better. The point is to not lead with the “educate first” mentality. Rather let people enjoy what they want…when they need information, it is there.”
Somewhere between the emails I was receiving about the cool climate grape tasting and the article by Ryan was an interesting emotion.
On one hand, knowledge is power. Wine education is what I do. And part of wine education, it’s assumed, is helping people that are curious about wine learn what is supposed to be good and bad. Look for balance. Taste that tannin? Examine the acidity. Swirl and smell. 94 points!
On the other hand, personal opinion is sacred. If you like ice cubes in your Cabernet, who am I to say that you’re wrong? How about mixing it with Coke? Why not. It’s yours, think and do what you want. Seriously.
Early in my career I was in France with a cheese expert. I never quite knew what the “pinnacle” of cheese was. I asked her to tell me when we had a cheese that was as good as it gets. Three days later, over dinner in Burgundy, she tasted a wheel of overtly aged Epoisses de Bourgogne and said, “Now THAT is cheese!” So I smelled it, aiming to learn. The smell reminded me of cat food. The taste wasn’t much better. Maybe it was too advanced for my newbie tastebuds. I simply didn’t like it much. (I continued to not like Epoissses for years until Chef Phillip Brecht at the Modern Cafe made a mac-and-cheese with young Epoisses and wild mushrooms that still stands to me as one of the best dishes of all time.)
Many of you who read this newsletter have never been to my classes, so let me emphasize a point that I often make: wine is more like music, art, and literature than anything else. One can have an opinion about a music genre, and if it’s an opinion that everybody else in the room disagrees with that’s okay … it doesn’t invalidate your thoughts (as a lover of prog rock, with odd time signatures, I’m often the lonely music soul in the room).
If you love Picasso, you’re part of my tribe. If you love Jeff Koons, then you’re not. But it doesn’t mean you don’t understand or appreciate art.
There are nights that I want to curl up and read The New Yorker. Then there are nights that I want to read In Touch and catch up on the Kardashians. Does that mean I don’t understand literature? Of course not.
So this emotion I felt as I read Ryan’s article and as I read the emails that I was receiving was some weird form of happiness. People are taking stands, people are expressing their opinions, and I thank you for that (even those that were questioning my sanity or leaving the newsletter list).
In the end, I relish in the ability to help people feel confident in their own opinions.
But here’s the thing: This acceptance of other’s opinions is a new and threatening thing for the wine world. This is why Ryan’s article has been read so much (including a fair share of aggressive comments). It’s also why “wine people” hate Apothic Red and Cupcake and Yellowtail, and why sommeliers cringe when somebody orders a Pinot Grigio, and why wines from Minnesota are called “not real.” It’s hitting a nerve, the same way even mentioning “cool climate grapes” makes some people lash out (in positive and negative ways).
I love the moment we are in. There has never been a better time to be a wine lover in Minnesota, even if you never drink our local juice. It saves more for the rest of us.