COVID-19 has hit the wine and hospitality industries with unprecedented force, stripping jobs from so many people who, like me, define themselves by what they do for a living.
While the time off has been incredibly difficult and I yearn to return to work, forced time off is not without its perks; it has allowed me enhanced perspective and introspection when it comes to the industry to which I have devoted my life. Without the structure, requirements, and distraction of everyday life, I have had time to reflect on and analyze wine-focused hospitality as it stands and how we as a community can improve it to make it more accessible and inclusive, especially for those who are newer to the world of wine.
There are three major things I see as the most important when it comes to shifting the way in which we connect with guests via wine: one, we must see ourselves as hospitality professionals who choose to connect principally via wine rather than wine professionals who work in hospitality; two, we must examine, understand, and then embrace both the objectivity and subjectivity of wine; and three, we must embrace a more effective way of storytelling as a means to connect with our guests.
The world of wine is incredibly seductive. Temporarily putting aside the inherently intoxicating effects of wine itself, wine has the added appeal of being immersed in the world of gloriously indulgent (and frequently exclusive) world of fine food and wine. For so many years, sommeliers have been seen as gatekeepers of precious information and insight about wine and its long and illustrious history. Between the popularization of wine (from Sideways to Vivino to the Somm movies) and the increasingly insistent (and long overdue) call for inclusivity across the board, gatekeeping is finally being recognized as the unfair and antiquated approach that it is.
There are several issues with being a gatekeeper rather than a travel agent for guests, but they all come down to the same thing. While wine is a massive and inextricable part of the profession, the sommelier profession is deeply rooted in hospitality — restaurants, more specifically. That said, hospitality centers more broadly around welcoming and entertaining guests and, more broadly still, around human connection and interaction.
For wine lovers, a bar or restaurant with a solid list is an important factor in choosing where to spend dollars to imbibe, That said, not everyone chooses a restaurant based on their wine list, nor do they even necessarily have an interest in wine.
People end up in restaurants for a multitude of reasons: a first date, a work meeting, catching up with friends, an anniversary, an odd thirty-minute gap between errands, don’t feel like cooking dinner, a really stressful day and the need to escape reality for a few hours — reasons that range from food and wine options to ambiance to sheer logistical proximity to emotional needs based on the day they’re having. This essay principally focuses on the non-wine experts who come into restaurants.
The most important part of hospitality begins long before the wine conversation. In a matter of seconds and frequently with no verbal cues even yet uttered, a seasoned hospitalitarian assesses the mood / vibe / personality / needs of a guest as they are still settling into their chairs and stealthily and seamlessly shifts into the exact version of themselves that reflects what that guest needs — minute tweaks to body language, facial expression, linguistic register, and approach covertly happen within milliseconds. These micro-adjustments happen almost innately, whether in Michelin-star fine dining or the most casual of establishments...and thank goodness. A wine list plopped down on the table can quickly shatter the sense of comfort established only moments earlier, and the proactivity, approachability, and timing of staff when engaging with a potentially curious or overwhelmed guest are paramount.
Why is wine so difficult?
Wine is objective in many ways. Fermentation is a scientific process that requires specific things to occur and happens in a specific way. Each grape variety has inherent characteristics, both as a plant and as wine in the glass. Concrete historical events and developments coupled with tradition and (sometimes shifting) preferences have led to most grape-growing areas to have specific laws governing where and how certain grapes can be grown and their resulting wines can be made.
That said, wine is incredibly subjective at the same time. The human body can technically only taste five things: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami. Period. When it comes to the sense of smell, humans can log tens of thousands of aromas — raspberry, lilac, low tide, cedar, Sharpies… the list is endless, and each aroma is logged into our brains and inextricably linked to memory and emotion, an inherently personal and subjective territory...and often difficult to fully express in words.
The focus on “tasting notes” (“What do you smell? What do you taste?”) is therefore fraught with the risk of alienating a novice wine drinker. Say a sommelier describes a wine as having notes of unripe raspberry and dried saddle leather. If the guest does not get those same notes (not to mention if they’ve never smelled a dried saddle!), that guest then may feel incompetent or insecure and then be reticent to engage further. For a good mechanic, “It makes a funny noise when I start it” suffices, and a good doctor needs only, “My knee hurts when I bend it like this” to begin his examination. Why, then, do we use wine industry jargon when engaging with those outside the industry?
(By all means, if I close my eyes and put my nose in a glass and something immediately jumps out at me, I am quick to emphatically blurt it out — the power of the aroma-to-memory bond is awe-inspiring, and most often those relatively unfiltered vocalizations have to do with something in my childhood or some other very specific pocket of time in my life. This makes wine wonderfully personal (and thank goodness!) and in that way more approachable for those less familiar with it; since it is personal in that way, there truly are no wrong impressions in that arena.
I fully embrace the subjectivity of wine, especially when it comes to the aroma element. I do not think that we should avoid it by any means; I just don’t feel that it should be the leading approach when it comes to guiding new wine drinkers in learning to taste and talk about wine.)
While aroma evokes a reaction and invites that first sip, it is more often than not the structure and texture of wine that determines whether or not we like it. Acidity and tannin produce physical reactions in the mouth; therefore, the sense of touch is a more objective, measurable, and universal approach to assessing and talking about wine than its tasting note counterparts. The “touch” element of wine comes in the form of structure and texture (how it feels as it sloshes around the mouth); more specifically, structure and texture can be defined as the interplay between body, acidity, tannin, alcohol, etc.
These terms are also easier to define. We all eat, so the human palate is already intact and somewhat developed. Most everyone has at some point had a lemon wedge in their mouth (acidity). Most everyone knows the bitter, drying quality of apple skin or tea that has steeped for too long (tannin). Most everyone has had a dish at some point that has been out of balance (too sweet, too salty, too bitter, too soft…), so the concept of balance also already exists in everyone. These broader terms are more relatable and therefore more inclusive and inviting to novice wine drinkers.
Another important element in the language of wine is storytelling. Humans are innately programmed to seek connection, both to other humans and to their environment, and wine allows us to find that connection on both a micro and a macro level.
On the more intimate, immediate side, wine is made by humans. Even when a winegrower (a more apt term than winemaker in this instance) intervenes as minimally as possible from vine to bottle, human hands and human decisions do still play a key role in determining the nature of what ends up in the bottle. Sommeliers frequently recant stories of the people behind the label, so to speak, establishing that human-to-human connection opportunity.
Personal stories are inherently relatable to most, but the macro level of storytelling allows us to make the bigger, arguably more profound human-to-environment connection. Understanding what to expect from and how to taste a certain wine from a certain place is, of course, important, but far more telling and, frankly, more interesting, is the story of how that grape ended up there and how it solidified its signature style there.
Wine tells the history of the earth itself — millions of years of natural events, big and small, explain why different soils and rocks are in different places, which can have a substantial impact on a wine’s texture and structure (and, more controversially, flavor). Wine also tells the history of mankind and civilization itself; as long as peoples have migrated and settled, they have taken vines with them, leaving a trail of virtual breadcrumbs that goes back thousands of years, thus explaining why and how certain grapes have ended up where they are today.
Drinking delicious fermented grape juice is a wonderful thing in and of itself, but the magic of wine is beyond the liquid in the glass — it encompasses history, anthropology, sociology, psychology, biology, chemistry, politics, religion, geology, geography, culture, and so much more.
Our job as sommeliers and wine professionals is twofold: to ensure that guests leave our presence a little lighter than when they arrived (the core of hospitality), and to serve as tour guides through the often difficult to navigate realm of wine. While language is frequently the source of consternation and confusion, it is also the solution to creating a more accessible and inclusive world of wine.
***Emily Ann Wagener
***wine-focused hospitality + education