Everyone thinks wine experts live charmed lives. When people find out what I do, their heads fill with visions of me being driven around in a chauffeured Benz, tasting rare bottles. And for sure, there are many less fun things to do in life than to taste, critique, and write about wines from around the world.
In truth, my wine life isn’t that different from yours. I’ve walked into plenty of wine shops and gotten lousy advice. I’ve been tempted by—and burned by—more wine recommendations than I care to remember. At night, with dinner, I’m as likely as anyone to drink whatever’s open in the fridge.
Restaurants? I still struggle through wine lists, and regardless of the fact I have a near-photographic memory (only where wine is concerned), I still find plenty of wine on lists that I’ve never heard of. I’ve had sommeliers talk down to me more times than I care to remember. And I’ve been served wines in shockingly bad condition, like the fancy $125 bottle of Grenache I had not long ago, which came to the table so warm I wondered if it was stored next to the pizza oven. (We asked for an ice bucket.)
I love what I do, and each year I get to taste thousands of wines, including many that few people get access to. But knowing a ton about wine doesn’t magically improve your wine life.
In fact, an obsession with “wine expertise” in this country may have made it harder for us to enjoy wine. Americans have in many ways been misled by the mystique of wine expertise. We’re dazzled by tales of sabering Champagne and blind-tasting bottles of red Burgundy. But these things are really just parlor games. The myth of connoisseurship is that you need to know every little thing, and in truth most wine experts obsess over details that have almost zero bearing on how the rest of us live our lives.
Don’t get me wrong: Expertise can be valuable. I’ve written about wine professionally for about 15 years, including nearly a decade as the wine editor and chief critic of the San Francisco Chronicle, the only U.S. newspaper with its own wine section. That means I’ve written hundreds of articles and tasted tens of thousands of wines, which is to say I don’t doubt my opinions about wine are better informed than most. I wrote a book, The New California Wine, that documented the rebirth of interest in the state’s wines. And I’m the junior wine nerd in our household; my wife imports and sells some of the world’s best wines. Our bookshelves are filled with wine books and our walls are covered with vintage vineyard maps.
In other words, it is both of our jobs to know a lot about wine. And both of us have concluded that wine isn’t something you need to learn about in classes or by chasing a pin or a diploma. Wine is something that becomes a part of your life in gradual, almost invisible, steps.
I was lucky; I grew up with wine around the house; it was a semi-professional interest of my father and I learned about it from him more or less osmotically, the way other kids might learn about baseball. I never had a grand moment of enlightenment. Then I forgot all about it, went off to college, and became a journalist. Years later, that interest returned, and after I started sneaking wine into most of my stories, I finally proposed to my editor that I write a column. So began my career as an expert.
Expertise, however, comes gradually. Early on in that career, when I was less confident, I made a classic mistake: I pretended to know more than I did, which made me the worst of all things— a wine snob. Once I rejected a bottle of barbera with my pizza because it was “way too tannic.” (Barbera is actually known for having almost no tannins; it’s a great pizza wine.)
Eventually I become comfortable with admitting what I didn’t know. I tasted and drank a lot of wines, and started to put the pieces together. I never wanted to be a sommelier, and I never got an official blessing to be an expert. You don’t need one either.
Especially not now. The old ways of wine are fading into the distance. A handful of once-powerful wine tastemakers are now much less powerful. Wine drinkers today are more self-assured, and less reliant on point scores and so-called “expert” wisdom.
All of which made me wonder: What can an expert offer? Certainly the world doesn’t need another “drink this, not that” book. Instead, The New Wine Rules was born out of the idea that the most valuable thing I can share is a handy summary of the practical things I’ve learned about incorporating wine into everyday life: how to figure out what you like, how to pick out a bottle for this weekend’s barbecue, when to splurge and when to keep it low-key.
For that reason, you won’t find a lot of talk here about varieties and regions. A thousand other books have covered those things, and they can help you dive deeply if you choose. They’re details to learn at your own pace and in your own time, and frankly the world of wine has grown so vast that it’s impossible for anyone to know it all. What matters is learning to figure out what you like.
The nice part of doing that is that now is the best time in history to be drinking wine. The sheer diversity of flavors and styles and grapes available today is greater than ever. If I can share one bit of advice as you read along, it’s this: Drink wine with joy. Perhaps that’s obvious, but remember that at least in America, the past couple generations of wine lovers have spent their lives guided by fear—of displaying bad taste or revealing what they don’t know.
Screw that. Fear was the guiding principle of the past. We’re officially done. Wine is too great a thing to be limited by fear.
So drink with joy—and never let go of your curiosity. Wine is an endlessly complex and fascinating part of our culture. A curiosity about it can span a lifetime, although it doesn’t have to. It certainly has filled up my life. Now is the time to share some of what I’ve learned along the way.
Copyright © 2017 by Jon Bonne. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.