For at least the past twenty-five years, I’ve had no fewer than a dozen inquiries/requests each year, along the lines of “Why don’t you/Do you have plans to…get your sommelier certification?” One Seattle guy who administers the tests basically offered to put the fix in; test me at my convenience, with a vague intimation that he would “give me a heads-up about the rough patches.” I always politely (I hope) demurred when asked because A) it’s nobody’s business if I decide to seek that certification and B) I had no interest.
Let me rephrase that: NO interest.
I saw this as the exact corollary to back when I was acting and my more studious pals would say, “Are you taking any classes? Why aren’t you taking any classes?” My standard response: “I’m too busy getting paid to act to take time out for classes that are designed to let me get work.”
I’m not one of these folks who derives a great deal of personal benefit from the cracking of a book and the rote recitation of classroom facts. That sort of academic rigor is great for those whose good, healthy goal is the accumulation of facts. Nothing at all wrong with doing that, either. Knowledge is always better than ignorance, as we’re all seeing so graphically, these days, as the shrillness and irrationality of the Right becomes ever more frenzied and disconnected from reality.
But, in terms of the wine certification implied in holding a sommelier’s degree, for me, no amount of knowledge about the provenance and pedigree of an Italian Barolo is ever going to replace or even significantly enhance the experience of sipping that wine and having that life-altering Moment of discovery, revelation, joy, and surprise. No amount of the sort of presumption of French superiority in All Things Oenological, as is not-so-subtly communicated by the whole thrust of somm training, is ever going to tell you that, for a LOT of us American vino-mongrels, French wine is frequently a HUGE disappointment.
Over my almost three decades in the wine biz, and over forty years as both a beer reviewer and spirits buyer, I’ve remained true to one guiding principle: What’s in the glass is what matters. The sole exception to that principle is Anheuser Busch – or whatever they’re calling their many-tentacled conglom this week – whose history and business practices I find so utterly vile and ethically/morally abhorrent that I refuse to even taste what’s cranked out mindlessly by their minions. As far as I’m concerned, breweries vanish when absorbed by AB and that’s not going to change.
I’ve been taken behind the woodshed by scholarly types a number of times, now, for either implicitly endorsing a version of the history of beer/wine/whiskey that they say isn’t totally accurate or for telling the truth: that I really don’t care at all what the real origin of the IPA of the Kvass or the Dopplebock is, in exhaustive historical detail. “How can you not care about the history of something you profess to love?” one scholarly type wrote, fumes practically wafting off my monitor, “History Matters!” I replied that, yes, history matters – to you, not so much to me. I certainly don’t want to disseminate totally erroneous “facts” that have no basis in reality but my own appreciation of the differences between the traditional British IPA and our vastly scaled-up Northwest versions is affected not at all by knowing the timeline of the evolution of the style or by the mileposts that got it to this point. I’ve tasted English IPAs just as aggressively and fully as the American styles and I know the differences and the few similarities. “I don’t see how anybody (emphasis his) can enjoy a beer if they’re totally ignorant of it’s origins and evolution!” this same fella growled (over the internet; quite a trick), “And your encouraging people to just skip right over this wealth of knowledge frankly offends me.”
It was eleven a.m. when I read that, on that day eight months ago, and he was the first person I’d offended, to that point. That’s a good day, in my book. Normally, the pissed-off emails are waiting for me when I wake up at five. I read it and let it sink in and realized that I had been handed a gem; the perfect distillation of the difference between academic and empirical knowledge. For people of a certain mindset, the experience of a beer, a movie, a car, a plant, or a wine is not complete without holding the encyclopedic facts of its history and development. They would no more just drink and enjoy an Imperial Stout than I would just read about their history but not drink them because that’s how their brains work. Even more prevalent than that worldview is the vast ocean of people who want, desperately, to be told What’s Good and What’s Not, and this is where sommeliers come in.
People, for whatever strange reason, don’t seem to trust their own palates to tell them if what they’re drinking is good or bad. I always thought this was a fairly simple process: pour in liquid, taste, swallow, think, decide. In my own way, I’ve been every bit as myopic and cloistered in my worldview as the academics. For a lot of people, it’s really NOT just about what’s in the glass. It’s as much about being one of the intelligentsia, being current and savvy and drinking what their peers deem worthy. It’s about Lifestyle and for them to properly maintain that facade of Hipness of Cool that they find desirable, they MUST have just the right wine, that sought-after beer, the prestige Whiskey.
The American wine culture, for most of its almost 200 years history, has arguably been as hamstrung as it was helped by the fact of that species known as “The Wine Expert”. “Wine Snob” was the accepted cliché and it’s only been very recently that, egged on by a lot of wine writers like me and pretty much every other competent one, people have come to see wine snobbery for the plain ol’ generic rudeness is most certainly is and not some signal of elevated erudition or a warped version of Tough Love. I’ve found those who do hold somm certificates mostly insufferable boors, in what passes in their culture for polite conversation, even though there is a sizable and growing number who have managed to place the title in context of the normal lives of those around them and maintain their humanity and politeness. For the most part, however, somms have strained the bounds of civil intercourse to and past the breaking point with numbing regularity, making it no surprise to me that the last human with whom I had a physical confrontation, lo these nineteen years past, was…a sommelier.
Human nature being what it is, craft brewing has so surpassed the point of saturation within American society that the Cult of The Expert has now cropped up there, too. Cicerone Certification is the beer analog to sommelier certification: the bestowing of a label that identifies its holder as an “expert” on the subject of beer. And regular people are now beginning to genuflect toward Cicerone the way they have to Somm.
Please don’t misunderstand me, here: having a Cicerone tag is a Good Thing. Knowledge of beer is great and the rigors of the education that precedes taking the test is a considerable achievement and one to which I always extend congratulations – sincere ones – to those I know who have accomplished it. BUT…I want you to take what you’re about to read to heart and think about it, at very least:
You already have all the tools necessary to let you make informed decisions about what’s good and what’s not for your own tastes: a tongue and a brain. If the missing component in that personal process is an ability to trust what you’re tasting and/or accept your own tastes because they don’t align with your social circle’s, those are flaws; things to work on, not blindly accept and abandon in favor of received knowledge from someone waving a piece of paper.
To some degree, at very least, the process of acquiring either certificate includes certain assumptions that, I firmly believe, are at best questionable and at worst manipulative. For the somm, there is that granting of unquestioned credibility to French wines, a presumption that used to be universal and probably even logical but which, as the entire planet steps up its winemaking game to ridiculous levels, has become not only stodgy and institutionalized but downright perverse. Great wine is made everywhere and it’s just plain blind to measure all the world’s fermented grape juice by that antiquated standard.
And turning to a Cicerone to find out what you should be liking in beer is even more perverse. This phenomenon that spawned the Cicerone Certificate – what I’ve called “The Wine-ification of Beer” – was dragged into the American beer consciousness by those Lifetsyle Nazis who migrated over to beer from wine (as soon as beer became Hip enough to let them find come cachet layin’ around) , and brought their status as herd animals with them. Just yesterday, Cicreone announced yet another level of certificate, the direct equivalent of the somms’ Master of Wine title, the highest level of wine erudition currently recognized. This will, of course, be a rousing success, as it gives those with little personal initiative and that rooty mistrust of their own judgment yet another horn clete to which they can tether their canoe. What makes this far worse than our Somm Worship is simple: In wine, there are quite often vast sums of money involved in maintaining a level of Hipness that one’s clique will find enviable. Great wine is often expensive, to a degree that only a tiny handful of beers ever reach. If the RateBeer and BeerAdvocate 100-point scales are to be trusted, you can probably find three or four 100-point beers on shelves, right now, very near you and almost certainly under $25. Many, many wine lovers go their entire lives and never drink ONE 100-point wine.
Nutshell: you are not prevented by price from tasting and evaluating a veritable tsunami of beers in order to formulate your own tastes. Spend the $200 that you’d spend for two or even ONE 98-point wine and you can snag two or three dozen beers of international stature and experience them yourself, in your own home, in your own mouth, not as received wisdom from an “expert” whose rarified tastes usually will have almost nothing in common with your own.
We, as wine and beer drinkers, do not NEED Sommeliers and Cicerones. It’s really that simple. You will derive far more benefit, guaranteed, from finding a willing and enthusiastic steward in some wine or beer shop and exploring their recommendations to see if there’s a common vibe. It may take two or three tries but, when you do meet that person, you’ll get worlds more individual attention, knowledge, and viable choices than from listening to a somm pontificate or a Cicerone tell you what’s great. The core to remember about anyone holding either of those two certificates is this: They’re human beings and their own personal tastes color their views every bit as much as your “wine-savvy” neighbor’s do. Those who have drunk the French Kool Aid are going to pass along their indoctrination and sell you Kool Aid. Those who lean toward Italians will sell you Barolo and Sassacaia. And the Cicerones who are jaded about the American IPA will steer you toward sours and bretts and whatever their Flavor of The Month may be, whether you’re particularly inclined that way or not. This is just plain human nature. It’s no more a personal failing on their parts – and certainly not malicious or manipulative, in most cases – than it is when you’re momentarily hot on something and can’t want to tell your friends about it.
It’s already started, for me: “Hey, Steve…when ya gonna get your Cicerone? Huh? Soon, I bet! You won’t even have to study. You’ll ace the thing!” No…I will not. Because, without imputing any motivations at all to anyone who plans to take the courses, I am quite well aware of what I know about beer and painfully aware of what I don’t. Taking the Cicerone, for me, would be purely a service to my vanity, which really doesn’t deserve servicing. It would change nothing at all about how I work or think. “But,” an East Coast friend recently wrote me, “It would be a boost to your credibility.” I think that ship, frankly, has sailed. My “credibility” is something that’s totally dependent on what readers think when they read this blog. I don’t even want people reading The Pour Fool and thinking, “Huh, this guy’s a Cicerone, so I should probably believe him.” Nope. There is no short-cut to trust, nor should there be.
Trust in someone’s tastes and judgment is earned, not bestowed. Coming to trust my recommendations – or any writer’s – takes time and those willing to give it that may be rewarded with some new stuff to drink and/or think about. Cozy up to a Somm or Cicerone, if that works for you. For many of us, they’re anathema to the idea of discovery and revelation that’s inherent in exploring wines and beers. Certificate holders can provide handy short-cuts but there’s a price, just as there’s a profound difference between flying from Seattle to DC or driving there: you’ll get there so much faster in the jet…but you won’t learn a thing about the vastness of the US or the wonderful, weird, funny people you meet, or that shock and surprise when the best bowl of chili you ever ate winds up being in a diner in Chilicothe, Ohio. It’s the difference between living a life or taking one vicariously, out of tales told by strangers.