Wine anxiety is a thing and I'm calling time on it.
Are you someone who always points the wine list in someone else’s direction? Do you get inexplicably awkward when the waiter asks you to check the wine? Do you turn up to someone’s house with a bottle of wine and immediately declare plausible deniability?
I think these little, universal moments in our day-to-day wine experiences are where a lot of this ‘wine anxiety’ stems from. There just seems to be so much you could get ‘wrong’.
The dynamics of these moments can be so hard-wired against us that sometimes it’s an inevitable reaction.
Let’s take the moment of studying the wine list. Despite the fact it’s not our job to be knowledgeable about the numerous wines on the list, (of the hundreds of thousands of wines produced around the world, let’s not forget) so many people feel overwhelmed in this moment, as if somehow we should know instinctively what the right choice is. Well that’s the first problem. There is no “right” choice.
Secondly, you’re in the presence of someone whose actual paying JOB is to know intimately about each of the wines on the list. So no wonder lots of us feel like a kid playing at grown ups, because with the best will in the world, we are severely disadvantaged at this moment. And then comes the moment of ‘who would like to taste the wine?’. Have you ever completed any task, while being watched by someone literally stood over you and looking down at you, without feeling a frisson of flustered? No, me neither, WSET training or not.
Unfortunately, these two less than edifying moments too often set the tone for our general mindset towards wine. “Oh I love wine, but I know nothing about it!”. “I never know what to choose!” “I never know what to say in these situations!”. These types of statements about wine are so common.
Am I the only one to find it weird? Think of travel experiences or food. Most of us seem to be more than happy to express an opinion, or offer up a recommendation. We don’t stick to the same repertoire of dishes we’ve heard of before when we go out to eat. We don’t get unsettled by the waiter when we chose, as though we ought to know as much about the menu as they do. We know our linguine from our fusilli, our basil from our oregano, our pulled pork from our pan-fried pork chop. Why are we so bewildered by our Viogniers from our Albarinos?
I think it’s a question of mindset. Wine still has this fancy aura. As if you have to be a connoisseur to be allowed to express an opinion. The stakes are high. Most of us feel a bit nervous or embarrassed expressing an opinion, because heaven forbid, what if we got it wrong? How mortifying that would be! So most of us just stay quiet, expressing a tentative opinion at best, and usually tempered by a self-deprecating statement just to cover all bases. Then we're relieved when someone we think probably knows better validates it by agreeing.
But hang on a second. Aren’t you the expert on what you do and don’t like? And aren’t you the expert on what you’ve just put in your own mouth tastes like?
Our state of mind, the time of day, what we’ve just eaten, the context were in, and our physical genetics (does fresh coriander taste like heaven or a soapy devil-herb to you?) can all affect how a wine tastes to us. No two people will taste a wine in exactly the same way. If you don’t believe me read a tasting note of the same wine by Robert Parker and Jancis Robinson. Neither of them are ‘wrong’. While their formidable experience will enable them to probably agree on the basics and 'structure' (levels of acidity, tannins etc) they will be different because wine tasting in its totality is not an empirical experiment.
Translating a sensory experience into words is always going to produce different results. But that’s exactly the fun. If there were right and wrong answers it wouldn’t be as enjoyable. Then it would be a maths calculation. And wine and maths calculations really shouldn’t mix.
I think it’s time everyone stopped being so scared of wine - choosing it, talking about it, expressing an opinion on it. If you’re one of those people who treats the wine list like a hot potato, take ownership of choosing the wine next time you’re out. Engage with the wine waiter and maybe pick a variety you’ve never heard of. Think about how you would describe it when you drink it, bearing in mind there are no right or wrong answers. There’s no wine police.
If we always think of wine as something slightly esoteric that only the ‘initiated’ can, or are allowed to, express an opinion on, then we don’t engage, it stays a bit confounding and we never raise our collective wine game.
It’s time to embrace wine, people. Life is too short to waste hangovers and calories on forgettable plonk.