That would be an ecumenical matter

From watching Father Ted, we all know that in a religious discussion you can’t go wrong by saying: ‘that would be an ecumenical matter.’ That way you will always sound like you know what you’re talking about. Recently I’ve been drinking wine with people with vastly more experience than me. It’s a nerve-wracking experience when a Master of Wine, leans over and says ‘what do you think?” My mind normally goes blank and all I can think of is ‘very nice.’

Recently, however, I have discovered the wine-tasting equivalent of ‘that would be an ecumenical matter.’ Here it is: ‘it seems a bit a closed to me.’ Doesn’t sound that impressive, does it? All it means is that the wine in question isn’t tasting of very much at the time. This could be because the wine is too young, too cold, isn’t very good, has only just been opened or, and this is the best part, just because your nose isn’t working as well as it should do on that particular day (top wine writer Fiona Beckett writes on this phenomenon here.) Once you say ‘it’s a bit closed’, people will normally nod and say ‘mmmmm I think you’re right’ or they might disagree but you’ll always sound like you know what you’re talking about.

Photo courtesy of Hat Trick productions. 

Do wine writers need qualifications?

I was reading the comment section on a wine blog late one Friday night (how my life has changed in the last four years!) Someone had written in to voice his displeasure that people could start blogs and pronounce on wine without any formal training. My first reaction was that this seems fair enough, we don’t want ignorant people passing judgment on something that they know little about. Perhaps Leeds, my alma mater, could offer a course in wine writing where one could learn how to spit accurately from a distance, the correct use of the word austere and the difference between Verdelho & Verdejo. Knowing Leeds the course would also examine how a rich seam of African wine writing was suppressed by a conspiracy of dead white males. From reading British wine blogs however, I’m not sure this is necessary. The ones I have come across are curious, calm and none of them claim knowledge that they don’t have (there are some American ones that try to ape the authority of Robert Parker JR without the experience and some Australian ones that seem to have been written by excitable cricket commentators who have just had their first drink.) Sometimes I long, when trawling the internet, for a Clarkson of the wine world making absurd pronouncements based on enthusiasm and a cheerful ignorance of technical matters – if anyone knows of one please let me know.

What I like about wine is that you can explore a whole world from the comfort of your living room without any special equipment or training or even, unless you want to scale the heights, that much money. Combine this with the internet and there’s a forum for enthusiasts to opine away. Unlike say rock climbing or medicine, a little inaccuracy isn’t going to cause any serious ramifications.  And what Mr Appalled of Sonoma misses is how some of the best writing on wine comes not from Masters of Wine or vignerons but from the curious amateur. One thinks of Evelyn Waugh, Jay McInerney and Roger Scruton – all writers who manage the rare feat of putting the magic of wine into words. And who would dismiss Samuel Pepys’s pronouncement on the ‘good and most particular taste’ of ‘ho bryan’ because he didn’t have his WSET higher certificate? You can’t have the Waughs without the Clarksons and I say this as someone who is glad to have both.

I’m not saying that qualifications are worthless. If I want to know something or some disinterested advice before spending a lot of money, I turn to writers such as Tim Atkin and Jancis Robinson. Their qualifications and experience give them authority. But for me, this is secondary to the fact that they both write elegantly and, most importantly, I tend to like the wines that they like. In the end it comes down to how you write and what you like.