What's the point of wine evangelism?

It's one thing to try and engage people with wine, says Robert Joseph. But it's quite another to think that everybody has an inner wine lover who just needs to be liberated.

Photo by Almos Bechtold on Unsplash
Photo by Almos Bechtold on Unsplash

I have a confession to make


After six decades on this planet, I’ve never really ‘got’ opera


I mean, I enjoy listening to bits of Bizet, Puccini, Mozart and Verdi, and I can name a few singers, but I guess my relationship with these bits of knowledge is not really very different to the one that many of the people have with wine names like Rioja, Sauvignon Blanc Bordeaux and Malbec. I can tell you what I enjoy, but my understanding and appreciation is very shallow.

I’m not remotely proud of this lacuna in my life (I hate it when people – Britons especially – puff up their chests to say “I don’t know much about [art, music, wine, whatever] but I know what I like”) and still fondly imagine that one day, I will do something about it. Once, that is, I’ve found the time to read all the great classic and modern novels and biographies that have passed me by. And gone to all the ballets, concerts and art exhibitions.


It is not as though I was never given the chance to be bitten by the opera bug. My parents had vinyl albums of Madame Butterfly, Tosca and Aida and possibly a few others. But my father also had several by Dave Brubeck, Count Basie and Oscar Peterson, and for some reason it was the jazz that found its way into my soul – where it remains to this day.


I can’t give my parents credit for igniting my love of wine. Or not directly, in any case. While I was a child, they certainly drank it but with little knowledge or interest. Then they accidentally – it’s a long story – ended up owning a hotel, and consequently employing an Italian ‘Maitre d’ called Mario who let me sample some of the contents of bottles that customers had not quite emptied. I’m very aware that the cards might have fallen very differently for me: no hotel; no Mario, and all too plausibly no introduction to the mysteries and joys of wine.


Over the years, I have tried to introduce countless other people to my love for wine and jazz, and sometimes those efforts have been successful. But quite often they haven’t, or not really. At the time I was the wine critic for the London Sunday Telegraph and received up to a hundred sample bottles per week, one of my closest friends lived two floors above me. He and some of my other neighbours got to drink many of the sample bottles I’d received, along with some half-full bottles I’d bring home after tastings at the office.


After several years of this exposure to some of the finest drinking on the planet, my friend still happily glugs whatever familiar label his local supermarket has on offer at an attractive price. At least one former girlfriend was similarly immune to my efforts to turn her on to the sound of brilliant improvisations on a tenor saxophone.


And that doesn’t bother me in the least. Just as it doesn’t bother another leading wine critic friend of mine that his wife doesn’t drink wine at all, and never has.


This, like the acceptance as friends of people with different political and religious views seems to me to be a fundamentally reasonable way to see the world, but for many professionals and enthusiasts, it apparently makes me a heretic. Wine, they believe is a miraculous beverage whose flavour, mysteries and stories are almost sure to bewitch anyone who is exposed to it in the right way. These people remind me irresistibly of the missionaries in Peter Matthiessen’s brilliant At Play in the Fields of the Lord who set out to convert members of a tribe in the Brazilian rain forest, with disastrous results for all concerned.


For the vinous evangelist, the unenlightened need to be led away from the supermarkets where they worship the gods of convenience and low price, and taken to the temple of the wine shop, where they can bask in complexity.


Instead of the consistently predictable, simple, fruity, possibly oaky and maybe even slightly sweet wine they currently think they enjoy, these misguided souls must be introduced to the individual estates and vintage and bottle variation, and labels and flavours they have never previously heard of.


And just as the missionaries carrying the Word of the Lord did so in different ways, some of the newer breed of evangelists believe the path to true vinous salvation lies in cloudy, ‘funky’ red wines, orange wines, zero-dosage fizz and, of course, ‘pet nat’. I don’t imagine these particular believers in ‘natural’ wine will appreciate being dubbed "the hair shirt brigade" but, watching some consumers’ first reaction to these wines has been like seeing someone being asked to swap the comfort of wool and cotton and man-made fibres for the ‘reality’ of hemp.


In operatic terms, this strikes me as rather like expecting someone who’s happily listening to Coldplay to appreciate Harrison Birtwistle (a modern British composer with whom I have real difficulty).


None of this means that any of us should stop trying to expose as many people as possible to our enthusiasms. After all, every single person who has a love of anything, from fishing to flying gliders and playing the flugelhorn, has been turned onto it by somebody else. It’s almost our duty to open the door to allow at least a glimpse of the thing that has so captivated our interest. But we have to accept that part of being human is that we are all individuals with our own personalities and preferences. And if some people prefer Barefoot or sweet Lambrusco or, like a third of the population of France, choose not to drink wine at all, remember that there is almost certainly something they relish – like opera for example –that maybe we don’t.

Robert Joseph


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