Allen Balik: Demystifying Wine — Yes or No?

Allen Balik: Demystifying Wine — Yes or No?

Written by Allen Balik

Quite a few years ago, I co-authored a book with the stated goal of “de-mystifying” wine to make the entire vinous experience more enjoyable rather than intimidating.

My co-author, Virginia Morris, and I chose the title “Uncorking the Myths” (simple and straightforward) but McGraw-Hill quickly changed it to “A Guide to Choosing, Serving and Enjoying Wine” (a bit cumbersome) over our strenuous, but unheard, objections.

I enlisted the support of Michael Mondavi, who agreed to write the forward because his entire family’s legacy was dedicated to helping the consumer become more “wine-comfortable.” Michael’s forward began, “Wine is an integral part of my life, my family’s life and the lives of winemakers throughout the United States. Our goal is to be sure that you and other people not only understand our appreciation for wine as a mealtime beverage, but share our belief that it has a positive civilizing effect on the time you, your family, and friends spend eating and drinking together.”

After many years of working in the sales, marketing and brand development of luxury products, I am well aware that a bit of mystery and romance adds sizzle and helps sell the finest and most expensive jewelry, perfumes, high-performance automobiles, etc. But is this avenue also necessary for selling wine?

With many wines, and for many aficionados, the answer may be yes. Yet for the industry to continue growing, it will need more wine drinkers — not the same people drinking more wine. That’s not necessarily the case with numerous other luxury products, and it’s where the conundrum of demystification vs. mystery comes into play.

I recently read an article in The Telegraph by wine columnist Victoria Moore in which she took the position that wine should maintain an air of mystery as “there is a sense of magic in the unknown.” In her early years of wine writing, Moore was known as someone who demystified wine. She has changed her position in recent years and she is now “trying to re-mystify it.” Or as she says, “demystification is taking all the fun out of it.” Here’s where I disagree.

Over the years, wine has developed a mystique mostly for the wealthiest collectors with daunting wine lists, descriptors that defy description, names that are difficult to pronounce as well as a set of self-imposed rules of right and wrong surrounding the proper food pairings, glass selection and customs.

But is all this gamesmanship necessary for those who merely want to enjoy sharing a good bottle of wine with friends and family over the evening meal? Not really.

Presenting the subject of wine in a straightforward, understandable, engaging and down-to-earth manner is not relegating it to a lesser status. Rather this demystification makes wine more understandable to many consumers who have been put off by the stodgy attitude of some elitists who view it as something more to revere than enjoy.

Appreciating wine is like enjoying art, literature or music. You don’t have to understand all the nuances of a symphony to delight in the music nor do you have to be familiar with the underlying psychology of a great artist to treasure the painting. Yes, understanding the background helps but not knowing all of the intricacies does not lessen the pleasure.

For many millennia, wine has been made and enjoyed by countless cultures around the globe with little fanfare and broad appeal. Although wine may be perceived as a complex subject, its role as a universal mealtime companion is simple.

So while Moore may now be of the opinion that “the magic is in what we don’t know,” I feel strongly that the magic and enjoyment are the sheer appreciation of what’s in the glass. The more we know about it, the greater the enjoyment.

My column “Are you the special occasion?” – brought out several comments and similar experiences, but the one below has a personal significance.

Paul—A friend once commented that his greatest wine collecting pleasure is being able to share with appreciating friends. You, Allen, exemplified the gold standard for sharing when I dropped to my knees in awe of a 1949 Mouton Rothschild I saw in your cellar, to which you responded, “let’s open it now.” Twenty-five years later, this still stands as a singular highlight of my lifetime of wine experience.

Allen Balik has been a wine collector, consultant, author, fundraiser and enthusiast for more than 35 years. Each year, he and his wife, Barbara, produce the Evening Of The Culinary Winemasters event at Warner Bros. Studios, a benefit for Cystic Fibrosis.
He regularly appears on CRN Digital Talk Radio's What's Cookin' and What's Cookin' on Wine programs.

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