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I've posted before about one of my exams for the Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET) Diploma. This is a program that consists of 6 units, each with its own exam. Most exams include a theory portion and a tasting portion. I have been working on the Diploma for 3 years, which is probably on the low side of average. I received word today that I passed the research paper I submitted a couple of months ago, which marks the end of the program for me. I am elated to report that I am now the proud bearer of the DWS (Diploma in Wine and Spirits) credential. Hooray! Between class time, home study, and tasting (which is not always fun, and does not usually involve drinking when it's done for study purposes), I have easily spent over a thousand hours working toward this goal. It has been both fun and grueling, and has happened at the expense of my personal life at times, but it has been extremely rewarding. The reward has been particularly great because I have been fortunate to be one of the few people to pass every unit on my first attempt. This feat has not come easily to me, but I have been fanatically dedicated in my preparations. There have been times when I thought the level on knowledge required was not attainable in the time I had, but as each exam has approached, I've felt better and better, as the ideas that comprise the bigger pictures have firmed up in my mind. I did delay taking the biggest, most difficult exam until 6 months after my first opportunity to take it, but I had gotten married and gone on my honeymoon in the period leading up to the first chance, so I felt good about that decision.
I am trying to enjoy this moment for what it is, but I find myself looking forward more than anything. As much as I want to think "this is great!", I keep thinking about how small the accomplishment has been relative to what will likely be my next step, the Master of Wine study program. I'm still considering the commitment that the MW program will be, but it has been a goal of mine for quite some time, so I think I should give it a try. I don't look forward to again giving up a major part of my social life, this time for at least another 3 years, but if I can achieve a goal that will bring with it that much more satisfaction and the most impressive wine credential that exists (at least tied with Master Sommelier), I'm sure it will be worthwhile.
So, now I'm looking forward to going home and celebrating with something nice. I mean wine, of course.? I'm going to start with a Krug Champagne and see where that takes us.? To me, nothing says celebration like Krug. My wife and I shared a 1996 on our wedding day, and I have another bottle of the same vintage waiting for an anniversary (10th, 15th, or 20th, depending on how patient I can be). Tonight it will be their entry level multivintage, but "entry level" is only on the lofty scale of the house of Krug, who have always been fanatical about producing only wines of extremely high quality. Maybe there is some parallel there, in that great things can happen with the appropriate level of effort and dedication. I'll probably move on to a 1999 Cornas after that, because it's been calling my name since I tried the first bottle a couple of months ago.
Anyway, please forgive that I've used this platform to toot my own horn a bit. I hope it didn't come off as too much of that. I am extremely satisfied with my accomplishment, excited and nervous for the future, and looking forward to sharing a great Champagne with friends and my wife. I wanted to share a bit of that with whomever cared to read about it. Thanks. July 2013
Yesterday, the wine staff and a couple of other employees here tasted through the lineup that we'll be featuring for our L'Aventure Languedoc tastings. Doing so got me thinking about a very common topic for me: expanding people's vinous horizons. As retailers, we try to accomplish this task in many ways. It's not that it's easiest for us to sell you a really wide variety of wines. The opposite is true: our job would be really simple if we could just buy large quantities of the 100 or so best sellers, charge reasonable prices, and watch them fly out the door. That would be no fun. One thing that really excites me about wine is the diversity, the fact that there is always something new to explore, be it a new region, grape, vintage, producer, or combination of those things. I'm someone who really enjoys the world of aromas and flavors out there for us to experience. It is practically infinite.
Getting back to these Languedoc wines, we were all sitting there talking about how great the wines were, and the phenomenal value they offer. The person leading our staff training said after some remarks along those lines: "These are a hand sell." What she means is that these are not wines the average consumer is just going to pick up on their own and try. We have to be able to sell each bottle by hand. My greatest efforts to put them in people's hands, with the genuine intention of showing them something that will get them excited, will be unsuccessful much of the time just because they are not wines with which most Americans are familiar. There might have been cause for that in the past, but nowadays, there is no longer any good reason. In fact, some of these wines fit the styles of some very popular, well-known categories. Others are unique and interesting for that reason. This is the story with so many wines that most of you have never heard of and, sadly, might never try.
I get that many wine drinkers are plenty happy with the old standbys. I've got nothing against keeping the old standbys, but I think there is always room for more experimentation as well. Imagine if you had only ever tried a couple of kinds of food. Yeah, you might be perfectly happy eating only Italian cuisine (for example) for the rest of your life, but isn't it a lot richer and more enjoyable to have a far greater variety of options, and once in a while to try something that you've never had. I think so. I think that in both cases, food and wine (an apt comparison when I put it that way!), the most pleasure can be had by getting out there and trying new things a lot of the time, while revisiting old favorites regularly enough to remember your love, but rarely enough to make each experience with them fresh and wonderful. I mean, I love Indian Dosas, but if I ate one every day for lunch, I'd get burnt out fast. I might even still like them after years of that, but I guarantee I like them a whole lot more eating them less often than that.
I know that not everyone is adventurous as I am when it comes to food and beverages, but it really doesn't hurt to explore. There are plenty of opportunities to taste wines before buying them. There are also plenty of people like me who can get to know you, learn your preferences, and make appropriate suggestions, while describing wines in whatever way makes sense to you. Before the impersonalization of society became as pronounced as it is today, this is how people shopped for many things. They had a relationship with a vendor, and they had a great time talking to that person about what they should buy. Now that there is too much information available online, and tons of poor information, so many people seem to think they're better off relying on that. If you're buying an appliance, I might even agree with you. But wine is a very personal thing. We all have different preferences that can be difficult to understand and describe. To think that a critic's score or other random person's suggestion is the perfect advice for you, with your individual preferences and physiological traits, is way off base. I don't need to go on about wine scores (I did that in a previous post), but I think it's worth pointing out again that we all taste differently, and that "good" and "bad" are very subjective ideas when it comes to enjoyment of a wine. As much diversity of taste as there is out there, it would make sense for there to be more diversity of wine preference, and even more diversity of enjoyment of different categories among each individual wine drinker.
I don't mean to tell anyone they're wrong for drinking what they know they like, and I do think there are good reasons for some categories being a lot more popular than others. I also think that we in the northeast United States are already moving in a very good direction as far as broadening horizons and making it worthwhile for stores to carry 1000+ wines. Still, there's a lot more room for improvement, and that is how I see diversification and experimentation with the unfamiliar or unknown: it does lead to improvement. I'm not talking about better business, though that might come along for the ride. My focus is on increased enjoyment. Joy. To me, that's the main thing that wine is all about, and I truly believe that the more people learn, taste, and try new things, the more they will enjoy their lives. It might be a small element of life, and it might even seem like a bit of a reach for me to tie enjoyment of wine in with enjoyment of life, but a lot of it really is about the little things. There is good reason that human culture and Western Civilization have been so closely tied to this stuff for so many generations. As much as I truly love my journey in the world of wine, my primary goal in choosing this for a career is to taste, experience, and enjoy as wide as possible a range of experiences, and encourage and help others to do the same. Thanks for reading. May 2013
Let me start by saying this: SULFITES DO NOT CAUSE HEADACHES OR HANGOVERS! I can already hear some of you saying "but they do with me because I'm allergic." Well, you are not. That's right, you're not allergic to sulfites. (In case you're wondering, "sulfites" is a term referring to various sulfur compounds that are commonly added to beverages AND FOOD as a preservative. The common one with wine is sulfur dioxide, aka SO2.) I think I'm going to offer a pretty solid explanation for that, but first let me tell you how it relates to the title of this post.
One thing that really bothers me is when someone decides to lie to their own customers in order to sell a product. I get particularly upset about it when it happens with wine, which is a product that already has more than enough confusion and misinformation surrounding it. Our Daily Red and Orleans Hill are large wine brands with the some owners that market themselves as having no added or detectable sulfites. When I was on their website recently, I watched a video that makes some bold assertions, including the idea that "sulfite ... potentiates the hangover... it's just heinous." These statements are lies. I'm not talking about uncertainty or exaggeration. I'm talking about flat-out lying. Please bear with me while I continue my whirlwind approach to explaining my points.
Selling wine, it seems like about 5% of the people I talk to have self-diagnosed sulfite intolerance. This might seem strange given that estimates from various sources cited by a paper published by the University of Florida(http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/fy731) range from 1% to about 0.3%. I have been told by a Ph.D. chemist whose specialty is wine that the 0.3% number is the one to believe. This paper also mentions that "[a]dverse reactions to sulfites in nonasthmatics are extremely rare." In fact, there is zero reliable data supporting the idea that anyone who does not have asthma suffers from sulfite sensitivity or allergy.? To say these compounds are "heinous" is really only true if qualified by "to the tiny portion of asthmatics who suffer from increased sensitivity." That second part is not stated anywhere in that video. What's more interesting than the extreme unlikelihood that you, the reader, falls into this very small group is the list of adverse reactions. "The manifestations of sulfite sensitivity include a large array of dermatological, pulmonary, gastrointestinal, and cardiovascular symptoms." I don't see where headaches and hangovers would fit into those categories. Let's give the Our Daily Red people the benefit of the doubt and read on to the list of specific symptoms most commonly reported: "bronchospasm [asthmatic inflammation], angiodema [sic; swelling], urticaria [skin rash], nausea, abdominal cramping, and diarrhea". Hmmm, no headaches or hangovers?? If you search the web for documented evidence of that connection, you'll find a lot of unreliable, uninformed sources telling you it exists, and an unfortunately smaller number of informed sources with documentation and citation showing that such connections have never been shown in any sort of scientific study.? It hasn't been from a lack of study, either.
How about another view on the matter? UC Davis is the foremost institution for wine studies in the US. Their website (http://waterhouse.ucdavis.edu/whats-in-wine/sulfites-in-wine) has this to say: "The medical literature has virtually no reports on sulfites inducing headache.There are many studies of sulfites and asthmatic responses, and a few of these address sulfites in wine." So, this has been studied, in multiple instances, and the documented symptoms appear in only this tiny portion of the population, entirely asthmatic, and never include headaches or hangovers.
I know some people do suffer from wine-related headaches. I feel sorry for them. There are several theories as to the cause (possibly histamine), but right now the specific cause is not known. What is fairly certain is that the problem isn't the sulfur dioxide. To most of us, in the concentrations found in wine, this is a fairly harmless compound.? It is also added to quite a few food and beverage products that are not wine related. If you ever eat any sort of dried fruit (raisins, apricots, etc), you are consuming more SO2 per serving that you get from wine. Also, fermented products such as sauerkraut, as well as bread, juices, and various other things often contain sulfites. I never hear anyone complaining of headaches and hangovers from any of these products. The hangover issue is also tricky, but I do find with most people I talk to who get it, they're having a problem with cheap wine. If I drink 2-3 Natural Ice beers or shots of cheap vodka, I will feel like crap. So, it shouldn't surprise people that a few glasses of cheap wine does the same thing. Of course, dehydration also causes headaches and hangovers.
So, thanks for reading. I hope you'll be a little more comfortable from now on consuming wine (responsibly, of course). I'm very comfortable with it. Now if we can get people who sell wine to stop lying to the public, we'll really be in good shape. I doubt these people will stop lying any time soon- April 2013
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