Is There Such a Thing as a “Wine Genius”?

The other day I got an email from the folks at something called the Everyday Genius Institute. Would I, they wanted to know, be interested in reviewing a video called “Think Like a Genius Wine Master”? Would I ever. And not just because I love getting free stuff (although I kinda do). I wanted to see the video because I was curious to see how they defined a “Genius Wine Master”–and wanted to know if it was possible to think like one. I’ve met a lot of people who are very, very smart about wine. They usually fall into one of the following categories:

The tasting prodigies. These are people who are absolutely brilliant tasters. They can detect faults with a single sniff, excel at blind tastings, and have astounding recall of every wine they’ve ever tasted. The rarest of all breeds, but definitely the showiest.

The walking encyclopedias. No grape variety is too obscure, no corner of the wine-producing world is too hidden for these wine scholars. Impossible to stump, they are rarely shy about sharing their vast knowledge.

Uber-specialists. In the tradition of Isaiah Berlin’s hedgehog, these folks know one big thing. Often, the one big thing they know is Italy, which seems to inspire more specialists than any other nation. (And who could blame them?)

Varsity bullshitters. Alas, the most common of all wine smarties. Bluster and confidence can carry you very far in some wine circles. This is what happened to that guy in your AP English class who never seemed to read anything but still managed to get a 5 on the exam.

The master senseis. Next to the tasting prodigies, these peeps are the toughest to find. They’re incredibly gifted at sharing what they know in a way that excites, educates–and doesn’t intimidate–the beginner. This is the kind of wine intelligence that I’m trying very hard ¬†to cultivate–and that I’d like to see more of in the wine world.

The “Genius Wine Master” at work in this video — Master Sommelier Tim Gaiser — is probably a combination of the tasting prodigy and the master sensei. There’s some truly helpful stuff here, with a comprehensive breakdown of see/smell/sip, as well as a useful disclaimer that context (where you’re tasting, and who you’re tasting with) has a big impact. The advice to make a mental collage of what you’re tasting, picturing fruits and spices and the like in your mind’s eye, makes a lot of sense for visual learners. At $50, it seems a bit steep for information you could find for $20 in a book (or for $0 online) but if you like video learning and don’t mind throwing money at this problem, you could do worse.

My only real objection to the video is the name. I don’t know what a “wine genius” is. As I tried to show above, I think there are different kinds of “wine intelligence,” but the idea of genius when it comes to wine seems facile, ¬†somehow too lofty and too limiting all at once. (The other topics of genius study? Getting straight As, sales, and copywrighting.) When I think of a “genius,” I think of either someone who famously deserves the label–say, Einstein–or else someone who has an extremely specific, limited skill, as in “that guy’s a genius at fixing up old Vespas.” (No offense to Vespa mechanics. Or Einstein.)

What I don’t think of is someone who has devoted countless hours to the endlessly rewarding–and occasionally frustrating–pursuit of understanding what happens when grapes become something else entirely. What do you call that? Passionate amateur? Wine-crazed fool? I’ll take those over “genius” any day.

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