This is yet another example of how it’s nearly impossible for me to get away from things that tie in to the content of this blog. In September, during my trip to California to work with James Irvine Foundation grantees, I took some time to “play” in Napa Valley. One stop was at the Robert Mondavi Winery. We took an official tour led by one of Mondavi’s wine chemists. This was a man whose passion and life work is great wine. He knows his stuff and could go on interminably about the chemistry of wine making. But he did not.
He told us that the driving force in his life now was introducing people to excellent wine and helping them appreciate it. He explained things in ways that those of us who were not experts could understand. He also acknowledged that his preference was for wines that simply “tasted good.” He shared with us a frustration with oenologists and connoisseurs who believed that complexity of taste was the most important element in determining the quality of a wine. To our guide, that was a perspective that kept the non-expert away from wine and from its enjoyment. He was concerned that a focus on esoteric knowledge created an insider/outsider split that would limit the number of people who would be drawn to good wine; his was a passion to include.
To be clear, knowledge of wine improves appreciation of it, at least up to a point. The point where knowledge moves beyond educating the palate to secret handshake excluding the masses is the point where any field cuts itself off from the world.
There is great depth in great art, and the deeper the understanding, the greater the enjoyment. However, there is real danger of knowledge becoming a fence that has the effect of keeping non-initiates out through 1) making them feel inferior or unwelcome and 2) creating a sense of superiority among the “insiders” that is felt as condescension. (See Discovering Humility) Our industry cannot afford to surround itself with artificial barriers to appreciation of what we do. On the contrary, circumstances are such that, like our guide at Mondavi, we must reach out beyond the inner circle and do everything we can to help them find a way in.