Did you know that Napa Valley was once as famous for Cream of Tartar as for its wine? Or that there are not just one but two grapes known in their respective languages as “Dog Strangler”. No neither did we, but for wine writer Simon Woods having those sort of facts to hand is far more useful than being able to recite to consumers at a wine tasting the oak treatment on the wine they are tasting. Which is why he has written a book looking to answer the most common consumer questions. Here he explains how he came up with the answers…
If you are involved in talking to the general public about wine, you might want to put down your WSET course book and just listen to the questions that the average person has when they are trying to understand more about what they are drinking. It’s been a wine education all in itself for Simon Woods.
Like many people in the wine trade, I have a head full of knowledge. I know how many Beaujolais Crus there are, and could probably name them all at a push. I know the difference between Pouilly-Fuissé and Pouilly-Fumé, between Loire and Loir and – vitally –between Palette, pallet and palate.
No, I haven’t done any wine exams: the only initials after my name relate to an ill-advised MA in Engineering Science. But I do have a wealth of ‘practical’ experience (and the stained teeth to prove it), and the number of requests I receive to judge wine, write about wine and talk about wine would seem to indicate that other people think I know my stuff.
However, for a long time, I’ve realised that the ‘stuff’ I know isn’t always what normal people – those who don’t spend all day spitting into buckets – want to know. I first became aware of this when doing tastings with the public. I’d turn up armed with a wealth of ‘interesting’ facts about the wines – time in oak, type of oak, how the blend had 43% Cabernet in 2004 and 45% the following year, levels of RS, TA and pH to two decimal places – and then watch as all but a small fraction of those present started to yawn.
So I started peppering my spiel with information that was related but less obviously wine-nerd-y. Such as the fact that Napa Valley was once as famous for Cream of Tartar as for wine. That there are not just one but two grapes known in their respective languages as “Dog Strangler”. And that what really stuck with me from my first visit to Cloudy Bay was that they had a three-legged cat called Spook.
Audiences began to perk up, but they perked up even more when I turned the tasting over to them for Q&A sessions. And what I soon discovered from what they were asking me was that in my presentations, I was often providing answers to questions that they themselves weren’t all that bothered about.
Knowing the questions to answer
As for the questions they WERE asking, well, didn’t everyone know what a grape variety was? Didn’t they know what ‘vintage’ meant? And wasn’t it obvious that just because the wine tasted of blackcurrants didn’t mean there were actual blackcurrants in it? Apparently not.
The questions kept coming, with certain ones cropping up time and time again, which meant I had to be able not just to answer them, but answer them in a way that was easily digestible without dumbing down too much. Over a period of several years, I amassed not only a large list of questions but also the analogies and explanations that would have people suddenly going, “Ah, I get that now.”
And now my answers to those questions have just appeared in book form as “101 Wine FAQs: The answers to the questions that people ask about wine.” Some of them were easy to address, others took up considerable time and space: there’s no simple answer to, “How does climate affect the flavours of wine?”
I originally thought of it as a book for the bracket of people I call ‘Supermarket Graduates’, those who still but most of their wine along with the weekly shop but are just starting to ask, “What’s next?” However, the feedback I’ve had from various sectors of the wine trade has been encouraging and makes me think that my next sales push will be towards those looking for something to use in staff training.
Yes, sales push. I’m the author, but I’m also the editor and the publisher, and I’m the one in charge of sales, marketing and distribution. Not exactly tasks I’d expected to be involved in as a wine writer, but I’m enjoying the challenge.
- 101 Wine FAQs (RRP £9) is available from simonwoods.com and a growing network of wine merchants – if you’re interested in stocking the book, trade prices are available for orders of 10+ copies. Contact Simon on firstname.lastname@example.org. You can read an extract of the book at simonwoods.com/FAQ-Extract (the password is Zinfandel). You can follow him at social media @woodswine.