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Tuesday Tributes
Doing The Knowledge

By Charles Olken

It takes four years to become a London taxi driver through a process of learning the City’s geography called “Doing The Knowledge”. How long does it take to become a winewriter?

Unlike London cabbies, there are no tests for winewriters. One does not have to know anything. A good line of patter and a bit of bluster has taken many so-called winewriters a long way. I know. It did for me.

But there is an essential difference. I knew I was a rank amateur when I started. And I knew I could succeed because I was entering a part of the winewriting field that was more or less empty at the time. Along with Earl Singer, my office mate in our day jobs, and my writing partner at the time, I walked into the California beat and Connoisseurs’ Guide was thus born with little or no competition. Of course, there was little cost of entry either, and soon there were lots of others who turned their passions into their vocations.

Over time, winewriting went from small-time, cottage industry publications to the massive, full-color, hundreds of pages of advertising magazines whose budget for each issue dwarfs what CGCW spends in a year. With the exception of the Wine Advocate, the newsletter field was then and is now, small potatoes no matter how much I or Steve Tanzer or Dan Berger or Nick Ponomareff know.

And then the Internet came along. The cost of entry and the amount of knowledge needed to play had gone up—even for newsletters—and there have been no new entrants to the field of any consequence for years now. Writers who came to the biz with a good consumer base of information quickly built their credentials through tasting and travel. And it is fair to say that magazines like the Spectator and the Enthusiast are now peopled by professionals, not just excited amateurs. Neither they nor I had a road map to follow, and so “Doing The Knowledge” for us was very different than it is for London cabbies who still spend years riding around town on their mopeds with their learner’s permits proudly displayed. We got to be professionals by paying attention.

Nowadays, sommeliers have to have a credential if only to be respected by other sommeliers. English writers are either too old to get a credential or they are so young that they spend years searching for their MWs (Masters of Wine) in a process that is even more arcane than learning every road, alley, hotel, nook and cranny of the city.

But the Internet, that bastion of democracy that let’s every voice be heard, has lowered the bar again for winewriters. Today, we have a new generation of commentators and observers, recommenders and story tellers who are “doing the knowledge” the same way I did it—on the job. I was among the lucky early entrants. I may not have known what I did not know, but there were so few others in my “space” that it was easy to be “knowledgeable”. Not so today.

The result is that we have far more information than every before, but we have far less insight, far less perspective in that great mass of writing. And we are going to have to wait while all those new entrants “Do The Knowledge”. Whether they will change winewriting forever still remains to be seen. For the moment, they remind me of me decades ago as I struggled to learn about wine faults, went out in the field and wrote article after article about the fine points of small appellations even before they were recognized, tasted with as many winemakers as could be found, interviewed every person who would sit still for an hour.

I have come to this point of talking about knowledge because of the intellectual challenges inherent in the arguments pro and con in yesterday’s blog. For that was the very crux of the discussion. It was about knowledge and the application of that knowledge. It was about what makes important winewriting important. We were talking about the understanding of small differences in wine—because it is those understandings that allow us to separate one wine from another. Yesterday’s blog, despite its tongue-in-cheek kidding of my friend Dan Berger, was not about his palate or mine. It was about “The Knowledge”. Because it is “The Knowledge” that makes us into connoisseurs. We may disagree about styles and about individual wines, but those with “The Knowledge” recognize, understand, can explain the small differences that make wine appreciation so very much worthy of our time and attention.


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For thirty-five years, Connoisseurs’ Guide has been the authoritative voice of the California wine consumer. With readers in all fifty states and twenty foreign countries, the Guide is valued by wine lovers everywhere for its honesty and for it strong adherence to the principles of transparency, unbiased, hard-hitting opinions. Now, it is becoming the California winelover’s most powerful online voice as well. And, our new features provide an unmatched array of advice and information for aficionados of every stripe.


you left out one thing....
Posted on:11/8/2011 11:56:14 AM

We may have "more information than every before, but we have far less insight, far less perspective" but you leave out that we still lack *understanding* of wine.

I have always said that understanding how wine is made (not just: "grapes yeast=wine" or "Pinot Noir is from Burgundy", but something far more sophisticated and encompassing not only the production of wine but also how human sensation and perception *really* work and not that relativist, subjective nonsense that has become the party line) should come before the ability to string together a grammatically correct sentence. If you lack the former, the latter is just blather.

The fundamental distinction between more "information" and "experience" and true understanding is best illustrated by the fact that one can have made love to a multitude of women and still be a lousy lover.

Today, having just drunk a lot of wine can still leave one profoundly ignorant about it.

you left out one thing....
by George
Posted on:11/10/2011 1:16:55 PM

True perhaps, SUAMW..... but given the choice, as much as I love wine, i think I'd prefer to have made love to more women..........maybe I could have improved????

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