A knowledge of wine increases chances of enjoyment
For many people, the concept of wine education makes about as much sense as sex education - once you get the basic idea, all you have to do is go for it. That is, it doesn't quite seem like a valid area of study. But how then to explain the thousands of Chinese people who now eagerly sign up each year to attain some level of formal wine certification?
Certainly, the frantic spread of the wine trade through China accounts for part of it - those able to demonstrate a level of wine competency often find themselves at a distinct advantage in the job market. For some, it is even a ticket out of their second- or third-tier city. However in Hong Kong, more than anywhere, there has also been a rash of people from outside the wine world padding the coffers of many a wine school with their legal tender.
Although whether wine education is good business has already been answered by the market, those of us who haven't yet shelled out may wonder whether it's necessary. Wine can be quite simple, really: you like some, you don't like others. But as master of wine John Hoskins said in an interview with the Guild of Sommeliers, many consumers who claim, "I at least know what I like and what I don't," actually don't.
"They know what they like once they taste it," he countered, but unless that consumer is drinking the ever-consistent Yellow Tail, there's no telling whether that pleasurable experience can be replicated, because of vintage variation and even bottle variation.
Unless you stick to wines costing the same as any other beverage, taking a punt on a bottle that could contain anything from heavenly elixir to vinegar (to your taste) is an expensive gamble.
The key words in that sentence are "to your taste" - while wine education purportedly teaches us to evaluate wine objectively, for anyone outside the trade, it's much more to do with exploration, truly learning what you do and don't like, and how to find that again in other bottles. Otherwise, you may never venture beyond the first brand you enjoyed. Is that a problem? If that brand is Lafite, and all of your countrymen feel the same way about it (and have more cash than you do to support their habit), it could be.
The popularity of wine education in China is explicable. Newly wealthy Chinese wish to acquire the accoutrements of Western culture and the expertise that goes with it.
Cynics see wine titles such as CSW (Certified Specialist of Wine) and WSET (Wine and Spirit Education Trust) as yet another set of letters for the freshly minted to add to their fold-out business cards.
But we in the industry have zero issue with everyone becoming more knowledgeable about our product, especially if they're learning the right things.
What we mean by this is that "wine education" need not be academic. Even those of us in the trade are unlikely to find opportunities to apply our knowledge of Portuguese terracing styles.
Context gives wine soul, but too much context can be soul-crushing.
The awful but wonderful truth about wine is that it's complicated - but like that other arena we've alluded to, a little bit of knowledge drastically increases the chances of success. What is important? Wine elements like acidity, tannin and alcohol; how you spot them and why they matter. This provides a foundation to understand your own preferences.
The most common grape varieties and their "flavour profiles" - that is, their typical levels of the elements above, and some characteristic aromas, will have you covered for the whole New World.
Learn a few classic European wine regions and their affiliated grape varieties, and you're a wine geek in the making.
Can all this be learned by curling up with a book at home? Perhaps, but the most crucial part of wine education cannot be: that is, wine is meant to be shared.
Debra Meiburg is a master of wine