Formal wine education didn’t exist when you started out. How did you teach yourself?
In the 1970s in New York, wine was a closed society. There were five men who controlled wine media, who wrote for every magazine in the US. Eventually, I was assertive enough to one of the five men, who said they would let me taste with them if I didn’t talk. I tasted with them for eight years, and I never said a thing. But I listened and started to piece things together.
What makes the The Wine Bible different from the other wine books available?
I wanted to have an American voice and viewpoint. That is, by nature, more casual. The wine books I learned on were really stripped down—there was very little history, culture, food and never anything funny. Mine was the first book to have sidebars about tangoing in Argentina, or the history of the French baguette or why the Italians never use spoons with pasta—asides that put wine in its rightful context and its place in that culture’s history, art and life. It made wine more understandable.
At all levels, from newbies to sommeliers, what’s the consistent piece of advice you give students?
The best way to learn nothing about wine is to continue to drink only what you know you like. We tend to drink pretty narrowly—two or three varieties. That’s the equivalent of eating carrots and chicken for every meal the rest of your life. There are at least 5,000 grape varieties. At least 150 of those are widely available. So to be choosing between two or three any given night is kind of crazy.
What’s the most exciting thing you’ve ever seen a new wine drinker do?
I’ve taught thousands of people, and one of the things that always happens is someone cries. It hits them how deeply evocative of the earth wine is, how mysterious it is. You begin to understand why it was and is the beverage of religion. People have this oh-my-god moment, when they’re really emotionally moved, when their first instinct was purely hedonistic.
What do you tell students to help them get over wine’s intimidation factor?
Wine is merely liquid flavor. At its core, that’s all it is. If you can go to a restaurant and understand if the burger tastes good or not, then you have all the brainpower you need to understand wine. The brain makes no distinction between solid and liquid flavor. As soon as I tell people that, they get it.
What’s your secret guilty-pleasure food-wine pairing?
I could drink sparkling wine and eat potato chips all day long. I don’t even feel guilty about saying that. Salt and acid is the ultimate, all-time great pairing.