Young people ask the best questions

My favorite event of the year, at which I speak and taste with others, is my annual gig at the student wine club at the University of California’s Haas School of Business. I did it last night for, I think, the fifth year.

These future MBAs are so smart. At least half the questions they asked startled me with their freshness and straight-to-the-point accuracy. But then, they always do, which is why I so enjoy this class.

What do I think of score inflation? Why doesn’t Beaujolais ever get as high a score as Bordeaux? Do I find myself agreeing with other critics on the same wines? What makes one wine score 98 while another only gets 88? Are there different styles of wine writing aimed at different audiences or demographics (which made me recall the short-lived awfulness of Wine X magazine and the absurdity of Twitter reviews)? If I review the same wine twice over time, will I give it the same score? How do I know if a wine will age? How do I predict how long it will age for? Is there a relationship between price and quality? Do I think crowd-sourcing will become the wave of the future? And so on.

Each of these questions could exhaust an entire seminar, of course, and each of them got my brain cells all fired up.

What was equally interesting about the students was what they didn’t ask. No questions about the wines themselves. We tasted through four Cabernets: Von Strasser 2009 Estate Cabernet, Venge 2010 Silencieux Cabernet Sauvignon, Rock Wall 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon and Hawkstone 2011 Connoisseur Series Cabernet Sauvignon. All are from Napa Valley. I scored them from 98 points down to 82 points, and wanted to share with the students why my points varied so much. We started with the Hawkstone, which most people liked because it’s fresh and fruity. But when we reached the Venge, everyone could see how much better it was. A superb wine, really. Then came the Von Strasser. I asked for a show of hands: Who preferred the Von Strasser to the Venge, and vice versa? The Venge won, by a slim margin, which is what I expected. It’s a more accessible wine. I had to explain why I scored the Von Strasser higher, which led to a conversation about mountain fruit. I like an interactive teaching style. What (I asked them) is the biggest difference between dirt that lies on a horizontal angle (and here I held my arm up at 45 degrees) and dirt that’s level? Everyone practically shouted out at the same time: Water! Exactly so. I explained about drainage, and how the water carries away nutrients with it, leaving the land leaner than down in the valley below. They listened to all this eagerly; and, of course, when one has an eager audience, it reinforces one’s own sense of excitement. Small berries are concentrated berries: the skin-to-pulp ratio is greater, resulting in greater tannins, hence more ageability. These young  students were fascinated by the vagaries of aging, possibly because, being so young themselves, they cannot imagine the process of slow but steady deterioration (for that is what aging is. I reminded them of the old slogan that, according to the French, the British prefer their claret “in the first blush of death”).

It was inevitable that I would contrast these exchanges  with some of the other classes and panels I have the opportunity to serve on. There, an older audience asks (in my humble opinion) far less interesting questions. What are the clones? What kind of French oak do you use? What year did you start? Issues such as these do not, I think, make for useful conversations between winemakers and consumers; and I often think the consumers are asking them, not because they really care, but because they think these are the sorts of questions they ought to be asking, if they’re to appear to be intelligent wine people. As people age, the mind seems to grow less curious, less elastic, less, well, naïve: but naïve questions are the best of all. Out of the mouths of babes.

And not a single query about social media! Not one. There would have been no mention of Twitter or blogs, had I not introduced the topic. Some years ago, there were lots of questions about social media. Could this lacuna be canary in the coal mine stuff? At any rate, at the end, they asked me to write my blog’s URL on the white board and as I did so, one of the students said, “You just got 60 new readers.



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