Why does learning about French wine feel so out of reach?
I thought I knew everything when I moved to France.
Granted, I was 20 years old, the perfect age where adolescent idealism, youthful confidence, and a small dab of life experience make anyone think they are smart enough to take on the world.
With several years of French lessons under my belt and a scholarship to study abroad for a year, I thought little Midwestern me would land in Paris and blend right in.
The French were happy to contradict me. My education was, after all, only beginning.
Out of the many things that I would have to learn I was painfully ignorant of during my year abroad (and later, when I would move to Paris permanently), the biggest party pooper was this:
I knew absolutely nothing about wine.
Sure, I had sipped on a glass or two of what I thought was champagne (it wasn’t, it was Cook’s sparkling wine that my grandma bought from a grocery store), and enjoyed a delicious glass of Merlot (wrong again, that was a berry-flavored wine cooler at a Friday-night party). But the majority of the time, as a typical college student, I would reach for soda, sugary cocktails, or light, watered-down beer to quench my thirst. Like so many others from my small Midwestern town, I just wasn’t around wine that much. My parents didn’t keep it in the house, I never saw bottles around campus, and almost no one I knew ordered it out at bars. I’d spot couples sipping from glasses filled to the brim when out at a local Italian restaurant. I’d see a glamorous actress knocking back a glass or two in films.
Despite this inexperience, I was convinced that, once in France, I’d be able to sit down at a random bistro table, order un verre de vin rouge, and love life.
I made it all the way to the ordering of a glass of red, but immediately regretted my decision after.
My first sip of French wine - a glass of Beaujolais Nouveau at a cafe near Notre Dame de Paris - made my face twist and contort in ways I didn’t know it was capable of.
Toto, we weren’t in Kansas (actually, I’m from Missouri) anymore.
This was no berry-flavored wine cooler.
This was the real stuff and I had no idea how to drink it.
The French were happy to step in once again, with wanted advice this time. Even people who did not consider themselves wine connoisseurs knew enough to point me in the right direction. Friends started me out on sweeter things - les vins moelleux, like honey-flavored Monbazillac, or a kir (white wine and blackcurrant liqueur). These were candy-like enough for my sugar-obsessed American palate to appreciate. Soon enough, I was able to appreciate Riesling or Gewürztraminer from the Alsace region. It didn’t take long before I discovered dry, high-acid white wines - which I now have to stop myself from guzzling, as well as rosé and light-bodied reds.
Years later, and I’ve never met a champagne or a mousseux or a crémant that I didn’t like. I still struggle with fuller-bodied reds, but have learned that that’s okay (and actually quite common). I feel much more confident in my wine choices than before and would rather have a glass of white wine - whether it’s Chablis Grand Cru or a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc or any old Sancerre or a California Albariño out of a can - than anything else.
And yet, when I compare my knowledge to so many others - I’ve been lucky to have befriended a Master Sommelier or two along the way - I know that I am still completely clueless about wine.
After ten years of living in France and three years in California.
After going to wineries, befriending somms and wine makers, working in the restaurant industry, surrounded by the “good stuff”...
I know maybe a little bit more than the general public and yet almost nothing at all.
Why is wine so hard?
Why does learning about wine seem like such a daunting task and so out of reach for Americans like me?
I turned to my friend and sommelier Megan Bauer, founder of The Way We Wine, an online community that is working to democratize wine and provide free access to the bounty of wine knowledge online. The website is a platform that houses a pretty spectacular forum open to casual wine-drinkers such as myself, but also professionals who have come to realize that so much information - from pronunciation to the history of certain grape varietals to the methods behind vintages with cult followings - is not always easy to access.
I was lucky to have learned a thing or two just by living in France. And Megan explains how my French friends were naturally more inclined to know about wine:
“For most European countries, wine is a staple found on most tables, often introduced to children at a young age. This first impression allows those children to grow into adulthood comfortable with wine and respect its origins. It is a condiment for the people for every segment of the population.”
She also points out how my ignorance, alongside so many Americans’, isn’t uncommon. “The majority of Americans believe wine to be ‘out of reach’ and are generally intimidated to ask questions in order to gain more knowledge.”
A one-way ticket to Paris worked for me, but of course that option shouldn’t be - and couldn’t be - the only way for all wine-curious Americans to learn more. How much of my education came from a place of privilege, from an economic background that allowed me to not only travel to France, but to go to college and study French in the first place?
Thinking back to my friends in France who were always there to refill my glass and introduce me to new grapes, regions, and domaines, I can’t help but remember that they were from every different background imaginable. Urban, rural, ethnically, religiously, and even politically diverse, college-educated or not… wine was often a common language for them all.
That’s not to say that all wine-drinking experiences with French friends were equal - some friends opened up their extensive wine cellars with rare (and expensive) wines they had bought from a luxury cave for me, others were very happy to uncork a 6-euro bottle from Monoprix in the park. Some of those friends did both. And I was often happy regardless. Because what each experience had in common was a general knowledge of what we were sharing (heavy emphasis on the word “general” here) and an acknowledgement that wine didn’t need to be expensive or rare to be good.
Can Americans say the same?
“Since Diamond Creek introduced the $100 bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon in Napa Valley, wine has been marketed in this country as a prestige luxury good.” A luxury good not readily available to all. “In the United States, the largest obstruction to wine knowledge is demographic, and is correlated almost exclusively with systemic inequalities in terms of gender and race,” Megan emphasizes.
Which leads us back to The Way We Wine’s mission: “The Way We Wine was created based on a demand for (free) accessible information about the wine and beverage industry regardless of income, race, or gender identity. The industry is in dire need for a place where people can come together and share their knowledge rather than be reliant on information coming from the top-down.”
At The French Collective, where we have repeatedly called on our followers, readers, students, and members to break free of the glamorization of French and Francophone culture and to celebrate the French-speaking world - and its delicious, delicious wine - without giving into snobbery or elitism, we can only applaud Megan Bauer and her cohorts at The Way We Wine. And hope that they can stick around to answer more questions.
Because, we have realized that in opening this conversation - just like opening your first bottle of Beaujolais - our level of understanding on this topic has just begun.