The Connoisseur Problem

A few days ago, I shared a meal with someone who truly loves wine. She brought a bottle to the meal with her, one that she described as “mid-priced” but “excellent,” and shared a small glass with everyone at the table.

I tasted it. It was good and accompanied the food well. I could recognize that it was “better” wine than the sub-$10 stuff I usually drink at the dinner table, but it didn’t really click with me as any sort of exceptional experience. I mean, I would probably choose it in a blind taste test against our usual white table wine, but I wouldn’t be running out to pay more than $10 for it.

Yet, as we sat there, she compared the wine to a bunch of different wines, expensive and otherwise, and pointed out a bunch of different details.

Being a polite conversationalist, I asked a few follow-up questions, as I usually do when I see someone’s enthusiasm. I actually love hearing people talk about something they’re enthusiastic about and they usually take me along for an interesting ride. By the end of it, she was practically wishing she had several different bottles of wine so I could try them and notice these huge differences between them.

As I noted above, my wine palate is an unsophisticated one. Sarah and I have a small number of sub-$10 wines that we like and we’re often willing to try others in that price range, but we rarely spend more than that for a bottle. I have a glass of wine with dinner perhaps once or twice a week, and that’s the sum total of my wine consumption.

Thus, my personal wine palate is basically on the spectrum of sub-$10 wines. My idea of a perfectly good wine is going to be far different than my guest’s idea of a perfectly good wine simply because I am a limited wine connoisseur. I simply don’t have the broad experience of drinking wine that my guest has.

What does that mean, though? For one, it means that there are some subtle differences between wines that I’m basically unaware of. I don’t have the capacity to really appreciate the quality difference between a $20 wine and a $75 wine; I can taste some differences, but the differences are subtle enough that they’re not deeply meaningful to me.

I call this the “connoisseur problem” or the “90% problem.” For someone who is a wine connoisseur, the difference between a “middle of the pack” wine and a top tier wine is a huge one. They’re seeking out subtle quality experiences when they drink wine.

For me, the thing that matters is, “does it taste good and pair well with my meal?” If the answer is yes, I’m perfectly content. I don’t feel the need to chase the subtle differences between good wines. A wine that I identify as “good” is good enough for my purposes, which is a glass to be consumed as a nice pairing with a meal.

The thing is, I am fully aware that I am missing out on appreciating some of the nuance and subtleties of fine wine. I am making a conscious choice to appreciate wine as a simple meal pairing rather than look deeper for subtle differences in quality.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with being a wine connoisseur. It’s just that attempting to be a connoisseur of anything that comes with a price tag is a very expensive proposition, and that expensive proposition better be returning a lot of value to me personally.

For me, the difference between the best under-$10 wines out there and the best wines of that type regardless of price is definitely there, but it’s small enough that it doesn’t make a world-breaking difference to me, certainly not a $20 or a $50 difference per bottle to me. A sub-$10 wine that’s 80% as “good” as a $50 wine is perfectly fine at my table.

There are a few catches here. First of all, if you approach things with this perspective, it is really hard to appreciate someone who shares something of the highest quality with you. If I went to a very fancy dinner party and someone poured a wine of a truly excellent vintage, I would honestly have no idea how it really compared to other wines. I’d enjoy it and probably recognize that it is an expensive wine, but I would miss out on the amazing subtleties of it.

So, what do I do in that situation? I ask the person who is a connoisseur to tell me about it! The person to whom the difference is important will likely have quite a bit of knowledge about wines, and people who are passionate about a subject are almost always excited to share that knowledge and joyful that someone expresses an interest as well, and as a listener and friend (or at least acquaintance), I love seeing and hearing the passion of others.

At home, however, I’m going to stick with my sub-$10 wines on the table.

But what about the fear of missing out? There is definitely a sense that I’m probably missing out on a higher quality wine experience and an extensive body of knowledge that others hold, but the question becomes how much is that “higher quality wine experience” really worth to me? How much am I gaining beyond the enjoyment I get of a glass of inexpensive wine shared with my wife and paired with a simple meal? And whatever that gain might be, is it worth an expensive price per bottle of wine consumed just to get there?

For me, for most things in life, it’s just not worth that cost. I’ll save my connoisseurship for a small handful of things that are really meaningful to me, and for the other things, I’ll just go along for the ride with passionate friends and acquaintances. I’ll listen and let them tell me about the things they’re most passionate about and save my own passion (and expense) for the things I care about most.

The thing to remember here is that wine can be pretty much anything in this story. It could be cars or cheeses or board games or clothing. It could be anything that someone is deeply passionate about and invests a lot of time and money becoming a connoisseur. In the end, it’s not worth investing that time or money unless it is something you deeply care about on your own. Doing it just to impress others or just because that’s what “classy” people do isn’t a good reason to buy the expensive wine or the expensive car or anything else.

For most things, enjoy the simplest pleasures or even do without them entirely. Save your connoisseurship for the one or two things that really matter to you and that you think about when you’re alone, and avoid the desire to be a connoisseur of something that you merely enjoy with friends every once in a while and scarcely think about when you’re alone.

Besides, if you try to be a connoisseur of everything, not only will it be an expensive journey, you’ll never really be able to dig deep and really appreciate any one thing. Strive to be a connoisseur of everything, and you wind up being a connoisseur of nothing.

Strive to be selective in your connoisseurship. Dig deep into just a thing or two you’re passionate about, and be okay with not being a connoisseur of anything else. Instead, just appreciate the connoisseurship of your friends and acquaintances and let their passion take the lead when that subject comes up. Ask questions and be appreciative and learn a little, but keep your wallet firmly in your pocket. Your friends will appreciate it, and you’ll save your time and money and thought for the things you most care about.

Good luck!