JULIAN HITNER TORONTO WINE CONSULTANT

"For love of everything that is wine"

SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 10, 2007

~A brief essay in praise of Socratic wine knowledge~

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     In the times of ancient Greece, there existed an individual named Socrates (470-399 BCE), a man best remembered (at least among classical circles) for being the wisest man of his time, in that his wisdom derived from his own realization that he was as ignorant about the world as the day he was born. At the time that he lived (and this remains very observable in today’s world), while all other people claimed to have definitive answers to all things both important and trivial, Socrates, as expounded in the dialogues of Plato, spent much of his life engaged in continuous questioning. In other words, he devoted his self to the cause of ‘never-ending investigative learning.’

     Thousands of years later, a few of us strive to continue Socrates’ investigation, albeit with new sources of literature and coinciding oppositional challenges. For my part, I have taken even one step further (or one backward, in this case), by narrowing the parameters of my search toward a specific subject: the development of an ever-greater understanding of the institution of wine; yet not toward the point of a ‘journey’s end’ in expert specialization, but one of a (far more complicated) unceasing, happy studious nature. Does this stand in contrast to Socrates’ more universal-like search of wisdom? In terms of scope, perhaps it does, but not in terms of the level of difficulty involved.

     With this in mind, as I continue to learn more about wine and its various facets, I find my self wondering about how much additional information I will have to accumulate before I am considered an ‘expert’ on, at least, most things relating to the aforementioned subject. And then, in typical Socratic style, I realize that I have yet to even define what it actually means to be an expert on anything! In general terms, the masses of persons in my midst – in other words, Torontonians – seem to consider an expert on a subject to be a person who knows a lot of ‘stuff’ about that particular topic. More importantly, this person must also be required to possess a genuine written certificate which guarantees that person’s expertise in law. At the same time, however, one could rightly argue that the level of necessity of this certificate is also dependent upon the specific area of expertise in which a person is meant to specialize. For example, while it is considered crucial that a physician possess a certificate of expertise, a ‘professional athlete’ might not need one. To make matters even more complicated, one’s admittance of being an ‘expert’ can be determined by the origin from which his or her certificate is obtained. For example, a degree in engineering from a third world nation is often considered meaningless in Western countries.

     On the subject of wine, then, am I required to possess a certificate before I am considered an expert? As with all things, much depends on the quality (or nature) of the individual in question, as well as on that individual’s desired aims. Like I stated before, my primary interest in wine does not entail my ever reaching an endpoint in the matter, but one of persistent, happy examination. Complicatedly idyllic for a person of my circumstances, to most intelligent onlookers, this would appear to sound like a hobby. And yet, it is not a hobby, for I have taken to actually writing on wine, as well as establishing my own small business, and even building a well-received website. But still, because I lack a large following of readers and clientele, I am lucky to remain even a blip on the radar screen in my sphere of activities.

     This brings me to a new, associative fact of expertise: the need for recognition, whether or not one is considered a certified expert in his or her field. On reviewing the noted ‘wine experts’ in my midst (I place ‘wine experts’ in quotation marks because I have yet to arrive at [and probably never will arrive at] a satisfactory definition of what an ‘expert’ on anything really is), it does seem apparent that it is almost always imperative that one possess a certificate in order to be recognized as being knowledgeable about wine. For writers, this means belonging to a ‘guild’ of likeminded figures (a good palate also helps). For servers, this means having a ‘sommelier certificate’ and connections at high-profile restaurants. For critics, this does not necessarily mean having a certificate (although one such as a Master of Wine certainly helps); but, instead, they must have a first-rate palate, a keen writing sense, a good head for numbers, and a big mouth (in my opinion, this is almost equivalent to possessing a certificate).

     For persons of my sort, the idea of obtaining any sort of wine certificate for the solemn purpose of recognition is a cruel pain to bear. By now, the reason for this ought to be at least somewhat obvious: a certificate symbolizes the potential of one’s unwillingness to pursue the study of wine for purposes that extend beyond any simple endpoint of knowledge. At the same time, it also represents a sort-of haughtiness that I seem to encounter all too often when I interact with most types of certified experts in any given field. More importantly, however, the need of a certificate for sake of recognition also means that I abandon certain principles set out by Socrates, namely, the desire for learning for the pure sake of learning, not for obtaining any sort of recognition.

     Of course, one might argue that obtaining a certificate and becoming an expert is only the first of many steps toward further discoveries and theses, particularly when one thinks of fully-fledged university professors continuously publishing new papers. In my eyes, this makes the requirement of possessing a certificate in order to be considered an expert even more exasperating, in that I am forced to conform to an established institution’s parameters of achievement if I am able to pursue more advanced levels of study. And whenever I put forth this observation, I am constantly reminded that “this is the way the world works, Julian.”

     Thus, while it would admittedly be agreeable to receive more recognition for my efforts toward the pursuit of being ever-more knowledgeable about wine, judging by the teachings of Socrates, it is neither necessary nor wholly desirable to become a certified expert. To become one would mean the end of my being the wisest wine guy in the city (I have no world aspirations).



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