After Elizabeth Schneider started her high-tech job in Boston, she realized that she was much more passionate about her hobby: wine. Now based in Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina, Schneider is a Certified Sommelier who hosts the popular podcast Wine for Normal People and book of the same name. Her mission is to bring the love of wine to normal people, without pretense or snobbery. Wine critic Natalie MacLean described Schneider’s way of conceptualizing wine as “practical, yet so memorable.”
Stephen Harrison: So what quote will we be chatting about today?
Elizabeth Schneider: It’s an unlikely one. I know you were very surprised by my choice! “The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existence.” – Albert Einstein
I was surprised that a wine expert would go with Einstein. Why does this quote resonate with you?
My entire reason for being in the wine world, and everything that I do, is on this premise of curiosity, of continuing to probe, of asking questions, maybe sometimes stirring the pot…
That means constantly being unsettled with the information and knowledge that I have, and keeping going. You need to keep going because wine is endless, and it changes every year.
I like the second sentence of the quote—“Curiosity has its own reason for existence.” and I wanted to get your take on it.
A lot of people say, “Why are you asking all of these questions? Why do you have to worry about that. It is what it is.”
But very bright people say, “No, it’s not okay to just sit on that [what you know already].” If you’re not curious, then you will not continue to achieve. In Einstein’s case, he may have reflected on his contributions to physics while continuing to ask, What else is there?
It’s incredibly important for anyone who teaches a subject to not sit out on that curiosity. You must keep on going down the rabbit holes.
I wanted to ask you a little bit about your background. You grew up in Long Island and went to a liberal arts university in the Northeast, and then you got your MBA. How did your sense of curiosity draw you into this wine world and what you're doing now?
First of all, my father is a professor. You should know that. He is academically inclined, constantly pushing, and asking questions. And he instilled in me this sense that it’s not enough to just go to school. You have to continue your quest and your path.
I was a government major at Wesleyan, that small liberal arts school, studying international politics. When I first started taking wine classes in Boston, I realized this was a subject where you could always learn more: you could learn about wine history, wine agricultural, wine politics. It was a cross-section of all of these things that I had studied, all in one subject.
After business school, I worked for a giant winery. And one sad realization I had was that the large wineries don’t have that sense of curiosity and questioning. Large wineries focus on making money doing the same thing in the same ways. That’s unfortunate.
You mentioned that you view wine as a wide area of study. That’s interesting to me because I would have expected it to be more niche.
Oh, it’s so much broader than most people think. Take Champagne. How did champagne come to be? Read up on the Champagne Riots, where people were killing each other in the street over economics and politics.
And to use a more modern-day example, champagne is very much affected by climate change. What are they doing? They’re breeding new grapes. So, yes, of course wine is a very broad area to learn about with many intersecting issues.
I’ve heard before that when it comes to wine, you should just drink what you like. But you don’t subscribe to that philosophy. Why is that?
It all goes back to the quote. If you decide you like Carbernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley and keep drinking that, then what’s that going to do for you? What else could you learn? You could taste Bourdeaux, or Cabernet from Australia, and learn what makes each place so very different and interesting.
It doesn’t make sense to me when people decide they like something and dig in to that only. That’s not how you evolve your interest or your hobby.
Could it be that people are curious about wine but they are held back for economic reasons? It’s expensive to travel internationally, for example.
I think it’s less about the costs of actual physical travel—I’m a subscriber to armchair traveling, personally. I’m certainly on a budget, and I spend between 15 and 25 dollars on a bottle, and for that amount, I’m drinking fantastic wines. Especially in the United States and the U.K., we are in the best time for wine that we’ve ever been in because there’s so much competition and you can drink wines from all over the world at affordable prices.
So my feeling is that wine people are more likely to be barriers to entry than the economics. Nobody in the wine shop is friendly enough to tell you that Bordeaux is [a mix of] Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. They’ve made an environment where it’s very uncomfortable to ask questions. And that doesn’t make people feel great about learning wine.
But is the wine culture changing to be less pretentious?
It was. I started writing about wine and podcasting over ten years ago at a time when blogs were huge. And a lot of people were using blogs to make wine accessible, and it looked like we had turned a corner. Until blogs died, so there was that.
Then this whole certification craze started. It started with this cult little movie SOMM. And we’ve now entered this weird world where certified sommeliers are rewarded for being snotty and elitist. Wine people have created this idea that you deserve more respect if you have more letters after you name. There are still wine communicators like me who are trying to help people feel good about wine. But overall the wine world has swung back around to being more snobby.
I’m glad you mentioned the wine certification craze because it connects to the quote. Einstein says, “Curiosity has its own reason for existence.” But it sounds to me that some people are trying to use the sommelier-certification as a means to an end rather than valuing the learning as an end in itself.
You totally get it. We see this, by the way, not just in wine but in many things. With respect to the sommelier exam in particular—these guys are just learning the exam! They are not actually learning the wine. It’s like the SAT, and we can all probably agree that the SAT is the opposite of curiosity.
The other thing about these certifications is that they never recertify you. There are people who took the certification back in 1995 when there were many, many fewer regions. And the pass rate today it’s much lower, around three to seven percent. To me, the lack of recertification means the sommelier exam is not so much a professional certification as a club.
To be safe, maybe we should shift from wine politics to science. If you’re a casual wine drinker, what are the benefits of understanding the science behind wine production? You mention malolactic fermentation in your book.
So the reason to know about something like malolactic fermentation is that if you like it, it will make a wine creamy and soft. In some cases, especially in Chardonnay, it will make the wine buttery. It might make it taste like buttered popcorn, really full and rich and thick.
Oak is enormously important in both reds and whites because how the grape reacts with oak will ultimately determine the flavor of the wine. In the new world, wine makers call oak the “spice rack” of the winemaker. And if the oak barrel is toasted, it will have that burnt flavor, like a piece of toast. This is technical and dorky, but it matters for the taste.
You also write about this French concept of “terroir” and why it’s so controversial.
So terroir is a complicated topic Focusing on the actual physical sciences: The concept of terroir is there’s the seen and the unseen.
First the seen: You have a vineyard, and that vineyard is unlike any other place on earth, because no other place can take that same space. What happens on that plot of land? Is it morning sun or afternoon sun? Is the soil right? Is there rain? How much rain? All of these things will play into how a grape grows.
And then there’s the unseen part of terroir. Two things play a part in that. One is culture, and the winemaking methods over the course of many centuries in Europe. The “hand of man” is part of terroir. And there’s also something which we have yet to understand about how microbes in the vineyard work. We have yet to understand what can make a wine taste minerally. But it’s undeniable that some wines have a sense of place, and that’s what we mean when we say terroir.
The Einstein quote is about the importance of questioning. Terroir seems to be this big open question in the wine world, and you seem fine with that.
I want it to remain an open question, actually! Once you get into wine, you realize that there’s all this magic that goes on in the vineyard. When you talk to winemakers, they’ll tell you that that wine is expressing things in a certain way. A lot of times they don’t really care why; they’re just excited about it!
That’s part of the mystery of wine. I’m sure some people are probing into it, but that could take away some of the beauty from this beverage that’s been around for 8,000 years. For so long, people have found a kind of magic in a glass of wine. Who would want to take that magic away? I guess some people do. I don’t want to take that away.