Wine, beer patrons like apples, oranges

After 40 years in the business, I finally have figured out why beer and wine clients are so vastly different.

Beer clients ask an amazing array of sophisticated questions about beer; wine clients ask a few cogent questions, then move along.

It turns out that many of my beer patrons have not only a theoretical and palate experience to work from, but actually have made beer themselves. The understanding of hops, barley, fermentation and yeast is very important to home brewers and can mean the difference between a really nice ale served proudly to friends or something that's kept in the basement as a backup when all other beer is gone.

In contrast, most wine clients do not feel this deep, hands-on connection with the product because they've never made their own wine and don't understand the deeper meaning of what is involved.

Let me flash back to 1969, when I began to take an interest in becoming a wine retailer. I was told by those in the business that the "true path" to understanding wine was to be involved directly in the process, from the vineyard to winery to cellar to shelf.

At the time, there was very little in the way of wine information, especially compared to what is available today. There was no Internet or Wine Spectator to call upon, and there were very few top-notch wineries to visit. Those one could visit were reluctant to impart practical information to budding wine retailers, so I headed to France and Italy to apprentice.

I found myself in what could only be described as Wine World, where the average consumption was a liter a day per person in France and Italy and the major agricultural crop for both countries was grapes. Wine was seemingly everywhere, and everyone either knew someone or was related to someone in the business.

This was an amazing transformation for me and a heady experience all around. I lived my life in the vineyards, wineries and cellars, working long hours and drinking in (literally and figuratively) as much as I could from every person and region I worked in.

These were glorious days of experimentation in the vineyards and wineries, and I found myself working with people who had made wine at the turn of the century and had dealt with two world wars. The experience proved to be an invaluable asset to my vocation as well as to my personal growth. I came back to the United States with a profound understanding of what went into a bottle of wine, including the heartache, joy, profit and loss associated with 25 ounces of fermented grape juice. It turned me around.

In today's wine world, we see quite a bit of knowledge but little, if any, practical hands-on understanding of wine. I find this disconcerting on some levels, and I'm sad that the working connection between vineyard/winery and wine consultant is a thing of the past — that theory has replaced a deeper and more pragmatic understanding of wine.

I urge anyone who wishes to truly understand wine to take a small course in winemaking or work part-time at a winery to see and feel the heart and soul of wine. You'll be richer for it.

Lorn Razzano is owner of the Wine Cellar in Ashland. Reach him at

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