Elizabeth Schneider on Normalizing Wine, East Coast Rap, and Raising Petulant Children
After reading, then reviewing Wine For Normal People—the new educational wine book by Elizabeth Schneider—I wanted to give my readers a bit more insight into Elizabeth and her work in the wine education field. Here’s my short interview with Elizabeth. It came on the heels of her most recent sold out Underground Wine Event in Washington, DC. Between her two children and her husband, her book writing, her book promoting, her wine event production and her famously popular wine podcast—Wine For Normal People—Elizabeth is a very busy person. So, I am grateful she took the time to answer a few questions for FERMENTATION readers. And it turns out she is every bit as personable as her answers suggest.
TOM: First, congratulations Elizabeth on the publication of Wine For Normal People. I want to get one important question out of the way at the beginning of this interview. I noticed that my website, Fermentation, was omitted from the book’s section on Wine Websites. How do you deal with these kinds of mistakes by the book’s printer?
ELIZABETH: There are a couple of typos that I’m keeping track of for the next printing. This will obviously be the top thing I bring up with Chronicle.
TOM: In your introduction to “Wine For Normal People” you relate an incident that occurred when you first went to work for a “big hulking winery”. A superior (AKA: Schmuck) apparently went out of their way to make you feel inferior about not knowing everything about wine. With that incident as an apt example, you note to your readers, “Wine is one of the few subjects I know of in which many people in the industry discourage your from learning yet put you down for not knowing stuff.” What do you think it is about so many wine lovers and the wine industry that breeds this kind of attitude?
ELIZABETH: When I first got started in wine there was a wave of people who were trying to make wine more approachable. It was great. But then the dreaded certification craze began and I think that brought back the snobbery and the information hoarding that I experienced when I first became interested in wine. Movies like Somm just perpetuated the idea that wine people were some other form of life (what so many consider a higher form, which is so ridiculous), and that created a bigger gap between regular drinkers and wine industry insiders.
The wine intelligentsia is never happy with wines that are palate pleasing, it seems. And they are extremely judgmental of what other people like. Recently I was at an event with a Master Sommelier, and she declared New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc was a vile starter wine that she would never present to her customers. I was so disgusted but then remembered that this is normal for the industry.
Mencia is great, but there’s a reason Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot remain popular: they are tasty to most wine lovers. I will never understand why it’s popular to shun Bordeaux because it’s passé, or something people like or have heard of.
TOM: “Wine For Normal People” is an extension and addendum to your popular podcast of the same name. Tell us a little about what it is like to be the Wine Guru to thousands of people looking forward to listening to you on a regular basis. Are there certain demands your community of listeners put on you or that you feel that we may not expect?
ELIZABETH: That’s hilarious. I don’t think of myself that way at all. I just love research and learning and I enjoy sharing my opinions on wine with people. The only thing I feel is GUILT – there aren’t enough hours in the day to get back to everyone anymore. I wish I had more time for every question that people ask me in email and on social media, but I can’t always get back to people and that kind of kills me. The audience is my wine tribe – they are like my friends — and it feels bad when you forget to reply to a message from your friends. I don’t ever think of the audience as a mass of people, I think of them as individuals. People are always surprised that I recognize their names from social media, but I actually care about them and their comments, so I pay attention!
TOM: Your new book falls into a familiar wine book genre: education for wine neophytes. One of the elements of your writing and attitude that makes “Wine For Normal People” work so much better than other books that address this group is the very familiar tone you take and the respect for the common experiences you know your readers are confronting as they try to learn more about wine. Is this approach something natural to your character or is it a result of giving wine neophytes something you know they need but haven’t been getting from other books on learning about wine?
ELIZABETH: I had a career before wine and that’s how I got into wine. I graduated from college, went to go work in Boston and decided I wanted to get into wine when I was about 24. It was horrible. I’m a learner by nature but there was no one to teach or to tell me about this subject. I was baffled. I could easily understand microeconomics and the evolution of global trade unions post- Cold War, but the people in the wine store thought I was too dumb to learn about fermented grapes. I finally found someone to teach me and then I vowed to try to help people who were like me. I’m a very brass tacks, New York kind of person – get to the point, say it honestly and unambiguously, trust that the people you’re talking to will ask questions if they don’t get what you’re saying. I’m probably too honest! So yes, this is natural for me.
TOM: Why is wine a compelling subject for study?
ELIZABETH: It is a new subject every year! This is a topic that you can never know everything about. And it involves travel, history, culture, art, food, farming and earth science, economics, business, and politics. It’s impossible to exhaust it and that keeps it interesting.
TOM: You reference your husband, MC Ice, a few times throughout the book. Does he associate more with East or West Coast rap culture?
ELIZABETH: East Coast!!
TOM: “Wine is about both having a sensory experience and sharing that experience,” you write in “Wine For Normal People”. I don’t disagree. However, I’ve always thought that wine was largely about delivering alcohol into one’s body in a pretty tasty way. Can you talk a little bit about your relationship with alcohol and maybe your view of what alcohol contributes to the human experience?
ELIZABETH: Fermented drinks have been around almost as long as human civilization. People love alcohol because it relaxes them and it’s a lovely way to make an occasion festive because it does provide a bit of an escape. I don’t drink to get drunk and I don’t really drink alone (except for a glass with dinner if M.C. Ice is out of town) – alcohol for me is a shared experience. It’s always been that way – from drinking Goldschlager or The Beast when I was a freshman at Wesleyan (we were so high class and we DID drink to get drunk then!) to now having a lovely glass of Pinot Noir – I like the idea that I am with another person, enjoying their company and making a memory. Wine is definitely the tastiest alcohol delivery system for me, but the best part of drinking for me is the communal experience.
TOM: Was the experience of writing and bringing to publication “Wine For Normal People” more like dental surgery, a lovely long walk in the autumn woods or like raising a petulant child? Please pick only one.
ELIZABETH: Oh jeez. Raising a petulant child – you love it and you want it to turn out well, but the process…oy.
TOM: You’ve established one of the most popular wine podcasts in the land. You’ve written a terrific book that thousands will use to make their lives better and more interesting. You’ve also begun to produce wine tasting events. What’s next for the WFNP empire and for Elizabeth Schneider?
ELIZABETH: First of all, thank you for that. Second of all, I will be spending a significant amount of time promoting the book for the next little bit here, trying to build up my corporate speaking career because I love public speaking and teaching business folks about wine in a fun way, and I’ll keep teaching my online classes, which I love because they are live and I get to teach and field questions from people all over the world! I’ll continue working on the second and third books, which are already in the works – one is about halfway done and the other is a concept starting to take shape. I try to stay open to new things, so who knows what’s next? All I can tell you is that I won’t stop advocating for my listeners and trying to keep wine a subject that people can easily learn to love!