The world of wine is evolving more than you might imagine and the sommelier profession is becoming increasingly specialized. And then there is the universe of enthusiasts, who, beyond the specific vocabulary, taste with extreme passion and curiosity.
Today, we talk to Cristina Mercuri, sommelier and wine educator, about the challenge of being wine professionals.
1. From lawyer to sommelier, at 33 years old. We read a lot about the reasons you left your legal career. The most fascinating and inspiring one is the desire to pursue a full, constantly moving, fulfilling life without compromise. At the same time, the career you have set up in the world of wine appears very solid: is it a legacy of your legal career?
It's true: what strikes the reader is the radical change in my life. From a prestigious and structured profession I decided to take a leap of faith only to pursue a very high concept of happiness . Many talk about courage but I don't know whether to define it that way, I prefer to think that I acted out of necessity, and I made a virtue of it (as an old proverb says...).
Even if I admit that having a certain mindset and a certain legal culture have helped me build certain relationships and - in some cases - select people better, what I want to underline is that I have always done everything with fierce curiosity and ruthless ambition, since from elementary school.
I don't think this is a legacy of the legal profession, it is rather an innate gift, which has been the key to building a solid profession and a success-oriented career. I have always been hungry to know , hungry to get there, hungry to assert myself, regardless of age or role: it could be a grade at university, a position in a law firm or my role in the wine scene. National education.
Having always experienced everything to the full has created in me the ability to store a lot of information and create a stratification of skills that I can exploit on various fronts.
This continuous feeding of my brain has undoubtedly helped to create the solidity you speak of in my profession: my way of teaching is the result of analysis, studies, insights and comparisons with the greatest.
Over time I have defined my systematic approach to work and teaching, and I am committed to ensuring that the values I believe in are also shared by my collaborators.
2. Teaching is among your most important fields of action. Umberto Galimberti insists on the fact that we need to educate rather than instruct. What characteristics does a good educator have in the world of wine?
The good teacher must have the following skills:
Wine is the result of physical and chemical transformations that must be known, but it is also a business. Having specific technical knowledge of physiology, chemistry and economics appears essential, as well as profound knowledge of agronomy and oenology. The WSET Diploma Level offers an excellent basis for deepening certain topics.
In leadership courses they teach us that effective communication is that which uses the language of the listener , not the speaker. Being close to students means knowing how to speak an accessible, technical but understandable language. But not only that: it also means knowing how to interact with the student to stimulate learning and critical thinking. It means asking the right questions with terminology that interests rather than debases, that brings you closer and excites you instead of distancing you. Only in this way is the transfer of knowledge effective. Knowing how to reach people is not just a question of charisma (a characteristic that is reflected in the self) but above all a question of empathy (a characteristic that is reflected in the other).
While emotional intelligence is an essential element for efficient communication, rational intelligence is an essential element for transferring critical reasoning and discipline. Learning does not just mean storing information, but understanding the "how" and "why" of certain phenomena. A good wine educator knows how to provide the tools to develop the individual's ability for logical analysis and critical thinking. It provides discipline, rules and methods to improve the student's aptitude and train those who will be the professionals of the future.
Providing the right tools, knowing how to communicate profitably and having specific technical knowledge risk being necessary but not sufficient qualities if they are not accompanied by rigor and discipline. A good wine educator must know how to respect deadlines, apply an objective yardstick of judgment and never be influenced by sympathies or moods; knows how to transfer a systematic approach to study , a daily method made of deadlines, requests for feedback and challenging personal objectives that move the student from the perspective of a student to that of a professional. Being a professional today means not only knowing, not only knowing how to communicate, but also knowing your limits, your resources and practicing daily and continuous training, setting small goals that are always new, ever higher. Only discipline leads us to ambition, and only ambition leads us to be great.
3. In the world of wine you have carved out an important space for yourself. All your communication and the training you offer is aimed at strengthening the critical approach to the glass by training solid professionals immediately oriented towards the international scene. At the same time your goal is to bring wine culture to an accessible level. Compared to the greats of the past - I am thinking of Luigi Veronelli and Mario Soldati - the world of wine today speaks in an increasingly specialized way, with the risk of seeming elitist and alienating. The gap is widening with that whole world of enthusiasts who perhaps don't master the specific vocabulary but who taste with boundless passion. Is there hope for the world of wine to mend this divide and what advice do you have for enthusiasts to taste with awareness?
When we hit rock bottom we can't help but go up, so yes, there is a lot of hope. Jokes aside, we live in a very delicate moment and - I may be unpopular - the democracy of the social network does not help to improve things from the point of view of accessible but serious training.
There's a bit too much know-it-all, everyone wanting to be a professor and talk about wine, when they've just understood what the difference is between a white wine and a red and don't have any specific training. A very dangerous weapon indeed, because many self-styled experts who talk nonsense about wine do not do so by talking to stuffed animals in their bedrooms, but do so in the classroom or on social media, ask people for money to take a course, creating a vicious circle of students "seeded" by false and misleading notions. If you bring this mechanism into potential, a dramatic scenario is projected: many people who don't know but think they know.
The first big problem, therefore, is that people don't know that to be a professor you need to follow a specific path, and that you must possess the skills I described above.
My advice for those approaching this world: be wary of those who offer too much , of paths that are apparently too easy, of people who do not have a recognized curriculum. Do a Google search to understand the biography and titles of those who offer you training, if it is DipWSET (i.e. someone who has a WSET Diploma), Master of Wine, Master Sommelier or similar, buy, otherwise think about it carefully. Alternatively, rely on the more well-known courses or the WSET.
The second big problem today is that there is no common language . The associations that train sommeliers adopt their own lexicon and terms, and therefore create a multitude of terms that are often different from each other, complicated, elitist, which create confusion and widen the gap with the consumer. There is a lack of uniformity of communication and a lack of category identity .
The solution would be to spread the WSET (Wine & Spirit Education Trust, the world leader in training in the Wine & Spirits field, based in London, and of which I am a provider in Italy) more and more to create uniformity of communication between the various realities. The WSET is the institute that trains the professionals of the future with solid, universally recognized notions and standards that are in step with the times. The language is Anglo-Saxon and uses easy, technical, precise and understandable terms, common throughout the world. My task will be precisely to make it known to the general public, thus starting a virtuous cycle to promote uniform wine training and communication standards in step with other nations.
4. One last question, and then we say goodbye. Your favorite wine?
There are many wines and companies that I adore and respect. Fortunately, in recent years many have realized that respecting the environment , through the reduction of the impact of CO2, through the guarantee of biodiversity in the vineyard and the elimination of chemical interventions, is the only possible key to limiting the many problems in the vineyard resulting from climate change.
Not very cold winters no longer kill the vectors of bacteria or viruses that are lethal for plants (and also for humans, see what is happening today), and scorching summers and unpredictability of atmospheric phenomenology weaken those plants that are bred with conventional agronomic approaches , tired by medicines and weakened by herbicides, pesticides and chemical fertilizers. It should not be surprising that the average life of a vine in such regimes barely exceeds 30 years.
Fortunately, many winemakers have said enough and have converted to organic, sustainable or biodynamic. My heart wines are these: those that are made with the principle that man is at the service of the grape , and not vice versa.
One among many? Contrada R of Passopisciaro , of the Vini Franchetti group. It warms my heart for various reasons.
The company is managed in a non-interventionist and sustainable manner, and this fills me with pride. We are in Sicily , the land of my beloved grandmother, and my cheeks are already red. Nerello Mascalese is one of the red grape varieties that I adore most. I define it as the love match between Pinot Noir and Nebbiolo , because it has a delicate and floral nose with a light blood note, like the most elegant of Pinot Noir, but it has a taut, tannic and alcoholic body like a Nebbiolo . A perfect mix of elegance, character, grace and austerity.
A vine that in a few years will be on the podium together with the big names on the international scene.