Before You Eat or Drink Anything, Ask An Expert

AP Photo/Mal Fairclough

I love Scotch and Japanese whisky. I don’t love hearing peoples’ descriptions of whiskies’ flavors. Can’t you smell the vanilla pudding laced with new forest berry skins and the grated hulls of lightly charred hazelnuts? Not necessarily, but I can tell the difference between an Isley and a Speyside. Would I enjoy whisky even more if I had a whisky sommelier to guide me?

Sommeliers are specialists who use deep knowledge to suggest and pair wines with food. For the Washington Post MagazineJason Wilson shows the way experts have expanded that oenophile role to everything from chocolate to hot sauce to cheese, and he examines how specialists become experts, what expertise offers consumers, and how food education mingles with Capitalism. So do mustard and honey and hot sauce sommeliers help us experience culinary pleasures more fully, or make pleasure overly complicated?

As the class chuckles over that distinction, Frankenberg reminds us: “Remember, taste is always subjective. No matter if a professional tells you, ‘This tastes like wet slate from the Loire Valley.’ ” I’ve heard the same sentiment expressed by almost every taste expert I’ve visited. And yet, every one of these experts has a vested interest in taste being way more codified than subjective.

Indeed, what the rise of specialized taste education, the cult of sensory analysis, and the wine-ification of everything means is that taste is becoming more and more codified all the time. There are good tastes and bad tastes; not only that, there’s a growing caste of gatekeepers in every field who are keeping score on what tastes great, middling and flawed. Maybe this is what morality or philosophy looks like in an increasingly post-religious, post-intellectual, materialistic United States. We are a people in need of an authority, a higher voice, some guidance — even if it comes from behind the cheese counter. Maybe, for many affluent Americans, the sommeliers of everything represent something shaman-like. Listen to me. I am your one true sommelier.

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