“Don’t drink what you like!”
So says Elizabeth Schneider, host of the wildly popular Wine for Normal People podcast and author of Wine for Normal People: A Guide for Real People Who Like Wine, but Not the Snobbery That Goes with It. We’re thrilled to feature Elizabeth in the second installment of our monthly Author Series, where we go deep with the people who’ve written some of our favorite books about our #1 favorite thing.
Elizabeth doesn’t really want you to avoid the wines you like—she just recommends always trying new things, so you never miss out on “the majesty and awe that is the world of wine.” We recommend you don’t miss out on her podcast or her book, which Oprah Magazine praised as a “cheeky guide” that “serves up everything from the best sipping, sniffing and swirling practices to advice for picking a crowd-pleasing bottle, minus any irritating attitude.”
How did you get into wine?
I come from a family where my parents were the first to go to college and their parents were working-class Jews—so there was no extra money or time for anyone to learn about wine or gourmet food. I’m not the person whose dad had a large cellar or who drank wine at dinner. My dad was a university professor, however, and he loves to learn and explore things. He loves food and with time he got more into wine. He also loves to describe things dramatically. My sister and I were living together in Boston and we would kind of make fun of him—imitating him talking about Brunello and Barolo. I think one day we had a conversation where we realized neither of us had the faintest idea about those wines or really any other wine but we kind of liked it and we wanted to learn about it.
We embarked on a mission to learn more. First, we started going to random wine tastings/classes at places that “were supposed to be good.” Our philosophy was that if you didn’t have to pay for it, it wasn’t going to be worth going to. After a bunch of these, we got a catalog for a class for the Boston Center for Adult Education (you can take a class in ANYTHING in Boston, so we were always trying new things out). We saw a wine appreciation course and signed up.
The guy who taught the class worked at a local distributor. His name was John Miller, I’ll never forget it! He was so unpretentious and brought us a million wines we didn’t know existed. I tasted an Alsace Riesling and that was it—I got hooked forever. I still have the notes from that class!
Looking back, is there anything you would have done differently?
I wish I had worked in a wine shop for a while. From the time I took the class, I wanted to get into wine but it was like a black box—I had no idea how to break in. Looking back, I wish I had done more research or been more assertive in figuring out how to get into wine. It would have moved me along in my understanding of the industry more quickly. Thankfully, things have changed and I think people interested in wine know that working in a store is a great entry point to wine. I wish I had known that then!
On any given weeknight, what are you most likely to be drinking?
Pretty much anything and everything, as long as it’s wine! I try to drink as many different things as possible so I can educate myself on what is available. During the week, we drink a lot of simple Bordeaux, Rioja, and Fiano di Avellino. Riesling is always around at my house too! I’m really loving Chilean Syrahs these days too!
What wines inspire you?
I love the underdog wines. The ones that have come back from obscurity to popularity, or that have come back from the brink of extinction. Sherry is a prime example. The amount of effort it takes to make Sherry, and the fact that people have never given up on making it despite it’s waning popularity, is just awesome. It’s really hard to swim against the current, but when you’ve been making something for thousands of years with so much passion and pride, it shows. Trends be damned, Sherry is still around and it’s finally getting some credit! And I guess I speak from experience when I say, sometimes it’s ok to be an outsider, as long as you know what you’re doing is for the right reasons!
How has your approach to wine changed over the years?
As I’ve learned more about wine, I’ve become much more open to the idea that there is not one set way to do things. Great results can be achieved in a lot of different ways in wine and that’s what makes it so cool. On the flip side, I also have become less tolerant of gimmicky labels and poor quality wines. I used to be so worried about the wine industry shrinking in size, but I have come to realize that if we could eliminate some of the junky wines in the market, and people, on average, could drink less but drink better, the wine world and wine drinkers would be better off. Getting better quality wines in people’s hands means that they have a better shot at understanding why wine is such a special beverage.
A lot of wine books read like encyclopedias—is that what inspired you to write in a different way?
Yes, they do! But Wine for Normal People—the book and the podcast—came more from who I am, not an analysis of what else is out there!
I haven’t lived there for a long time, but I grew up on Long Island, and I am a New Yorker at heart. One of the best things about New Yorkers is their total candor and strong voices. No one minced words in my family and accordingly, I am always on a quest to simplify issues and cut to the chase. I have no tolerance for small talk or bulls*&t. I want to know the heart of the matter and then I can analyze it, make sense of it, and communicate it. It made me a horrible corporate worker because I hated politics and I couldn’t hold my tongue when I saw them playing out, but in the wine world, it has allowed me to do something that was different and to use my ability to communicate succinctly and in a blunt (sometimes opinionated) style to help people navigate wine.
What inspired you to transition from reaching wine lovers over the airwaves to writing in a longform fashion?
I have always written—I had a blog before the podcast but it was my literary agent, Myrsini Stephanides, who I just love, who convinced me to do this. She was a podcast listener and wrote me to pitch me on the idea of writing a book. She told me that she would cook and listen to the show and her boyfriend would always come in and ask why she was talking to someone on speaker. She loved that the show felt like a conversation and she wanted me to do a book in the same style that conveyed all the information in the podcast. Despite the fact that I had had a baby just four months before and was really in the thick of things, I started the book. With her encouragement and undying support (can you tell I really love her!), we made it work and Chronicle Books, my publisher, did an awesome job bringing it to life.
What other wine books and podcasts would you recommend to budding wine lovers? What makes them great?
Truth be told, I actually don’t listen to other wine podcasts. I don’t want to be unconsciously biased so I stay away from other pods in that space and just listen to a million other random things. For books, there are so many different genres that you could explore. Wine Folly is a graphic and wine information masterpiece, so I think, especially if you are a visual learner, that’s a great book. I really like Oz Clarke’s Grapes & Wines for its simplicity, approachability, and great info. For fun reads, Cork Dork by Bianca Bosker is a great look at the craziness of the industry, and you’ll learn a ton about wine too!
When you open a wine, what are you looking for? What makes a wine special to you?
I have two small kids and I can’t jet-set all over the world right now (well, none of us can these days!) so I love wines that transport me to the place from which they hail. A sense of place, the idea that you can taste the land or whatever makes that wine unlike others, is essential to me. I love travel and learning about new places and people. When I can do that through a wine glass—well, there’s nothing better.
If you could give people one piece of advice regarding wine, what would it be?
Don’t drink what you like! I mean that in the sense that you always want to be trying new things and branching out from where you are. Don’t get stuck in a rut! Read about wine or find out about something interesting you could try and then do it. If you only drink what you know you like, you’ll never get to see the majesty and awe that is the world of wine. And these days, even normal people can afford great wine. Take a chance, at worst it will teach you something about what you don’t like and at best, it will open your eyes to something you hadn’t considered before.