What Horse Racing Can Learn From Sommeliers

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Ed DeRosa

August 18th, 2016

I enjoy horse racing, and I enjoy wine, but I don’t know wine like I do horse racing. I know enough to know I’m better off letting other people tell me what to drink in certain situations but also enough to feel comfortable making a choice for more low key events.

I thought about this during a recent dinner as a sommelier paired a different wine with each of 12 courses during a marathon dinner that kicked off Arlington Million week in Chicago.

All sorts of wine buzzwords swirled around my head as the wine swished in various stemware. Tannins and oak and aging and different fermentation methods were all a part of the explanation of each libation. I was much more Jack than Miles, however, (from the movie Sideways) when commenting after each quaff, “It tastes good.”

I imagine people at the racetrack have a similar experience. Speed ratings and pace and class and pedigree and key boxes are all part of the racing vernacular. What does it mean, but more to the point, does it matter? To some, the insider language makes it cool. They’re part of something few understand—even if they don’t understand it either like when the sommelier explained to me that a particular wine is stirred in the barrel.

There’s a lot of concern in racing marketing circles about the experience being “too core,” and while that can be a barrier to entry for some, I think it’s a draw for others. Just as wine jargon doesn’t stop anyone from getting a wine pairing or doing a tour in wine country, I don’t think racing jargon has to keep people from enjoying the racetrack.

The key there is “has to” because there is one key difference between the ascribed wine and racing experiences: the sommelier, whose job isn’t only to educate but also to make you feel comfortable with the money you’re spending.

Racing needs to do a better job making people feel comfortable at the races than worrying about whether they “get” what certain terms mean. If they’re comfortable they’ll enjoy themselves, just as I enjoyed the wine that was stirred in barrels without knowing what that means, but I did remember it..

I don’t know how racetracks employ the sommelier strategy at an enterprise level. It’s a lot easier to make the rounds at a restaurant than a racetrack, but the overall aversion to owning our vernacular is a negative. We should embrace it.