The World of Fine Wine
Wine snob: Can there be another phrase in the English language that exerts as powerful an influence over a field as this one does over the wine profession? Wine snob is an essentially harmless taunt frequently uttered in jest, yet it has long wielded extraordinary sway over the public discussion of wine.
Wine writers who communicate with a broader audience routinely, reflexively strike an apologetic or self-deprecatory tone when it comes to their own expertise, lest they be branded with that scarlet S (as in snob). The shelves of bookstores groan with wine guides that seek either to capitalize on the supposed link between wine connoisseurship and snootiness (The Wine Snob’s Dictionary, The Official Guide to Wine Snobbery, The Great Wine Swindle) or to inoculate themselves against allegations of such (Wine for Dummies, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Wine). The prevailing wisdom seems to be that wine knowledge must be worn lightly and that the most effective means of sharing that knowledge is to downplay or even poke fun at it.
Geeking out more
But is that really so? Perhaps 20 years ago, when wine wasn’t as much a part of daily life in the Anglo world, it was necessary to camouflage one’s wine savvy and scrupulously avoid anything that might leave one open to charges of snobbery. However, wine is now nearly as commonplace in American and British households as beer, and both countries have vibrant wine cultures—indeed, America’s enthusiasm for the grape has come to exceed France’s (which is why the USA is now on track to overtake France in total wine consumption by 2015). And it is not just that people are drinking wine with unprecedented gusto; they are hungry to learn about wine and seem willing to accept that it is a complicated topic not easily mastered. With enophilia rapidly shedding the taint of elitism, wine wisdom ought to become less self-conscious about making itself heard.
To be sure, in the places where many of today’s wine obsessives congregate—like tasting rooms and Web forums—expertise is clearly not considered as something that must be soft-pedaled. Among themselves, wine geeks are free to geek out, as the saying goes; things such as vine density, malolactic fermentation, and decanting times can be the subjects of unembarrassed, uninhibited discussion and debate. But even in these cloistered venues, there is often much hand-wringing about how this hobby is perceived by the broader world. On erobertparker.com, one anguished contributor wrote of experiencing, in the company of her non-enophile friends, “a real backlash for being interested in wines” and said that her
mates seemed to regard her interest in wine almost as a “social failing.” Two dozen people quickly chimed in to commiserate, offering words of comfort and advice on how to handle situations in which she found herself under attack for taking wine too seriously.
Reversing reverse snobbery
Eric Asimov, the excellent wine writer of The New York Times, called attention to this discussion on his blog, The Pour, and suggested that the flak directed at enophiles over their alleged snobbery was really a form of reverse snobbery. While he didn’t claim that enophobia was a uniquely American phenomenon—it’s not—Asimov maintained that it reflected a “deeper strand of anti-intellectualism that views with fear and suspicion ideas and interests that run outside the mainstream of American life.” Certainly, anti-intellectualism has been a powerful force throughout American history, and a taste for high culture has often been regarded with suspicion and disdain—an attitude that has extended to habits of the table. In the late 1700s, Thomas Jefferson, America’s first and most eminent enophile, was excoriated by fellow Virginian Patrick Henry for having “abjured his native victuals” in favor of French foods and wines, and for two centuries thereafter, wine was regarded as something continental, decadent, and elitist.
This was the soil in which American wine journalism took root, and it greatly influenced the way in which wine knowledge was disseminated. Even after the first shoots of America’s wine revolution—the Judgment of Paris in 1976, the arrival of Robert Parker a few years later—the general thrust of the literature was that wine was arcane, intimidating, and exotic and needed to be demystified and spoken of in ways that the man on the street could understand if it was going to win over Americans. There were certainly some serious, unapologetic wine books on the market, and some writers—the estimable Gerald Asher springs to mind—made no concession to the public’s wine angst. Moreover, the most famous wine advertising campaign in American history—the Paul Masson commercials of the 1970s, in which Orson Welles, to the strains of some rather dramatic classical music, solemnly declared, “We will serve no wine before its time”—was unabashedly elitist in tone. Generally, though, wine writers went to great lengths to avoid saying things in ways that could invite allegations of snootiness.
No doubt, there are bars in places like rural Texas where ordering a glass of Merlot can still get a man beaten up. And in American pop culture, wine continues to be portrayed as effete. Without fail, the media trot out the wine-track-vs-beer-track dichotomy during every presidential election—a construct that is meant to distinguish urban elites from other Americans, Chardonnay-swilling swells from shot-and-beer types. Hollywood, too, continues to traffic in stereotypes: The hit film Sideways left no cliché unturned in its portrayal of its wine-besotted protagonist Miles. But a funny thing happened on the way to the Oscars. The anecdotal evidence suggests that Sideways, in addition to being a bonanza for Pinot Noir, turned far more people on to wine than it turned off. But then, in the past two decades, the USA has seen a huge jump in wine consumption—an increase of 75 percent since the early 1990s—and the flowering of a very spirited wine culture. Indeed, a survey in 2005 found that wine had eclipsed beer as America’s preferred alcoholic beverage (beer is back on top now but perhaps not for long), and one need only visit Zachys, the famed suburban New York wine store, on a Saturday afternoon to see just how deep the enthusiasm for wine now runs.
Personal guilt to populist hypocrisy
Yet in America, and perhaps to a slightly lesser extent Britain, wine journalists remain sensitive to accusations of snobbery. It is possible the sensitivity reflects the ambivalence that many wine writers occasionally grapple with. Most wine writers are bright, well-educated people; some have advanced degrees or have turned to wine after successful careers in other fields. Among most wine journalists, there is a keen awareness of the world beyond wine, and it is a rare (and unreflective) wine writer who doesn’t sometimes feel that he or she is engaged in a frivolous pursuit (a feeling that can only grow more acute in unsettled times such as these). Wine is fermented grape juice, and measured against issues of war and peace, the quality of the harvest in Bordeaux is a pretty trivial concern. For many wine writers, there is a certain defensiveness, maybe even guilt, that comes with the job, and so there is a natural tendency to want to play down one’s expertise.
But commenting in Slate in 1998, Fareed Zakaria put forward another, more cynical possibility. He pointed out that wine writers were continuing to play up their anti-snob bona fides even as wine was becoming a mainstream habit, and he suggested that this was now, for journalists, a marketing ploy as much as anything else. “I suspect that what has changed is not a sudden rise of wine snobs but the fact that wine drinking is becoming a routine activity in upper middle-class American life,” Zakaria wrote. “Winemakers and writers all want to cater to this growing audience, and that means education through self-esteem enhancement. The title of Wine for Dummies (and of another such book, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Wine) is obviously ironic. What it really means is that the reader is no dummy at all; he’s savvy and should trust himself. There’s nothing wrong with this advice, but it’s an amusing and successful marketing strategy. It is also a pose that allows writers who are engaging in the obviously esoteric, expertise-ridden business of writing about wine to claim that they are actually at one with the masses. Populism in all its hypocrisy has finally reached the wine world.”
Thanks to the advent of Web 2.0 and the emergence of blogging and social networking, that populism has reached a crescendo in recent years. Among the more evangelical denizens of the wine blogosphere, there is an unmistakable contempt for authority and a faith in the vox populi that borders on triumphalism. The most prominent of these voices is the irrepressible Gary Vaynerchuk, the New Jersey retailer whose video blog, Wine Library TV, is an Internet sensation and has turned him into a marketing icon. As part of his routine, Vaynerchuk rails against the “wine bully”—an unnamed elitist whose arrogance drives normal people away from wine. In addition to vowing to slay the wine bully, Vaynerchuk urges his army of follower to stop deferring to the likes of Robert Parker and Wine Spectator and to start trusting their own palates. Using this message and his wildly irreverent manner, Vaynerchuk has turned himself into arguably the most influential populist that wine journalism has yet produced.
To more traditional wine journalists, accustomed to expressing themselves in formal, erudite sentences committed to paper, the Vaynerchuk phenomenon might well conjure up apocalyptic thoughts. But if you look past Vaynerchuk’s antics—admittedly, not always an easy thing to do—what you find is a serious enophile, possessing impressive wine knowledge, trying to get his viewers to embrace wine in all its variety and complexity. He doesn’t eschew standard wine nomenclature; he uses it freely and without shame. He touts plenty of inexpensive wines, but he doesn’t pretend that there isn’t a loose correlation between price and quality. Behind all the gags, Vaynerchuk is conveying the core truth about wine: It is an immensely satisfying hobby, but it is also a complicated one, and there is no easy method for mastering it. His great achievement is to have found a way, employing technology and a pop-culture sensibility, to give wine a more accessible facade while actually presenting it in all its daunting intricacy. And the fact that he has built such a huge following suggests that there is, now, a large and loyal audience willing to embrace wine in all its daunting intricacy.
Thirst for knowledge and vice versa
Yet old habits die hard; many journalists still seem to believe that the general public is intimidated by wine and will run for the nearest pub at the first hint of winespeak. Eric Asimov recently gave a talk in which he decried the “tyranny of the tasting note.” Urging fellow writers to find new ways of discussing wine, Asimov claimed that all this chatter about cherries and berries, fine-grained tannins and peacocks’ tails was intimidating for the layman and possibly creating feelings of anxiety and inadequacy. But if that is really true, and if all those jargon-filled shelf talkers festooning wine shops are scaring away potential wine lovers, it certainly does not show up in the data. Indeed, the historic, two-decade-long wine boom that America is experiencing has coincided with the proliferation of Parker-style tasting notes, and while it would be a stretch to think that the notes have somehow encouraged this budding enophilia, they have clearly not inhibited it. Tasting notes may be faulted for many things, and Asimov’s desire to see a new wine vernacular emerge is shared by many people, myself included. But with more Americans drinking and collecting wine than ever before, it is hard to see exactly how professional reviews might be serving as a barrier to entry.
From my own experience hosting tastings and appearing on radio call-in shows, it is clear to me that people can not only handle a little wine nomenclature, they are often eager to hear it. Some, of course, want to hear it so that they can get a good laugh, but most seem genuinely interested in learning how to describe wines as the pros describe them. There is a palpable hunger now for wine knowledge: People are buying up wine books as never before, enrolling in wine classes in unprecedented numbers, and otherwise embracing wine in all its complicated glory. It is no exaggeration to say that this is a new age for wine communicators. Pedantry and pretention have never been attractive or effective means of imparting wine wisdom, but nor is it any longer necessary to pose as a snob-busting populist in order to win people over to the pleasures of wine. These days, genuine wine expertise does not have to be so self-effacing.
Indeed, with the Internet providing every wannabe wine critic with a readily available platform, there is now a pressing need for real expertise to assert itself. The democratization of wine is surely a wonderful development and one that helpfully underscores a fundamental truth: When it comes to what’s in the glass, the only opinion that ultimately matters is your own. In the realm of wine journalism, the Internet has brought forth some excellent new voices—Neal Martin, Antonio Galloni, Jamie Goode, and Tyler Colman, to name just a few—and there is no reason to think that cream won’t float to the top in a digital world just as reliably as it did in the print era. But the Internet is a uniquely cacophonous medium, and for now, being able to rise above the din is not always a function of one’s erudition or experience. With more and more people going online for wine information, it is important that good information chases out the bad (or incomplete). Thus the paradox: We have entered the age of the wine everyman, and as a result, the need for true wine knowledge to be heard has perhaps never been greater.
This article originally appeared in Issue 24, 2009 of The World of Fine Wine magazine, a quarterly magazine devoted to wine and all thing vinous.
It boasts an authoritative cast of writers—including Huon Hooke, Andrew Caillard MW, James Halliday, David Schildknecht, Jancis Robinson MW, and Oz Clarke—contributing some of the most original writing published today, under the editorial baton of Neil Beckett. Find out more at the magazine website: www.finewinemag.com
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