A Snob? Moi?

Oct. 28 1998 3:30 AM

A Snob? Moi?

A defense of condescension.  

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Once, the great villain of the wine world was phylloxera, a louse that lived on the roots of vines and, in the late 19th century, destroyed virtually every vineyard in Europe. Today, it is the wine snob, a louse who terrifies wine drinkers everywhere with his supposed expertise. Everyone hates the wine snob. Winemakers angrily decry his (always his) pernicious influence in the business. Wine writers in particular are at pains to explain how much they despise wine snobs and, in case anyone was wondering, are not ones themselves. Clearly they are terrible fellows, these wine snobs. But what do they believe, and what do they say that so enrages wine writers? I ask all this only so as to better identify the enemy for, of course, I am not now, nor have ever been, a wine snob--whatever one may be.

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It turns out there exists a guide to wine snobbery, sort of ... In their book Wine for Dummies Ed McCarthy and Mary Ewing-Mulligan provide a set of icons to help the reader navigate the text. So, on the left of a paragraph with technical information there usually appears an icon labeled ... "Technical Stuff." (Remember, as the title implies, the reader is not a brain surgeon.) One of these icons is a sketch of a dweeby guy with saucer-shaped eyes, wearing a bow tie and pocket square. Captioned "Snob alert," this figure is sprinkled throughout the text to let the unsuspecting reader know when he or she is face to face with wine snobbery in any of its forms.
       The first appearance of the icon alerts you that wine snobs tend to serve cheap sparkling wines labeled "champagne" to unsuspecting guests. How déclassé! I always thought these guys were ritzy! They are. Later in the book we learn that wine snobs tend to buy superexpensive bottles from special wine lists in restaurants--a waste of money. This is more like schizophrenia than snobbery! We also learn in the book that wine snobs are no experts. They believe that all wines aged in oak are fantastic but, as the authors explain, some wines can be "over-oaked," and stainless steel fermentation is the best way to make many white wines. Oh, and wine snobs mistakenly think that varietal names (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, etc.) indicate quality. Now, if you thought that wine snobs were the types who touted their knowledge of wines named after obscure French villages, well, they're that too.

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W ine for Dummies begins with a paean to "some parts of the world" where people drank wine without fanfare. The restaurants in this Eden didn't have wine lists. But then came the fall. "Sophisticates, information addicts, and seekers of status have made wine so complicated that many people are too confused to drink it." The problem with invoking this mythic French town is that those people drank wine like water, and most of the stuff they drank was awful. (If you don't believe me, try a French regional wine that costs less than $5.) They had no choice, since they had no wine from other regions, let alone countries. If everyone treated wine as they did, there would be no market for a book like Wine for Dummies. If you don't need a wine list, you certainly don't need a 400 page tome, dense with information, explanations, names, tasting tips, and much more.

Most wine is made to be drunk quickly and without any discussion. Fine wine, however, is a carefully crafted product that deserves some appreciation. And it is a complicated subject; not because wine snobs make it such, but because the number of grapes, places, vintages, and styles of wine are immense. With the rise of new high-quality regions such as New Zealand and Oregon, the complexity has increased over the last 20 years. People who study the art of winemaking and who have either naturally or through practice developed the ability to distinguish among the bewildering array of wines in the world may legitimately be considered experts. Their discussion of wine is bound to be more detailed and esoteric than the layperson's or even the casual wine drinker's.
       Of course, as in any of these other areas, there are snobs, people who use their knowledge to intimidate the layperson or to make the appreciation of wine seem unattainable. This is all the more infuriating because fine wines have certain class connotations that can be used to browbeat people easily cowed by that sort of thing. But wine experts should be treated like numismatics experts. If you want to know something about their arcane subject, ask. Otherwise, ignore them. Just as you can die happily knowing nothing about coin collecting, you will be no poorer if you never find out what maloatic fermentation is. Thanks to a quality revolution, most wines--certainly those over $7 or $8--are decent, and many below that price range are pretty good.
       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. 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.


 

Fareed Zakaria is editor of Newsweek International and the author of The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad.