Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Path towards Enlightened Snobbery

Recently I was reminded of one of the great shortcomings of the wine industry and of wine appreciation in the United States. A few friends and I were discussing ways in which we were "geeky," i.e. our varying pursuits and interests in which we perhaps take a greater than usual level of interest, and zealously pursue an ever increasing cache of knowledge. I copped to being both a music geek and a wine geek. "No," my friend Benjamin corrected me, "you may be a music geek, but you are a wine snob. There are no wine geeks, only wine snobs."

True, perhaps. How many serious wine drinkers can patiently explain what it is we may not like about the cheap commodity wine at a friend's party that motivates us in the direction of a cold beer instead? Or do anything other than nod politely, perhaps offer some faint praise, when someone speaks about a winery that one views as producing inferior, mediocre, boring, or downright dreadful wines?

Prior to my involvement in the wine business, my image of a wine snob was a stereotypical American one: that of a middle aged white male, likely betraying a proper English accent, drinking a well aged claret. Later, it morphed into a slightly younger American dude, wearing khaki pants with a golf polo tucked in, purchasing a case of $100 a bottle Napa cab at the local wine shop. Later on, a thirty something sommelier at a high end restaurant, stashing away bottles of Sine Qua Non. Now, the wine snobs I most often see, occasionally hang with and observe in their natural habitat have done more research. At least they are drinking more interesting wines. They are more likely to open up aged bottles of important producers' 1er cru Burgundy, cult natural wine a la Frank Cornelissen, an aged Cotes du Bourg demi-sec from Huet. It is a franco-centric, critic's darling, tightly allocated, potentially high dollar oriented sport, these gatherings of wine geeks, nay, wine snobs.

The lavishness of it all is not the only thing I detest about such gatherings. Wine is the centerpiece, trumping anything and everything else. It dominates the conversation, an embarrassment of choice bottles polluting the table, people taking a small taste of one cherished, hauntingly beautiful Burgundy before moving to an aged, leathery Barolo. "That's really fucking good," someone may remark before abruptly moving on to what's next, if for no other reason than the fact that a few greedier snobs bogarted the wine.

Do I always dislike tasting great wines, expanding my experience with famous producers in the company of largely kind, generous folks? No, occasionally it's a blast, and a great education. However, and maybe it's because I live in San Francisco, there is a lack of diversity at these tastings; people and wines alike blend into one big abstraction of, well, snobbery.

In European wine producing countries, wine is traditionally seen as a beverage of the countryside, something to slake thirst and consume throughout the day. You need not be wealthy, bourgie, or pretentious to enjoy it. Sometimes I wish the same were more often true here. Most efforts to democratize wine consumption in the US have tended towards the dreadfully boring, consumer advocate model, the dumbed down, crass, social media driven platform, the affluent, luxe lifestyle promoting publications or a combination of all three. If there is currently an effective effort to democratize wine education and appreciation of wines in this country, I am not aware of it. Serious wine study through tasting is still primarily enjoyed by those in the upper levels of the trade, as well as those who are lucky enough to know people who can afford exemplary bottles of wines from important wine growing regions.

Some would argue that wine should not be democratized, that the amount of effort, study and expense to understand it effectively functions as a weed out tool for those who are less serious. I would counter that while this may be partially true, more options should exist for people who are eager to learn by tasting wines, talking to vignerons, and engaging with professionals who take great effort to understand the products which they sell.

Returning to the issue of snobbery, I think my friend was right. I am a wine snob. Just as I'm a food snob and a music snob. I know what I like, and am not afraid to extol virtues as well as cite flaws as I understand them. However, I would like to think that my brand of snobbery is inclusive. Any knowledge should be shared simply for the act of sharing knowledge, not to delight in holding some hidden knowledge over someone else. For me, this is the case because I love learning from other people. My most rewarding discoveries happen this way.

Being an enlightened wine snob is a tough act to pull off. To be honest, I'm still not sure I'm cut out for it. But that certainly would not make me unique; I'm not convinced that many people are. One thing is for certain, however. More serious wine drinkers should aspire towards making the effort.


G said...

clos du bourg, for the snobs, or the geeks...

Joe Manekin said...

The geeks are the snobs, the snobs are geeks, and my past two Huet wines have disappointed tremendously.

Shit's all fucked up.

David D said...

You are a wine snob! And that was a good article because you know it!

Florida Jim said...

Care to explain the difference between discerning and snobbish?
And the fact that you would cal yourself a snob, probably means just the opposite.
Best, Jim

Joe Manekin said...

David - yes! Thanks for the comment. I've been working hard on the writing and photography, you know, various creative endeavors. We can talk more about it at Ritual. Bring your macbook pro....

Jim - that's a hell of a good question. Discerning is how one acts who knows onself and one's taste. There is room for exploration, but it is sort of a measured, studied, self-edification driven affair. Snobbish is how one acts to act cool, put on airs, keep up with with the other snobs or even, most egregiously, to prove that his knowledge is superior to that of anyone else. Cheers, Joe.

Florida Jim said...

See, I told you that you weren't one.
Best, Jim

Brooklynguy said...

In our culture there is this unfortunate movement to make everyone a champion, everyone special, merely for participating. I see it particularly with children - everyone wins a prize at the end of the science fair or the chess tournament. As they astutely said in the animated feature "The Incredibles" a decade or more ago, when we make everyone special, we really reward everyone for being mediocre and no one is special.

Why does seeking knowledge of something like wine, and extolling its virtues or pointing out its flaws, as you say you like to do, make you a snob or make you anything at all, except smart about wine, and eager to engage with other people about it? Yeah, those who are smart about wine (or not-so-smart about it) and who like to exclude others from that knowledge are snobs. But I don't hang out with them, do you?

You are smart about wine, and that's because you have an affinity for it and lots of professional experience through which you continue to gather knowledge. You sound like you're tempted to apologize for that, and you shouldn't. The people you hang out with, if they care to have smart conversations about wine, are lucky when they get to do so with you. I like to play chess and when I have the opportunity to play with a master player, I jump at it. That person is a master! If I am lucky, they will go over the game with me after wards and help me to understand more about it. If they are in a rush, or are a snob, then they will not. But that doesn't make them any less of a master, and that's an impressive thing.

It is possible to be good at things, to know a lot, without being a snob or a geek. Not all physicists look like the stereotype in the movies either.

Rant: in this country we need to get better at appreciating, promoting, and celebrating true skill and knowledge, not apologizing for it, and not demeaning it by rewarding everyone for simply participating.

Brooklynguy said...
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Joe Manekin said...


Agreed on the first point and the Incredibles quote. Absolutemente.

Regarding the second, a quick definition courtesty of Merriam Webster:

a : one who tends to rebuff, avoid, or ignore those regarded as inferior b : one who has an offensive air of superiority in matters of knowledge or taste

My wine wine friends do not generally act this way (occasionally they do). Hell, occasionally I might. But certainly many, many people I have drunk wine with act this way. It annoys me to no end. My point is this: imagine someone who is a wine novice but finds himself in the company of a snob as defined above. That discourages learning and acquiring more knowledge.

Another aspect of the post was sort of reclaiming the word snob as someone who does have good, well informed tastes, and well formed opinions. Some of my favorite people are snobs - the good types of snobs.

So I did not want to come across as apologetic for being someone who knows something about wine. Rather, I just wish knowledge were shared in a more friendly, forthright way.

Oh yeah, and sometimes people ought to know when to shut the fuck up and enjoy their wine.

Thanks for the well thought comments - clearly something that you have spent some time thinking over.

PS - In New York for a few days beginning 10/2, we should try to catch up over some wine!

Brooklynguy said...

hey old skool - sorry for the spastic multi-commenting (thanks for deleting). i would love to hang. i leave on a trip to new orleans though on sunday the 3rd and don't get back til tues. how long you in town?