Monday, March 22, 2010

Wine, Cars, Guitars

Car mechanics have long carried the torch for being the biggest jerks to talk down to the people who pay for their services. Having suffered the humiliations of shopping at Guitar Center once, I'll add big-box music salesmen to the mix. And every now and again, I think wine merchants and sommeliers are no better.

Why do they have to be so intimidating? Or, well, I shouldn't speak on behalf of everyone, so I'll rephrase: Why do I feel so belittled when I have to deal with car and car-parts salesmen, Guitar Center employees, and wine merchants and sommeliers?

Whine Guys
I've taken up a new interest in wine, so I recently read Lettie Teague's Educating Peter.

There's a section of the book where she mentions the snobbery of wine merchants and sommeliers, but I don't think she does it justice. Specifically, what Teague doesn't address is:

1) wine snobbery turns away new people from taking up and pursuing an interest in wine (and maybe that's intentional)

2) wine enthusiasts are often just as snooty as the sommeliers and merchants, as evidence in the book by the constant one-upsmanship displayed by Peter and roused by Teague herself.

In other words, what snobbery is really doing is keeping wine elitist and classist.

People have been making and drinking wine for thousands of years. It's just a drink.(For more of my thoughts on this topic see "The Year of the Cucumber Part II: It's Just Food".)

In drafting this blog post, I started to write that wine has historically been just a drink, has been consumed by people, rich and poor alike for thousands of years, when I thought to myself, "Wait a second. I don't know for sure if that's true."

So I checked.

And indeed, it's not.

Wine has historically been associated with the upper class.

The Egyptians generally kept their wine out of the hands of the common people, who drank beer for the most part instead, and in the hands of Pharohs and other upper class people.

Wine has played a significant role in ceremonies and rituals for thousands of years, for not only the ancient Egyptians, but also the Jews and Christians.

In ancient Rome, as in Egypt, "ordinary citizens did not consume wine. It was considered a privilege of the upper classes."

"The best quality wine was reserved for the upper classes of Rome. Below that was posca a mixture of water and sour wine that had not yet turned into vinegar. This wine was less acidic than vinegar and still retained some of the aromas and texture of wine. ... Still lower in quality was lora (modern day piquette) ... Both posca and lora would have been the most commonly available wine for the general Roman populace. These wines also probably would have been mostly red since white wine grapes would have been saved for the use of the upper class" [cited from R. Phillips (2000), A Short History of Wine pg 46–56 Harper Collins, which I've just added to my list of books to read].


This was a whole lot more food for thought than I had bargained for when I started looking into wine and elitism.

As with anything that's subject to personal taste (food, movies, music, fashion...) the people who are intimately involved with it, including connoisseurs, producers, academics, and journalists, deliver mixed messages. It's their job (or pride) to overanalyze and deconstruct the object of their study (or affection). Knowledge and strong opinions are their currency. But at the same time, and this is where the mixed messages come in, their role as knowledge master is to extend something, such as their knowledge or opinion, down to those who know less and haven't yet formed an opinion (or don't care to).

To appeal to this group, they need to empower them on some level. Learning about wine reminds me a lot of the few times I've gone to chocolate tastings and lectures. "Ultimately, it's about what you like!" someone will proclaim (see the attempt at empowerment?), without really meaning it. Moments later, the same person will assert the hallmark qualities that differentiate one inferior thing from a superior one, hence knowledge- and opinion-flexing. On the one hand, they want to validate the common man, but on the other, part of their job as experts is to be critical, to be the discerning party, to spread word to the public in a way that helps the common man make his decision without being an expert himself. "If you like milk chocolate, that's okay!" And later: "You really can't taste the nuances of the cacao in a chocolate unless it's at least 64 percent. And only dark chocolate has health benefits, so, yeah, if you actually do like milk chocolate, you're a dolt."

For wine, they'll say, "Just drink what you like!" unless you like an oaky and buttery Chardonnay, or Yellowtail Shiraz, or wine that's been adulterated with (gasp!) 7-Up.

The double-standard? Sangria! Also known as wine that has been adulterated with oh so much more than soda. What about mimosas, Bellinis, and the other sparkling wine-based cocktails? And what about all Belgian-style truffles, which meld some of the world's best chocolate with a full gamut of flavorings, booze, colorings, cream, and butter!

What I really want to know is when did wine connoisseur-ship become unnecessarily poetic? Why do oenophiles spend so much time naming fruits they smell and taste and describing all the other characteristics, and all the subtleties they observe? More than half the time, it's not to make a sale, or inform the public who have not tasted or smelled the wine. I won't say I've never partaken in this activity, but I do find it narcissistic.

When did that happen? When did wine morph from being the liquid of a ceremonial cup to a monstrous piece of open-mic-night poetry? Or is that just a stereotype—not at all what goes on at the higher reaches of being a wine aficionado (though some of what's in Teague's book suggests that charm-school rules of refinement and decorum dictate behavior).

Exploring the aromas and tastes of wines is its own journey, the way deep reading can be. And the process of making wine still fascinates me in a way that will set me musing about food production, cost of production, and value of consumable things. But I actually want for my level of appreciation in tasting and drinking wine to never swell beyond it being too much more than a simple enjoyment in life.

I do want to try a lot of things in life. I do want to taste enough wine to have educated my palate to the point where I can feel confident selecting a wine to share with friends, or drink with dinner, or enjoy by myself. That's my sincere goal. I want to be able to ask myself what I'm in the mood for, and then be able to answer.

2 comments:

Chris Minnick said...

Excellent post!

As a winemaker, I really try to resist encouraging people to continue to drink horrible wine with statements like "everyone's tastes are different!". But, it's somewhat true. I think I make really good wine (if I do say so myself), but I drink cheap wine (between $8 and $14) most days and I prefer to maintain a somewhat unsophisticated palate, or at least an ability to be happy drinking what many snobs would call "plonk". I enjoy the thrill of trying new things, and I can't afford to buy expensive wines for these thrills.

There's a funny "wine is magic" thing that many "serious wine drinkers" believe, and that wineries play up because it's good marketing. I think learning to make wine gets you past the bullshit and you see that even the most expensive wines in the world are just grapes and yeast excrement. So, come to Sacramento and help out with crush this fall!

Darius Kazemi said...

I'm pretty sure the guitar folks and mechanics talk down to you because you're a woman. As a man I never encounter that same talking-down from those professions. Bleh.

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