Opinion

The 'wine snob' boogeyman

In his column "The language of wine snobbery," Joel Stein writes: "I miss the days when we made fun of wine snobs. ... Now wine snobs are too boring to make fun of." His argument appears to be hinged on the contention that something about "wine-speak" is inherently snobbish.

Human nature seems to need an occasional straw man, but engaging in this "wine snob" mentality makes for a simplistic, comic-book understanding of a rich topic and the people who follow it. It also turns peoples' insecurities into xenophobia -- that visceral fear-turned-hate of things unknown or not understood. Now, granted, nobody gets tarred and feathered as a result of being branded a "wine snob." However, with "Twilight Zone"-like irony, this mind-set is most damaging to those with whom it resonates, not those at whom it's aimed.

I'm with Stein when he argues for more thorough and well-rounded wine descriptions. Although such descriptions may not be profoundly lacking in American wine writing, they are what we should expect of our wine critics and commentators.

But Stein is way off the mark when he calls the reporting of sensory findings in wine a "game of faux scientific analysis" that says nothing interesting. What he calls a "faux scientific analysis" is called organoleptic assessment, and it tells us a lot about a wine. Winemakers, sommeliers and informed enthusiasts have used the aromas, flavors and textures in wine to assess them and to make quality blending and food-pairing decisions for centuries. This understanding is hardly something to be disdained, and those who have achieved it shouldn't be relegated to the pariah corner.

There is a parlance and terminology specific to every pursuit. Enthusiasts adopt it because it communicates something very specific and concrete about the topic in question. Rather than finding an excuse for ridiculing them, Stein (who clearly still has much to learn about the fundamentals of wine) should realize that the knowledge informed wine enthusiasts possess is no less meaningful, less interesting nor more "snobbish" or difficult than the performance statistics in the head of a sports fan or the technical information rattled off by car aficionados. To these people, this information is meaningful because they have additional background knowledge and understanding of their field that allows them to find meaning beyond dense descriptions.

But what exactly is a "wine snob"?

I make no contentions with the fact that there are those who affect some level of expertise they do not possess and some who are truly supercilious about others' choice in wine. But much of the boogeyman-like concept of a "wine snob" is born of ignorance, originating in individuals' insecurities about their own wine knowledge. There is certainly something threatening about not knowing very much about a particular topic. But wine is complex, and the average consumer should not be expected to possess the knowledge of a Master of Wine. Engaging in discussions of "wine snobs" only stifles individual exploration of wine and limits the growth of budding wine lovers.

If you chose to enjoy wine only on a very superficial level, I say: Cheers! But be comfortable and secure with your choice, and do not malign those who seek and find something more. If you are one of those who want to delve into the world of wine, there are many great resources available to broaden your knowledge. And if you write anything about wine, do not resort to knocking out an easy 700 words on snobbery. It debases our country's wine culture.

Arthur Z. Przebinda is founder, editor and sole wine critic for redwinebuzz.com, and he blogs at winesooth.com. His articles have been featured on several wine websites, including Appellation America, California Winery Guide and eBacchus.com

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