Saturday, February 15, 2020

Wine Snobbery: A Glass Half Full, by Wiggia

This title was conceived after a conversation a couple of weeks back with an  acquaintance who likes to drink and is interested in wine. He was referring to a tasting he went to at a local wine merchant's and the customer there who appeared to be blinded by wine speak and elitism; I am not fond of isms but know what he was getting at.

Anyone who has read my articles on wine realises I do enjoy it and the whole history of wine, how it is made, the grapes used etc etc. It is a hobby that I enjoy as I do talking about it. Many talk of their love of wine, I certainly have loved a few great bottles in my time but love ! As in all-consuming, no; others may see themselves differently. It is all a matter of perspective, which brings us back to the conversation I had with this fellow drinker.

In many people's eyes wine does invoke this image of someone slathering over a glass and using terms of endearment more suited to something else that you would only use in private ! There is a whole lexicon of strange words and phrases used to describe wine. Many by leading wine critics are pure fantasy, used to convey a sense of superiority in these matters. Terms that suppose the human faculties can discern inert substances in wine are plainly ludicrous but are used nonetheless in the attempt to make that critic's review stand out from the mob; tasting notes by their nature are limited and therefore repeated, hence this fantasy-speak.

Still, all this this quite correctly conveys to an outsider the impression that there is an awful lot of snobbery and elitism within the wine circle.

If anyone goes onto a wine blog - and there are many - there are reams of quotes and statements supporting this view about wine; which is strange in a world that is dominated by supermarket wine buyers who couldn’t give a monkey's what some double-barrelled wine critic wrote about their plonk, all they care is it fits the budget and fulfils their taste requirements.

So does this snobbery and elitism exist. To a large degree yes, even now. The forums for wine drinkers show this trait all too well: whole threads become more than 'this is what I drank last night', they become 'what I drank last night was more expensive and rarer than that which you drank', that old world wineries are the only place to buy ‘fine’ wines from and the new world is fermented gnat's piss; and many in direct conversation will do the same. This moment scotched that thinking some time back, yet many still believe……..

There is absolutely nothing wrong in people who have the spare income to spend it in a way they enjoy and if that means a £500 or more bottle of wine then that is their choice, but often the writing on the same wine belies the truth about it. Whatever the cost, whatever grand name on the label, whatever the vintage, you still have to like it and we all have different tastes, so there is no greatest or there shouldn’t be. Wine is a food. Some will love a style, others will wrinkle their noses and reject it, it is that simple; but not for a wine snob, who will defend his bad bottle with a litany of excuses, many invalid. None, or few, seem capable of saying 'that was bloody awful' or simply 'I didn’t like it', they will have a whole lexicon to use of words that describe their disappointment and how the next bottle will be wonderful.

The correlation in people's minds of qulity to price is shown here, nothing new in this but it does show how you can fool some of the people...

'Great wine' is a much-used term usually attached to a tasting of a top-rated Bordeaux, Burgundy, Rhone, Barolo et al., but a great wine is one you enjoy whatever the provenance or price. I myself have been fortunate to drink some very high-ranking wines and many I have enjoyed; the best are memorable, but they represent a fraction of what is out there and among the lesser lights are bottles that have brought equal enjoyment. Thinking about the price clouds your judgement as in the videos here, it really does; yet the wine snob will never admit to enjoying a cheap wine, even if it is good.
Victoria Beckham was quoted as saying she would never drink a wine under £10 a bottle. Well, she doesn’t have to, but the assertion was it would be a poor wine, and that is simply not true: many £10-and-up bottles are not that good either and many even more expensive bottles have proved a let-down.

The wine snob will never ever admit to drinking anything popular. The rise in popularity in a grape variety will coincide with the wine snob deriding it and promoting an unheard-of wine from an unheard-of village made under a waning moon and a thunderstorm; these things bring great kudos to wine snobs and they will promote the same, until they have to move on because the unheard-of wine has become ‘popular’.

I read an allied thread on a wine forum where someone said in effect you had to take such and such courses on wine to be able to appreciate the finer points, implying those who didn’t were somehow inferior in their take on a wine - “how could they possibly know?” If that is not wine snobbery I don’t know what is. I have never taken a wine course. Would I? Not now; a basic course is not a bad thing for a beginner to simply understand the basics, but I am too old and it would add little, at great cost, to what I have picked up over decades of consuming, reading, travelling, tasting etc. What more do I need? Yet so many of those who take these courses love to tell how, hundreds of pounds lighter and now on Diploma level or whatever, they are more knowledgable than those who have not taken that route and they all clap like seals when one of their soulmates achieves a pass. Wine drinking is a pleasant pastime, not a civil service exam - and do they go on!

You can add to the swot, the idolator: the drinker who believes that certain wine makers deserve sainthood, so wonderful are their products and so dedicated are they to their winemaking that they deserve special status. The bottom line is, they are farmers making a product for consumption by the public. Yes, many enjoy what they do for a living, as with others in life in different occupations, but it is a commercial enterprise, and some are better at it than others. It is that simple, whether it is the small village winery or the giant conglomerates.

But you would never believe that if you heard the wine snob speaking: they and the whole wine world belongs to them and their self-belief.

Even the storage of wine becomes the cellar-owner's world of right and wrong. If you wish to store decent wine for long periods then a cellar with a fairly constant temperature is a plus. As very few people own a cellar now the wine snob will buy a wine storage cooler and if they really believe all the hype then it will be the one with two or even three different temperature zones for all those wine type variations. That is, of course, only if you believe this, which is mainly twaddle: it has been scientifically shown that all wines will survive quite a large temperature fluctuation with no ill effects. Serious wine snobs will talk about various serious faults a wine can develop if you don’t have the perfect storage facility. Most of these faults are one-in-a-thousand cases: I have never suffered any of them. You are far more likely to have a faulty bottle because of a manufacturing fault, dodgy cork or some form of taint getting into it. For all but the wine snob, a place under the stairs will be adequate in most cases, and being an expensive wine will not alter how it reacts to heat or cold.

Many years ago I went to a wine tasting put on locally by a very good wine merchant. It was only because it was local that I bothered to go. On arrival there were about 50  people already tasting the wines on three long joined tables in the shape of a horseshoe. We started out behind two or three couples armed with notepads and clipboards to make notes of the tasted wines. For me, if I liked a couple of wines I was well capable of remembering them and cannot see the point on notes of a raft of wines I don’t like, but each to his own.

We got about half way round and I had heard the wine-speak of the group ahead as they scribbled their notes, and as we reached roughly the halfway point they all tried a well-known red wine, mumbled approvingly, scribbled and moved on. I poured a tasting measure, and smelt and tasted, and the wine was very obviously off; I called one of the organisers over who agreed immediately, took the bottle away and changed it. Now you might say 'clever dick', but the truth was they were wine snobs in front of us trying to impress each other with their knowledge of wine but could not tell a totally flawed/awful bottle.

There are a whole list of things that divide the wine snob from the wine geek. Geeks are wine drinkers obsessed with vineyards, latitude, soil and obscurity etc.; they can also bore the arse off you given the opportunity, but they are not snobs.

Snobs obsess about the glass they use, unless it is Riedel or similar, very costly and very easy to break; no wine can be drunk and enjoyed without them. They actually believe this. They buy expensive wines and collect to such a degree that because the drinking ‘window’ is so far in the future their collection just grows and grows, never to be drunk, just admired.

If there is one item that epitomises the wine snob it is the corkscrew. The wine snob only ever uses the “waiter's friend” or sommelier's corkscrew; for some reason it has come to distinguish the ‘serious’ wine drinker from the others. Its only real value is the space it uses and for wine waiters that is why it is used: it fits in the pocket. However, for the wine snob, difficulty in learning to use it is points gained; all other corkscrews are for amateurs, despite the fact I have used a winged corkscrew for over thirty years that has never failed to extract a cork other than a couple that simply crumbled to nothing. That really is of no consequence to the wine snob: a waiter's friend it has to be, or nothing.
Naturally it follows that the obsession with removing a cork ‘correctly’ means that any bottle fitted with a screw cap is instantly fit only for the proles: no self-respecting wine snob would entertain a bottle with a screw cap on the table, God forbid; even the devil's spawn, a non-100%-natural cork, isn’t on the same level of evil; the mere thought of not being able to show your skills learnt over many years with the waiter's friend is too much to bear.

The ability to swirl everything, tea, coffee, water like a nervous tic is a skill well-learned by the WS. It is a forerunner to over-emphasised sniffing; side-on gives you extra bonus points, and slurping with much exaggerated jowel movements.

All wines without exception have to be decanted, sometimes for days, this goes with the 'all must be kept forever' syndrome before it is ready to drink, often to the extent that a case of wine will be opened and bottles drunk at strategic points in time, none of which are the correct time. Is the correct time for the perfect bottle ever reached? Probably not, such is the snobbery about drinking windows, the endless imagined aromas and tastes and the vocabulary. This is a true note by a wine reviewer heard at a tasting regarding two different Champagnes: “ 'One can always tell Krug from Roederer,' he said, 'by the sound of the bubbles.'  Give me strength, if ever there was a phrase to differentiate between the drinker and the wine snob, that just about takes the biscuit.

Things are not as obviously elitist in the wine world as in years gone by, when any self-respecting wine merchant had staff that all wore tweed jackets, bow ties and looked down on the customer if he didn’t fit a certain profile with that something-on-the-sole-of-my-shoe look, and many did.

More importantly, I have hardly ever met a wine-maker with that same attitude. Even the more famous ones have all been down to earth and would engage about their wines with you without any silly embellishments. As the late Vincent Leflaive said at a dinner and tasting of his sublime but hugely expensive white Burgundies after being questioned by a diner on the style of his wines vis-a-vis someone else's: “If you don’t like them that way, don’t buy them.” It really is that simple.

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