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.