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Drinking Out Loud

The Line Between Nudnik and Knowing

It's a fine line. Have you crossed it?
Photo by: Jon Moe
Matt Kramer examines the point at which enthusiasm crosses over into obsession.

Matt Kramer
Posted: February 2, 2016

A nudnik, the poet Morris Rosenfeld memorably declared, is a person "whose purpose in life is to bore the rest of humanity." It’s one of those words that encompasses an array of nuanced associations, none of them flattering; nudniks are notoriously obsessed with topics trivial or meaningless—and they never stop talking about them.

Does this sound familiar? We all know wine nudniks and, if we are honest with ourselves, likely have a fear that we too have been nudniks about one or another feature of wine at some point.

For example, I know wine-business nudniks (they're forever railing about the inequities of the three-tier system); natural-wine nudniks (a burgeoning new cohort); wine-packaging nudniks (there's an entire subset obsessed with whether the capsules on the bottle—the tin coverings over the cork—should spin freely or not); and, ahem, terroir nudniks.

I thought about nudniks while reading a nearly nudnik-y (in the single-minded sense) book titled Ametora about the historical Japanese obsession—that's the only word for it—with American preppie clothes and, especially, blue jeans.

According to the author, W. David Marx, who is a Harvard graduate in East Asian studies now living in Japan, "the Japanese built new and profound layers of meaning on top of American style—and in the process, protected and strengthened the original for the benefit of all." (The title comes from the slang conflation of the words "American traditional," which emerged in Japanese as ametora.)

Now, anybody who has been to Japan or has paid attention to its culture knows that no nation anywhere is more punctilious about detail. The Japanese probably don't even have an equivalent word to "nudnik," because, well, they never seem to find any level of attention to detail boring, no matter how minute the focus.

True story: I have friends in the high-end clothing business. After sending over an order of leather handbags to their Japanese importer, they received an e-mail informing them that the bags were not the same as the sample originally approved. Baffled, they asked what could possibly be different? "The sample you sent had 11 stitches in the handle, while the handbags you shipped had 10."

You can view this as magnificent or mad, but it says something all the same. We see this with fine wine, and to this day I'm still not sure whether to admire it unreservedly or conclude that proper perspective has been lost.

This last point is worth noting if only because wine lovers (never mind professional wine writers) may not be in any position to know. After all, the average person, the casual wine buyer, would think it not just unreasonable but absolutely wacky to care whether a Pinot Noir came from this small plot or another one right next to it. Yet is there any real Pinot Noir lover who doubts the possibility of a potential difference, never mind believes in its reality?

Take the denim fabric of blue jeans. In Ametora, the author describes how, back in 1964, a prospective Japanese jeans manufacturer, after disassembling a pair of American-made blue jeans, "puzzled over a strange detail in the fabric: the blue cotton threads were not dyed all the way through."

Apparently, indigo does not easily permeate to the core of a cotton thread. Industrial dyeing "tends to create a blue ring around the thread's surface and leave the center white." This is what gives blue jeans their much-prized tendency to fade.

Artisanal Japanese indigo dyeing techniques, dating to the 7th century, were totally different. Because of time-consuming, repeated dipping in tubs of indigo dye, Japanese textile fibers were fully permeated. "No Japanese dyers at the time could make indigo yarns with the distinct white center of American denim."

So where's the limit? At what point does one become not magnificently, rewardingly attentive to detail but a boring, blindered nudnik? It's not enough simply to shut up (although that's always a good start). That doesn't change your interior life. Nor, for that matter, does it serve the cause of ever-improving goodness.

As doctors would say, is there a symptomatology? When does magnificent obsession become nudnikism?

Surely there are trained professionals who are better qualified than I to establish just where the line gets crossed. But I'll take a stab at it all the same, even if it's a classic case of the inmate diagnosing his fellow asylum-dwellers.

The Ideology Nudnik. You're a wine nudnik if you let ideology predetermine your recognition of goodness. We see this today with the "natural wine” crowd. Too often natural-wine proponents drink the ideology rather than the actual wine. Too often the wine, if not its ideological "correctness," is flawed. This is a pity, if only because the cause is a good one and very much worth pursuing.

The Classification Nudnik. You're a wine nudnik if you invest excessive, unyielding credulity in officially established rankings such as grand cru, premier cru, first-growth, second-growth, etc.

Are such systems wrongheaded or even pernicious? They are not. They're merely guides—and often good ones. But they are no substitute for honest, unprejudiced evaluation. Never has this been more true than today, when "aristocratic" rigor is now frequently lavished on once "common" grape varieties or applied to less-exalted sites. What results frequently defies now-outdated preconceived categorizations of worth and goodness.

The Snobbery Nudnik. You're a wine nudnik if you insist that everything about wine with which you disagree is due to "snobbery" or others’ mindless devotion to authority or scores. The snobbery nudnik is sure, utterly certain, that people with whom they disagree must be snobs, as what else could explain their love or defense of this or that expensive or famous wine? Snobbery nudniks celebrate the "wisdom of the crowd." Everything else is "elitist." This is one of wine's newest nudnikisms, for reasons that need no explanation, I wouldn't think.

Fine wine, like it or not, is inherently elitist. Not exclusionary, mind you. But it is a relentless sifting-out, an ever more discriminating pursuit of something ever-finer.

To see this as objectionable is to miss the whole point of bothering with fine wine at all—or with better blue jeans, for that matter.

Paul & Joyce Gallagher
Berkeley Heights, NJ —  March 7, 2016 3:52pm ET
"Fine wine, like it or not, is inherently elitist. Not exclusionary, mind you. But it is a relentless sifting-out, an ever more discriminating pursuit of something ever-finer."

Matt, you nailed it...again.

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