Is Snobbery Dead?

Or has it just changed its stripes?
Oct 15, 2013

Whenever the word "wine" is invoked, the word "snob" is sure to follow. This certainty is very nearly equal to the great laws of classical electromagnetism, such is the pull of these two words upon each other.

But is it true anymore? Really, do wine snobs—as conventionally imagined—still exist? Do we really see any more of those Thurberesque sorts condescendingly opining, "It's a naive domestic Burgundy without any breeding, but I think you'll be amused by its presumption"? I don't think so.

That was the Old Wine Snobbery. And honestly, when was the last time you heard it? Maybe I'm not running in the right (stuffy) circles, but it's been years—decades even—since I've heard anything even remotely along those lines.

And I'll go further yet by saying that what might be called the Old Wine Snobbery is dead. The only place you could say this sort of old-fashioned snobbery still exists is China—and even there only among old guys with new money—and that’s because they are simply so new to wine that they lack awareness of a larger context.

Oh sure, there's one or another doddering old codger who has no qualms about declaring that only Bordeaux's classed-growths are worth drinking. Or that only French wines deliver "true" quality. Like China, every country still has a few such sorts. But such creatures are now akin to the purportedly extinct ivory-billed woodpecker.

Why is the Old Snobbery dead? The answer is as simple as it is sweeping. Everybody now knows that all sorts of places around the world can and do create remarkable wines.

It wasn't always so, of course. Thirty years ago there was considerable, and loudly voiced, doubt among many East Coast wine lovers about whether California could create red wines comparable to great red Bordeaux. Haven't heard that in a long while, have you?

Even Burgundy, that bastion of the One True Wine Faith that's clutched to the collective bosom of more traditionalists than any other category, has staggered under the combined Pinot Noir assault of California, Oregon, New Zealand, Australia and Ontario.

No longer can the Old Snobbery assert, as it once so freely did—and without contradiction—that only Burgundy can create "authentic" Pinot Noir. Those days are gone forever. And here again, everybody knows it.

The Old Snobbery really is dead, made nearly extinct by a new and vast international wine ambition, cross-border trade from emerging districts and revitalized old regions and, not least, a greatly expanded audience of knowledgeable wine lovers.

So is wine finally finished with snobbery altogether? Not quite. It seems that a New Snobbery is emerging, one based on a kind of wine hipster obscurantism.

The New Snobbery relishes the esoteric and the miniature. That, in itself, is no crime. Such wines and producers add a real and necessary spice.

The snobbery occurs when, in the course of being selective, these same celebrants of the artisanal reject anything larger scale or, seemingly worse yet, well-known.

This is ironic if only because this New Snobbery, while the mirror inverse of the Old in its choices, employs the same sort of exclusivism masquerading as discrimination. Those who don't agree are dismissed as uninformed. A new in-the-know wine canon is substituted, enforced in the same time-tested way. It's a delicious irony, of course.

What's the answer? The antidote for the New Snobbery is the same as for the Old: open-mindedness and a thoughtful curiosity.

Snobs, old or new, don't want you to think. They just want you to conform.

Opinion

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