The New Wine Democracy

If you see the words “snob” or “elitist,” watch out
The New Wine Democracy
Matt Kramer lauds the new wine democracy, but cautions against mob rule. (Jon Moe)
Nov 3, 2015

Since this column appears on Election Day here in the United States, it seems an opportune moment to consider our new wine democracy, where everyone gets to “vote” on wines, wineries and everyone else’s opinions.

Wine democracy is a new phenomenon. I mention this only because it has so quickly become pervasive that it’s easy to forget—or if you’re young enough, to not even recall—that it was only a handful of years ago that no such wine democracy existed. You had a privileged few who, by virtue of being given a piece of journalistic real estate in a newspaper or magazine, had a public voice. All others were effectively mute. Not any longer.

That this change is all to the good should go without saying. Yet it needs to be said: Not only is this new wine democracy a Good Thing, it’s absolutely vital. Without it, more than a few very small wineries might not be able to exist for lack of finding a small, necessarily passionate audience, never mind the larger good of everyone having a public voice.

Is there a downside? Most certainly. And it’s consistent with the downside in democracy itself, namely, an availability for the more toxic elements in a free-speaking society to give offensive, even oppressive, voice to noxious thoughts and attitudes.

In today’s new wine democracy you can see it coming with the invocation of just two words: snob and elitist. Really, if you see either word you’re very nearly guaranteed to be on the receiving end of an aggrieved tirade about “them,” the purported snobs and elitists.

Here, we arrive at the crossroads between democracy and populism. The two are linked but far from identical. Wine populists see themselves, more arrogantly than they seem to know, as the repository of reason and good sense. Anyone with whom they disagree is decried as a snob or an elitist. Who are you to tell me what’s good or not good?

These determined detectors of snobbery and elitism are like old-fashioned anti-communists: they’re sure that subversive snobs and elitists are lurking everywhere.

In today’s wine democracy, equality of opportunity (to express oneself) too often is steamrollered into a much more simplistic “equality.” All wines are equally good because all opinions are equally valid. Any deviation from that is seen as, well, you know.

This, of course, is nonsense. It’s a bully’s view of democracy. The very people who fancy themselves protectors of “the people’s voice” are frequently the oppressors of same. They brand anyone who disagrees with them with the scarlet “S” or “E.”

I can’t tell you the number of times I see these poisoners of the well at work. Look at any wine chat forum and no sooner does someone say that he or she likes this or that wine, winery or article, then said well-poisoner strides forth not merely to disagree but deride. They always know better.

The effect is toxic. Discussion almost immediately devolves into dispute, the participants usually reduced to a handful of antagonists who either enjoy or don’t mind mudslinging as a form of engagement. The poor sap who innocently voiced his or her (invariably positive) opinion has long since slunk away, doubtless vowing to himself or herself never again to submit to such venom.

Is this democracy? It is not. Rather, it’s just the latest iteration of democracy’s evil twin, mob rule. Agree with them and you’re safe from derision. Disagree and you’d better be prepared not just to defend your opinion but your very legitimacy.

All of which brings us to those two accusatory terms, “snob” and “elitist.” Do such creatures even exist? Yes, I suppose they do. But, really, they’re actually pretty rare these days.

I mean, how often have you met someone who is prepared to say with serene self-assurance that no other Cabernet from anywhere can possibly be as good as a red Bordeaux? Now, that’s snobbery—or at least a degree of ignorance that is possible but by now unlikely I would think. I haven’t met anybody like that in a long, long time. If they do exist, they’re museum pieces.

Elitism is trickier. Populists refuse to accept that something can indeed be “better” or “worse.” The modern mantra of “If I like it, it’s good” conflates preference with quality. Big mistake. Some things are better than others and it’s very far from elitist to say so. Rather, it’s called being discriminating. Is that such a terrible thing?

All wines are not created equal. What an awful wine world it would be if it were so. Are all of us who choose to distinguish better from worse in wine quality (as opposed to style) elitists?

Those who feel threatened or diminished when someone submits that a wine is better because of attributes such as finesse, harmony or layers have the same kneejerk response: It’s elitism.

Why are they threatened? It’s because it suggests that—brace yourself—someone might know more or better than they do. And that, in turn, directly conflicts with the “If I like it, it’s good” premise. Ergo, you’re an elitist.

Alrighty then, I’m an elitist. I can live with it. Because, you see, some wines really are better than others. And I—and many, many others—have spent too long a time learning about wine to pretend that it’s otherwise.

If someone sees this as elitism, then the only elitism in actual effect is their own, a self-perceived “elite” of those who deride in the name of forcing everyone else to think as they do.

We’ve seen such sorts numerous times in history. But for wine, it’s new. How ironic that these new elitists (I’m tempted to employ a different word) don’t seem to see who and what they really are.

Myself, I’m voting differently—and I’m glad that both you and I have such a vote. Let’s use it.


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