Wine Culture Cringe

Why do some wine lovers feel that they have to apologize for wine?
Oct 4, 2011

"Beer consumers are a far more confident lot than wine consumers. They’re at ease with beer, mostly because they’ve had a solid grounding in their subject, unlike wine consumers who've been brainwashed into believing they must be educated or taught how to “appreciate” wine before they can enjoy it."—Eric Asimov, New York Times, Sept. 20

Tell me something: Why is there such a cringe when it comes to celebrating the beauty of wine? When I opened my copy of the New York Times in late September and saw Mr. Asimov's comment about the purported confidence of beer lovers—who apparently are able to comprehend the finest subtlety of beer without ever cracking open a book or hearing even a whisper of instruction—I found myself wondering what the hell we wine lovers have to apologize for?

Now, I know a lot of beer lovers. And I can tell you that the one thing they are confident about is their capacity. Back when I was a boy growing up in New York, the only thing beer lovers knew was whom they were going to vote for in the Miss Rheingold contest. They wouldn't have known an IBU (International Bittering Unit) from an IOU.

Today, we're given to believe that, somehow, every beer lover in America knows, thanks to a mysterious "solid grounding," presumably in the womb, about IBUs and Hallertau hops. They are confident! Wine drinkers, in comparison, are made miserable by insecurity, hollowed by a sense of inadequacy and incapable of enjoying what's in their wineglasses. Indeed, they're insecure even about the glass itself.

Let's get something straight. The world is awash with millions of wine drinkers whose wine knowledge stops at their ability to pull a cork from a bottle. (And with the onset of screw caps, some of them perhaps don't have even that much savvy.) They seem able to enjoy their wines with the same swaggering confidence that beer drinkers apparently have.

When you first started drinking did you need instruction on how to enjoy Blue Nun? Or Mateus rosé? Or Gallo Hearty Burgundy? I sure didn't. Do you think that today's wine drinkers feel a pressure to rush to the library or to their local community college to sign up for a course in order to figure out how to enjoy Yellow Tail?

People drawn to wine have been neither bullied nor "brainwashed" into feeling that they can't enjoy their wine because they haven't received instruction. Quite the opposite. It's positively Rabelaisian today, what with glasses of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir being guzzled in vast quantities in bars everywhere.

"We live in an age where if something isn't either intuitive or instantly enjoyable, then it's at fault, not us."

It's only when—or if—these same drinkers get beyond the likes of Yellow Tail that they discover that the object of their interest, like art on a wall, admits and supports a deeper investigation.

However, some wine lovers seem to feel that they have to apologize for wine. They apparently feel that there's something wrong, even oppressive, in suggesting that wine has enough depth to merit further study.

Do you think that the curators of New York's Museum of Modern Art feel any such inhibition about suggesting that, hey, you might want to rent their audio-visual guide to help you look more intelligently at the paintings on their walls? So why should we wine lovers feel the least bit of compunction about suggesting that if you find yourself fascinated by wine, you might want to crack open a book or take a course?

This is the "cringe." Too many wine lovers are needlessly embarrassed by wine. They feel a need to "democratize" wine by debasing it. Wine, you see, is too hoity-toity. So it's best if it gets taken down a peg or two.

Ironically, nowhere is this more prevalent than among the very intellectuals who have spent a goodly part of their lives becoming educated and are, in turn, educating others.

Here's Adam Gopnik, one of the finest writers in New Yorker magazine, in a contempt-filled essay about wine-writing, asserting that the wine culture is just a fancy-pants way of getting drunk:

"Remarkably, nowhere in wine writing would a Martian learn that the first reason people drink wine is to get drunk. ... Wine is what gives us a reason to let alcohol make us happy without one. Without wine lore and wine tasting and wine talk and wine labels and, yes wine writing and rating—the whole elaborate idea of wine—we would still get drunk, but we would be merely drunk."

Wine lovers have nothing to apologize for. You don't see music lovers apologizing for suggesting that perhaps you might better understand a concert or even a song if you spend a little time learning about music. You sure as hell don't see art lovers apologizing for the seeming incomprehensibility of so much of contemporary art. If we don't get it, we're unashamedly told, the fault is ours for not bringing enough context to what we're viewing.

Whether that's true or not is beside the point. The point is this: Wine, like many other aesthetic pleasures, admits and supports deeper investigation. To suggest that such investigation is worthwhile is hardly "brainwashing" or bullying. It's called education. And that’s surely an admirable, worthwhile thing, right?

We live in an age where if something isn't either "intuitive" or instantly enjoyable, then it's at fault, not us. Is a steely, austere Savennières from the Loire Valley or a soil-inflected Cabernet Sauvignon from the Santa Cruz Mountains something a first-time sipper can instantly grasp and appreciate? Not likely. Perhaps a little study is required. What a concept.

These, and many other wines, are not "intuitive." They are profound and, yes, difficult. They require attention and informed consideration for full appreciation. Such study needs no excuses and certainly no cringe. Greatness is not another word for "easy" or "obvious."

Those who believe that wine loving is not well-served by a frank admission—indeed, an embrace—–of the desirability of cracking open a book or taking a course are engaged in anti-intellectualism cloaked in a misguided notion of democratization.

"Democratization" is not a celebration of the lowest common denominator. Rather, it is a celebration of opportunity. When we are not allowed to enjoy wine because of oppressive laws and regulations, oppressive taxation or, yes, oppressive snobbery, then "wine democracy" is not well-served.

But "wine democracy" is very well-served when those who do know about wine feel free to suggest that those who are interested in the subject might enjoy their wine yet more by learning something about it.

Fine wine admits study. It deserves it. It rewards it. Far from "brainwashing," studying wine is brain-expanding. Wine needs no apology for being wonderful. Or for being sufficiently complex as to deserve and reward some study. Above all, it needs no cringe—and deserves none.

Education Opinion

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