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Drinking Out Loud

Wine Culture Cringe

Why do some wine lovers feel that they have to apologize for wine?

Matt Kramer
Posted: October 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.

Dustin Gillson
Dayton, OH —  October 4, 2011 12:54pm ET
This is just a wonderful piece. As a 26 year old in the midwest, my overwhelming passion for wine is very frequently met with quizzical looks, especially when someone sees me spit my wine out at a tasting. I cetainly encourage anyone with a faint interest in wine to study it further, but maybe it is ok that there are those who chose to dismiss the wine world as snobbish. . . more of the good stuff for us.
David Tietz
Columbus, OH —  October 4, 2011 1:16pm ET
I read Asimov's piece and had the same initial reaction as you. That being said, some beer drinkers do have a similar hurdle when moving from Bud and Blue Moon to IPAs and Rauchbier.

In a blog also posted just today by the Beer and Whiskey Brothers on how to drink a craft beer for newbies: "There are different types of glassware for different types of beer, different serving temperatures for different styles of beer, and words like “nose” and “mouthfeel” are thrown around on all the message boards. What’s a noob to do?"

You could substitute wine for beer across the entire post and say the same thing about both beverages. At the end of the day, their point is the same for beer as you say for wine: most of those concerns are overrated. Try different beers. Try different temperatures. Find what you like and what you don't, but at the end of the day the most important thing is simply enjoy drinking it.
Richard Gangel
San Francisco —  October 4, 2011 1:48pm ET
Matt, you hit the nail on the head when you referred to "anti-intellectualism cloaked in a misguided notion of democratization." We seem to have become a society in which intelligence is denigrated as elitist and the only people who appreciate wine are snobs who are too "high-falutin'" to drink beer. This problem is exacerbated by people in the media who treat those who think critically with disdain. It's as if they're telling us that education is useless, but then they bemoan the loss of our place in the world versus the so-called "lesser" countries.

I have to admit that as a young man I was fascinated with the taste of wine but couldn't appreciate beer at all. To this day, I do not like beer. Perhaps it is my loss, but that is my choice. If someone wishes to call me a wine snob, so be it.

Finally, I do not drink wine to get high. Doing so only destroys my appreciation for what I am drinking. Perhaps I am in a small minority in that regard, but so what?
Jonathan Lawrence
somewhere in the world —  October 4, 2011 1:56pm ET
Matt, once again you're comparing wine with (other) objects of art, noting that it is "like other aesthetic pleasures." In short, if wine is literally comparable to "other" art objects (music and contemporary art), how can it not be an object of art, not merely a conveyor of "aesthetic pleasure." If art is what provides the recipient with aesthetic pleasure, and the consumption of wine provides (at least some of) us with aesthetic pleasure, the conclusion seems unavoidable.
Mr Andrew J Green
Kansas —  October 4, 2011 2:13pm ET
Doug Frost, another excellent wine authority and writer, describes himself as a "flavor craver." That sums it up in just two words for me. The alcohol may be a plus, but if that's all it was about, we'd just dilute pure grain alcohol to a comfortable level and swig that. Wine is not primarily a vehicle for alcohol, even is some people want to treat it that way. It is an experience.
James R Biddle
Dayton, OH —  October 4, 2011 3:06pm ET
Social psychologists have long noted Americans addiction to “illusory superiority:” the cognitive bias leading us to overestimate our strengths and underestimate our weaknesses. Garrison Keillor captured its pop culture version in his fictional town of Lake Wobegon, where "all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average." If there were beer drinkers in Lake Wobegon, would they be confident connoisseurs? Would their minds remain in neutral while their opinions grow exponentially? Would the one or two wine sippers be driven even further underground? Ah yes, the American prejudice against thoughtful engagement in sipping and supping.
Steve Walker
Raleigh, NC —  October 4, 2011 8:38pm ET
I'm soon to be 59 years old. I used to be one of Matt's aptly described happy occasional guzzler of Yellow Tale, or whatever. Then, now less than two years ago, a new wine store opened near my home that was equipped with 48 tasting stations(Uncorked, in Raleigh, NC). All of a sudden I had the opportunity to taste many, many different wines from all over the world. With the positive encouragement of the stores' owner(Tony Fox) and staff, I started to realize some of the fascinating nuances of wine.

Now, I'm hooked, in a good way. My wife and I think long and hard about what wine to have with every evening meal. I read something nearly every day to broaden my understanding of wine. Learning about, and enjoying, wine has become my main hobby and if I could figure out how to do it I'd make it my way to make a living.

My only regret is that I came to this understanding of the wonderful world of wine now, and not long ago. Better late than never, though. Wine is, indeed, wonderful, and I look forward to learning more about it for the rest of my life!
Heitor Almeida
NY —  October 4, 2011 9:06pm ET
I had not seen this article because I am not interested in beer, but I totally agree. The only reason why "beer consumers" (what is that supposed to mean anyways?) are more "confident" is that the underlying product is so much simpler. The beauty of wine is its complexity, that nagging feeling that there is so much out there that you don't know yet. Mr. Asimov missed the boat here, big time.
Noah Sevillia
S.F. Bay Area —  October 5, 2011 12:35pm ET
Some may disagree with me but if you look closely at the comments made above, you may actually agree that Eric Asimov has a point.

There is a greater perception amongst newer wine drinkers in America that they are delving into something that is grand, complex and a bit intimidating. Factors such as price and scores do not help the new wine drinker feel any more confident in their ability to determine what they like vs. dislike. The additional frustration of looking at a bottle of French wine and trying to figure out exactly what kind of wine it is, without an education on regions and what they produce, does not help the confidence level either.

In the end I agree with the assumption that most wine drinkers feel they need a good foundation of knowledge before they feel confident in scanning a wine list or browsing through a wine store.
John Brody
Montreal Canada —  October 6, 2011 8:24am ET
"When you first started drinking did you need instruction on how to enjoy Blue Nun?Or Mateus rosé? " My first experience with wine back in the 70's were with both of these wines. I have been enjoying wine for over 30 years but only collecting for the past 6-7. I still find myself lacking the palaet of the veteran oenophile. My ability to describe and evaluate is novice at best. Wine is not quantum mechanics but many treat it as such. Fine wine has been the teritory of the wealthy and educated until recently. The internet and open wine tastings have made fine wine available to so many more than 30 years ago. Thanks Matt for being part of that educating and demystifying process. I've learned a great deal from your articles and blogs.
Brian Peters
Broomfield, CO —  October 6, 2011 9:24pm ET

Try Crushpad Wine for your winemaking fix!

Glenn Bowman
Indianapolis, IN —  October 8, 2011 7:10am ET
Great article. Well stated.
Johnny Espinoza Esquivel
Wine World —  October 10, 2011 3:32pm ET
Matt: Thanks for such a mind challenging piece! I do not think you need to be an intelectual giant to enjoy a glass of wine. That would mean wine would be reserved from some special brotherhood. You can enjoy yellow tail or a complex CdeP and be happy ans satisfied with both of them if you ultimately like them! I do enjoy reading about quantum mechanics and cosmology and far (light years actually) of being a physicist! It's quite likely I'd enjoy both subjects if i were a specialist. Truth is, I do like those two matters even with lack of knowledge. And this is why I Love Wine and why I'm learning and reading and absorbing as much as I can on wine. And the good thing is that I don't need a PhD on wine to enjoy a Beaujolois village, a Napa Cabernet or a borros of Amarone! I Love the three of them. The advantage I (we) have: I can learn about the differences they and by that, enjoy them More.
Neil Barham
Vail, co —  October 11, 2011 12:09am ET
Matt you are wrong. What Eric said is true. Wine due to publications like WS has now been found to be confusing. How you ask. You guys sing the merits of manipulated wines of no place. When I was a college student in the early 70s I could taste and experience the revelations of a Sancerre or a classified Bordeaux as well as a Burgundy from a single site. Now people in college are faced with wines that are designed to deliver a certain taste with a cute name that means nothing. Great job Matt. You were bettermthan that.

Ps what Eric said about NZ Pinot was righ on too!
Dennis D Bishop
Shelby Twp., MI, USA —  October 16, 2011 10:11am ET
Matt, you are "spot on" with your wine education = wine appreciation comments. I am self educated thru books, videos and many visits to wineries and wine shops and discussions with those in the industry. I am a source of information for my friends... and their friends. My enjoyment of wine continues to grow and I can't imagine when it will end... and how much more wine enjoyment lies ahead for me!

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