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Drinking Out Loud

Is Snobbery Dead?

Or has it just changed its stripes?

Matt Kramer
Posted: October 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.

Steve Order
Mass —  October 15, 2013 12:50pm ET
This article reminds me of a wine bar I visited in Paris about 2 years ago and inquired to the owner why no American wines were on the list. He promptly informed "because Americans wines show no sense of terroir". This led to a spirited, lively, but friendly, discussion. I'm always surprised when an individual who is "so into wine" can be so closed minded about trying something new. I'll still go back though. He turned me onto some lovely sweet Jurancon wines :)
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco —  October 15, 2013 1:27pm ET
My guess is that the proprietor's comment about terroir was simply rationalizing his difficulty in obtaining really good New World wines in France—and their high cost to him and his customers.

Steve's response is the perfect example of keeping an open mind. He could have left in a huff, but engaged the proprietor in a friendly discussion and in the end gained an experience he might not have had otherwise.

If only the more vocal proponents of "natural" wines and obscure wineries would be willing to do the same. We might be able to have real conversations about what we really want in our wine glasses.
Dustin Gillson
Dayton, OH —  October 15, 2013 2:15pm ET
I can anecdotally disagree with you. In my area there is one couple that frequents many wine dinners and tastings around town that fits your description of old wine snobbery perfectly. Everyone in the local wine scene know these folks and is amazed at their ability to pay for tasting after tasting, only to degrade and dismiss every wine poured as not being "classical" enough or completely absent of terroir. In addition, I do still see some of this snobbery from wine sales reps on occasion.

As a milder form of this, I know several people that will not buy or in any way pay for, new world wines (esp. California). They may drink a Colgin if someone is offering, but the conversation will center around how done up and blown out it is.
Greg Flanagan
Bethel, CT —  October 15, 2013 7:13pm ET
"Old Snobbery" will literally die off soon enough.....take a look at the demographics of Wine Spectator subscribers. The readers are not getting older...

The "new" and yes, "young" generation of wine drinkers respect tradition and past performance, but if that tradition/performance is not in/on our palates of enjoyment-----good bye first growths and all the old world wannabes. The time has come to move on.

The world is flat....and we know whats going on in the vineyards/wineries from every hemisphere.

We drink what we like, and there are plenty of wines to like in the 21st century. So, Old Snobs, please stop shoving the "classics" down our throats (not literally) and let us (the next generation of wine drinkers) form, develop, and craft our palates to what we like....not what a 80year old french nationalist has been drinking for decades because his great, great, great, great grandfather drank years ago.

"Those days are gone" (as Matt mentions above)

Dennis D Bishop
Southeast Michigan, USA —  October 16, 2013 11:05am ET
Matt, you did not include the Fake Snobs. Those that have garnered just enough wine-speak to impress the less informed. You can find them in the shadows at family barbecues, sports bars and office parties. Although these types tend to lower the intelligence bar across the industry, they at least keep the conversation going. As George Cohan was to have said, "I do not care what you say about me, as long as your say something about me, and as long as your spell my name right." Such it may very well be with wine?
The Odom Corporation
Portland, OR —  October 16, 2013 11:37am ET
The snobs have been replaced by hipsters who are elitist in there own way.
Scott Boles
San Diego, CA —  October 16, 2013 7:08pm ET
"Old Snobbery" isn't dead. Just log onto the forums and start a thread about the merits of domestic Pinot Noir, Australian Shiraz, or California zins.
Anne-marie Deslongchamps
Montreal, Quebec, Canada —  October 16, 2013 7:23pm ET
The new snubs will only drink "natural" wines with no(or little) sulfites, because they were told by some gurus that those wines are "true wines"...It's all the craze these days in Paris, Barcelona, and here in Montreal. It is amazing to hear those news snubs: anything commercial/big/well-known is bad, anything with sulfites isn't a true expression of terroir, anything ripe isn't good(those snubs particularly hate Australian and South African wines), wood is evil, and so on...

When you listen to them, it seems all is worth drinking is crus de Beaujolais and Loire wines...All about fruit, fruit, and fruit...!

I think the only difference between the old and new snubs is that the old snubs were phatetics to listen to, as the new ones are hilarious to listen to!!!

Tom Miller
Birmingham, AL —  October 17, 2013 8:20am ET
I really cringed reading (1) Steve's comment concerning the French wine bar owner's snobby "because American wines show no sense of terroir" reply and (2) Scott's wine board snobbery comment. Either these types of snobs have their heads in the sand or they don't make the time to try the wines they're being snobby about. Wines from vineyard sites in the U.S. and elsewhere in the New World may not have the history, snob appeal or price of the First Growths or Grand Crus, but they can still produce ethereal wines with a consistent sense of place. My last bottle of 1995 Au Bon Climat Pinot noir La Bauge from the Bien Nacido Vineyard proved that last night.
Gene Vance
Albuquerque NM —  October 19, 2013 4:03pm ET
My personal taste is quite varied, but I have a little trouble with how easily the word "snobbery" is used for others. Wine drinkers like what they like and usually articulate reasons. If that is snobbery, everyone who has enough familiarity with wine to have a preference is a snob. If that preference happens to be Bordeaux or Burgundy,....shame on you!
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco —  October 22, 2013 11:10am ET
Gene, it's not preference that's the issue, it's the denigration of other wines (and those who prefer them) that defines a snob.
Jeffrey Matchen
New York, NY —  October 22, 2013 12:18pm ET
Just a thought, but what if France historically had nice weather like, say, California? Would ripeness and plush mouthfeel be a bigger component of terroir? And perhaps nobody would try to convince us that wine that tastes like dirt is a good thing...
Quinn Bottorff
Edmonton, AB —  October 22, 2013 10:16pm ET
Thanks for everyone's comments. I live in the province of Alberta in CAN, which is like the state of Texas in Canada. Beer is king, and rye (or rum), is queen for majority of the population here. If I even mention wine and its attributes at BBQ's most people look at me like I am an alien. My uncle, who lives in the Okanagan, just calls me a cork dork, which is way better than wine snob.

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