We wine lovers are constantly accused of snobbery, pretension, and arrogance, some of it deserved but most of it misplaced. All of this sniping, often encouraged by the media, could be set aside by simply acknowledging the fact that there are many reasons to drink wine and each require their own norms.
Sometimes we drink wine to get buzzed, to enhance our enjoyment of friends or grease the wheels of social commerce, to relax after work, or to accompany a meal. The aim of all these activities is simple pleasure and, to achieve this goal, wine quality need not matter much. Truth be told, 99% of the wines on the supermarket shelf will be satisfactory for this purpose and it’s pointless to be concerned with scores, tasting notes, sniffing and swirling or any of the other paraphernalia of wine tasting if this basic form of enjoyment is all you’re looking for. People who pretentiously introduce sophisticated tasting activities in these contexts really do risk being jerks unless their expertise has been requested.
But sometimes we drink wine in order to appreciate the wine—that’s why we’re wine lovers after all. We want to fully experience the wine and discover all there is to know about the wine and its origins—what its features are and how they produce pleasure. With appreciation we’re concerned with our own experience of the wine, an experience that has intrinsic value. We enjoy experiences not because they are useful for some purpose but because they are good in themselves and the appreciation of wine is no exception. We can appreciate a wine regardless of whether anyone else does and regardless of how it compares to other wines. Since the primary focus is not on comparing a wine to others except for purposes of classification and understanding, wine scores, producers, and prices have only a minor role to play in the process of appreciation. But wine talk and our ability to articulate what we are tasting is essential, because it is through shared experience that we sharpen our perceptions and acquire knowledge.
When the goal is appreciation, some of the paraphernalia of wine tasting—sniffing and swirling, tasting notes, type of glass used, temperature at which the wine is served, characteristics of the region it’s from, etc.—become very relevant. These practices make the characteristics of the wine more available. When the goal is appreciation, clowns who complain about “know-it-all” wine tasters are being the jerks. They should find a good sports bar and belly up.
Finally, we might drink a wine in order to evaluate it. For purposes of evaluation I’m interested not primarily in my own experience but in the capacity of a wine to interest others as well. So evaluating a wine brings instrumental value into the picture. In evaluation, we treat wine as a stable object that other people also have access to and as useful in generating aesthetic experiences. So we’re trying to answer the question “How good is this wine in general at producing pleasure when compared to other wines?” Comparison and judgment are essential to evaluation so wine scores and prices, if they help in the process of comparison, are essential tools as is knowledge and trends in the market, what other people are inclined to like, etc. When the goal is evaluation, people who form strong opinions and express them are playing the game correctly; people who don’t like judgments should find a beach and soak up rays, with a bottle of cheap Chardonnay within reach.
If we pay attention to how drinking and talking about wine serves a variety of purposes, peace in the wine world will reign—and maybe it will spread.
Well, we can hope can’t we?