Why is Wine Talk Considered Pretentious?

wine snobIt is hard to come up with an example of a type of conversation more vilified than wine talk. In the popular imagination wine talk is the province of pretentious snobs putting on airs of superiority while extolling the virtues of a glass of fermented grape juice.

But why is wine conversation uniquely pretentious? People engage in all sorts of conversations about sports, music, film, economics, politics, etc. which are far more speculative and ill-informed than discussions about wine. Yet conversations about these more opaque topics do not earn the opprobrium visited upon wine enthusiasts.  [Conversations about visual art, especially abstract art, are similarly frowned upon, which I suppose is evidence that winemaking is an art.]

Take baseball for instance. There are people who spend their spare, waking hours pouring over statistics that most of us have never heard of—war (wins above replacement value), fip (field-independent pitching), babip (batting average of balls in play) only the scratch the surface of the arcana that baseball geeks use to support arguments about which players are over-rated, under-rated, destined for the World Series, etc. This is as useless as any wine conversation conducted at a level of eye-glazing detail several notches more abstract than a discussion of the virtues of Brunello. Yet baseball geeks are not cultural pariahs.

Or consider rock music. There are people who can finely parse the distinction between heavy metal and goth metal, and their relative virtues,  while providing a full account of how each developed from the noodling of some obscure itinerant blues player from the depression era south. Yet such expertise is seldom treated with the derision suffered by wine experts.

Peter Pharos has written extensively about this. He rightfully argues that too many people assume there is no such thing as real wine expertise:

A surprisingly large number of people think that it is all an illusion, a swindle on the gullible, a pantomime for the pompous. Nor is this perception confined to ale-swigging Albion and bourbon-slugging Dixie. You’re every bit as likely to encounter deniers of wine expertise in places with a long association with the vine, from California to Greece.

I think this is right but it’s not obvious why anyone would think that analyzing baseball statistics or making judgments about the relative virtues of rock bands would involve a more reliable form of expertise than wine tasting.

I suspect it has to do with the fact that wine is a vague object, unlike baseball or rock music, utterly opaque to someone without the relevant expertise to recognize its features. The basic elements of rock music and baseball are available to almost anyone.Thus, they assume there is something objectively present on which the expertise rests.

Because wine is a vague object it lacks that basic level of accessibility.

2 comments

  1. The subject of wine is subjective, same as abstract art. Statistics about sports are verifiable. Their import is the cause of many differing opinions. When you hear from a “wine expert” it is usually some sententious statement and the implication is that if you dare disagree you are plainly a fatuous oaf.

    1. Thomas,
      Thanks for commenting. Wine preferences are surely subjective. But there is much about wine that is not subjective. As a winemaker you know there are all sorts of actions you take in the vineyard and winery that have demonstrable effects on the finished product. You and/or someone very familiar with your wines would be in a much better position to evaluate whether a particular approach advances your aesthetic aim than a novice with no experience. If wine expertise were not real success on exams such as those for the Master of Wine would be random, which they quite clearly are not. The same is true of abstract art. Whether you like a work or not has to do with your personal reaction to it. But discussions of influences, impact, level of innovation, etc. while arguable are not arbitrary matters of preference. There are facts that must be marshalled to support a point of view. Baseball is a bit different in that there is an objective measure for who wins a game or succeeds in getting a hit. But discussions of which hitter in the 1970’s was best are no less speculative and a matter of opinion than discussions of wine quality. Yet most people don’t consider such discussions pretentious.
      While there are no doubt people who call themselves wine experts who are pompous and sententious (just as in any other field), frankly I find most experts modest and quite aware of the difficulties and pitfalls of winetasting. And most find disagreement to be part of the landscape, not an occasion for insults.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.