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.