Anti-Expertise, Anti-Pleasure BS from an Unexpected Source

snobbish drinkerI usually thoroughly enjoy Oliver Styles’ writing on wine—it’s witty, well informed, and coherent. But for the life of me I can’t follow his argument in his latest article for Wine Searcher, even after reading it several times.

As far as I can tell, this is his argument:

(1)  Wine is a cultural product, meaning it’s “woven into the historical, agricultural and social fabric of the regions it is produced and consumed in. It is not, we might argue, simply a means to get wasted, more a cerebral and pleasurable accompaniment to our oldest ritual: eating.”

(2) Wine is a source of refined pleasure in part because it is “indistinct and imprecise”.

Therefore, wine appreciation is inherently snobbish and pretentious.

But if we accept this – and, let’s face it, while we get Agnes Buzyn’s point, we agree that wine can give pleasure beyond getting a bit tipsy – then we should probably accept that wine is inextricably woven into the one thing many of our commentators try their best to distance wine from: snobbery.

Huh? Anything that is a cultural product and provides non-inebriated, “cerebral” pleasure is snobbish? The problem I’m having is that there is a lot of logical space between the premises and the conclusion and I can’t find anything in the article that fills in that space. Barbecue and Parmigiano-Reggiano are “woven into the social fabric of the regions in which they are produced and consumed” and like all matters of taste are “indistinct and imprecise”. Does that make them snobbish? If so, the word “snobbish” is evacuated of all meaning.

It is important to point out that (1) is false. The vast majority of wines sold throughout the world is not woven into the “historical, agricultural and social fabric of the regions it is produced and consumed in”. Most wine is an industrial product made from grapes sourced from who knows where and sold much like orange juice except with fancier labels filled with gibberish. There are of course many artisanal wines, some of them quite affordable, that are genuine cultural products but you won’t find them in most supermarkets. Styles is aware of this objection but asks that we accept his premise and play along. So, against my better judgment, I’ll ignore this objection and play along.

Given that he’s stated up front an argument that seems to make little sense on its face, it is to be hoped there are some additional premises supplied in the text that will pull the argument together. Alas, I’m having trouble finding them.

He hypothesizes that the snobbishness of which we are all guilty is sub-conscious and reflected in the fact there is still debate about the virtues of screw caps over cork. There likely is a prejudice regarding screw caps—people mistakenly think they indicate a cheap or poorly made wine. Putting aside a genuine debate about how wines under screw cap will age, most people who assume screw caps are inferior are casual consumers, not wine lovers and wine professionals who are the groups typically accused of being snobbish. Despite the casual consumer’s mistaken premise about screw caps, I fail to see how wanting to buy a well made wine is snobbish or pretentious.

Then he gives us the example of a brand story from a new industrial wine from California,  JNSQ (Je Ne Sais Quoi) that tries to pass itself off as exclusive and somehow connected to France. But the fact that commercial wine marketing trades on the romantic image of artisanal wine is hardly evidence that artisanal wines are built on snob appeal. It’s the commercial wine that is built on pretense, not the wines that are genuine cultural products.

Is he claiming that anything rooted in distinctive local traditions  is snobbish or pretentious because it’s distinctive? That seems to be the assumption but he offers no defense of such a controversial and plainly ridiculous claim.

So much for connecting (1) more clearly to his conclusion.

Thus, we are left with (2) the old canard that because  wine lovers get intellectual pleasure from wine’s subtleties and use an esoteric vocabulary to describe something that is indeed “indistinct” and “imprecise”, they must be performing secret handshakes and smirking eye-rolls behind the backs of the the hoi polloi.

Underlying this whole piece is the implicit assumption that any activity that requires expertise to enjoy is motivated, not by the pursuit of pleasure, but by a secret desire to show one’s superiority over others. So all those baseball fans reciting arcane stats like Babip, FIP, and WAR really don’t like baseball. They just want to show their superiority to the guy cracking peanuts and slugging beer.

Apparently the pursuit of pleasure is not sufficient motivation to get us off the couch—only the desire to provoke envy will do. Thomas Hobbes, the 17th Century political philosopher who argued only a Leviathan, an absolute dictator, could succeed in controlling vices such as envy, would be proud.

This is one of the most cynical articles I’ve read in a long while, I suppose not unexpected in the age of Trump.

4 comments

  1. Is this the appeal of ‘natural wine’? I like any wine that tastes good – and yeah, I know that statement is soaked in ironies – but I genuinely do. What tastes good to me is probably not what tastes good to someone else – or perhaps sometimes our tastes match up on a particular character or sensation or moment.

    1. Hi Paul,
      Thanks for commenting. I’m not sure what “this” refers to in your comment. By “this” do you mean snob appeal? There is a fair amount of virtue signalling in the natural wine world. But some of those wines are really good and distinctive.

  2. Oliver Styles was unable to post this comment so at my request he emailed it to me. There is lots of food for thought in his remarks. Thanks to him for taking the time to comment.
    Here are his remarks:

    “Please excuse my ridiculously self-indulgent reply on your site.

    One of the many things I find heartening in the domain of wine writing is how much (as Umberto Eco points out in The Name of the Rose) pieces of writing don’t really talk to people, more to each other. It’s always nice (well, most of the time) to see reactions to one’s piece, even if, as yours is, they are highly critical. I’ll take that.

    All I’ll do here is outline, in as brief a fashion as I can manage, my train of thought on the piece you allude to (that I feel I should do this is, of course, admission that the piece is flawed, and, again, I’ll take that on the chin).

    My point was that – as you rightly point out above – if one accepts the “wine as cultural product” position, this means all wine. The French are mirroring the approach the Spanish took to this issue. But that, necessarily, means one has to lump Grands Chais de France with Ganevat or Gruaud Larose. To state that all wine is deserving of this high cultural status is contentious, but I’d say this position is snobbish because, by inference, all other alcoholic beverages are undeserving of this protection. Why should wine be special? What about the farmhouse brewers, cidermakers, cider distillers (and thus beer, cider, spirits)? There is a whiff of elitism here if we want to protect wine as a cultural product, but not admit that one cannot do that without denigrating every other alcoholic artisanal endeavour. And it is a position accepted and advocated by a lot of people.

    Moving on, the rest of the piece was informed by two similar experiences in my late teens/early twenties which I’ll simply combine here. I remember as a student (long before I was professionally involved in wine) making a bit of a fuss about chosing wine to bring to a party. I had a little knowledge (a dangerous thing, as we all know) and quite enjoyed giving myself (and playing up to) the aura of a wine buff. People raised their eyebrows: “Olly knew wine”. I enjoyed it. The wine was terrible (cooked on a cornershop shelf) and I, of course, was being and playing the snob. It’s always dangerous to gauge others’ impressions of oneself but they seemed impressed (when actually, I was just “a bit of a dick”, as we say).

    This memory of (possibly) admired snobbery was what drove the rest of the piece. I had no idea what i was doing then, but could name-drop and look for some names on the shelf; people responded in what I thought were favourable terms. It was encouraging, but it was brute snobbery and complete bullshit. Does that inform wine and wine marketing today? I think it would be silly to ignore it.

    But it’s one of a few memories I have of wine prior to my assimilation in its world, so it is at least pertinent – in my estimation – to explore. Did I do so tongue-in-cheek as @artisanswiss alluded to? I’d like to think so (but I don’t want to take refuge behind the wall of humour). Was I anti-pleasure, anti-expertise? I didn’t think so, but I won’t deny you your reading of my piece. Was it cynical (in that I was deliberately exploring an avenue I would disavow nowadays)? Possibly, but I don’t think we should ignore the base appeal of snobbery, even in the neophyte.

    I had a poster behind my desk for many years at Decanter (now, sadly lost) that said: “Blind Idealism is Reactionary”. I still think that’s true. The only thing that really hurt about your critique was the allusion to Trump. But I’ve been called worse by Trump fans so I’ll take solace in that!

    All the best to you, Dwight. I’m glad you enjoyed some of my previous efforts and, well, I’d be a little annoyed with myself if I pleased everyone all of the time. I’m sorry I have disappointed you but I take heart from the fact that this was an anomaly you felt worth responding to. The tougher side of this is that, as a commentator, one all too rarely gets praise yet constantly courts – and receives ire. But that is the nature of the game.”

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