Who Benefits from Wine Populism?

sutter homeAn ideology is a set of beliefs used to lend legitimacy to a particular set of interests.

Wine populism is an ideology that consists of five claims:

1. The wine world is populated by snobs whose mission in life is to make you feel bad about your wine preferences or lack of wine knowledge.

2. There is no such thing as genuine wine expertise and little difference between fine wines and commodity wines.

3. Thus, the only relevant advice to give people about wine is that they should drink what they like.

4. People who have wine expertise have little understanding of the preferences of ordinary wine drinkers.

5. Thus, people with wine expertise are destroying the wine industry by making wine intimidating to people who lack such expertise.

Please don’t point out to the wine populist that 2 contradicts 4 and 5. They will get upset and accuse you of being a wine snob.

Needless to say, I think 1-5 are false. #3 is especially pernicious, head-in-the-sand ignorant. Rather than providing my own rebuttal, I will send you to Jamie Goode who recently posted a blow by blow refutation of wine populism. His final paragraph is a good summary:

Thus we are all being urged to ride this wave of wine populism, where the very essence of what makes wine interesting and attractive has to be eliminated (or at least well hidden) and the people who help people on their journey into wine (the experts – sommeliers, buyers and writers) are cast as the baddies and ruled to be illegitimate. It’s crazy.

When confronted with an ideology, especially one that seems crazy, it’s best to begin an analysis by asking whose interests it serves. Who would benefit from convincing people that wine expertise is baloney?

As usual in these matters, just follow the money. 70% of wine sales by volume in the U.S. are for wines under $10. Only about 5% of the population will ever by a wine over $20. There are a lot of people selling cheap wine who have an interest in persuading you that you’re getting good value. And there are a lot of people who want to feel that they’re getting good value and don’t need to spend more.

That’s a lot of incentive to buy into wine populism.

4 comments

  1. Dwight: I would take issue with your attempt to paint wine populists into a corner–a classic straw man argument. I do not consider myself a wine populist, but I would raise the following points:

    1. There are PLENTY of people in the world of wine who use their arcane knowledge to one-up their colleagues and anyone else they meet. Often I find, to my great amusement, that their knowledge is incorrect, but that doesn’t keep them from doing it. And that fact that wine is widely perceived this way by every major market study argues against your claim that it doesn’t happen.

    2. Wine expertise is real. Expertise in selling wine, in understanding what people really want to buy, is sadly lacking on a massive scale. I would point you to the famous research study which showed that by providing more detailed tasting notes, winery tasting rooms clearly DECREASED the amount of wine they sold. Knowledge is power, and that power can be used for both good and evil (grin.) Nobody buys a Cartier watch because they want to know what time it is, and many people buy wine not because of the taste, but because of numerous other factors that appeal to them. The so-called wine experts usually refuse to recognize this.

    3. You are correct. This is silly. But it is also silly that we have to take steps such as this advice in order to get people to lose their fear of ordering the wrong wine. It’s a real fear for many consumers. It’s the single biggest question anyone in the wine business gets asked: “What should I order?” And the question is asked because we have made people fear the social faux pas so much that it overpowers the attractions of wine. BTW, as someone who is also a serious musician, I am NEVER asked this question about music. People seem perfectly happy to listen to the music they like. Why shouldn’t they do the same with wine?

    4. See my answer to #2. Consumers consistently mention “smooth” as the character most appealing in the wines they like. See Lettie Teague’s article in the WSJ to understand how the wine experts she contacted respond to this fact. Stunning.

    5. Some are. Some aren’t. But the fact that some are should concern us. And the very day that your post appeared, there appeared other posts about the ridiculous tasting notes that wine experts use to describe wines in terms that range from the ridiculous to the factually false. The first rule of communication is that what is communicated is not what is said, it is what is heard. When you mention delicate notes of stone roses, candied persimmon rind, and under-ripe silphium seeds, you deserve to be called on the carpet for it. (Stone roses don’t exist, btw–but the term has been used to describe wine…!)

    1. Hi Paul,
      Thanks for your thoughtful comment. It raises many interesting issues. Every time I sit down to respond I seem to be outlining an essay. So I will use your comment to develop a blog post for next week.

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