In an otherwise interesting and informative essay on the history of wine talk, historian of science Steve Shapin leads with this puzzling paragraph:
One ought not to make grand claims for the inherent importance of this subject. Most people, and possibly even most casual wine-drinkers, pay no attention to the substance of taste-talk, and, while the economic and social importance of taste is considerable and under-appreciated, there is an enduring, and hard-to combat, aura of the trivial about it. (It’s only wine and only words, it might be said, and, in the grand scheme of things, that’s undeniably right.)
It’s certainly true that most casual wine drinkers pay no attention to wine talk. But why is that the standard for what is important?
Riddle me this. How is any community, especially an aesthetic community, supposed to communicate if not through words? And how is such a community supposed to persist, reproduce, and flourish without a means of communication? Shapin’s comment assumes that wine lovers don’t constitute a community and thus have nothing noteworthy to talk about. That assumption is absurd on its face.
Truth be told, casual wine drinkers are only marginal members of the wine community. They are important to the extent their purchases of commodity wines support the production of more interesting wines and because they constitute a pool of potential recruits who, with some encouragement, might become wine lovers.
But they do not set the standard for what is important to the wine community. Wine discourse will not bring about world peace or social justice, if that is what Shapin means by “the grand scheme of things.” But wine lovers cannot do without “taste talk.” Grunts and groans do not make a human conversation.